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Summary Article: Pocahontas
from Encyclopedia of North American Indian Wars, 1607-1890, The: A Political, Social, and Military History

Birth Date: 1595 or 1596

Death Date: March 20, 1617

Daughter of the powerful Chief Powhatan and influential intermediary in the first years of the Virginia settlement. Born in 1595 or 1596 in present-day Virginia, Pocahontas has assumed many identities and spawned many controversies both in life and on death. The name “Pocahontas” is a nickname meaning “mischievous” or “playful one.” Her public name was Amonute, and her personal name was Matoaka. She was one of approximately 30 children of Powhatan, the paramount chief of the Algonquian-speaking peoples known as the Powhatans, who dominated the Tidewater region of Virginia.

Pocahontas (1596–1617), depicted here during her voyage to England, supposedly saved English captain John Smith from death by pleading with her father, Powhatan, on Smith's behalf. (Library of Congress)

In 1607 Pocahontas encountered Captain John Smith, the military head of the fledgling Jamestown settlement. Still only a girl, she allegedly saved Smith's life, which was about to be extinguished on her father's orders. The exact details of the occurrence are subject to much debate and interpretation, but conventional wisdom claims that she threw herself on top of Smith to protect him from the blow of a war club. From then on Pocahontas became well known to the English colonists.

Probably in 1610 or 1612 Pocahontas married a Powhatan named Kocoum. In 1613 Pocahontas was captured by Samuel Argall, who hoped to exchange her for English prisoners being held by the Powhatans. While in captivity Pocahontas learned English and was exposed to Christianity, and before her ordeal was over the following year she had converted and was baptized as “Rebecca.” She also met John Rolfe while in captivity, and the two were married in 1614. The marriage temporarily suspended most of the hostilities between the natives and the English.

In 1616 Pocahontas accompanied her husband on a journey to England. Pocahontas was something of a phenomenon in London, and as such she and her husband were lavished with attention and hospitality. It is believed, although it cannot be positively substantiated, that Pocahontas had an audience with King James I, whom she found so humble that she did not believe she had met the king until after the visit.

In 1617 Rolfe, who was anxious to return to his plantation along the James River, decided to set sail for Virginia. But before the ship cleared the River Thames, Pocahontas became desperately ill. Taken ashore near Gravesend, she died there on March 20, 1617.

Records referring to Pocahontas are sparse and contradictory, which has led to many debates surrounding her life. The debates largely revolve around her rescue of Smith in 1607 as well as her role as European Americans’ symbol of a “good Indian” because of her Christian conversion and subsequent marriage to Rolfe as well as her previous compassionate rescue and alleged love affair with Smith. The rescue and the meaning behind it are controversial because Smith failed to mention it until after Pocahontas had become very popular in England. Finally, the alleged love interest between Pocahontas and Smith seems to have been entirely constructed from a reencounter in 1616, when both met again in England. During this meeting Pocahontas reminded Smith of his obligations to her and the Powhatan people.

See also

Jamestown; Powhatan; Powhatan Confederacy; Smith, John

  • Abrams, Ann Uhry. The Pilgrims and Pocahontas: Rival Myths of American Origin. Westview Boulder CO, 1999.
  • Allen, Paula Gunn. Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat. Harper San Francisco San Francisco, 2003.
  • Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia. University of Nebraska Press Lincoln, 1997.
  • Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown. University of Virginia Press Charlottesville, 2005.
    Copyright 2011 by Spencer C. Tucker

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