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The true (and dramatic) history of Pocahontas: the first American Native died in England.

4 min read

Pocahontas, the Native American princess, is known by most as the sweet young redskin who fell in love with Englishman John Smith during the initial period of British colonization. In 1995, Disney produced a beautiful animated film, which tells the encounter and alleged lovestory between John Smith and Pocahontas. Although Disney movies are notoriously fantastical tales, many people have believed that, in this movie, true events were told, even if somewhat fictional. However, this representation is very distant from historical events, and from the girl’s real life.

It seems that Pocahontas has been born around 1595, daughter of chief Powhatan. Her real name was Matoaka (flower between two watercourses), although, like all natives, she had different names. Pocahontas was instead a nickname that means “spoiled child”. She was the beloved (and favourite) daughter of the supreme chief of a tribal federation, speaking Algonquin, who lived in that territory that the British then baptized Virginia.

During the Matoaka’s childhood, the British arrived in the ‘New World’, and the clashes between settlers and Native Americans were daily occurrence. In 1607, John Smith, a soldier/explorer from New England, arrived in Virginia with his ship, along with a group of about 100 settlers. One day, while he was exploring the territory around the Chickahominy River, John Smith was captured by some hunters from the Powhatan tribe, and was brought in the presence of the chief in Werowocomoco. The story of what later happened it’s different, and depending on the sources. In his original writings, the explorer says that there was a big party, after which he stayed for a long time talking with Chief Powhatan, but he did not mention Pocahontas. Later, in a letter written to Queen Anne about 10 years after the events, when Matoaka was about to leave for the UK with her husband, John Smith told a new version of his meeting with Chief Powhatan: Pocahontas got in the way, to protect him with his body, between him and his father’s war mace, who was about to kill him. It seem that John Smith was a vain and arrogant man, who told this lie to regain the prestige and notoriety he had lost.

In the Disney version, Matoaka/Pocahontas is portrayed as a young woman when she rescued John Smith, but in reality she was only a 9/10 year old girl, so it is highly unlikely that there has been a lovestory between the two historical characters. On 13 April 1613, some settlers kidnapped Matoaka, to exchange her with some English prisoners captured by her father. She was held hostage in Jamestown for over a year, and during her imprisonment, John Rolfe, a settler who had a tobacco plantation, began to feel a special interest for the attractive young prisoner. Eventually he asked as a condition for the release of Pocahontas the consent to their marriage. Matoaka was baptized with the new name of Rebecca, and in 1614 she married John Rolfe, signing the first marriage between a European and an American native.

What were Pocahontas’ feelings about her husband is not known, but perhaps we can imagine, if we take into account that probably the girl, at the time of the kidnapping, was already married with a warrior named Kocoum.

Two years later, John Rolfe brought Matoaka and their son Thomas, to England, as a tool for a propaganda campaign to support the Virginia colony, a symbol of hope for peace between English and American Indians. Rebecca was seen as an example of civilized savage, and John Rolfe was praised for being able to bring Christianity to the pagan tribes.

While was in England, Matoaka met John Smith, with whom he refused to speak, escaping his presence, or perhaps to the memory of his eternal love for him, at least according to the romantic story of the Disney movie. In 1617, the Rolfe family left for Virginia, but Matoaka never managed to return to his homeland. She became seriously ill when they were already on the ship, and is not known if was smallpox, pneumonia or tuberculosis. But sources says also that she could have been poisoned. Her short journey ended in Gravesend, Kent, where she died on March 21, 1617, at the age of about 21 years.

The girl was buried in the church of the city, below the floor, whose exact point was lost unfortunately already in the eighteenth century. In front of the church a bronze statue was erected with the name Pochaontas, “spoiled child”.

Yes. The end was unfortunately very different from that of the Disney story…

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