Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas
Written and Researched by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewski, B.F.A.
The controversial issue of John Smith and Pocahontas is a subject of considerable debate. Philip L. Barbour first formulated evidence in his The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith. This book explains that the apparent lifesaving actions of Pocahontas was in fact part of an adoption ritual that was misinterpreted by Smith. This is accepted by Mossiker, Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Jean Fritz, Peter Hulme, and J.A. Leo Lemay (all scholars in the area of Powhatan history). Helen Rountree doesn't fully accept the theory because she felt that too little was known about the Powhatan adoption rituals to be certain. In order to explore this further we must look at the facts:
- Powhatan was the place Powhatan was born. Powhatan meant "shaman's village or hill."
- Pocahontas was born circa 1595. Her half brother was Parahunt. He was known as "Little Powhatan."
- Powhatan was a political leader of six to seven tribes in the late sixteenth century, and by 1607 this number expanded to over thirty tribes. He had Tsenacommacah, a territory or "paramount chiefdom," which was densely inhabited. All villages were required to "pay tribute" to Powhatan. 80% of all produce: corn, beans, skins, etc. were reserved for him (Strachey).
- The English arrive in Virginia in 1607. Pocahontas is age 11 or 12.
- December 1607 - Pocahontas "saves" Smith's life. However, she was still young and would most likely have been banned from this ceremony.
Captain John Smith
Portrait by Simon van de Passe - 1616
- The traditional story of his rescue, by Captain John Smith, was written in 1624 in a book called John Smith's General Historie. This book was printed after Pocahontas and her father were both dead, and could not speak for themselves. He uncle was the only one still living.
- At the time of the rescue, according to Davis' description, Pocahontas would have been twelve and possibly thirteen, and although probably old enough to have a romantic (or even a sexual) response to the handsome captain, she would not have been as nubile as Captain Smith wanted his readers to believe.
- It has been pointed out that young Powhatan women begin to wear clothing upon reaching the age of twelve, but this fact did not stop Smith from reporting the naked, cartwheeling Pocahontas.
- Smith also described Pocahontas leading a coterie of thirty native women "naked out of the woods, only covered behind and before with a few leaves, their bodies all painted. A wild orgy-like performance followed." They were said to have invited Smith into their lodgings where they "tormented" him with sexual advances. All this indicating that Indian women lusted to have sex with white men. This was hardly the actions of a twelve year old.
- 1608-1609 - Captain John Smith forces the colonists to work six hours a day in the fields. They complain bitterly and sent him away to never return again.
- 1609 - October 1609 - Smith leaves the colony. The colonists are said to return to bowling in the streets. Several dozen colonists join the Indians. They bring them firearms and steel weapons such as knives.
- 1612 - John Rolfe was the first Englishman to grow tobacco in Virginia.
- 1612 - the governor recaptures the fugitives. The lucky ones are hanged or shot. The unlucky ones were burned at the stake or had their backs broken on "the wheels."
- April 1613 - Pocahontas is kidnapped from her tribe by Captain Samuel Argall and held in captivity for ransom. He used the Potomac Indians to this end, since they were at odds with the Powhatans. She is now eighteen years of age and more adult-like.
The oral history of the Native Powhatans claim that Pocahontas was raped by Thomas Dale and that her son Thomas was his child, not John Rolfe's.
- Her conversion to Chritianity was done by Protestant minster, Rev. Alexander Whitaker, in Spring 1613. We do not have proof, but many think this was made to happen, under duress. Afterall, the mind of the English was to convert as many natives as possible.
Uttamatokakkin, a Powhatan priest, objected to the English god because he had not taught them to wear their hair properly (with a scalp lock) as befitting a Powhatan warrior. Another way they differed:
- (1) The Powhatans saw the universe as an entity in which they were merely participants, living alongside other animals and spirit beings as equals
- (2) The Englishmen saw the universe as created specially for human benefit, with men having "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepth upon the earth" (Genesis 2.26).
Unlike the other English colonists, those in Virginia were largely non-Puritan Anglicans.
- Pocahontas was married to John Rolfe in April 5, 1614, at age eighteen or nineteen. Similarily, Governor Sir Thomas Dale wanted to marry Pocahontas' younger sister in May. Powhatan did not consent to this arrangement, since Dale already had an English wife and children. This was to be another political marriage in English eyes. If one marriage is good then two are better. The Native community's oral history tells us that Pocahontas was married to John Rolfe, at the order of Sir Thomas Dale. Dale did not want his wife and children to find out that he was a rapist of an underage girl (Pocahontas).
- John Rolfe was a widower. His wife and child died in June 1609 after they were shipwrecked in Bermuda.
King James was angry to hear that a commoner (John Rolfe) had married lady Rebecca, princess of Virginia. The king was offended by the corruption of "royal blood."
- Apparently there were fears that John Rolfe might claim himself "King of Virginia?" The reason for this union was purely and simply a way to soften the blow dealt by the English (that of taking Powhatan land). The English, early on, felt that marriage with a native would entitle them to the land as the laws were in England. White men who married Indian women were in a position to inherit their land. John Smith wrote: "She had one son by Mr. Rolfe, whose Prosperity are [sic] at this Day in good Repute in Virginia, and inherit Lands by descent from her."
- A similar situation occured in New York when Sir William Johnson married Molly Brant, a Mohawk, and sister to Chief Joseph Brant. These intermarriages were dubbed by Bernard W. Sheehan as "the great archtype of Indian-white conjugal union."
- John Smith is quoted as saying that the dark and vivid eyes make their descendants particularly attractive. They were touted as a mixing of English settler with the royal family of the aboriginal population. They were said to be of "high spirit" and generous. Pocahontas and John Rolfe's marriage was instrumental in the survival of the first Anglo-American colony in the New World.
- The birth of her son, Thomas Rolfe, was reported as 1615. However, some say he was born BEFORE their marriage.
- Her trip to England in 1616 (at age 20), to meet King James I and Queen Anne. Mr. and Mrs. Rolfe arrived on June 12, 1616, and proceeded to London to be introduced at court. It was reported that King James would not suffer the presence of her husband, and chastized her for marrying a commoner. However, this was reported by John Davis, in his Captain Smith and Princess Pocahontas.
- Her death and burial in St. George's Parish, Gravesend, in March 1617, after contracting smallpox, the bloody flux, or some respiratory disease. The Native Americans think she was poisoned and so were other members of her family that accompanied her.
- Thomas Rolfe is also taken ill and is left in England until he recovers.
- Powhatan, Pocahontas' father dies in 1618 leaving his kingdom to Opechanancanough and his other brother, Itoyatan. Powhatan was said to have been unhappy and grief stricken with the sudden death of his daughter, and wished that he had been able to stop her marriage, as he did her sisters'. Powhatan would never see his grandson, who was taken to England.
- 1619 - first slaves in Virginia (20 men and women).
- Some think that John Rolfe's death was by the hands of Pocahontas' uncle, Opechancanough. 1622 is the first uprising Opechancanough led against the English. The second occured in 1644. Some think that John Rolfe died of some sort of fever. He knew he was dying when he made his will.
- 1635 - Thomas Rolfe (age 20), son of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, returns to his homeland. His grandfather has willed him thousands of acres ol land, as well as his mother's wedding present and his own birthplace, the plantation named Varina. Thomas Rolfe then marries Jane Poytress, an Englishwoman.
- The capture of Opechancanough. He maintained a moral superiority over the English. By March 1647 Opechancanough was no longer chief. By peace time, he was said to be one hundred years old and was unable to walk with ease, his skin was slackened and he was said to not see because he eyelids covered his eyes. A soldier shot him in the back (while he was held prisoner) and he died, only a fortnight (2 weeks) after his capture.
The claim has also been made that Thomas Jefferson was a descendant of Pocahontas, however, he is a not a direct descendant. His father Peter Jefferson married Jane Randolph, eldest daughter of Isham and Jan Rodgers Randolph of Dungeness. The "Pocahontas blood" was brought into the Randolph family by Isham's younger brother, Richard Randolph of Curles, who married Jane Bolling (The Randolphs of Virginia. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972, x-xxi, 43.).|
The noble disposition of Pocahontas was said to have been transmitted to all her descendants. The Bollings, Randolphs, and other Virginia aristocracy were proud to name her as an ancestor.
However, during the days of this event, many Europeans saw her as turning her back on her own people (as a traitor). The popular view was that intermarriage was not to be encouraged. They thought it morally wrong and unnatural. They were forewarned, before they left England, to avoid intermarriage with the people of the New World:
They may not marry nor give in marriage to the heathens, that are uncircumcised. ... William Symonds using Genesis 12:1-3 describing God's calling of Abraham. By 1662, Virginia had a law that prohibited interracial marriage, which was amended in 1691 to remove any doubt that Indians were included in this ban:
"that for a time to come whatsoever English or white man or woman being free shall intermarry with a Negro, or Indian man or woman, bound or free, shall within three months thereafter be banished and removed from the dominion forever." This law was inacted to "to prevent the abominable mixture and spurious issue which may hereafter increase in this dominion."
Another law was on the books, in Massachusetts, prohibiting marriage between whites and non-Caucasions, and in 1786 a law specifically banned marriage between Indians and whites.
Strachey, William. History of Travel into Virginia Brittania, 1612.
(For other sources see; Powhatan Page
Bear Clan - Table of Contents
You are the visitor since January 16, 2005
Webmaster and author: Margaret Sypniewska, B.F.A.
Owner: Raymond Sypniewski, B.S., M.A.
Email Raymond: Raymond
This page was last updated on March 24, 2007
This page is hosted by