Monday, November 9, 2020

Who was the real Pocahontas? 

"Pocahontas Unmasked,” is the title of the above image by Rose Powhatan a Pamunkey/Tauxenent/Wampanoag descendant.

(Click on YouTube link to see Rose’s Gallery Talk:


She is an American icon, yet mostly known through Europeanized eyes. Ask the average person what tribal nation did she belong to and how is it connected to our Nation’s Capital and the founding of America? And one will get, “I don’t know."

Pocahontas was a Pamunkey Amerindian whose relatives are indigenous to both Washington, DC and to the seat of the Powhatan Paramountcy in King William County, Virginia. These Algonquian speakers of America’s first language, was the most extensive multinational Indigenous power in American history under the leadership of one man, Wahunsennachaw, the second Powhatan or “Dreamer.”  Their word “caucus” still lives in the halls of government on Capitol Hill.  

What two of her descended Pamunkey Algonquian relatives have written or said about her?

Matoaka (“Bright light Stream Between the Hills”) or Pocahontas  is the most recognized Native America from the early contact 1607 period in North America. Thanks to Hollywood and fictional storybooks and academic theses about her. In her lifetime, the industry around her began soon after 1607 when she encountered the Englishmen who had arrived in Attan Akamik (“Our Fertile Country”) under the sponsorship of the short-lived Virginia Company of London, an early British venture capitalist entity. King James I soon put an end to the company’s charter when he assumed leadership in the exploits of the “New Found Land of Virginia,” named for the supposed "virgin Queen," Elizabeth I. 

Queen Anne, wife of the reigning English monarch, admonished the commoner widower, John Rolfe, for having the audacity to marry a royal person from the “Kingdom of Virginia.” The official story is even more troubling since Pocahontas was then a young married woman at the time of the Christianized union with John Rolfe. Conveniently, the English church did not recognize non-Christian marriages of indigenous people.


Washington, DC’s princess is baptized. An idealized Eurocentric painting in the Capitol Rotunda. The composition demeans Native Americans as sitting savages who needed Christianization to become “civilized."

An English etching of a Europeanized full-blooded Native American princess.

An idealized cartoon image of an American Indian icon.

Even in the above movie in which the two indigenous Washingtonians, Rose Powhatan and Kiros Auld acted as a Clan Mother and a Zone-1 Warrior, the script incorrectly portrayed a mythical love relationship between a 13-year-old Pamunkey girl and a 34+ English adventurer. Previous to this movie, when contacted as an advisor, Ms. Powhatan had rejected Disney’s similar portrayal of the relationship between Powhatan II’s daughter and the Englishman. But to no avail. 

Here is Kiros Auld’s take. This excerpt below is from his undergraduate Howard University history paper on Pocahontas, his ancestral relative. A history major, he is a descendant of  the Amerindians indigenous to DC, MD, and VA by way of Pamunkey and Tauxenent or Dogue ancestry. 

Patron Saint of Colonial Miscegenation?"

Kiros Auld, a Pamunkey, Tauxenent and Taino descendant, graduated from the School of Law, Howard University in 2008. The law school was founded in 1869 by John Mercer Langston whose mother was also Pamunkey.

This is a copy from a 2002 Howard University undergraduate thesis on the Eugenics Movement, Racial Integrity and these influences on the people from the historic Powhatan Confederacy, by Kiros Anthony Boston Auld. 

It is the first definitive examination written by a Powhatan Native American descendant.

Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan [the Second], is undeniably among the pantheon of Native American men and women who enabled the colonization of the Americas by European powers. She joins the ranks of Doña Marina and Squanto; the former served as a guide and translator for Cortés, the latter taught the Pilgrims to raise corn and served as their emissary. The lives and deaths of such individuals were noteworthy, as the role they played was pivotal in determining the course of colonization in the Americas. One may argue that the colonization of the area that came to be known as Virginia would not have been as successful for the British without Pocahontas. Unlike the Spanish, who came with armies of conquistadors and priests, the English resorted to diplomatic relations until they could secure reinforcements from their densely populated motherland. In the most extreme sense, stalling tactics included the kidnapping and ransoming of Pocahontas on April 13, 1613. [1.] 

Since its inception, Virginia was a struggling colony. In 1607, the English established Jamestown on a poorly chosen site that was low, marshy, and malarial. In addition to a poor location, the colonists were ill equipped for rudimentary survival. Most of them were too busy looking for gold and other precious metals to plant crops and dig wells. In the early years, July and August were known as the starving time. In the summer of 1608, the Indian corn crop came in late, and the English were low on provisions. Having consumed the last of their wine, the English resorted to drinking the brackish water of the James River, which lead to numerous cases of typhoid, dysentery, and salt poisoning. The situation was so desperate that some colonists ran away to the Indian towns.[2.] At such junctures, it was the Indians who fed the colonists, thus reasserting the dominance of the former in the region. [3.]

Pocahontas made her first appearance (in a documented source) through the logs of Captain John Smith. During his later years, Captain Smith wrote that on December 10, 1607, she saved his life from an execution ordered by Powhatan. [4.] One should note that this event was not included in his earlier account, wherein Smith promised to serve as one of Powhatan's vassals. [5.] This (albeit debatable) first appearance of Pocahontas features her unknowingly serving the interest of British colonists, thus beginning her career as a colonial tool. The veracity of this account has little bearing on its effect, for it produces the impression that the individual in question, Pocahontas, would be willing to sacrifice herself for one who heralded the downfall of her people. The next development involving Pocahontas changed the balance of power in Virginia to the favor of the British.
The kidnapping of Pocahontas occurred on April 13, 1613, at the hands of Captain Samuel Argall and with the assistance of a Patawomeck couple. According to the written testimony of Ralph Hamor, this couple was responsible for keeping Pocahontas occupied, while luring her to the captain's ship. After successfully coaxing her aboard, Argall paid the couple with an iron kettle, and disembarked for English territory. Argall sent Powhatan a message from Patawomeck, reporting her kidnapping and stating the terms of ransom. [6.] From this moment forward, the British used Pocahontas as a political prisoner. Powhatan paid part of the ransom and pledged the rest with the return of Pocahontas. The account of Ralph Hamor, one of the colonists present, portrayed an increasingly pensive Powhatan. Hamor reports that the ability of Powhatan to run his office was hindered as a direct result and that there were three months of silence between Powhatan and the British. [7.]

The British responded to Powhatan's indecisiveness with even greater demands, insisting that Pocahontas would be returned only after Powhatan surrendered all English arms, tools, swords, deserters, and a ship full of corn as compensation. Governor Dale, emboldened by Powhatan's indecision, committed yet another audacious act during March of the following year. With a hundred and fifty men and Pocahontas in-tow, Governor Dale sailed up-river into the seat of authority of the Powhatan Confederacy. Powhatan was unable to attend to the proceedings with Dale, so his brother Opechancanough took charge. Dale made a series of demands and sailed-down the river unmolested by the overwhelming number of warriors awaiting the command of their superiors. The key factor in surviving the ensuing struggles was again, the use of Pocahontas as a hostage. it was through negotiation with Opechancanough that the resolution of the hostage situation was delayed. [8.]

One could easily charge Powhatan with deliberately putting Pocahontas in harm's way by allowing her to act as an intermediary. However, such an argument ignores the likelihood that this was a fulfillment of her duty as the chief's daughter, and Powhatan may not have anticipated such treachery from a promising partner in trade. John Smith appreciated the importance of learning enough of the local language to carry on trade and diplomacy. Smith followed standard practice in leaving English boys, sent to Virginia as servants, with various local communities to learn their languages and customs. Apparently, Pocahontas served in a similar capacity as a child. She often accompanied her father's emissaries when they sent the English food and was given exposure to their language.[9.] However, Powhatan did not use her when he was on poor terms with the English. He removed his daughter from contact with the English from childhood into puberty. Pocahontas' kidnapping was not the direct result of her exposure to the English by Powhatan. John Smith testified to this fact, as he states that she was found and kidnapped by an English trading ship in 1613. [10.] During the period leading to her abduction, Pocahontas did not serve the capacity of intermediary, and was not intentionally being placed in any precarious situations. Continuing to argue that Powhatan remains at fault for the kidnapping of his daughter would only serve to blame the victims of a crime perpetrated by the English, with the assistance of a few Patawomeck opportunists.

Immediately following this impasse, John Rolfe made a proposition to Governor Dale, and requested permission for the hand of Pocahontas in marriage. At this time, Pocahontas was in her teens (around sixteen or seventeen by some accounts) and Rolfe was a widower with a child, so the marriage was more political than one based on love or physical attraction. The insight provided by Hamor about his comrade's marriage confirms the aforementioned notion, as it is referred to as a "pretended marriage." [11.] Yet, such behavior contradicts Hamor's previous assertion that John Rolfe was "a gentleman of approved behavior and honest carriage." [12.] John Rolfe's own words seem more ironic than those of Hamor, as the former invokes the divine while entering a holy union for material purposes. Both men agree that the union was for the explicit purpose of ensuring "the good of the Plantation." [13.] These sentiments and statements may seem contradictory to contemporary notions of marriage; however, they were in keeping with the institution of marriage within English society. At this time in England, women were often required to prove to men that they could bear children by becoming pregnant before the wedding. In a population that consisted of more women than men, the competition for well-to-do husbands was considerable. Marriage based on love and physical attraction between both partners is a relatively recent phenomenon.

According to Smith, Rolfe was not the first English colonist with the idea of marrying Pocahontas to secure better relations with Powhatan. Smith cites her as having provided the English with provisions at their fort in Jamestown, against her father's wishes. Some scholars believe that this "rebellious nature" was nothing more than a fabrication of Smith's but let us entertain it here, as it is secondary to the matter at hand. [14.] This is among the few times that she was vulnerable to the whims of the English, and at her own accord, no less. During this time, it was said that some colonist could "have made himself a king, by marrying Pocahontas".[15.] After dispelling any notion of being that "lucky colonist", Smith disregarded the possibility of attaining such high status through marrying Pocahontas. He also believed that her father held neither Smith nor any of the English in such high regard. This assumption was demonstrated to be true with her actual marriage to John Rolfe. The holy union also went unrecognized by the Virginia Indians during Opechancanough's revolt in 1622, as Rolfe was among the casualties.

The marriage of John Rolfe to Pocahontas and her baptism signaled the beginning of her acculturation, making her a "right-thinking savage." Besides Pocahontas' baptism and concomitant acceptance of Christianity, she became further Anglicized when she was christened "Lady Rebecca". As is ever the case, acculturation is not tantamount to assimilation. Pocahontas was not accepted by the colonists in the same manner an Englishwoman would have been. One indication of this was the fact that her Indian name was often used in favor of the one given at her christening. The memoirs of her English contemporaries are proof of this fact. Interestingly, Pocahontas was either already set to marry or married to a warrior named Kocoum at the time of her capture. If the latter were true, she would be the first documented female Virginia Indian bigamist. However, such a thing would be immaterial to Christians of that (or any) time, as pagan marriages were annulled upon baptism. This cultural imperialism was implicit in Christian doctrine, and the English.

Reverend Alexander Whitaker's judgment of the marriage and conversion of Pocahontas is characteristically culturally imperialistic. There is no mention made of the class differences that exist in the marriage, nor of the racial difference. Whitaker assumes the persona of a "man of God," albeit an English one, lauding Pocahontas' renouncing of "her country Idolatry" and confessing the faith of Jesus Christ. [16.] Here, the missionary impulse takes precedence over all others. His judgment may be representative of the Anglican Church, which would later exhibit the same intolerance towards interracial marriages between Europeans and Africans
in the Virginia Colony. One could interpret this marriage as the beginning of the whitening process of the indigenous people of Virginia, which continues unabated today. Technically, Pocahontas was not the first Virginia Indian to engage in miscegenation with whites. There had been a number of non-recognized liaisons between the English and Virginia Indians since 1607. [17.] However, paralleling Pocahontas with Doña Marina assumes a role of particular significance here, in that both are also well-known for being among the first mothers of American Indian-European hybrids, at least in their respective regions. Other contemporary accounts echo the sentiment of Whitaker.

Hamor was less accommodating to the marriage than some of his peers. His description of the union, even though it was one sanctioned by God, is "one of rude education, manners barbarous and cursed generation, meerely for the good and honour of the Plantation." [18] Such bitter testimony speaks of the precedence which race took over class in colonial Virginian society, serving as a model for later generations. The fact that Rolfe is a commoner married to a princess seems less of an issue in the colonies than in the mother country. That a British commoner is able to marry an "Indian princess" devalues the importance of the latter, in favor of the former. This marriage is an example of a colonial class and racial dynamic, possibly enabled by the frontier mentality. It may be construed as one of the precursors to feelings of white superiority among the poor white masses-- which those among the elite of a nonwhite society are on the same level as the average white male.

On June 18, 1614, a letter addressed to a cousin and fellow clergyman by Whittaker reported that the colony was stable. Besides having been able to expand despite opposition from Native Americans, the Virginia Company began to develop a cash crop in the form of tobacco. According to Hamor, the marriage between Pocahontas and John Rolfe served an especially useful function, as Rebecca taught her husband the Powhatan method of curing tobacco. It was this factor that allowed Virginia tobacco to compete successfully in the European market. Tobacco emerged as a cash crop, strengthening the economy of the colony, thus strengthening the colony itself and luring more Englishmen to try their luck in Virginia. [19.]

Up to this point, the Virginia colony had not suffered any significant attack from the Powhatan Confederacy. The use of Pocahontas as a political tool ensured that this trend would continue until Powhatan's death. Until then, it was in the interests of the colonists to increase their physical presence in the region. The most appealing option was to secure indentured servants from England, many of whom would not live to complete their terms of service and collect their share of property. Until 1630, anyone had a good chance of becoming affluent. The headright system granted masters fifty acres for every servant and the colony was still expanding. This was not the only method of motivating potential colonists, as the Virginia Company had secured the perfect spokesperson in Pocahontas. In June, 1616, the Rolfes arrived in London, where Pocahontas became an icon. She was the embodiment of the "right-thinking savage"; one who had renounced heathenism, embraced Christianity, worked for the good of the colony, and supported the Virginia Company. Pocahontas was put on display by the Virginia Company of London and introduced into high society. [20.] In addition to attending social occasions such as dinners and plays, Pocahontas took part in a lottery sponsored by the Virginia Company of London. Every winning ticket allowed for the allotment of one hundred acres for each £12 (pounds), 10[s.] (shillings), 5[d.] ("pence" or pennies) per share purchased. [21.] This level of participation is greater than most historians acknowledge. Pocahontas' active participation in the selling of her homeland amounts to a treasonous act against her people-- one that transformed her icon, into a willing actor in the colonization of Virginia.

One may argue that the English would have still succeeded in colonizing Virginia without using Pocahontas, but that argument is immaterial, as reality points in the other direction. The kidnapping of Pocahontas did take place and Powhatan's ability to govern his people was hampered as a direct result. Such a turn of events could have even triggered an uprising on an equal or greater level as that of Opechanough's revolt of 1622.

Records show that Pocahontas died March 21, 1617 as "Rebecca Wroth, wyffe of Thomas Wroth, gent", and was buried in Gravesend, England. [22.] If the reckoning of John Smith was accurate, she was around the age of twenty-two or twenty three at this time. [23.] Pocahontas' burial in Gravesend, England also serves to make her ownership by the British that much more complete. Although the great London fire of 1666 destroyed all traces leading to the exact location of Pocahontas' grave in the St. George's Church cemetery, her fame attracts the revenue of travelers from around the globe. 

In life, Rebecca Rolfe embodied the ideal that was the "right-thinking savage" and in death, became what many people deem to be a "good Indian". St. George's Church and the town of Gravesend profit from the tourism and fame brought to them by Pocahontas' grave. In some capacity, she continues to serve the purposes of the British, their descendants in Virginia, and those who came later. The better-known descendants of the union between Pocahontas and John Rolfe are among Virginia's First Families. This is a privileged group within Virginia whose role features prominently in politics, particularly in the state's determination of who is a member of the white race.


1. Hamor, Ralph. A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia (1617), (Richmond: Virginia State Library), Pg 3.

2. Wingfield, Edward. Discourse in The Jamestown Voyages Under the First Charter(1608), 2d ser., vol. 136, Pg 213-234 ed. Barbour, Phillip. (Cambridge: The Hakluyt Society, 1969), Pg 215.

3. Ibid., Pg 216.

4. Smith, John. The Generall Histo[y of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, 1624, in The Comi)lete Works of Captain John Smith (1580-1631), vol. 2, ed. Barbour, Phillip (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), Pg 151.

5. Ibid., Pg 57.

6. Hamor, Ralph. A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia (11617), Pg 4-5.

7. Ibid., Pg 6.

8. Ibid., Pg 7-11 & 52-53.

9. Smith, John. The Generall History of Virginia, New Enaland, and the Summer Isles (1624), Pg 8.

10. Ibid, Pg 71.

11. Hamor, Ralph. A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia (11617) Pg 11.

12. Ibid, Pg 10.

13. Ibid, Pg 11 & Rolfe, John. "Petition of John Rolfe for Permission to Marry Pocahontas”

14. Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas's Peogle. (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press), Pg 39.

15. Smith, John. The Generall History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624), Pg128.

16. Whitaker, Alexander. "To my verie deere and loving Cosen M. G. Minister of the B. F. in London," in Ralph Hamor, A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia (1617), (Richmond: Virginia State Library), Pg 59-61.

17. Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas's People Pg 60.

18. Hamor, Ralph. A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia (1617) Pg 24.

19. Ibid, Pg 24.

20. Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas's People Pg 63.

21. Virginia Company of London, "A Declaration for the certaine time of dravving the great Trading Lottery.”

22. Facsimile of the Entry of the Death of Pocahontas, in the Parish Register of St. George's Church

23. Smith, John. The Generall History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624), Pg 128.

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