Smithsonian

Pocahontas Lesson Introduction

Introduction

Born in 1595, Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, chief or werowance of the approximately thirty tribes that made up the Powhatan Nation. Matoaka (“playful one”) was Pocahontas’s tribal name. Growing up in Werowocomoco, Pocahontas was thought to be her father’s favorite daughter. Very little is known about her mother.

English settlers arrived in the Powhatan region in 1607 and established the colony of Jamestown on the James River south of Werowocomoco. Initially trading English copper kettles for Native corn, the English and the Powhatans were not always on friendly terms. When the Powhatans realized the English were building a permanent settlement on Powhatan land, they attacked. When the English needed food, they took hostages and negotiated for corn. Legend has it that John Smith was taken captive and was prepared for death when Pocahontas stepped forward and saved his life.

Pocahontas was taken captive in 1612. The settlers demanded the release of eight English hostages and additional corn. Werowance Powhatan returned seven English hostages and sent a small amount of corn. Angry, the English settlers kept Pocahontas at Rock Hall, a plantation in the settlement of Henrico, west of Jamestown. There Pocahontas received Christian instruction and learned how to dress and act as an Englishwoman. She met a tobacco farmer named John Rolfe and, after converting to Christianity, married him in 1614.

After her conversion, Pocahontas was given the name Lady Rebecca. John and Rebecca Rolfe had a son, named Thomas, in 1615. A year later, the family sailed to England. Lady Rebecca would be presented in court in the hope of stimulating renewed interest in the colonies. The English royalty welcomed her as an Indian princess.

But London proved unhealthy for Lady Rebecca. The Rolfes left London for the countryside. It is thought that Lady Rebecca developed tuberculosis. The Rolfe family sailed for Virginia in 1617 but had to turn back when Lady Rebecca’s condition worsened. She died in Gravesend, England, on March 21, 1617. John Rolfe returned to Virginia; Thomas was left with Rolfe relatives in England.