24 Things You Should Know about Pocahontas

by Akim Reinhardt

Powhatan Confederacy map ca. 1609Pocahontas was an informal childhood name, a nickname meaning "playful one" or "mischievous girl." Although "Pocahontas" is what the British colonists came to know her by, her formal name in public was Amonute. Her ritual name, known to her kin, was Matoaka.

Amonute spoke an Eastern Algonkian (sometimes spelled Algonquin) language. While some Eastern Algonkian languages are still spoken, such as the Abenakian dialect of Mi'kmaq and the Delawaran dialect of Munsee, Amonute's Powhattan dialect is extinct. However, modern English retains several loan words from her language, including: hickory, hominy, moccasin, muskrat, opossum, persimmon, raccoon, terrapin, and tomahawk.

Amonute was not a "princess." This is a designation of European royalty, not Algonkian hereditary politics. But even if we use the word more colloquially, she still would not qualify, despite being the daughter of "royalty." Her father, Wahunsenacawh, was the werowance (leader/ruler) of a large Native confederacy in the southern Chesapeake Bay region. He is more commonly known by his throne name, Powhatan, which was also the collective name of his confederacy's people. However, the Powhatan people had a matrilineal society, and Amonute's mother was a commoner; thus, her daughter did not inherit any aristocratic lineage from Powhatan.

Amonute was about 9 years old when she first met John Smith, maybe a year or two older.

The story of her saving John Smith from a beheading by her father is a myth, nothing more than a colonial creation story. In later years, Smith published sensationalized accounts of his globe trotting exploits, and a literary theme he repeatedly invoked was stories of exotic and infatuated young women rescuing him from certain doom; it helped sell books. Smith's tale of Pocahontas saving him from execution does not appear in his initial reports, but only in his later, fantastic travelogues. The story also does not align with any known Powhatan diplomatic rituals. Furthermore, the idea that her father, the ruler of some 20,000 people over an area larger than the modern state of Delaware, would set vital foreign policy based on the impetuous whims of a nine year old is, at the very best, utterly laughable. Smith was indeed a captive whom Powhatan eventually adopted diplomatically as a "son" (akin to a vassal). But however Powhatan's diplomatic adoption of Smith unfolded, the young girl either played a minor, prescribed role, or more likely, was not even present. She was probably outside her father's great hall, tending to chores or playing with other children.

Smith did encounter and interact with Amonute on several occasions, both in Powhatan's village of Werowocomoco and at Jamestown. In 1609, following an accident that badly burned his leg, Smith left the colony and never returned.

Amonute did not sing with raccoons.

As a young girl, during her visits to the English fort at Jamestown, she was known to engage in playful behavior, such as spinning cartwheels.

When she was about 13, maybe a year or two older, Amonute married a soldier named Kocoum. He might have been from the Patowomeck (Patomac) people who resided in the northern reaches of the Powhatan confederacy. He may also have been a member of Powhatan's personal guard. Since Amonute did not have royal lineage, this was probably not an arranged marriage; they likely married each other by choice, Kocoum paying a bride price to Amonute's family. The couple was together for at least a year, perhaps three. They may have divorced, or Kocoum might have died.

In 1613, the English kidnaped Amonute. They came to a Patowomeck village where she had been living for about three months, working as an emissary on her father's behalf, and threatened to attack the town if the Patowomecks did not hand her over. The town's leaders agonized over the situation for several hours before eventually acquiescing; to avoid Powhatan's wrath, they colluded with the English, play acting to make it look like they themselves had no role in the matter.

Amonute was brought to Jamestown. However, because the English misunderstood Algonkian lineage and politics, and mistakenly thought she was a "princess," they overestimated her ransom value. Powhatan initially declared his sorrow over her capture and told the English he would pay the ransom, but he did not, and may never have intended to. Months later, he suggested that Amonute simply remain with the English, and that Thomas Dale, the colony's leader, should adopt her as his own child, presumably in much the same way Powhatan himself had previously adopted John Smith as his son. The English kept Amonute for more than a year, mostly at the settlement of Henrico, about 50 miles upriver from Jamestown.

During Amonute's time in Henrico, Reverend Alexander Whitaker tutored her daily in Christianity. She also learned to speak English and wore European clothes. In April of 1614, she publicly converted to Christianity. Since she left no record of her thoughts, it is impossible to know what she felt about this, but many similar episodes of early Native conversions to Christianity suggest that she was incorporating Jesus Christ into her existing pantheon of okees (spiritually powerful beings), and perhaps making Jesus her premier okee, replacing the one from the Algonkian village where she'd previously lived.

When Amonute converted to Christianity, she took the biblical name Rebecca.

The same week Amonute became a Christian, she also married an English widower named John Rolfe, whose first wife and young daughter had died during the journey to America. Rolfe was about 27 years of age and a roughly decade older than Amonute when he, by his own account, fell in love with her. The colony's leaders agreed to the marriage on condition of her conversion. Powhatan also agreed, and the union helped cement a peace agreement between the two sides, which had been engaged in intermittent warfare for several years. There is a strong possibility that Amonute viewed both her conversion and marriage as part of her duty to facilitate her father's diplomacy.

Amonute had a son by John Rolfe. They named him Thomas.

Amonute spent two years living on a tobacco plantation with Rolfe across the James River from Jamestown. Tobacco native to the Chesapeake tobacco had a coarse flavor when smoked and did not sell well in England. Rolfe had brought over and successfully planted seeds of Caribbean tobacco that was already well established in the European market.

While Amonute lived on the Chesapeake's first commercially successful tobacco plantation, Native women helped her tend to domestic work and raise Thomas. The English considered these women servants.

In 1616, Amonute visited England. She traveled with her family and leading members of the colony, and was accompanied by a delegation of Powhatan Confederacy dignitaries and diplomats.

By Simon Van De Passe (1616)While in London, Lady Rebecca, the Indian "pricess," was the toast of the town and at King James court.

Amonute had her portrait engraved by the Dutch artist Simon Van de Passe, who was about her age. Probably at Amonute's insistence, the picture labels her as not just as Rebecca, but also by her ceremonial name Algonkian name, Matoaka, and as a daughter of Powhatan.

Amonute was surprised to encountere John Smith towards the end of her stay in England; the English had previously told her he had died. He was happy to see her. The feeling was not mutual. By Smith's own account, in a letter to a friend not meant for public consumption, Amonute greeted him with nothing more than a silent, modest salutation, and then turned her back on him. Mistakenly thinking she was embarrassed because of what he presumed were her diminished English language skills, Smith left Amonute's presence for a couple of hours. When he returned, she upbraided him, in English, for being a liar, like the rest of the countrymen.

Amonute took ill during the trip. At its conclusion, she, her husband and child, various colonial officials, and the rest of Powhatan's delegation, boarded a ship for her homeland, which the English called Virginia. As the ship wound its way eastward along the River Thames towards the English Channel, Amonute died. The cause may have been pneumonia. She was about 19 years old.

After burying Amonute at St. George Church in the town of Gravesend along the River Thames, Rolfe left their son Thomas behind to be raised by an uncle. He returned to England and never saw his son again.

There was no stone placed at Amonute's grave, and the church has since been rebuilt. The exact site of her burial is unknown.

Rebecca K. Jager, Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea: Indian Women as Cultural Intermediaries and National Symbols (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015).
Helen Rountree, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (University of Virginia Press, 2006).
Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (Hill and Wang, 2004).
Daniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Harvard University Press, 2001).

Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com