April 5th will be the 400th anniversary of the wedding of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. It is to be commemorated this weekend at the original church site in Historic Jamestowne with a reenactment.
The story of Pocahontas that most of us learned as children is very different than the story I heard a few years ago when we relocated to within eight miles of Jamestowne/Jamestown, VA. I found out from a friend that her husband is the Mattaponi Indian tribe historian, one of the two remaining tribes of the Powhatan nation. Several years ago, Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and his coauthor Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star” published The True Story of Pocahontas a book, based on the sacred oral history of her people. Her story was hidden for four hundred years by her people for fear of potential retribution. Their treatise explains the motives behind the myths as well as a reasoned explanation of their version of her story.
Dr. Custalow explains that the Algonquian tribes of the Virginia Coastal Plain did not have a written language so the oral history was passed down through quiakros (Powhatan priests) within each of the tribes in a “strict and disciplined manner to maintain accuracy”. These Mattaponi elders were venerated and protected leaders to ensure their story would be truthfully told.
The English version of her story primarily comes from the writings of Captain John Smith. However, there are significant differences in the Powhatan and John Smith/English versions of the Pocahontas story: Here are a few:
Her birth and family:
Smith/English Version – Pocahontas was born to one of many alliance wives.
Powhatan Version – Pocahontas, whose original name was Matoaka, was born to Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, the paramount chief of the Powhatan chiefdom, and Pocahontas of the Mataponi, who died in childbirth. Pocahontas’ mother was his first wife, the wife of choice and the one he loved. Other wives were alliance marriages, temporary unions meant to unite the 30 plus tribes under one paramount leader and to increase the Powhatan nation. Matoaka was later called Pocahontas to honor her deceased mother. As the last child of her mother she became particularly favored by her father.
Relationship with John Smith and English:
Smith Version –Pocahontas wandered freely through the Jamestown settlement and risked her own life by to save his when he was in the midst of a four day ceremony making him werowance, a “secular chief” of the English tribe.
Powhatan –Pocahontas was ten years old and did not live near Jamestowne. As the chief’s beloved child, she would not have wandered freely but always been under protective supervision. She was often with her father when he was in the midst of the English so she would be familiar to Smith. The Powhatans accepted the English as another tribe, even making Smith werowance. During these ceremonies, in which quiakros would have been involved, children were not present. In addition to not being present, there was no need to save Smith’s life as his life was not in danger.
English Version– Pocahontas was kidnapped and held for ransom by Captain Samuel Argall when they learned that she was staying with a northern tribe. She was to be kept as a bargaining tool, to get what food they wanted from the Indian nation and to ensure their well being. The English at Jamestown were trying multiple methods to make their venture profitable to continue to validate their presence and ensure that financing of Jamestowne continued from the Virginia Company and the crown.
Powhatan Version–Pocahontas had come of age, and for her protection and to keep her away from the “English” tribe that had grown greedy in their demands and usurpation of land, she was married to a warrior, Kocoum, brother of the chief of the Patowomac (northernmost tribe). While in his village she and her husband had a son. In order to protect his village from the English threats, the Patowomac chief collaborated with Argall and allowed him to kidnap Pocahontas. Argall gave the chief a copper pot to make it appear that the girl was given up for material goods. Sometime after she was kidnapped, Argall’s men returned to the village and killed her husband. Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca paid the ransom for her release, but she was not returned. He was reluctant to mount a rescue attempt for fear of endangering Pocahontas.
Pocahontas conversion and marriage:
English Version – Pocahontas was transferred to a location near present day Richmond where she was instructed in the English language and ways, and taught about Christianity. She was told that her father would not meet her captor’s demands. When Pocahontas grew depressed, a request was sent to her father to send one of her sisters. During Pocahontas captivity she became acquainted with John Rolfe, an English colonist who had learned how to cultivate tobacco from the Powhatans. A pious widower, Rolfe wanted to marry Pocahontas, but required her conversion to Christianity. She was baptized, took the name Rebecca and was married to Rolfe.
Powhatan Version – Her father sent Mattachanna, the sister who raised her, and her husband, Uttamattamakin a priest of the highest order and an advisor to Pocahontas’ father. Nothing is known of what happened during Pocahontas captivity until her sister and brother-in-law arrived. When they were reunited, Pocahontas informed Mattachanna that she had been raped and was pregnant. Mattaponi history suggests reasons why they believe someone other than John Rolfe was the father. Pocahontas’ feelings were unknown, but as Powhatan royalty, she probably saw the alliance as helpful to her people and that would have been very important to her. Pocahontas gave birth to Thomas Rolfe sometime later.
Pocahontas travel to England and death:
English Version – John Rolfe, Pocahontas and Thomas Rolfe, and some Powhatans (including her sister and brother-in-law) traveled to England to demonstrate the potential profitability of tobacco, thus assuring continued support for the Virginia colony. Pocahontas was presented to the crown and society, thereby assuring England that relations with Native Americans were positive. In March of 1617, shortly after departing England, Pocahontas suddenly became ill and died. Rolfe requested the Captain make port at the closest church, St. George’sChurch at Gravesend, where she was buried. The English attributed her death to pneumonia or tuberculosis.
Powhatan Version – Samuel Argall, her captor, was the Captain of the ship the Rolfe family traveled to and from England. Not yet on the open seas, Pocahontas and Rolfe dined in the Captain’s quarters. After returning to her room, she immediately began vomiting, and told her sister “that the English must have put something in her food”. Mattachanna tried caring for her but Pocahontas went into convulsions. Rolfe was summoned and she died within minutes. After her funeral, young Thomas Rolfe was given to relatives of John Rolfe in England to raise. The ship, passengers and crew continued their voyage to Virginia. Pocahontas was in good health when they left England. It is believed that she had gotten information of schemes to dethrone her father and take the Powhatan land, and that she would share that knowledge with her people. Mattaponi sacred oral history believes she was poisoned, but they do not know by whom, or how many people were involved. Chief Powhatan grew despondent and had to be relieved of his responsibilities. He died within a year. Some descendants of the Indian son Pocahontas bore are still alive today. Her son, Thomas Rolfe, was raised in England and returned to Virginia as an adult after John Rolfe was deceased. His descendants number among many prominent Virginia families.
~ For more information on Dr. Lin Custalow’s book:
The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History
~ For more information about the commemorative wedding service:
Most of this post appeared previously in September 2012 in Colonial Quills.