Women Who Wow Us: The True Story of Pocahontas

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When researching and learning about Pocahontas I was shocked that I knew next to nothing about this woman. The Disney movie is so far removed from the truth that nothing good can be gleaned from it. For example, the woman we know as Pocahontas was not even named that. Pocahontas was a nickname that meant “spoiled child,” or “naughty” or “playful” one. She got this nickname because she was the Powhatan chief’s favorite daughter, so probably very spoiled, and also because she was a playful, bright child, according to accounts of the English settlers.
Pocahontas’ birth name was Amonute, however, a more private, personal name she used was Matoaka. She was born in 1595. Powhatan tradition dictates that under normal circumstances Pocahontas would have moved to another tribe as soon as she was born and be raised there with her mother. No accounts of her mother, or her separation have been found, though, and scholars speculate her mother may have died during childbirth, allowing Pocahontas to stay with her father.
Pocahontas’ life was probably fairly normal, for the daughter of an Indian chief, until 1607, when she was eleven years old. That spring English settlers arrived on the shores of the new land. Not until the winter of that year would the Powhatan tribe meet them. Chief Powhatan’s brother, Opechancanough, captured John Smith in the woods and brought him before the chief. The details of what follows are muddy and confusing. By most accounts, Captain John Smith lived in relative comfort with the Powhatan tribe for several months. By Captain Smith’s own account he was “kept comfortable and treated in a friendly fashion as an honored guest.” The story that inextricably links John Smith and Pocahontas, the story of her daring rescue, was not mentioned or told until seventeen years later. Most scholars agree this “story” is a fabrication and bloviation of Smith’s mind. Most accounts agree Smith was a deplorable character, hungry for fame, fortune, and legend.
After John Smith was released and allowed to return to Jamestown, Chief Powhatan sends gifts of food and peace offerings to the settlers. For several years, the relations between the settlers and Indians were  relatively peaceful. They even traded young boys to be raised and taught the others’ customs. Unfortunately, as we already know, these relationships deteriorated over the next ten or so years and eventually this would bleed into Pocahontas’ life.
In 1610, Pocahontas married Kocoum, who was probably one of her father’s guards. A few facts are important to mention here. First of all, Pocahontas most likely married for love. Powhatan women were allowed to choose who they married, and the fact that Kocoum was neither rich or important points to the idea that they married for love. Additionally, the Disney movie portrays Kocoum as a violent man who pursues Pocahontas as a prize to be won. This is not fair to any of their memories, which we have already smeared beyond recognition.
In 1612, Pocahontas was kidnapped by the English settlers. She was held hostage at Jamestown for over a year. The entire time her father attempted to give in to all of the settlers’ demands, to no avail. After a year of being caged like an animal, Pocahontas caught the eye of a young widowed settler named John Rolfe. As a condition of her release, Pocahontas agrees to marry him and in 1614 Matoaka, daughter of a Powhatan chief, became Rebecca Rolfe. The descendants of Rebecca and John Rolfe would forever be called the “Red Rolfes.”
Shortly after getting married Pocahontas gave birth to a son, Thomas Rolfe. Two years later, the family of three travelled to London, where Pocahontas was wined and dined and shown all the finest things in English culture. She was paraded around as propaganda for the success of the colonies. We can never know what Pocahontas’ thoughts on this entire trip were, for she never recorded them.
On the trip back to Virginia in 1617 Pocahontas fell very ill. She got off the ship in Gravesend and died there shortly after. She was buried in Gravesend, but unfortunately, since then her grave has been overturned for construction.
The true story of Pocahontas is much sadder then the one Disney told us. Which makes it that much more important. We, as a society and a culture cannot forget about the struggles of women like Pocahontas, because we keep repeating them. Western society demands that you fit into a certain mold, and the media has exacerbated that. Pocahontas may be a much more extreme version of this struggle, but we can still relate to her. We can still mourn for her, and we can still promise to do better.

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