In 1596 an Algonquian princess with the formal names of Matoaka and Amonute was born in an area known as Tenakomakah (modern day Virginia). She was the daughter of Wahunsunacawh who was the Chief or Powhatan of a confederation of tribes in that area, later known as the Powhatan Empire, and one of his many wives. Due to her carefree antics she received the nickname Pocahontas meaning ‘playful one’ and became her father’s favourite daughter despite her lowly status within the family.

In May 1607 English colonists began to settle in the area. In December that same year, a group of Powhatan hunters captured a leading colonist called John Smith. According to his later account, they took him to one of their main settlements called Werowocomoco, where he was laid across the stone about to be beaten to death. The young Pocahontas threw herself across him and persuaded her father to spare his life. It is entirely possible that this was a symbolic act of adoption or a small part in a ritualised peace treaty. Either way, a bond developed between the young girl and the Englishman. She frequently visited the Jamestown colony, where she lived up to her nickname, turning naked cartwheels and larking about with the local boys. Smith later told of the time she risked her life to provide the colonists with food and by warning them of an impending attack planned by her father.

In 1609 Smith’s return to England for medical care following an explosion and the resumption of the armed conflict between the English and the Native Americans resulted in an end to the contact between Pocahontas and the colonists. Not long later she may have married a Powhatan captain called Kocoum. Little is known of this union but it appears to have ended before 1613. By that time she was living in Passapatanzy, a village of the Patawomecks who traded with the Powhatans. According to Smith, she had been in the care of the Patawomeck chief, Japazaws, for a couple of years. He accepted a bribe from a group of colonists led by Captain Samuel Argall to trick Pocahontas onto their ship where they took her captive. The colonists intention was to trade her for a peace treaty and the English prisoners, weapons and tools held by her tribe.

Even though the Powhatans returned the prisoners and some of the equipment they had captured, the colonists were not satisfied and a year-long negotiation began. In that time Pocahontas remained captive in the town of Henricus where she fell under the influence of Reverend Alexander Whitaker, who persuaded her to embrace Christianity. While there she also succumbed to the romantic advances of John Rolfe, a pious tobacco planter who had recently lost his wife. After being baptised under the new name of Rebecca she married Rolfe on 5th April 1614. In January the following year, the couple had their only child, Thomas Rolfe. While the marriage did not secure the return of all the colonists’ possessions, it did cement amicable relations between them and the Powhatans.

The promotion of the possibility of amicable relations between the Native Americans and Europeans was of great importance to the Virginia Company of London, which administered the colonies in that region. Upon hearing about the marriage of a native Princess to an English gentleman they ordered the colonial governor, Sir Thomas Dale, to bring Pocahontas to England. In June 1616, Rolfe, his wife and around a dozen of her countrymen including a holy man called Tomocomo, arrived at Plymouth. From there they travelled to London where she attended various society events as well as being received by Queen Anne. The Powhatans found the foul air of London disagreeable and within months they moved to the nearby village of Brentford, where Pocahontas had an emotional reunion with John Smith, who she thought to be dead.

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The cold of the English winter did not agree with Pocahontas and in March 1617 she Rolfe’s boarded ship to return to Virginia. Weakened by sickness – probably pneumonia or tuberculosis – she was in no fit state to make the arduous Atlantic crossing. She went ashore at Gravesend in Kent where she died. Her funeral took place on 21st March 1617 at St. Georges Church, a tragic end to the short life of a key figure in American history.

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