Routinely depicted in movies and cartoons, Pocahontas was, in actuality, a real Powhatan woman with a rich history and amazing life. Contrary to popular myth, Pocahontas never married Captain John Smith. Although her life is often depicted in film as fanciful and romantic, her real history is one of tragedy, triumph, and heroism. Pocahontas was her childhood nickname. Her name at birth was Matoaka.
Born around 1596, she was the daughter of a Native American Powhatan, paramount chief of Tsenacommacah. She spent her childhood learning to farm, forage for food, and track down other native materials that could be used to build the thatched huts they lived in. In keeping with the Powhatan people’s tradition, she was given several names. Among them were Matoaka, Amonute, Pocahontas (a childhood nickname), and Matoax
On the death of her mother at her birth, Pocahontas became a favorite of her father. He was adored by and grew up under the watchful eye of her father, aunts, and other women of their tribe. According to Powhatan customs, her father, a paramount chief, had numerous wives and children, giving Matoaka many loving brothers and sisters.
As a child living with her father, Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, she probably had very strict, structured cultural training. When Captain John Smith Came to the Powhatan area, Pocahontas was, in fact, a young girl, possibly nine or ten years old. Captain Smith was approximately twenty-seven at that time. There was no romantic involvement between the two and they were not married. The colonists originally kept to their settlement. As their food supply ran low, they started exploring nearby villages demanding food and other supplies.
When English Captain John Smith arrived in Virginia in 1607, he brought hundreds of settlers with him. The settlers constructed a fort near the James River, interacting with the native Tsenacommacah people. Some of their encounters were friendly, some were hostile. Captain Smith was soon captured by a hunting party and taken to their capital of Werowocomoco. They eventually formed an alliance and Chief Wahunsenaca (Pocahontas’ father) offered Smith the position of werowance, a relatively high honor. This alliance made the area a better place to live and settle for both parties.
In the midst of increased conflict, however, Pocahontas was taken captive by the English and held for ransom. In exchange for her release, they demanded the release of their own prisoners and the return of tools and weapons. Pocahontas remained captive for an entire year while negotiations and further demands were given and met. According to Native American oral history, many of her fellow natives were sold as slaves and shipped as far away as Bermuda.
Settler, John Rolfe, eventually married Pocahontas. The Powhatan people came to believe that this marriage was intended to create a native alliance in tobacco production. Shortly after her marriage, she converted to Christianity and took the name, Rebecca. Sadly, she died under mysterious circumstances at around the age of twenty-one. Her portrayal in movies and cartoons do not do justice to the life of this amazing woman who was the daughter of a tribal chief and the unwilling captive of an English colony.