The True Story of Pocahontas as NOT told by Disney

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Most people are familiar with the story of Pocahontas – the Native American princess who fell in love with Englishman John Smith during the height of conflict between the English settlers and the indigenous people of the Americas. In 1995, Disney released an artistically beautiful animated film showing the supposed events that unfolded between John Smith and Pocahontas. Although Disney is known for creating fictional tales, many people believed that Disney’s account of the life of Pocahontas was a true reflection of past events: the love between Pocahontas and John Smith, the bravery Pocahontas showed when saving John Smith’s life, and the tragic ending when John Smith returned to England for medical treatment. However, this depiction is a far departure from the actual events that occurred, and from the real life of Pocahontas.

Pocahontas - Disney

Disney produced a romanticized and inaccurate portrayal of the life of Pocahontas. ( fanpop.com)

It is believed that Pocahontas was born around 1595 to a Powhatan chief. Her given name at birth was Matoaka, although she was sometimes called Amonute. “Pocahontas” was a derogatory nickname meaning “spoiled child” or “naughty one.” Matoaka’s tribe was a part of a group of about thirty Algonquian-speaking tribes located in Tidewater, Virginia. 

During Matoaka’s childhood, the English had arrived in the ‘New World’ and clashes between the  colonizers and the Native Americans were commonplace. In 1607, John Smith, an Admiral of New England and an English soldier and explorer, arrived in Virginia by ship, with a group of about 100 other settlers. One day, while exploring the Chickahominy River, John Smith was captured by one of Powhatan’s hunting parties. He was brought to Powhatan's home at Werowocomoco. The accounts of what happened next vary from source to source. In John Smith’s original writing, he told of having a large feast, after which he sat and spoke with Chief Powhatan. In a letter written to Queen Anne, John Smith told the story of Matoaka throwing herself across his body to protect him from execution at the hands of Powhatan. It is believed that John Smith was a pretentious man who told this lie to gain notoriety. In the Disney version, Matoaka/Pocahontas is depicted as a young woman when she saved John Smith, but by his accounts, she was only a 10-year-old child when these events occurred, and therefore highly unlikely that there was any romance between them.

John Smith Saved by Pocahontas

‘John Smith Saved by Pocahontas’ by Alonzo Chappel, circa 1865, based off his wood carving from 1861, currently on display in the Art Museum of Western Virginia. ( Wikimedia)

Matoaka often visited the settlement at Jamestown to help the settlers during times when food was in short supply. On 13 th April, 1613 AD, during one of these visits, Samuel Argall captured Matoaka to ransom her for some English prisoners held by her father. She was held hostage at Jamestown for over a year. During her captivity, tobacco planter John Rolfe took a ‘special interest’ in the attractive young prisoner, and he eventually conditioned her release upon her agreeing to marry him. Matoaka was baptized ‘Rebecca’ and in 1614, she was married John Rolfe - the first recorded marriage between a European and a Native American.

The Baptism of Pocahontas

The Baptism of Pocahontas by John Gadsby Chapman ( Wikimedia). Chapman depicts Pocahontas wearing white, being baptized Rebecca by Anglican minister Alexander Whiteaker in Jamestown, Virginia. She kneels, surrounded by family members and colonists. Her brother Nantequaus turns away from the ceremony.  The scene symbolizes the belief at the time that Native Americans should accept Christianity and other European ways.

Marriage of Matoaka to John Rolfe

Marriage of Matoaka to John Rolfe. From ‘Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend’ by William M. S. Rasmussen. ( Wikimedia). Their union is said to be the first recorded marriage between a European and a Native American.

Two years later, John Rolfe took Matoaka to England to use her in a propaganda campaign to support the colony of Virginia, propping her up as the symbol of hope for peace and good relations between the English and the Native Americans. ‘Rebecca’ was seen an example of a civilized ‘savage’ and Rolfe was praised for his accomplishment in bringing Christianity to the ‘heathen tribes’.

While in England, Matoaka ran into John Smith. She refused to speak with him, turning her head and fleeing from his presence – a far cry from the undying love between the two as portrayed in the Disney movie. In 1617, the Rolfe family boarded a ship to return to Virginia. However, Matoaka would not complete this journey home. She became gravely ill – theories range from smallpox, pneumonia, or tuberculosis, to her having been poisoned – and she was taken off the ship at Gravesend where she died on March 21, 1617. It is believed she was 21 years old when she died. Sadly, there were no fairy tale endings for Matoaka.


May she rest in peace.

My roots are deep and I was told that she was related, I never believed this to be true until I started researching and found that my family roots are Jamestown, Surry and surrounding tidewater towns.

Rolfe and Matoaka were my 11-great grandparents, but before that happened there are a couple of amazing stories. Rolfe was headed to Virginia with his wife and child in September, 1610 when their ship was destroyed by a hurricane and marooned on Bermuda. Many drowned, including Rolfe's wife and child. This particular storm was the inspiration for Shakespeare's 'Tempest'.

The following spring Rolfe and others cobbled together a couple of small boats from the wreckage of their ship and wood cut on Bermuda. They arrived successfully at Jamestown, whilst those who chose to stay behind were the first Bermudans.

In the autumn of 1611 Rolfe sailed to the Caribbean where -- at the profound risk of his life -- he purloined seeds from the sweet tobacco grown there by the Spaniards. In 1612 he grew it out on some ground he settled at what he called the 'Bermuda Hundred' in Virginia. Most of the crop was exported to England, and Virginia was on its way.

The local Powhattans and Mattaponi much preferred Rolfe's tobacco to the incredibly rough stuff they'd been growing and smoking for generations. Rolfe became a hero, and was offered the chief's daughter in marriage. Their only child, Thomas, was born 30 June 1615.

When 'Pocahontas' died in England 21 March 1617 John Rolfe left his infant son in the care of relatives in order to return to Virginia for tobacco planting. Thomas never left England again. John was apparently killed in a raid by his in-laws tribe in late 1621.

Matoaka's parents, BTW, were Winanuske NONANA and Wahunsonacock POWHATAN (1540-1618). Seven generations later their direct descendent, Thomas Jefferson (who also had far more recent Powhattan and Mattaponi blood -- to the extent that John Adams called his mother a "half breed" -- argued forcefully and successfully for the incorporation of some wise native approaches to governance into how the newly independent America would organize itself.

DeAegean's picture

Disney ruins all things, certainly brought forth by The Morning Star

Author seems to think Disney was trying to pull a fast one. More likely they wanted to sell movie tickets and videos.

Also, Author claims "Pocahontas is depicted as a young woman when she saved John Smith, but by his accounts, she was only a 10-year-old child when these events occurred, and therefore highly unlikely that there was any romance between them."

But then details her marriage to Rolfe...who is Smith's contemporary. So...what? This makes no sense to me.

The John Smith incident was alleged to have occurred in about 1607, when 'Pocahontas' would have been about 12 yo. It is a credible story if there is no romantic component. She married Rolfe at 18, and because of traditions for both whites and reds at that time there probably was not a lot of romance involved, even then. Modern understandings of "romance" have nearly zero relevancy to this period.

Rolfe came to love his second wife (typical of arranged marriages), mourned 'Pocahontas' rather deeply according to contemporary accounts, and never re-married. Not that he lived all that long after her death, less than five years, when he died in raids by his in-laws' tribe. Powhattan, who promoted peaceful relations with the whites died in 1618. Hotter heads prevailed. At least for awhile.

There was at that time, and still is now some places, a rather big difference between romance and marriage though...

riparianfrstlvr's picture

the story of Pocahontas is not the only story of Indian women mistold. one of the biggest in my neck of the woods is that of Sakagawea. She was actually the leader of the Lewis and Clark expidition. She saved that whole shit show at least 2 times from certain demise. She new where to camp and have food and argued with those arrogant city slickers until they were very hungry. She also saved this rag tag team of white men when they crossed into Blackfeet land. A group of warriors saw these people and saw that they were being led by an Indian woman with child and thought it would not be  honorable to kill these people, they will probably die anyway, and the fact they were being led by an Indian woman. they discovered nothing, all that was already known by her and the Indians they incountered. they did learn a whole lot though.


I recently visited Jamestown and they state John Rolfe's first wife and daughter didn't die at sea. Everyone survived the wreck and some died later including his wife and daughter (named Bermuda). He also married for a third time and had another daughter after Pocahontas died.

angieblackmon's picture

Regardless of age I still believe her to be a beautiful and courageous woman, sad her time here was so brief. 


love, light and blessings


I'm doing a progect on Pocahontas and this really helped me

There is so much more to this story, I can't even ... Besides there being way more from the European settler point of view, there's even more depth if you take into account the Indian side of the story. After all, the English settlers didn't know a whole lot about the Indian culture at the time. Still don't, for that matter.

really why would you say disney is pulling a fast one the pochahontas move didn't even go on for that long and eventually faded away

You didn't mention the fact that Pocahontas had a daughter with a brave and she married Thomas Pettis/Pettus. This has been known by the three tribes that are Pocahontas's dependents. I wish people would fact check their stories with Native peoples, you may learns something new.

I do think the true story is very interesting however trying to say Disney is painting it in a bad light is wrong. They wanted to tell the story of a girl who tried making peace between the settling whites and the Indians. Like all their movies they are targeted as children and to fit with the princess films had a romantic story line. No one really believes that cinderella is true, they also made a second where she travels to England with John Rolfe, this obviously changes facts also as it is made for childs entertainment but it shows how she was paraded about and how horrid and ignorant the king and other English people were to her customs.

I think the Disney version is a lovely fairy tale but it is just that, a story made lighter hearted and happier than the real events. She is still shown to be a courageous woman and someone that girls could look up to.

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