Who Was the Real Pocahontas?

Mataoka and the Virginia Colonists

Pocahontas in1616. Getty Images / Archive Photos

Pocahontas was known for being the "Indian princess" who was the key to the survival of the early English settlements in Tidewater, Virginia; and for the saving of Captain John Smith from execution by her father (according to a story told by Smith).

Dates: about 1595 - March, 1617 (buried March 21, 1617)

Also known as: Mataoka. Pocahontas was a nickname or byname meaning "playful" or "willful" one. Perhaps also known as Amoniote: a colonist wrote of "Pocahuntas ... rightly called Amonate" who married a "captain" of Powhatan named Kocoum, but this might refer to a sister who was also nicknamed Pocahontas.

Pocahontas Biography

Pocahontas' father was Powhatan, the chief king of the Powhatan confederacy of Algonquin tribes in the Tidewater region of what became Virginia.

When the English colonists landed in Virginia in May, 1607, Pocahontas is described as being of age 11 or 12. One colonist describes her turning cartwheels with the boys of the settlement, through the marketplace of the fort―while naked.

Saving the Settlers

In December of 1607, Captain John Smith was on an exploration and trading mission when he was captured by Powhatan, the chief of the confederacy of tribes in the area. According to a later story (which might be true, or a myth or a misunderstanding) told by Smith, he was saved by Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas.

Whatever the truth of that story, Pocahontas began to help the settlers, bringing them much-needed food that saved them from starvation, and even tipping them off about an ambush.

In 1608, Pocahontas served as her father's representative in negotiations with Smith for the release of some natives captured by the English.

Smith credited Pocahontas with preserving "this Colonie from death, famine and utter confusion" for "two or three yeeres."

Leaving the Settlement

By 1609, relations between the settlers and the Indians had cooled. Smith returned to England after an injury, and Pocahontas was told by the English that he had died. She stopped her visits to the colony, and only returned as a captive.

According to one colonist's account, Pocahontas (or perhaps one of her sisters) married an Indian "captain" Kocoum.

She Returns - But Not Voluntarily

In 1613, angry at Powhatan for seizing some English captives and also seizing weapons and tools, Captain Samuel Argall worked out a plan to capture Pocahontas. He succeeded, and the captives were released but not the arms and tools, so Pocahontas was not released.

She was taken from Jamestown to Henricus, another settlement. She was treated with respect, stayed with the governor, Sir Thomas Dale, and was given instruction in Christianity. Pocahontas converted, taking the name of Rebecca.


A successful tobacco planter in Jamestown, John Rolfe, had developed a particularly sweet-tasting strain of tobacco. John Rolfe fell in love with Pocahontas. He asked permission of both Powhatan and Governor Dale to marry Pocahontas. Rolfe wrote that he was "in love" with Pocahontas, though he also described her as "one whose education hath bin rude, her manners barbarous, her generation accursed, and so discrepant in all nutritive from myself."

Both Powhatan and Dale agreed, apparently hoping that this marriage would help relations between the two groups. Powhatan sent an uncle of Pocahontas and two of her brothers to the April 1614 wedding. The wedding began eight years of relative peace between the colonists and Indians known as the Peace of Pocahontas.

Pocahontas, now known as Rebecca Rolfe, and John Rolfe had one son, Thomas, possibly named for the governor, Thomas Dale.

Visit to England

In 1616, Pocahontas set sail for England with her husband and several Indians: a brother-in-law and some young women, on what was a trip to promote the Virginia Company and its success in the New World and to recruit new settlers. (The brother-in-law was apparently charged by Powhatan with counting the English population by marking a stick, which he shortly discovered was a hopeless task.)

In England, she was treated as a princess. She visited with Queen Anne and was formally presented to King James I. She also met with John Smith, a great shock to her since she thought he was dead.

While the Rolfes were preparing to leave in 1617, Pocahontas fell ill. She died at Gravesend. The cause of death has been variously described as smallpox, pneumonia, tuberculosis, or lung disease.


The death of Pocahontas and the subsequent death of her father contributed to deteriorating relations between the colonists and the natives.

Thomas, son of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, stayed in England when his father returned to Virginia, first in the care of Sir Lewis Stuckley and then John's younger brother Henry. John Rolfe died in 1622 (we don't know under what conditions) and Thomas returned to Virginia in 1635 at twenty. He left the plantation of his father, and also thousands of acres left him by his grandfather, Powhatan. Thomas Rolfe apparently met once in 1641 with his uncle Opechancanough, upon petition to the Virginia governor. Thomas Rolfe married a Virginia wife, Jane Poythress, and became a tobacco planter, living as an Englishman.

Pocahontas' many well-connected descendants through Thomas include Edith Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson, and Thomas Mann Randolph, jr., husband of Martha Washington Jefferson who was the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and his wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Who Was the Real Pocahontas?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/history-of-pocahontas-3529957. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, July 31). Who Was the Real Pocahontas? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-pocahontas-3529957 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Who Was the Real Pocahontas?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-pocahontas-3529957 (accessed February 7, 2023).