The True Story About the Native American Princess
The real story of Pocahontas is much darker than the love story told in the 1995 Disney film. In the children’s film, Pocahontas falls in love with Englishman John Smith during the conflict between English settlers and Native Americans. Many people who watched the film grew up thinking that the account between the princess and John Smith was true, and that somehow her affection and love for the English settler prevailed over all. However, the movie’s depiction is far from the real story.
Disney produced a romanticized portrayal of the life of the Native American princess. In reality, when English settlers arrived in the “New World,” clashes between the colonizers and the Native Americans occurred. In 1607, John Smith, an English explorer, arrived with 100 men in what is now Virginia. During their stay, John Smith was captured by a hunter for Chief Powhatan’s hunters, Pocahontas’ father. In fact, Pocahontas was the chief’s favorite child, and her birth name, Matoaka, indicates that she was the apple of his eye. The Powhatan tribes frequently had multiple names and took new ones after important events. The name Pocahontas was a derogatory nickname meaning “spoiled child” or “naughty one.”
When John Smith was brought to Powhatan’s home at Werowocomoco, Smith recounts in his writings that there was a large feast, after which he sat and spoke to the chief. Sources vary about what truly happened, but in a letter written to Queen Anne, Smith stated that Matoaka/Pocahontas threw herself across his body to protect him from execution. It is also important to note that at the time, Matoaka would have been 10-years-old, not the young woman who falls in love with John Smith in the Disney film.
Matoaka would regularly visit the settlement at Jamestown to help gather food for the English settlers. During one of her visits, she was captured by Samuel Argall and held hostage in Jamestown for more than a year. During that time, a man named John Rolfe took interest in Matoaka and released her under one condition—she had to marry him. She was later baptized “Rebecca,” and in 1614, she married Rolfe. It was recorded as the first marriage between a European and a Native American.
Two years later, Rolfe and his new bride went to England. There, Rolfe used Matoaka in a propaganda campaign to support the colony of Virginia. Rolfe gained great praise for civilizing a “savage” and bringing Christianity to the “heathen tribes.”
Matoaka’s death was also not a very pleasant one. While boarding a ship to return to Virginia, Matoaka grew ill and had to be taken off the ship. Soon after, she passed away. She was only 21 years old. This was definitely not the fairy tale you watched as a child.