Chief Powatan stands shrouded in flickering shade amongst the forests of coastal Virginia, his arm raised, wooden club poised to strike the man who lay cowering beneath him. This man, with his pale skin and fair hair, is one of them. The ones trying to claim their ancestral lands. The ones who steal their precious food and burn their villages to the ground. This man must die. Suddenly, a streak of golden skin, a flash of black hair, and his beloved Pocahontas now lies beneath the club. She stares up at him, eyes flashing. “If you kill him, you’ll have to kill me too.” Pocahontas may very well be the best known indigenous historical figure ever. That’s mostly thanks to the 1995 animated Disney film. You know the one, where Pocahontas falls in love, despite herself, with the dashing Captain John Smith, heartthrob of every 90’s tween. It’s all very romantic. But did you know, the real John Smith completely fabricated his relationship with Pocahontas in order to cast himself as the hero in his own twisted history? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. The story of Pocahontas is the ultimate History Fix. It’s the most widely known, horrifically inaccurate history story out. Why? How? What happened? Well Disney happened. And don’t get me wrong, I love Disney’s Pocahontas. It’s definitely on my top 5 favorite Disney movies list. I remember seeing it in theaters when I was 8 years old. It was magical. But, while it is roughly based on a true story, it’s based on an inaccurate account of that true story. Whose account you may ask - John Smith’s account.
You see, John Smith wrote a book in 1624 called “General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles” in which he made up a bunch of false information and sprinkled in some romanticized embellishments for selfish reasons that we’ll unpack later but let me stop there because I’m sure someone somewhere listening is like who even is John Smith and what are you even talking about. So let me back up and start at the beginning. The real beginning.
Pocahontas’ real name was Amonute Matoaka. She was born around 1596 in Werewocomoco, a Powhatan village that once existed in present day Gloucester (Glosster) County, Virginia. She was a daughter of the chief. Chief Powhatan had inherited 6 tribes. These are indigenous groups in the Algonquian language group. So Algonquian is a native language that was spoken by many different, distinct tribes of people along the east coast of what is now the United States as far south as North Carolina and all the way up into Canada. In his lifetime, Chief Powhatan was able to turn those 6 tribes into a confederation of up to 32 different tribes called Tsenacomoco, or the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom. He’s very good at this whole ruling thing, like an American Genghis Khan but not quite as ruthless.
Also like Genghis Khan, this is a polygamist culture. So Chief Powhatan had multiple wives. He had main wives and then he had lesser wives, more like concubines, who were likely captured from other enemy tribes. Pocahontas was the daughter of one of these lesser wives. Her mother was likely a prisoner of the Powhatan, forced to marry the chief. Now she wasn’t like chained up in a prison cell or anything, it wasn’t like that. This is culturally accepted. It was sort of an expectation that if your tribe was defeated by another, you might end up going with that tribe and marrying into it, assimilating into it. I know, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around someone just kind of going along with that but it’s just, it’s a different culture.
So Pocahontas was the daughter of one of these lesser wives but she soon became her father’s favorite child. They had a special bond. This is a large family. She has many aunts, uncles, cousins, and 26 half brothers and sisters. Powhatan has a lot of kids, but Pocahontas is his favorite. She’s naturally curious and inquisitive and earns the nickname “Pocahontas” when she is quite young which means mischief or playful.
So daughter of the chief, she is technically a princess, but not in the way you’re thinking. A Powhatan princess is nothing like a European princess. Powhatan royalty in general is nothing like European royalty. In this culture, the royals, it feels wrong to even call them royals because it’s just so different - they aren’t like this exclusive, glorified idol set on a pedestal out of reach like in Europe. They are among the common people. They are known by the people. They live and work alongside each other. Pocahontas likely worked with the other women in the fields daily to plant and harvest crops that fed the village. She’s not in the indigenous longhouse version of a palace being fanned by servants and entertained by courtiers. She’s doing manual labor with the rest of them.
In 1607, when Pocahontas is only 11 years old, 3 ships arrive from England carrying around 100 men. It’s all men at this point. The first women won’t arrive for another year. So in Disney’s version, Pocahontas is not 11 when the colonists arrive. She’s, I don’t know, 18 maybe? She’s more woman than child for sure, and that’s to make it fit with John Smith’s version of events without allegations of sexual abuse of a minor, which wholesome, family friendly Disney is not about to get behind. Also the movie makes it seem like the indigenous people don’t know what to make of this. But, in reality, the Powhatan had had contact with white settlers before. Several European ships had been in the area in the past, usually just stopping for provisions - fresh water, food, wood for repairs, that sort of thing.
This time is different though. This time the men have come to stay. England’s King James, who became king after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn if you listened to episode 19 slash 20, King James wants a permanent colony in the Americas. So let’s look at the global context of that. Spain has been conquering America left and right for like over a century. They have Central America, parts of the Caribbean, and most of South America. Because of all this conquering and all the gold and other riches they stole from the indigenous people in these areas, Spain has become one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world. England is behind when it comes to colonization. Elizabeth’s attempts to form a permanent settlement had failed horribly with the disappearance of the Roanoke colony in 1587. James wants to try again. He sends 100 men in 1607 with express orders to not screw it up this time and they happen to end up around 15 miles away from Pocahontas’ village of Werowocomoco.
The Powhatan watch the men, cautiously, as they come ashore. I’m sure they’re expecting them to gather provisions, stay for a few days, maybe make some repairs to their ships, and then head out. That’s the way it’s gone down in the past. I’m sure they were surprised when the men started to unpack their ships and move ashore, erect shelters, and a tall palisade fence made of sharpened tree trunks. They were extra surprised, confused probably, by the area the men chose to settle in. They chose to set up camp on a muddy peninsula near the mouth of a river. So river, yeah that sounds promising. Rivers are good for transportation and fishing, water, you know, stuff like that. But the Powhatan know this land is basically uninhabitable. It’s swampy with brackish water and gloopy sulfurous mud, monstrous mosquitos. They don’t live there for a reason. It’s a terrible place for a settlement. But, it’s still Powhatan land. It’s their territory. It has been for thousands of years. So, it’s crappy land, but it’s their crappy land and they are a very territorial people.
Traditionally, when another tribe tried to stake a claim to your territory, in this culture, people reacted aggressively by attacking in order to take back the land. So that’s what they did. The first few encounters between the Powhatan and the Jamestown settlers were violent. Very quickly, though, the natives realize that the English have far superior weapons. They have guns and crossbows and, probably the most terrifying of all, they have cannons. The indigenous people are working with bows and arrows, spears, wooden clubs. They’ve never experienced gun powder before. The settlers can stuff these cannons with all kinds of metal shrapnel and take down whole groups of indigenous warriors with one shot. They soon decide attacking the invaders in the customary way is not the best course of action. They need to try to establish peaceful relations with these men and trade with them to get what they want. So they give this a go but, despite attempts on both sides to keep it peaceful, miscommunication often leads to outbreaks of violence. They don’t speak the same language so they have major communication problems.
Both sides realize that they need to be able to communicate with one another to avoid these misunderstandings that are screwing everything up. They set up, basically an exchange program. The settlers send Thomas Savage who is 13 years old, so I’m like, where is this child’s mother, but okay. They send him to go live amongst the Powhatan and learn the language. He stays with the Powhatan for around 3 years. They treat him very well and he likes living with them. He becomes fluent in Algonquian and is often sent to relay messages to Jamestown. The Powhatan also sent their own indigenous boy to live at Jamestown and learn English but, of course, I can’t find any record of his name.
Pocahontas likely learned English through this exchange of young boys, possibly from Thomas Savage or from this mystery Powhatan boy sent to Jamestown. I don’t know but for some reason they’re using children as translators. I mean I kind of get it, children are less of a threat, they also learn languages a lot easier than adults.
In 1608 Pocahontas is sent to Jamestown to negotiate the release of some Powhatan prisoners. She’s a little girl and a daughter of the chief and they are sending her into the heart of hostile enemy territory alone. Why? Well she speaks English first of all. Also, she’s a little girl and they don’t think the settlers will harm a little girl. But also, if anyone can pull this off, it’s Pocahontas. She’s her father’s favorite for a reason. She’s very good with people. She’s charismatic and sociable and she makes people feel at ease.
So picture this scene for a moment, and go ahead and scrap that mental image of Disney’s Pocahontas because our girl is like 12. As was customary, her hair would have been shaved in front and on the sides leaving a long section in the back that was probably braided. She would have been mostly naked, as all children were, depending on the season. She would have carried offerings for the Jamestown settlers in exchange for the release of the prisoners - raccoon skins likely hung around her waist and she probably carried corn, food, something to barter with.
When she reaches the gate of the looming palisade fence around the fort, she’s alone - a harmless girl, carrying food. So, the settlers let her in, but they’re guard is up for sure. They are likely manning their guns and cannons, trained on the treeline where Powhatan warriors are watching, waiting, in case this all goes horribly wrong. She reaches the center of the enclosure and gazes around. The men are in rough shape. Their gaunt, pale faces stare back at her. They’re severely malnourished, starving actually. They can’t leave the fort to hunt without the threat of being killed by the Powhatan. Every once in a while supply ships arrive from England and this helps but the provisions only last for so long. And the ships refuse to take them back to England. King James is determined that this colony will succeed and no one wants to tell him that it’s failing miserably. So they are stuck in Jamestown with nothing to eat, poor drinking water thanks to the swamp they decided to settle in, and mosquitos and dysentery and disease, and it’s just a living hell. Pocahontas can see this written clearly on their faces. No wonder Thomas Savage preferred living with the Powhatan.
Pocahontas clears her throat and says “good afternoon” in clear English. She offers them the corn and raccoon skins and successfully negotiates the release of the Powhatan prisoners. So at just 12 years old, she’s acting as ambassador between the two groups.
So, this is not looking good for the English. They are holed up in their fort, literally starving to death. How did this all go so wrong? They have the cannons. What’s going on? Well their strategy was flawed. They modeled their strategy on what the Spanish had done, successfully, in Central and South America. They thought the indigenous people would give them tribute, mostly food but they were also hoping for gold in exchange for, not wiping them out with the cannons, basically, but also they attempted to trade with low quality metal goods and glass beads. So this had worked for the Spanish, remember Cortes demanding tribute from the Aztecs like a child with a genie. Revisit episode 22 if you missed that.
It does not work with the Powhatan. Their societies, their civilizations were completely different. The indigenous people in Central and South America lived in these established, permanent cities. They had megalithic structures, permanent food supplies, gold. They had lots of gold. Think of Tenochtitlan, a man made island in the middle of a lake, bridges everywhere. The indigenous groups in North America were semi-nomadic. They lived in temporary longhouse structures that could be disassembled and reassembled elsewhere. They moved around during different parts of the year, following the food, planting and harvesting only enough to feed their own people. They didn’t have any gold and they didn’t have stockpiles of food to spare. So they didn’t have anything to bargain with, which is what the English were banking on. So because of this, the English start raiding villages and taking supplies by force.
Captain John Smith was selected to lead one of these raiding parties. They set off to pillage some village but are captured by the Powhatan. The rest of the men are killed but Smith is paraded around to various villages and then carted off to meet the chief. And this is where Smith’s account in “General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles” which he published 16 years later probably diverges from the truth. He writes of this fantastical romantic moment when a teenaged Pocahontas (who remember, was actually just a child at the time) thrust her own head on top of his, shielding him from having his skull bashed in, and saves his life.
For centuries since this book was written, historians have disagreed over whether this actually even ever happened. Most believe it did not. In 1608, Smith sent a report back to England after he was set free and it does not mention Pocahontas or this event at all. It only comes up later, in his book, which was a smash hit by the way. So did he just add that part in to sell books? To make the story more exciting? More romantic? According to Camilla Townsend, professor of history at Rutgers University on an episode of the podcast Short History of quote “there’s a high chance that it simply didn’t happen at all, that nothing even remotely resembling that event ever occurred. They wouldn’t have tried to kill him. Why would they take him to at least a dozen villages and eventually bring him home if their plan was to kill him?” end quote. So, for me, this draws into question the credibility of Smith’s whole book.
There is evidence to suggest that John Smith met Pocahontas at some point though. He sent home letters in which he described a young indigenous girl who helped him learn Algonquian while he was imprisoned. During his time in Werowocomoco, Smith worked to negotiate peace with Chief Powhatan. He promised that the settlers would stop raiding villages if the Powhatan stopped attacking them every time they tried to leave their fort. So that’s the plan. Eventually Smith is traded back to Jamestown in exchange for the release of Powhatan prisoners. He has an accident with some gun powder and is injured. So he returns to England. The peace Smith promised ends pretty much as soon as he leaves. The settlers start raiding villages again and Powatan orders that all white men be killed on sight, no questions asked. They become completely isolated in their fort. They can’t leave without being killed. But even though the colony is failing miserably, remember, they have to pretend that everything is great when the ships come in bringing more supplies, and more colonists, including women. No one is willing to admit defeat to King James.
Partly because of this, the winter of 1609 became known as the “Starving Time” in Jamestown - a time when lack of food, disease, poor drinking water, and violence with the Powhatan killed the majority of the settlers. By one account, only 50 Jamestown colonists survived the starving time out of 500. Evidence from the fort’s trash pits which have been excavated suggest that the survivors resorted to eating horses, dogs, cats, rats, and even human corpses that were dug up and consumed in frantic desperation. In 2012, human bones with intentional cut marks on them were excavated from a Jamestown trash pit and actually, I feel another mini fix coming on because I got so sucked into a Smithsonian article about all the anthropological work that’s been done to identify the woman behind some of those bones. There is facial reconstruction. It’s freaking cool. I have chills. Anyway, stay tuned for that. Wednesday? Maybe? We’ll see.
So Jamestown is in bad shape. They’re not even a threat anymore to the Powhatan at this point. The chief must have been like “alright cool, we’ll just go ahead and let them all die in there and move on.” Pocahontas gets married, probably in her mid teens - 16, 17. She marries a warrior named Kokoum, so Disney got that right. Mmm Kokoum. Pocahontas’ sisters by more important wives would likely have married the chiefs of neighboring tribes. But, remember, Pocahontas’ mother was a less important, probably captive wife. So it makes sense that Pocahontas married a warrior, not a chief. She would have chosen Kokoum. I mean, dang, I would have chosen Kokoum. But, It wasn’t an arranged marriage, is what I actually meant by that. And they operated as equals in the relationship. Which, thank you, Powhatan. That’s beautiful. That certainly wasn’t the case in European marriages. As a woman now, I mean she’s like 17 but that was a woman back then - she would have worn her hair long, instead of shaved, and she would have worn a one shoulder style deerskin fringed dress that would have been decorated with dyed porcupine quills. So, a lot more like the Disney version of Pocahontas now that she’s grown up.
There is no record of Pocahontas and Kokoum having any children and actually by the time she’s 17, he disappears from historical accounts entirely. It’s possible he died. It’s also possible that she divorced him. Divorce was completely acceptable in Powhatan culture. If a relationship wasn’t working out, you weren’t forced to stay together forever like in Europe. It was better for the whole tribe for a dysfunctional relationship to end. If only that were the case for Henry VIII, how different history would have been.
Pocahontas spends her days traveling between villages as a sort of ambassador, negotiating trade and maintaining peaceful relations within her fathers empire. Jamestown has just been withering away, contained to it’s muddy swamp mosquito fort. But in 1613, even more ships arrive from England with even more settlers on board, and they have a totally different strategy this time. It’s another strategy they’ve borrowed from the Spanish. Remember Cortes took Moctezuma captive and attempted to control the Aztec empire through him. And although that didn’t really work for Cortes, they’re gonna give it a go here.
One day, Pocahontas is visiting a village on the northern edge of Powhatan territory to arrange trade. The brother of the chief there, his name was Iopassus, he convinces Pocahontas to walk out on the beach with him and his wife to look at an English ship that is anchored off shore. She’s like “I don’t really care, but okay whatever.” She walks out with them to see this ship. All of a sudden, Iopassus’ wife starts demanding to get on the ship. She wants to see the ship. Iopassus says she can only board the ship if Pocahontas agrees to go with her. Pocahontas is like “Dude seriously? Alright, fine, whatever” cause her whole job is to maintain peace with this tribe, right? She’s a schmoozer, she’s a diplomat. Plus, a rowboat from the ship is already heading towards the beach. She gets in the boat with this woman and they head towards the ship where they’re invited to eat dinner with the officers and their wives. She’s being polite. Sharing a meal is customary in both cultures, after all. After they eat, she’s like “cool, take me back to the beach.” But they’re like “oh man, look at that. It got dark outside. I guess you’ll have to spend the night.” And if it’s me at this point I’m like jumping off and swimming. But Pocahontas keeps her composure. She’s shown to a cabin on the ship where she sleeps for the night. She wakes up in the morning and goes to open the door - but it’s locked. The ship lurches forward, setting sail, and suddenly she realizes what’s happened. Iopassus and his wife had betrayed her. They had tricked her into getting onto this ship, into becoming a prisoner of the English. Now, why would they do that? It’s possible they received something in return, some sort of valuables as payment. It’s also possible they wanted to stay on the good side of the English invaders. The ship was anchored just off shore, cannons trained on their village. It’s possible they just gave the English what they wanted to protect their own people. They gave them Pocahontas, favorite daughter of Chief Powhatan.
Pocahontas doesn’t try to escape, remember being captured by enemy tribes is actually pretty normal and accepted in her culture. Her own mother had been a prisoner. Not that she was happy about it, but it wasn’t as outrageous as it seems to us today. She’s taken to Jamestown with these new arrivals and she’s treated relatively well there. She bides her time and just waits to hear word from her father. The English ask Chief Powhatan to return some stolen weapons in exchange for Pocahontas but he’s like “nah.” So, yeah I guess Powhatan does not negotiate with terrorists, or maybe he just trusts that Pocahontas is okay, that she’s doing important work at Jamestown, an ambassador on the inside.
Pretty much immediately the settlers set to work trying to convert Pocahontas to Christianity. This was always a very public part of the mission of European colonizers. They were there to spread Christianity to the godless savages, to save their souls. Who wouldn’t want to be saved? But underneath that sparkly PR facade, they’re really stealing land and resources and destroying whole civilizations. We saw the Spanish do this very thing. The English are no different. So why hide behind the high and mighty cover of Christian missionary work when the atrocities of your true intentions are so painfully obvious. Well I think it made them feel better about what they were doing. It justified all the horrible crimes they committed against the indigenous people because, in their minds they were spreading the one true religion and that was so important that, whatever they had to do to achieve that goal, whatever they had to steal, whatever lies they had to tell, however many people they had to kill, it was all worth it because they were saving people’s souls. It’s how they preserved their consciences. WWJD yall? Not that. None of that.
Pocahontas originally resists converting to Christianity but she eventually gives in, I mean sort of. The settlers were probably like “alright, we got one.” But in reality, she sort of just adds the Christian God to a collection of other indigenous spirits that she already worshiped. Powhatans were polytheistic. They worshiped a bunch of deities and spirits. So for Pocahontas, converting to Christianity just means adding another god to the list.
In 1614, a settler named John Rolfe declares his love for Pocahontas and his intentions to marry her. They get married when Pocahontas is 18. So all of this has happened within like a year. Kokoum drops off the record, Pocahontas is captured, gets married, is baptized and renamed Rebecca Rolfe. So, she doesn’t have a romantic relationship with John Smith, like at all. She was like 11 when she encountered Smith. She does marry an Englishman named John Rolfe. Does she have a romantic relationship with Rolfe? I mean yeah, I guess, they’re married, they have a son together named Thomas, they seem happyish. But remember Pocahontas is a captive wife, just like her mother had been. She is still technically a prisoner of the English. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she didn’t have fond feelings for her husband. I don’t know if she loved him, necessarily. It’s complicated. There are some documents, accounts written by John Rolfe that suggest their lives were pretty okay. Pocahontas didn’t seem to be in any distress. She seemed fine with her life.. I’m sure there was an adjustment period though. Remember, in her marriage to Kokoum, the two had acted as equals in the relationship. That was not the case in English marriages. Men were very much in charge, dominant, and expected their wives to be submissive and subordinate.
Rolfe built them a farmhouse to live in and they planted tobacco. Between his European metal tools and Pocahontas’ knowledge of how to grow indigenous crops, their tobacco plantation is super successful. Actually John Rolfe was probably the first cash crop farmer in the English colonies. They were able to grow enough tobacco to sell and made a living that way. During this time, relations between the Powhatan and the English are relatively peaceful. This is sometimes referred to as the “peace of Pocahontas.”
Meanwhile, word of the difficulties at Jamestown has inevitably leaked back to England. Remember, all of the early hardship was very hush hush. Even during the starving time, no one wanted to relay any negative news about the colony to King James. He was banking on more and more people wanting to immigrate there. So if news of hostile natives, dirty water, starvation, disease, and nightmarish mosquitoes was coming back with the supply ships, that would have completely killed the colony. They’re out of the starving time now and hanging in there, I mean the Rolfes are planting tobacco to sell, not just subsistence farming, so that’s a sign of better times. But rumors of all these troubles are just now making their way to England. Somebody is like “you know that guy John Rolfe has an indigenous wife. Yeah, his wife is the daughter of the chief and they have a kid together.” King James is like, “mmkay, mmkay we can work with this.”
When Pocahontas’ son Thomas is around a year old, the Royal Virginia Company, which had basically sponsored John Rolfe’s voyage to Jamestown, they take him back to England with Pocahontas and Thomas. The Rolfes have been summoned by the king himself, but it’s more of a command than an invitation. King James feels that if English society meets Pocahontas and littleThomas, they will start to feel better about the relations between the English and the natives over in Jamestown and maybe more will decide to join the colony.
So they hop on a ship and head over to England and, I just can’t even imagine what that must have been like for Pocahontas in sprawling 17th century London. What an incredible contrast from the undisturbed natural beauty of her Virginia forest home. They tour around England, attending high society functions, meeting the king, and basically promoting the colony for him. It’s here, in England, in 1616 that we get the only likeness of Pocahontas ever made during her lifetime. It’s an engraving by a Dutch artist named Simon van de Passe depicting Pocahontas all dressed up in English clothing - a lace collar and a silly little top hat thing - and you know I have this portrait on my instagram @historyfixpodcast if you want to check it out. Supposedly van de Passe sketched her likeness in person and then later created the engraving so this is likely what she actually looked like. Any other image you see of Pocahontas is just someone imagining what she might have looked like, likely long after her death.
In the fall of 1616, Pocahontas is reunited with John Smith, who remember had returned to England after that gunpowder accident. She likely thought that he was dead. I mean most of the Jamestown guys that came over when he did were dead. She’s probably very surprised to see him alive but the reunion does not go very well. Upon seeing him, Pocahontas starts screaming and yelling and calling him a liar. Actually, I believe the exact quote is “you Englishmen do lie much.” Now, in his book, John Smith writes of this outburst as if Pocahontas is his scorned lover, like he left her behind, let her think he was dead and now she’s just finding out he’s still alive and she’s just burning with passion and fury over this realization. It’s like a scene from a soap opera. That always happens in soap operas right? The woman thinks her lover is dead and then, come to find out, surprise, he isn’t, but now she’s already with someone else. It’s classic soap opera romance drama. Except it isn’t true, like at all. Pocahontas never ever had a romantic relationship with John Smith, remember? She was 11 when she last saw him. She does yell and scream at him and call him a liar though. But not because she’s his scorned lover. She does this because he is a liar. He promised her father the English would stop raiding their villages and stealing their food and they didn’t. He promised her father that the English wouldn’t take much land and they did. He promised her father that the English would be a useful and beneficial alliance and they weren’t, at all, they were the exact opposite. So yeah she’s furious at John Smith because he said a lot of pretty things, made a lot of empty promises, and then zipped on back to England and just let it all fall apart.
So this time Smith’s fictional romance with Pocahontas serves an even more selfish purpose. Originally, I feel like it was to make the book more interesting, to sell more copies. Now, he’s twisted her being genuinely upset about the atrocities shown to her people into her just being upset that her lover left her. It takes all of the blame off of John Smith for what happened to the Powhatan people and turns him into this rogue, lustful soap opera bad boy lover, blah, barf, barf, barf. It’s disgusting and unfortunately it’s the history that stuck. The Pocahontas John Smith lie is more than just an interesting plot point to sell books, or movie tickets, ahem Disney, it's yet another way that ruthless European colonizers shifted blame off of themselves and steeled their own consciences against the horrific truth of what they did to the indigenous people of the Americas. It’s so terrifyingly easy to change people’s perception of reality. All this took was one man, embellishing his book with a few fictitious details to write himself in a better light and even freaking Disney hopped on board.
Sadly, Pocahontas never returned to her homeland. They actually boarded a ship in March of 1617 headed for Virginia but she got really sick before they even left the harbor and was brought ashore where she soon died, of some illness that I’m sure she had no natural immunities to fight - possibly smallpox. She was just 21 years old. Thomas, who was just a toddler, was left in England with some of John Rolfe’s family and he went back to Virginia.
When Rolfe gets back, some of the indigenous people who had traveled with him and experienced London for themselves, they go to the chief and they tell him, “it’s massive and it’s just crawling with these white people, we can’t stop them,” basically. Powhatan realizes he has to put an end to Jamestown now while it’s still relatively small. If the English really have that many people, they have to strike now before more of these parasites are sent over. So there’s an indigenous uprising and around a quarter of the Jamestown population is killed. But, in the end, this last ditch effort by the Powhatan fails. The English do send more colonists, lots and lots of them. The indigenous people are riddled with foreign disease, overcome by superior weapons, and forced to flee from their ancestral lands. Within 2 generations, the Powhatan confederacy ceases to exist.
In 1635, Pocahontas’ son Thomas Rolfe returned to Virginia as an adult. He wanted to meet his indigenous family. But at this point, any interaction with natives still in the area was outlawed. It had just gotten too violent. Relations had completely deteriorated and he can’t even access his own family. It really breaks my heart because Pocahontas tried so hard. She really tried to make peace between the English and the Powhatan, sacrificing her own culture, religion, and freedom in the process. And she was able to stem the flow of violence, for a time, the peace of Pocahontas. But she couldn’t hold it back forever.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see that image of Pocahontas and other images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from Smithsonian Magazine, PBS, Williamsburg Yorktown Daily, Encyclopedia Virginia, the National Park Service, and a Short History of podcast episode about Pocahontas. Links to all of these sources can be found in the show notes.