Here at 6 Nerdy Chicks, we value and appreciate the women who came before us to help to break down gender barriers. Nerd Herstory will be a monthly segment that will honor the history and success of women in the nerd realm who have allowed us to openly embrace the true geeks we are today.
As we get closer to Thanksgiving, we start thinking about traditions and stories that have developed the holiday as we know it. We think about the colonialists and the Native Americans who interacted with them in the early years of colonization. One of the most well-known stories of that time is that of Pocahontas, thanks to the 1995 Disney film. I really enjoyed Pocahontas; I love watching it and singing along, but it is horrendously inaccurate. So this month I wanted to shine a light on the story of the real Pocahontas.
There are two historical versions of the life of Pocahontas: a verbal and a written history. These two histories actually contradict each other a few times, but overall, we can piece together what happened to this young woman. Pocahontas was born as Amonute and Matoaka; these names were used for different purposes at different times in the tribe. Pocahontas was actually a nickname that meant “playful one.” Her father was in fact the chief of the Powhatan tribe, and she really was his favorite daughter. Also, she would have only been around 11 years old when John Smith sailed to Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.
Sadly, there would be no love story between these two people. John Smith was in Virginia to settle the land, and Pocahontas was a little girl who belonged to the tribe that would occasionally feed the settlers. It has been noted that she was in a group of Powhatan who brought the Jamestown colony food during times when they had run out. In John Smith’s writings, he tells the story of when Pocahontas saved his life. He writes about it twice, and though his story does change slightly, it also did not appear until after her death. The overall story is Smith had been taken captive by the Powhatan and was to be put to death. The pre-teen Pocahontas put her head over his just as her tribe would have smashed in his head. She is said to have done this in an act of kindness. This is portrayed in the Disney film, but as an act of love, which would not have been the case.
This story is how Pocahontas was introduced to England, as one of the letters Smith wrote was written directly to the Queen. After Smith goes back to London, Pocahontas carries on with her normal life as a native teenager. She will in fact marry the real life Kocoum around 1610; this marriage was said to have been for love as Kocoum was not part of the hierarchy of the tribe, and he may have even belonged to a neighboring tribe. She went on to live the average life of a Powhatan woman, gathering fruits and vegetables, and taking care of the settlement.
There is no mention of Pocahontas again until 1613 when Captain Samuel Argall came to Jamestown and discovered she still lived in the area. Argall had a nefarious plan in mind that involved trapping Pocahontas on a ship and holding her for ransom. At this point the Powhatan and the English had been fighting off and on very aggressively. Argall’s hope was that holding her hostage would give the English some leverage. She was taken to a small settlement in Virginia where she was taught Christianity and English, and where she was held for about a year.
In 1614, while in captivity, Pocahontas met John Rolfe. For those of you who do not know, John Rolfe was in Virginia planting the first tobacco crops. Side note, this year and action will affect America in countless ways in regards to slavery and future cancer epidemics; thanks John Rolfe! Pocahontas would be baptized and given the Christian name of Rebecca, and she and Rolfe were married shortly after (despite already being married to Kocoum). There are groups of people who see this marriage as a political move and others who really think they fell in love. Either way, this union led to a truce between the Powhatan and English that would last till 1622. At this point Pocahontas was already living a very adventurous life, and she would have only been around 18 years old. The newlyweds had a son named Thomas Rolfe, and John would take his new family to England. Once there the English would see the media value of this marriage.
Pocahontas, now known as Rebecca Rolfe, was given the royal treatment. She was taken to fancy events, dinners, and balls. She was seen by the highest nobility, and somewhat treated as entertainment because she was something new to England. In 1617 she became ill while sailing back to Virginia. The ship had to stop, and she passed away in Gravesend, England in March of that same year at the age of 21. Unfortunately for her, her body would not have been immune to the diseases of Europe, as a lot of them did not exist (yet) in the Americas.
Pocahontas was a product of quickly changing times and tension between two groups of people. She was a resilient and adventurous woman who, in all accounts, seems to have taken her life in stride and tried to benefit from it. I can’t imagine everything she experienced during her lifetime having gone from a simple girl living with her tribe, to a negotiation tool, and finally a wealthy woman and mother in England. She was not the princess we grew up knowing, but she would have been a strong willed woman who led an adventurous life.