Digital History ID 646
Pocahontas is perhaps best known for rescuing Captain John Smith, the leader of the colonists in Jamestown, Virginia, from execution by her father’s people. This passage about the life of Pocahontas demonstrates the difficulty of achieving an accommodation between the Indian and English ways of life.
Hers is the one Indian name that every school child knows. Today, Pocahontas is best remembered as a romantic heroine who rescued Captain John Smith, the leader of the colonists in Jamestown, Virginia, from execution by her father's people. But her brief life also illustrates the broader collision of cultures that occurred when English settlers arrived in colonial America.
She was born about 1595, the daughter of the Indian chief Powhatan, the leader of a powerful Indian confederacy. Comprised of some 30 tribes totaling about 20,000 people, the confederacy occupied much of what is now known as Virginia. She was about twelve years old when the English established their first permanent America settlement at Jamestown. During her life, she would play a pivotal role in maintaining friendly relations between the Indians and the English.
According to a story told by Captain John Smith in his book True Relation of Virginia, Smith was captured by local Indians while exploring the countryside. Powhatan, the Indian chief, was about to have him executed with a stone club. But Pocahontas, Smith claimed, placed her head upon his and begged her father to spare him. No one knows for sure if the story is true, because Smith did not mention the incident in the earliest edition of his book. But it appears that Pocahontas remained Smith's friend, warning him of at least one Indian plan to attack Jamestown.
When she was about 14, she reportedly married a chief in her tribe. Temporarily, she disappears from the colonial records only to reappear in 1613, when she was lured aboard an English ship and held captive. It isaround this time that she is said to have fallen in love with her future husband.
Her marriage in 1614 to John Rolfe, the Virginia settler who learned how to cure tobacco, helped bring peace between the English and the Powhatan confederacy. In a letter to his patron, Rolfe addresses some of the concerns raised by his marriage, the first important English-Indian marriage in colonial American history.
This letter documents the mixture of motives that led him to marry someone (in his words) "whose education hath bin rude, her manners barbarous...and so discrepant in all nurtriture from my selfe." After her marriage, Pocahontas converted to Christianity and adopted an English name, Rebecca.
Pocahontas's story ends tragically. In 1616 she went with her husband to London to help raise funds for the struggling colonists in Virginia. The English celebrated her as an Indian "princess," but while she was waiting to return to America, she contracted smallpox and died in 1617--one of countless Indians to die from European diseases.
Her husband's life also had an unhappy ending. After her death, he returned to Virginia, where he became a member of the Virginia council. But in 1622, he was one of several hundred colonists killed during an uprising led by Pocahontas' uncle.
An important cultural intermediary between two cultures, Pocahontas's life demonstrates the difficulty of achieving an accommodation between the Indian and English ways of life.
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