The Evolving Narrative of Pocahontas

In celebration of Native American Day, we take a look at the mythology and reality surrounding Pocahontas.
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Pocahontas Photo

Pocahontas depiction in 1883. (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Pocahontas may have lived and died four centuries ago, but she remains a figure of fascination and significance to this day. Our knowledge of Pocahontas also continues to evolve, from learning more about her early life to better understanding the relationship she had with the English colonists who had arrived in her world.

If you'd like to get to know Pocahontas better, here are six surprising facts about a woman who's definitely made her mark on history.

Pocahontas Loved to Have Fun

The name Pocahontas is a nickname (her private name was Matoaka, and she also used the name Amonute). But this nickname gives us insight into what Pocahontas’s personality was like when she was a girl.

In the Algonquian language, Pocahontas means “little wanton,” "laughing and joyous one" or “little playful one,” and in fact Pocahontas was recorded as having fun by turning cartwheels while visiting the fort at Jamestown.

Having a fun-loving personality may also have helped Pocahontas win over her father — though she had dozens of siblings, she became Chief Powhatan’s favorite.

Pocahontas's Style

If a certain Disney animated film has given anyone ideas about how Pocahontas looked and dressed, put those notions aside. As a girl, Pocahontas wouldn’t have worn much clothing at all, and most of her hair would have been shaved close to her head, with just one braid left hanging down (though she would have grown out her hair when she was older).

Pocahontas’s style changed after she was kidnapped and held captive by the English colonists, during which time she converted to Christianity. When she married colonist John Rolfe in 1614, she likely wore European clothing. She's also in European dress in an engraving from 1616 (the one image of Pocahontas created during her lifetime).

Pocahontas Wasn’t a Princess

Though she was the daughter of Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas was not a princess. As a member of a matrilineal society, her father's status didn't matter — it was her mother’s position that counted, and Pocahontas’s mother, said to be a member of the Mattaponi tribe, was apparently not part of a chiefly clan.

Of course, the colonists who encountered Pocahontas in the early 17th century weren't accustomed to matrilineal heritage, and brought their own preconceptions to Pocahontas’s place in life. This helps explain why the Virginia Company presented Pocahontas as royalty when they brought her to visit England in 1616.

Was Pocahontas Murdered?

While traveling back home from her trip to England, Pocahontas died at the approximate age of 22 in March of 1617. Her death has usually been attributed to pneumonia or tuberculosis, but though those diseases would kill many Native Americans, they may not have been responsible for Pocahontas’s demise.

Pocahontas Baptism Photo

John Gadsby Chapman's rendering of 'The Baptism of Pocahontas' (1840) (Image: John Gadsby Chapman (photograph courtesy Architect of the Capitol) (Architect of the Capitol) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

According to Mattaponi sacred oral history, Pocahontas could in fact have been poisoned. This was related by Dr. Linwood "Little Bear" Custalow and Angela L. Daniel "Silver Star" in the book The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History (2007). The oral history states that Pocahontas was healthy when she set sail from England. The ship she was on had not progressed very far when Pocahontas, after dining in the captain's cabin, suddenly became ill. By the time that Pocahontas's sister Mattachanna, who'd been traveling with her, came back with help, Pocahontas had died.

As for motive, Custalow and Daniel include the theory that Pocahontas had learned more about colonist plans to increase their power and undermine the Powhatan nation. Rather than let her return to her tribe and family with this information, one or more of the colonists who’d brought Pocahontas to England killed her (the possibilities include her husband, John Rolfe, and Captain Samuel Argall, but the oral history does not specify just who killed Pocahontas). Custalow and Daniel also mention that Pocahontas's death may have been planned long before this trip to England.

Of course, at this point in time it’s impossible to verify just how Pocahontas died. Yet it's still fascinating to consider this version of her story.

The Pocahontas Exception

Pocahontas and John Rolfe had one son together, Thomas Rolfe. Though Thomas grew up in England, he ended up returning to Virginia and founding a family there, and many of his descendants became influential citizens.

By the early 20th century, there were numerous white people in Virginia who traced their lineage back to Pocahontas. It was an association many were proud of, but it proved problematic as racial purity theories began to label anyone with even a drop of non-white blood as “colored.”

John Rolfe Pocahontas Photo

John Rolfe and Pocahontas. (Photo: J. W. Glass ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1924, Virginia instituted the Racial Integrity Act, but to ensure that prominent white families would not face the segregation and harsh treatment that most Indians and African Americans had to endure, there was a “Pocahontas exception” to this code: people with one-sixteenth or less Indian blood would still be considered white. Sadly, the hypocrisy of accepting a link to Pocahontas while continuing to espouse bigoted theories about racial purity didn't prompt Virginia lawmakers to abandon such racial codes altogether.

Where Pocahontas Rests

Following her death in 1617, Pocahontas was buried in a churchyard in the London suburb of Gravesend (making her the first American to be laid to rest in England). However, her grave was moved at some point, most likely after a fire in 1727, and today no one knows precisely where Pocahontas is buried.

In 1923, the Pocahontas Memorial Association unsuccessfully searched for Pocahontas’s remains. Singer Wayne Newton also organized an effort to find Pocahontas so that she could be reburied in Virginia (Newton is a member of a Mattaponi Powhatan family that claims direct descent from Pocahontas, via a son she’d given birth to before marrying John Rolfe); his quest was also unsuccessful.

For now, Pocahontas is memorialized by a statue on church grounds, but her exact burial spot remains unknown.