Pocahontas: Fact & Fiction

On June 23, 1995, Disney released “Pocahontas” to theaters, earning mixed reviews from critics. This controversy was well founded, specifically in the portrayal of the historical events, which romanticize the story between the characters and alleviate the circumstances of Pocahontas quite a bit. For the 22nd anniversary of the Disney movie, and in keeping with PWNA’s aim to share more accurate knowledge of Native American history and culture, we’d like to share a slightly different story than the one with which you may be familiar.

For starters, Pocahontas was actually a nickname. Amonute, or Matoaka to some, was born sometime in the late 1500’s. Her mother, Wahunseneka, may have also shared the name Pocahontas; she died in childbirth.

Matoaka was Powhatan, and while the Disney story would say she was a young adult, she was likely closer to the age of 10 or 11 when the Jamestown settlement was established, according to the journal of Captain John Smith.

There are no personal accounts of Pocahontas leading up to the more popularized events of the early 1600’s, and of these events, most come from the journals of John Smith or John Rolfe.

Urban legend offers many accounts of Pocahontas saving the life of John Smith from execution, though this is still under debate, as it does not appear in Smith’s personal journal (at least not consistently). Nor was Pocahontas ever known to have had a romantic relationship with John Smith – one of the most widely held misconceptions.

More sure is the romantic relationship with John Rolfe. During the 1609 Anglo-Powhatan War, Pocahontas was captured and held for ransom and, while in captivity, Rolfe would explain he developed feelings for the girl. Reportedly, Rolfe had to write a particular governor citing his feelings, as well as the possibility of saving her soul through the conversion of Christianity, although some accounts show there may have been a different motive for the marriage.

Pocahontas and Rolfe married in 1614, when Pocahontas was roughly 17 years old. In 1616, the couple traveled to England, where Pocahontas converted to Christianity and was baptized under the given name of Rebecca.

In England, it was said that her etiquette was well developed and her understanding of English culture grew. To some, Pocahontas was thought of as a “Tamed Savage of the West” and was often presented as a princess of her tribe, though the tribe had no such reference to her. On the journey back to Virginia, she fell ill and died on March 21, 1617. The cause of death is speculated to be pneumonia, tuberculosis or poisoning.

Over the years, her presentation as a symbol of a successful American Indian “Christian conversion” has likely contributed to the Pocahontas story being romanticized to the point of fiction, including Disney’s depiction. The real story of Pocahontas-Amonute-Matoaka-Rebecca is much more dramatic and possibly much darker than most people realize. To learn more of her story based on oral and written history from the tribe, visit:

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