This script was recorded for our GirlSpeak podcast in early 2021. To listen to the episode, click here.
How old was Pocahontas?
In Disney’s movie version, she’s a young unmarried woman – fully developed, falling in love with the adventurous hero John Smith, later marrying the wholesome John Rolfe.
In her statue at Jamestown, she’s also depicted as a grown woman – perhaps youthful, but certainly past puberty.
They both got it really, really wrong.
Pocahontas met John Smith at age eleven. You heard that right – eleven. She was eleven years old when they met, and thirteen when they said goodbye. And she was never in love with Smith…or, perhaps, even Rolfe. As Ashley and I explore in our recently published book, Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures, most historians and historical interpretations have gotten Pocahontas’s story completely wrong, leading to centuries of misunderstanding of the complexity and roles of Native American girls and women.
Pocahontas – whose real name was Matoaka – was born around 1595. At the age of six or seven, she entered training as a Beloved Woman – what we might call a priestess – being trained to read natural occurrences as the will of the gods. Her actions and readings helped leaders make decisions for the tribe. Raised by her mother’s clan, we don’t know who Matoaka’s parents were, or if her father was the chief as so often is described.
In 1607, English colonists established Jamestown in what is now Virginia, and one of their leaders was Captain John Smith. They encountered the Powhatan – a loose confederation of tribes whose local leader was called Wahunsenaca (though the colonists ended up calling him Powhatan). The tribe kidnapped Smith, bringing him before Wahunsenaca in the Nikomis ritual. Smith would later interpret this as the Powhatan trying to kill him and Pocahontas falling madly in love – in a much-overcompensating narrative that he used to maintain power. Instead, what Smith actually went through – Nikomis – was a Powhatan ritual of adoption. During the ceremony, Smith’s fate was debated by the elders and his head laid upon a flat stone. Standing above him were two priests, one with a clamshell club. At this moment, Matoaka cried out and ran to Smith, covering him with her own body. Within moments, the Powhatan present wailed and danced, signifying the ritual as complete and Smith – and his Jamestown colonists – as having been adopted into the Powhatan Confederacy.
Why Matoaka was the one to cry out is uncertain – perhaps she was chosen beforehand for this task, as one of her first as an initiated Beloved Woman. We will never fully know. But her cry did signal that she would act as one of the official Powhatan responsible for Jamestown and Smith, helping to encourage trade, maintain peace, and ensure that each learned the customs of the other (and, more importantly, that the colonists learned Powhatan ways). Instances of Matoaka’s role are held within Powhatan descendants’ oral histories. She often negotiated prisoner exchanges after skirmishes, which were frequent, and acted as an ambassador with food. This continued for two years.
In 1609, Smith was injured in a gunpowder explosion and sent back to England. He would never return. Around the same time, Matoaka stopped visiting Jamestown. The colonists thought she was bereft of Smith’s departure – but the truth was that Matoaka had reached puberty. In Powhatan culture, she now underwent rituals to become recognized as a grown woman. Her clothing and behavior changed, and she married Kocoum – moving to his village downriver.
Over the next four years, relations between the Powhatan and colonists deteriorated. When Samuel Argal arrived and revitalized the colony, he decided that Matoaka – who for some reason he thought was the chief’s daughter – was critical to ensuring peace. Argall thought that if he could kidnap her, then her father would surely succumb to the colonists’ demands and pay any price for her return. Right?
Oh, so wrong. Argall lured Matoaka into captivity, but Wahunsenaca refused to meet Argall’s demands for her return. Each side simply couldn’t understand the other, and Matoaka was caught in the middle.
In captivity, Matoaka lived with Reverend Alexander Whitaker, a religious leader, and met daily with Argall and his secretary, John Rolfe. She was instructed in English languages, customs, and culture, and was baptized Christian – though whether any of this was because Matoaka wanted it is unclear. As a prisoner, she had no choice; but as a Beloved Woman, she likely went through the rituals to better understand the colonists and see if such beliefs were beneficial for her people. Beloved Women were frequently those who tried out new customs to see if their people could benefit.
During captivity, Matoaka’s husband – Kocoum – either died or undertook some kind of divorce. It didn’t really matter to the colonists. Instead, they claimed she fell madly in love with Rolfe and that the two married willingly.
Later, during discussions with her sister, oral history states that Matoaka revealed she had been raped repeatedly and was pregnant before being forced to marry Rolfe. At the age of 18, Matoaka bore a son named Thomas. She settled into life with Rolfe and her family visited often, sharing methods of tobacco cultivation with Rolfe that became absolutely integral to the colonists’ success in growing and exporting tobacco. Without Matoaka’s family and forced marriage, the colonists wouldn’t have figured it out.
In 1616 – when Matoaka was about 20 or 21 – Rolfe declared that they would sail to England. As part of his duties for The Virginia Company, which financed the colony, Rolef was to “show off” Matoaka, their son, and a designated Powhatan retinue to the elite of English society. The goal? To show how conversion to Christianity and settling of the New World was successful and increase demand for tobacco.
Matoaka saw a whole new world. She was entertained lavishly, even dining with the Queen – who was enraged that Rolfe had married “above” his station by marrying who they thought as an Indian princess. (Again, whether “princess” was even a concept to Native American tribes, or whether Matoaka’s position was anywhere near that, is hotly debated.) Throughout it all, Rolfe grew jealous. Matoaka took center stage – throwing Rolfe and his tobacco firmly into the back.
What happened next is perhaps the mystery of the century. Matoaka had repeated illnesses while in England – likely due to the climate and strain of travel, but perhaps there was something more. She spent time at a country estate and recovered. Rolfe decided it was time to return to Virginia.
Yet before they set sail, Matoaka…died. English accounts (and hence history) say it was a repeat of her illness. But oral history passed down by Powhatan descendants says a different story. On board the ship the first night, Matoaka dined alone with Rolfe and Argall. Afterwards, she felt ill and told her sister that she suspected poison. She quickly became violently ill, dying before morning. She was quickly buried the next day in a nearby churchyard, and Rolfe left their infant son with English relatives before sailing. On their way to Virginia, Rolfe stopped in Bermuda and sold all but two of the Powhatan retinue – bringing only Matoaka’s sister and brother-in-law back to the colony.
The peace shattered, war soon followed. Rolfe quickly remarried, never again seems to have thought of his son in England, and died just a few years later.
Matoaka’s story has long been silenced – dominated by narratives that Smith, Rolfe, and other Englishmen used as propaganda to promote the colony and their role in it. There was no room in patriarchal England for a Native American priestess who secured peace, trade, and tobacco for them. Nor was there room to admit that her death was mysterious, rushed, and silenced. For centuries, this whitewashed narrative was used to subjugate Native Americans across the continent, to reaffirm Europeans right to acquire – no, steal – the land, and establish their own culture that disrespected – and more often silenced – the rich myriad of cultures and traditions that had been in place for centuries.
Matoaka’s story is one we explore in our forthcoming book, and I chose to tell it today because her story shows not just the whitewashed nature of American culture, but also our propensity to ignore girlhood in our history. For years, Matoaka – called Pocahontas by colonists and dominant narratives – has been seen as a young woman at the end of puberty, ripe for love and marriage and conversion. The stories never state that she was eleven when she met Smith, thirteen or fourteen when they said goodbye and she left the area, between sixteen and eighteen when she was kidnapped, raped, and forcibly married, and just twenty-one when she was murdered by her own jealous husband.
There are so many other girls in American history that have been mistaken as women. Some of them are in our book, and others await the chance to tell their stories.
Will we ever listen to them? Perhaps it’s time we did.
Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures is now available at many booksellers, including Amazon.com.