When English ships reached Virginia in 1607, a young Powhatan woman named Pocahontas used diplomacy as a bridge to peace between the colonists and Native Americans. She was only 11 or 12 at the time but she is credited with saving the life of Captain John Smith and aiding the Jamestown colony.
Chartered by King James I in 1606, the Virginia Company of London was made up of a group of investors who wanted to profit from the proposed colony in America. As part of England’s trade route expansion throughout the world, the company also supported finding a northwest passage to the Orient. The ships Godspeed, Discovery, and Susan Constant left England in December 1606 with 105 passengers under the leadership of Captain Christopher Newport. It took approximately four months to sail across the Atlantic but they spotted the Virginia coast in late April 1607.
The ships continued for two more weeks while searching for a suitable harbor. They arrived at a location, May 13, along the James River that provided a natural defense and allowed for deep water anchorage. The passengers disembarked May 14 and began building their settlement in the same area where 14,000 Native Americans from 30 Algonquian-speaking tribal groups lived. These were the Powhatan Indians and this collective alliance was known as Tsenacommacah. Their leader was also known as Powhatan and Pocahontas was his daughter.
Colonists and the Powhatan maintained a guarded co-existence. The Powhatans already had an established trade network among various tribes but the English also participated, trading items such as metal tools, beads and trinkets for furs and food. They were primarily upper-class businessmen, not farmers. The climate was unfamiliar to them, they were running out of food and didn’t know what crops to plant. Conditions worsened, leading to disease and then death.
One of the colonists, Captain John Smith, was captured in December 1607 and taken to Powhatan’s home along the York River. Members of the tribe served a feast to Smith then put his head on two stones. He described the incident saying that at the “minute” of his execution, Pocahontas risked her own life by putting her head on his. He was not harmed and she convinced her father to have him escorted safely back to Jamestown. After that incident, the relationship between the colonists and Powhatans improved. Pocahontas visited the colony frequently and supplied them with food. She also warned Smith of potential danger.
Based on Smith’s 1608 book, A True Relation of Virginia, Pocahontas was her father’s favorite daughter — “most dear and well-beloved.” Historians have estimated that she was born in 1595 or 1596. She is often referred to as a “princess” in English writings but she would have been expected to learn to gather food and firewood, and help with feasts. Her proper names were Matoaka and Amonute. Pocahontas was a nickname that meant “Little Wanton” or playful one.
The subject of romance between Smith and Pocahontas has been a topic of speculation in popular culture but there is no written evidence to suggest this. In fact, Smith returned to England in 1609 for medical care and never came back. The Powhatans were told he was dead. Pocahontas married a warrior but was captured in 1613 during the First Anglo-Powhatan War and held for ransom aboard a ship in exchange for English prisoners and supplies. Powhatan did not comply with the demands of the colonists and his daughter was not released.
During Pocahontas’ year in captivity, Reverend Alexander Whitaker converted her to Christianity and baptized her with the name “Rebecca.” She met colonist John Rolfe whose wife and child had died on the voyage from England. Rolfe was wealthy and had introduced successful tobacco crops to help the Jamestown colony make money. He wrote a letter to the governor of the colony asking permission to marry her out of love. He also said that a Christian marriage would save her soul. The wedding took place April 5, 1614, and she gave birth to a son the next year. The marriage brought peace between Powhatan and the English colonists.
Before the colonists ever left England, the Virginia Company had one other goal in mind: to convert the Virginia Indians to Christianity. Pocahontas was now a symbol of this conversion. She, her husband and son and other Powhatans sailed to England in 1616 at the request of the company. She was introduced to the English public as a princess. Many looked upon her as a curiosity, however, writings indicate she was treated well. She met the king, Jan. 5, 1617, during a theatrical performance in Whitehall Palace.
She and her husband were at another social event shortly after meeting the king. One of the other guests was John Smith. He wrote that when she saw him, she turned away, “without any words,” and hid her face “as not seeming well contented.” He added that she talked about the “courtesies” she’d done for him and the colonists.
John and Rebecca (Pocahontas) Rolfe and son, Thomas, boarded a ship in March 1617 to return to Virginia. They had only sailed to Gravesend in England when she became ill. She was taken off the ship and died shortly thereafter, the exact illness is unknown. Her funeral was March 21, 1617. She was only 22 years old.
The Jamestown Settlement in Virginia has recreated the three ships that arrived in 1607. Tours are available on these historically accurate replicas. Visitors can go aboard and get a feel for sailing, 17th-century style. A recreated Powhatan village offers information about daily life during the 1600s.
The colonists arrived in Virginia 13 years before the Mayflower landed at Cape Cod. Both groups relied on help from the Native Americans to survive. In both instances, there was at least one Native American who spoke English and acted as interpreter or messenger. For the Massachusetts colonists, it was Squanto; for Jamestown colonists, it was Pocahontas — a 12-year-old girl who used diplomacy as a bridge to peace.
By Cynthia Collins
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