Not a Disney princess – Pocahontas and Jamestown colony


Jamestown (Virginia) : They loom large in American imagination – the explorer testing a new continent and the daughter of an Indian chief whom he later said had saved his life.

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The real Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, chief of the tribes, the first permanent English settlement in America encountered it is difficult to separate from the myth perpetuated everywhere from a painting in the halls of the US Congress to a Disney feature film.

But she has drawn increasing attention ahead of the May events marking the founding of the Jamestown settlement that are being billed as America’s 400th anniversary. The events will draw thousands, including Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

Many places around the US are named after the girl, the English settlers called a princess, who John Smith later claimed saved his life from hostile Indians moments before he would have been executed.

The legend goes that Jamestown colonist John Smith was captured and dragged before Powhatan at his capital, Werowocomoco. Years later Smith described the encounter in his memoirs, saying Indians stood ready to beat him to death with clubs. He said Pocahontas rushed up and lay over his head to save his life.

But Smith was known at the time as a braggart and the timing of the account draws into question whether it actually occurred, historians say. If it did happen, the incident was likely part of an adoption ritual and Smith’s life was not actually endangered, Jamestown historians say at the various museums dedicated to the colony.

Pocahontas, whose real name was actually Matoaka, would have been a young girl of around 10-years-old at that time, not the curvaceous young woman of Disney fame.

Myths that Pocahontas and John Smith had a romantic relationship as they did in the Disney film are also false – though her relationship with the settlers certainly helped them survive. She did eventually marry another Jamestown settler.

The legends persist to this day, much to the chagrin of some Native Americans, like Warren Cook, assistant chief of the Pamunkey tribe. A monument to Pocahontas stands on the tribe’s reservation about an hour from Jamestown, but Cook says they try not to promote the connection or interact much with the thousands of people who claim to be descended from the famous woman.

Others though are not content to simply rely on the legends.

Denise Metts, 35, visiting the site of the orginal Jamestown fort said she wanted to expose her 7-year-old daughter, Zoee, to historical realities.

“I thought it was great for her to come learn about the real thing instead of the Disney version,” Metts said.

Smith, who wrote that Pocahontas saved the colony from “death, famine and utter confusion,” himself played a large role in saving Jamestown from starvation. During a brief stint as leader, he instituted a no-work, no-food policy to alleviate problems with gentlemen more interested in digging for gold than finding food.

He also charted and explored much of the Chesapeake Bay before returning to England.

Pocahontas seems to have married a fellow Native American, but was later taken captive by the English settlers and held for more than a year.

After that time, she married an Englishman, John Rolfe, who was crucial in introducing tobacco as a cash crop to Virginia. She was baptised as Rebecca Rolfe in 1614.

They travelled to England in 1616 as part of a promotional voyage to boost the colony, and she was widely received in royal circles. Before she could return home to Virginia, she fell ill, died at the age of 22 and was buried in England.

The pair had one child, Thomas Rolfe.