In April 1607, when the English colonists arrived in Virginia and began building settlements, Pocahontas was around the age of 12-14 years old, and her father was the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy. One of the leading colonists, John Smith, subsequently recounted that he was captured by a group of Powhatan hunters and brought to Werowocomoco, one of the chief villages of the Powhatan Empire. According to Smith, he was laid across a stone and was about to be executed, (beaten with a club by the Chief himself) when Pocahontas threw herself across his body: "at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown." She earned respect from the other people and the English Settlements.
John Smith's version of events is the only source, and since the 1860s, skepticism has increasingly been expressed about its veracity. One reason for such doubt is despite having published two earlier books about Virginia, Smith's earliest surviving account of his rescue by Pocahontas dates from 1616, nearly 10 years later, in a letter entreating Queen Anne to treat Pocahontas with dignity. The time gap in publishing his story raises the possibility Smith may have exaggerated or invented the event to enhance Pocahontas' image; however, in a recent book, J.A.O. Lemay points out Smith's earlier writing was primarily geographical and ethnographic in nature and did not dwell on his personal experience; hence there was no reason for him to write down the story until this point.
Some experts have suggested, although Smith believed he had been rescued, he had in fact been involved in a ritual intended to symbolize his death and rebirth as a member of the tribe. However, in Love and Hate in Jamestown, David A. Price notes this is only guesswork, since little is known of Powhatan rituals, and there is no evidence for any similar rituals among other North American tribes.
Whatever really happened, this encounter initiated a friendly relationship with Smith and the Jamestown colony, and Pocahontas would often come to the settlement and play games with the boys there. During a time when the colonists were starving, "ever once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought him [Smith] so much provision that saved many of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger. As the colonists expanded further, however, some of the Native Americans felt their lands were threatened, and conflicts arose again.
In 1608, Pocahontas is said to have saved Smith a second time. Smith and some other colonists were invited to Werowocomoco by Chief Powhatan on friendly terms. They were treated kindly and traded with the Indians, but missed the tide and had to spend the night. That night, Pocahontas came to Smith's hut and told him that her father was planning to send men with food who would kill them when they put down their weapons to eat. She had been told not to inform them, but she begged the Englishmen to leave. Being forewarned, the English kept their weapons ready by them even while eating, and no attack came.
In 1609, an injury from a gunpowder explosion forced Smith to return to England for medical care. The English told the natives Smith was dead, he had been captured by a French pirate, the pirate ship had been wrecked on the Brittany coast, and it had gone down with all hands. Pocahontas believed Smith was dead until she arrived in England several years later, the wife of John Rolfe.
According to William Strachey, Pocahontas married a Powhatan warrior called Kocoum at some point before 1612; nothing more is known about this marriage.
There is no suggestion in any of the historical records Smith and Pocahontas were lovers. This romantic version of the story appears only in fictionalized versions of their relationship (such as the animated Walt Disney version).
In March 1613, Pocahontas was residing at Passapatanzy, a village of the Patawomecks, a Native American tribe that did some trading with Powhatans. They lived in present-day Stafford County on the Potomac River near Fredericksburg, about from Werowocomoco. Smith writes in his Generall Historie she had been in the care of the Patawomec chief, Japazaws (or Japazeus), since 1611 or 1612.
When two English colonists began trading with the Patawomec, they discovered Pocahontas' presence. With the help of Japazaws, they tricked Pocahontas into captivity. Their purpose, as they explained in a letter, was to ransom her for some English prisoners held by Chief Powhatan, along with various weapons and tools the Powhatans had stolen. Powhatan returned the prisoners, but failed to satisfy the colonists with the amount of weapons and tools he returned, and a long standoff ensued.
During the year-long wait, Pocahontas was kept at Henricus, in modern-day Chesterfield County, Virginia. Little is known about her life there although colonist Ralph Hamor wrote she received "extraordinary courteous usage." An English minister, Alexander Whitaker, taught her about Christianity and helped to improve her English. After she was baptized, her name was changed to Rebecca.
In March 1614, the standoff built to a violent confrontation between hundreds of English and Powhatan men on the Pamunkey River. At the Powhatan town of Matchcot, the English encountered a group that included some of the senior Powhatan leaders (but not Chief Powhatan himself, who was away). The English permitted Pocahontas to talk to her countrymen; however, according to the deputy governor, Thomas Dale, Pocahontas rebuked her absent father for valuing her "less than old swords, pieces, or axes" and told them she preferred to live with the English.
During her stay in Henricus, Pocahontas met John Rolfe, who fell in love with her. Rolfe, whose English-born wife had died, had successfully cultivated a new strain of tobacco in Virginia and spent much of his time there tending to his crop. He was a pious man who agonized over the potential moral repercussions of marrying a heathen. In a long letter to the governor requesting permission to wed her, he expressed both his love for her and his belief he would be saving her soul. He claimed he was not motivated by
Pocahontas's feelings about Rolfe and the marriage are unknown.
They were married on April 5, 1614. Pocahontas was christened Lady Rebecca. For a few years after the marriage, the couple lived together at Rolfe's plantation, Varina Farms, which was located across the James River from the new community of Henricus. They had a child, Thomas Rolfe, born on January 30, 1615.
Their marriage was unsuccessful in winning the English captives back, but it did create a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan's tribes for several years; in 1615, Ralph Hamor wrote ever since the wedding "we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powhatan but also with his subjects round about us".
Pocahontas was entertained at various society gatherings. On January 5, 1617 she and Tomocomo were brought before the King at the Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace at a performance of Ben Jonson's masque The Vision of Delight. According to Smith, King James was so unprepossessing neither of the Natives realized whom they had met until it was explained to them afterward.
Pocahontas and Rolfe lived in the suburb of Brentford for some time. In early 1617, Smith visited them at a social gathering. According to Smith, when Pocahontas saw him "without any words, she turned about, obscured her face, as not seeming well contented" and was left alone for two or three hours. Later, they spoke more; Smith's record of what she said to him is fragmentary and enigmatic. She reminded him of the "courtesies she had done" and "you did promise Powhatan what was yours would be his, and he the like to you". She then discomfited him by calling him "father", explaining Smith had called Powhatan "father" when a stranger in Virginia, "and by the same reason so must I do you". Smith did not accept this form of address, since Pocahontas outranked him as "a King's daughter". Pocahontas then, "with a well-set countenance", said Finally, she said the natives had thought Smith dead but her father had told Tomocomo to seek him "because your countrymen will lie much".
In March 1617, Rolfe and Pocahontas boarded a ship to return to Virginia. However, the ship had only gone as far as Gravesend on the River Thames when Pocahontas became ill. The nature of the illness is unknown, but since she had been described as sensitive to London's smoky air, pneumonia or tuberculosis are likely, although smallpox has also been suggested. She was taken ashore and died. According to Rolfe, she died saying "all must die, but tis enough that her child liveth. Her funeral took place on March 21, 1617 in the parish of Saint George's, Gravesend. The site of her grave is unknown, but her memory is recorded in Gravesend with a life-size bronze statue at St George's Church.
However, although the young Pocahontas was a favorite of her powerful father—his "delight and darling" according to one of the colonists—it is not certain that her society regarded her to have a high social rank. This is because Powhatan society was structured differently from that of Europe. While women could inherit power in Powhatan society, Pocahontas herself could not have done so, because the inheritance of power was matrilineal. In A Map of Virginia John Smith explains:
His [Powhatan's] kingdome descendeth not to his sonnes nor children: but first to his brethren, whereof he hath 3 namely Opitchapan, Opechancanough, and Catataugh; and after their decease to his sisters. First to the eldest sister, then to the rest: and after them to the heires male and female of the eldest sister; but never to the heires of the males.
Because of this, Pocahontas would not have inherited his power under any circumstances. Furthermore, her mother's status was probably lowly. In his Relation of Virginia (1609), Henry Spelman explains that Powhatan had many wives and always sent them away after they had given birth to their first child, so that they resumed their commoner status. It is not certain whether Pocahontas' status was regarded as equal only to her mother's.
Regardless of the exact nature of Pocahontas' status among the Powhatan, it is clear that many English people regarded her as a princess in the European sense. One example of a contemporary English view is the 1616 engraving of Pocahontas. The inscription to which reads "MATOAKA ALS REBECCA FILIA POTENTISS : PRINC : POWHATANI IMP:VIRGINIÆ". This translates as: "Matoaka, alias Rebecca, daughter of (filia) the most powerful (potentiss[imi]) prince (princ[eps] of the Powhatan Empire (imp[erii]) of Virginia." Thus, at least some contemporary English recognised Wahunsunacock as ruler of an empire, and presumably accorded what they considered as appropriate status to Pocahontas (Matoaka). This is supported by Captain John Smith's 1616 letter of recommendation to Queen Anne (King James' wife) concerning Pocahontas, which refers to "Powhatan their chief King". Samuel Purchas recalled Pocahontas in London, saying that she impressed those she met because she "carried her selfe as the daughter of a king" and when he met her in London, Smith referred to her deferentially as a "Kings daughter". A more ambivalent English view of Wahunsunacock's status can be seen in the description of him as a "barbarous prince" by Lord Carew on 20 June 1616 (as reported by Charles Dudley Warner in his essay on Pocahontas).
There is no evidence that Pocahontas was formally presented to King James and his court, but she was introduced to him at a masque, at which the letter-writer John Chamberlain recorded that she was "well placed"—that is, given a good seat that suited her status. Furthermore, Purchas recorded that the Bishop of London "entertained her with festival state and pomp beyond what I have seen in his greate hospitalitie afforded to other ladies".
After her death, increasingly fanciful and romanticized representations of Pocahontas were produced. The only contemporary portrait of Pocahontas is Simon Van de Passe's copperplate engraving of 1616. In this portrait, her Native American facial structure is clear, despite her European clothing. Later portraits often 'Europeanized' her appearance.
Subsequent images and reworkings of Pocahontas' story presented her as an emblem of the potential of Native Americans to be assimilated into European society. For example, the United States Capitol prominently displays an 1840 painting by John Gadsby Chapman, The Baptism of Pocahontas, in the Rotunda. A government pamphlet was circulated, entitled The Picture of the Baptism of Pocahontas, explaining the characters in the painting, congratulating the Jamestown settlers for introducing Christianity to the "heathen savages", and thus showing that the settlers did not simply "exterminate the ancient proprietors of the soil, and usurp their possessions".
In another development, Pocahontas' story was romanticized so that her 'rescue' of Smith begins a love story between the two. Although there had been earlier examples, the first writer to tell such a story at length was John Davis in his Travels in the United States of America (1803). Because Pocahontas' well-documented marriage to Rolfe did not fit this interpretation, at least one author, John R. Musick, retold the story to "clarify" the relationship between the three. In Musick's account, Rolfe is a back-stabbing liar who, seeing the opportunity to marry "royalty," tells the "Indian princess" Pocahontas that her true love, Smith, is dead. She then reluctantly agrees to marry Rolfe. After the two begin preparations to leave England, Pocahontas encounters Smith, still alive. Overcome by emotion and recollections, she dies of a broken heart three days later.
Several films about Pocahontas have been made, beginning with a silent film in 1924. In recent film versions of her story, Pocahontas has been seen less as an image of idealized assimilation, and more as an image of the perceived superiority of traditional Native American values over western ones. The Walt Disney Company's 1995 animated feature Pocahontas presents a highly-romanticized and fictional view of a love affair between Pocahontas and John Smith, but in this version, Pocahontas teaches Smith the value of respect for nature. The sequel, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, depicts her journey to England. In Terrence Malick's film The New World, an attempt at greater historical accuracy, Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) and Smith (Colin Farrell) are still depicted as lovers.
Neil Young recorded an eponymous song about Pocahontas which detailed a meeting between Marlon Brando and the songwriter around a campfire discussing Hollywood, the Astrodome stadium and the genocide of Native American peoples. The song appeared as the fourth track on 1979's Rust Never Sleeps.
In Henrico County, Virginia, where Pocahontas and John Rolfe lived together at the Varina Farms Plantation, a middle school has been named after each of them. Pocahontas Middle School and John Rolfe Middle School thus reunite the historic couple in the local educational system—Henrico being one of 5 remaining original shires that date to the early 17th century of the Virginia Colony.