Princess Pocahontas was a native American who in the year 1607 intervened to save the life of pioneer Captain John Smith. Later she left her home in Virginia to travel to England, where she married an Englishman and became a regular in the court of King James. She became the first of her nation to convert to Christianity.
The Story of Princess Pocahontas
Pocahontas was born about 1595-1596, a daughter of the Chief over some forty Algonquian communities, spread about the shores of the rivers now called the James and the York, which flow into Chesapeake Bay. Her father, called Powhatan, named her Meto-aka and later ‘Pocahontas’, meaning ‘playful little girl’.
Powhatan's rule was threatened by the arrival of the Spanish, French and English mariners, exploring for a North-West passage to the (East) Indies. After the death of Elizabeth I, England's struggles with Spain and Scotland ceased, thus releasing capital and manpower for trade, and to support conversion to the Christian faith.
The English claim to North America was split between two companies. One’ based in Bristol, saw its first and only settlement come to grief whilst the other, based in London, took Virginia.
In spring 1607, three London ships appeared in Chesapeake Bay and, though permitted to land, their would-be settlers were discouraged by Powhatan from staying. When they started to build a fort, the Indians attacked, but were soon repulsed by ship's cannon.
The ships sailed home before winter, leaving 105 men - no women having made the voyage - who were only saved from starvation by the success of Captain John Smith in obtaining corn from more distant Indians.
Pocahontas meets the English captain
John Smith was exploring and seeking trade when one of Powhatan's chiefs captured him and killed his two companions. About December 29th 1607, he was brought before Powhatan, and afterwards reported that a long consultation was held by the tribal chiefs. Then two big stones were brought in, and he was forced down on them with executioners apparently ready to kill him with clubs. At this point, a young girl ran from Powhatan's side and placed her head over his. He was released and given to understand that he and Powhatan were to be friends and he would be free to return to his base. It seems possible that Powhatan arranged this ‘sparing of his life’ ritual as a prelude to Smith's being recognised as a friend and being received into the tribe. It seemed to John Smith that Pocahontas had saved other lives by giving warning of Indian attacks.
In 1609, John Smith was elected President of the Jamestown Council. He was badly injured by an explosion of gunpowder, and was put on a ship for home; it was widely believed he had died. The settlers' numbers rose to 600 that winter. Then all but 60 died of starvation, but in 1610 a further 150 arrived. That year Pocahontas, when 16, was married to Kocoum, an Indian about whom nothing is known; apparently he died within the next three years.
Pocahontas taken as a hostage
In 1612, the colony was in surprisingly good shape when another Captain, Samuel Argall, brought reinforcements and went exploring for food among the tribes living on the banks of the River Potomac.
Hearing that Pocahontas was visiting those tribes, he resolved to ransom her for eight English held by Powhatan. Argall used a friendly Native American Chief and his wife to persuade Pocahontas aboard his ship and took her to Jamestown in March 1613. There she was treated as an honoured guest, and assured that she would be in a position to bring back friendship and faith between Powhatan and the English.
During the next year, she was in the care of Rev Alexander Whitaker, a Calvinist Minister, who began to instruct her in the Christian faith. She also met John Rolfe, then 28, who had arrived with his wife in 1610, possibly from Heacham, Norfolk. On the outward voyage their child, Bermuda, was born and died on that island, and his wife died after their arrival in Jamestown.
Rolfe brought tobacco seed from Trinidad in 1611 to produce a leaf more palatable than the coarse local variety. Tobacco saved the colony: in 1616, it exported 2,500lbs., in 1617, 20,000 lbs., and in 1618 - 50,000 lbs.
Having fallen in love with Pocahontas, John Rolfe asked permission to marry her from the Governor, Sir Thomas Dale, with whom she had been instructed to stay.
He saw this as ‘another knot to bind the peace the stronger’. Powhatan also consented, sending two sons as witnesses, and her uncle to give her away. Earlier, having received instruction in the Christian faith, she had been baptised Rebecca, and her marriage took place about April 5th 1614. Rolfe was appointed Secretary and Recorder of the colony, and in April 1616, Sir Thomas Dale sailed for England, fulfilling a promise to take with him the Rolfes and their infant son, Thomas. With them went almost a dozen Indians.
Pocahontas meets John Smith again
They landed first at Plymouth in June 1616, and news of this prompted Smith, then publishing his Virginia story, to address a ‘Little Book’ to King James' queen, Anne, commending Pocahontas as ‘the first Christian ever of that nation, the first Virginian who ever spoke English or had a child in marriage by an Englishman’.
The Virginia Company provided £4 per week for her and her son, and the Rolfes stayed at a well-known inn off Fleet Street. All the Indians were the subject of much curiosity, and Pocahontas was invited to dinner by the Bishop of London. Before long, however, she became unwell, and they sought ‘better air’ at Brentford, opposite Syon House.
After some months of inexplicable delay, John Smith came to meet Pocahontas, before he sailed again for New England. He records, ‘after a modest salutation, without a word, she turned about, obscured her face, as not seeming well contented’. Smith and Rolfe left her for some hours, after which Pocahontas spoke of Smith's promise to Powhatan that what was yours would be his, and he the like to you. ‘You called him father, being in his land a stranger. And by the same reason, so must I you’. When Smith protested, she declared, ‘fear you here I should call you father? I tell you then I will, and you shall call me child, and so I will be for ever and ever your countryman’.
Return voyage ends in Gravesend
In late November 1616, Samuel Argall was elected Deputy Governor of Virginia and planned to return, accompanied by the Rolfes. The Court masque for Twelfth Night was Ben Jonson's The Vision of Delight in which the wife and daughters of Virginia's Governor, Lord de la Warr, took part. A courtier wrote afterwards. ‘The Virginian woman Pocahontas with her father's counsellor hath been with the King, and graciously used’, adding, ‘She is on her return though sore against her will, if the wind would come about to send them away’.
That winter, Simon van der Passe engraved a portrait of John Smith and then of Pocahontas, looking very severe in Court dress. Perhaps she was already ill. The wind eventually allowed Argall's ship, the George to sail from London in mid-March. The last place down-river to take on fresh food and water would be Gravesend, and it was here that Pocahontas may well have been brought ashore, either dead or dying.
Burial in St. George's
Those who attended Pocahontas ensured her burial in the chancel of the parish church - the place reserved for clergy and notable parishioners. They then resumed their journey, leaving a small error in the Burial Register that no one could correct. ‘March 21 - Rebecca Wrolfe, wyffe of Thomas Rolfe gent. A Virginian lady borne, was buried in ye chancell’.
Captain Argall advised Rolfe to land his son Thomas at Plymouth , to be looked after until Rolfe's ‘brother’, Henry (possibly a cousin) could fetch him back to London. From Virginia, Rolfe wrote, “My wife's death is much lamented: my child much desired, when it is of better strength to endure so hard a passage, whose life greatly extinguisheth the sorrow of her loss, saying, ‘All must die. But 'tis enough that my child liveth’”.
The following year Powhatan died. John Rolfe took a third wife, Jane Pierce, who had come out in 1610, and their child Elizabeth was born in 1620. In March 1622, John Rolfe dictated his will ‘being sick in body but of perfect mind and memory’ and presumably died of natural causes. On March 22nd at a pre-arranged signal, the Native Americans turned on the settlers, killing 340, but the survivors took their revenge and stayed on.
The Family of the Rolfes
Thomas, the son of Pocahontas, did not return to Virginia until about 1635. He asked permission to visit his uncle, Powhatan's successor but, as Captain of Fort James, he defended the settlers against his uncle's second bid to destroy them in 1644. He married Jane Poythress, and their child, Jane married Col. Robert Bolling in 1675. Their numerous descendents claim blood relation to Pocahontas.
In 1896, the memorial tablet to Pocahontas was put in the chancel of St. George's Church, and the memorial windows were presented by the Colonial Dames of America in 1914. In 1923, a Virginian received permission to search for the remains of Pocahontas, but nothing conclusive was found. St. George's Churchyard was laid out as the Princess Pocahontas Garden in 1958, a replica of Jamestown’s statue of Pocahontas was unveiled and the Queen gave St. George's the replica of the chalice and paten used by the original settlers in 1607.