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  • Writer's pictureAlena Bruzas

I don't mention Pocahontas in my upcoming book about Jamestown in 1609, here's why.

The name Pocahontas means Little Wanton One or Laughing and Joyous One. This was her public name. The Indigenous Foundation states that “her primary name at birth was Amonute, and her secondary name was Matoaka, meaning ‘flower between two streams.’”

Pocahontas wasn’t a princess. While she was the beloved daughter of Powhatan, because a person inherited through their mother’s line, she had no title of her own.

Around The Starving Time, Pocahontas was estimated to be eleven or twelve. We don’t know how old she was because her birth year was not recorded. However, it is clear from contemporary accounts that she was a child. She did visit Jamestown in the early days of the colony and according to William Strachey, she would "get the boys forth with her into the marketplace and make them wheel, falling on their hands, turning up their heels upwards, whom she would follow and wheel so herself, naked as she was, all the fort over." This account shows us that not only did she play with the children in the colony, she was also dressed like a child; until puberty, and especially in the summer, girls were usually naked.

The romance between John Smith and Pocahontas was entirely made up. We don’t know the truth of whatever relationship existed between them. John Smith later wrote of Pocahontas as a curious and engaging child: “[Her] compassionate pitiful [pitying] heart… gave me much cause to respect her.” The legend of Pocahontas saving John Smith from being murdered or executed by her father is much disputed. Some believe it was a misunderstood adoption ritual. Others believe it was embellished or made up by John Smith to make his adventures in Virginia seem more romantic. He did not include the supposed rescue in his 1608 account, and in fact claims that he only met her months later. He wrote about it for the first time in a 1616 letter to Queen Anne of Denmark, claiming that Pocahontas risked her life to save Smith’s. In his 1624 Generall Historie he claimed she “got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.” 

In 1613 she was kidnapped by the settlers. She married Englishman John Rolfe in 1614 and was taken to England in 1616. She died in 1617.

As I’m writing this, in 2024, it is appropriate to question the colonizers’ narrative of Pocahontas. Because the Powhatan left no written record, and because of the racism inherent in our history books, for years we have accepted the settlers’ accounts as fact. Meera Baswan of The Indigenous Foundation writes that “Pocahontas was one of the first real-life Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).”

Dr. Linwood Custalow, a historian of the Mattaponi Tribe and the custodian of the sacred oral history of Pocahontas, states that when Pocahontas was kidnapped, she did not willingly convert to Christianity and marry an adoring John Rolfe, as has long been told, but was raped and mistreated. Dr. Custalow writes in The True Story of Pocahontas, The Other Side of History that Rolfe married Pocahontas to form a trade alliance and learn from the Powhatan how to cure tobacco, which was a sacred and secret process to the people of Tsenacomoco. While it would have been customary for Powhatan to attend his daughter’s wedding, he did not for fear of being killed or kidnapped, although he sent a strand of pearls as a wedding gift.

One thing to note is that Jamestown did not become a financially successful venture until the settlers were able to produce and sell tobacco.

Dr. Custalow also maintains that Pocahontas did not willingly go to England and that once she was there, she was murdered. She was brought to England to prove, however untrue, that the indigenous people of Virginia were not mistreated. Pocahontas protested and wished to return home. It is believed that she was poisoned and her sister and the other indigenous people who had traveled with her to England were sold into slavery. These are the sacred oral traditions of the Virginia Indians.

Why am I spending so much time talking about a person who isn’t even featured in my book? Because the only thing that most people “know” about Jamestown is that it was the home of John Smith and Pocahontas. Because the legend of their romance is so pervasive and so profoundly untrue. Because I cannot overstate the importance of listening to the stories of the people who were here first, the Virginia Indians.

The True Story of Pocahontas, The Other Side of History, as I mentioned earlier, is written by Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow. He, along with Angela L. Daniel write the story of Pocahontas as has been handed down through the quiakros of the Mattaponi tribe for the last four hundred years.

We’re Still Here, Contemporary Virginia Indians Tell Their Stories is another valuable resource for anybody who is interested in the lasting impact of colonialism in Virginia and the indigenous people of Tsenacomoco.


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SOURCES

Baswan, M. (2022, July 26). The true story behind Disney’s Pocahontas. The Indigenous Foundation. https://www.theindigenousfoundation.org/articles/the-true-story-behind-disneys-pocahontas

Custalow, L., & Daniel, A. L. (2016). The true story of Pocahontas: The other side of history. Fulcrum Publishing.

Kupperman, K. O. (2021). Pocahontas and the English boys: Caught between cultures in early Virginia. New York University Press.

Price, D. A. (2005). Love and hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the start of a new nation. Vintage Books.

Rountree, H. C. (2006). Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough three Indian lives changed by Jamestown. Univ. of Virginia Press.

Smith, J. (2010). True relation of Virginia.

Waugaman, S. F., & Moretti-Langholtz, D. (2006). We’re still here: Contemporary Virginia indians tell their stories. Palari Publishing.


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