In the movie Pocahontas, Disney repeats the inaccurate myth of Pocahontas and John Smith. The movie recycled the traditional - but wildly inaccurate - tale about the two being lovers, to present an entertaining version of the harsh Native American interaction with the English colonists settling in Virginia. The Disney version also had a hit tune with a strong social message, Colors of the Wind.
The real Pocahontas was born around 1596. She was the daughter of Wahunsenaca, the paramount chief known to the English as Powhatan. Her formal name was Amonute, but she was most often called Matoaka. Pocahontas (the word for "playful") was just a pet name for her. When she converted to Christianity and married John Rolfe, she took the name Rebecca.1
She is thought to have had a relationship with Kocoum, but in the myth she supposedly fell in love with John Smith after he had been captured. According to Disney and others, Pocahontas bravely challenged her father, tossed aside her love for Kocoum, saved John Smith from execution... and in the movie, everyone lives happily ever after. Smith wrote 15 years after leaving the colony that he had been rescued by Pocahontas, but even that story is subject to interpretation.
The portrayal of Pocahontas in the myth twists some facts in order to enhance the story line. Pocahontas was not a mature young woman when she "rescued" Smith. She was probably only 10-12 years old when Smith was captured, after he had wandered too far up the Chickahominy River. His companions were killed next to their small boat, while Smith was captured as he explored some distance away from the shoreline.
The Native Americans obviously recognized Smith was a man of importance in the English community. He may have been subjected to a ritual that involved laying his head on a block and pretending to prepare to smash his skull, then allowing him to be "reborn" into the tribe. Perhaps the threat was real, and Pocahontas really did spur her father to spare the Englishman's life. John Smith's 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia is the source of the tale, and he did not include it in previous descriptions about his experiences in Virginia.2
Smith was a strong leader with a domineering personality, a bold adventurer with an extra-large ego. He was such a difficult personality, he was already under arrest when the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery first arrived in Virginia. When the orders from the Virginia Company were unsealed, it discovered that Smith had been officially appointed to the Council that would govern the colony at Jamestown... but the other Council members were still reluctant to free him. He could have embroidered a real event in his 1624 version, or created it ex nihilo (out of nothing). The intersection between history and fantasy in this case will always be fuzzy and an opportunity for creative writers and artists to reshape the story to fit current times.
In real history, Pocahontas was a key player in establishing a form of peace between the Powhatans and the English. Six years after Jamestown was founded, Pocahontas was about 16 or 17 years old. She was visiting Patawomeke, the main town of the tribe at the mouth of Potomac Creek on what today we call Marlboro Point, probably to ensure the Patawomekes recognized an obligation to pay tribute to her father.
The Patawomekes lived near the fresh water of Accokeek Creek and the oysters and fish in the brackish Potomac River. Evidently the neighbors were not always peaceful; that site was fortified with wooden palisades made from tree trunks placed vertically in the ground.
Powhatan, as seen by John Smith at Werowocomoco
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606
The first two archaeological sites excavated in Stafford County, ST1 and ST2, were on Marlboro Point; evidently the center of occupation moved a few hundred feet over time. Archaeologists determined that the town was protected by a palisade after studying the pattern of postholes in the ground. Close examination of the site revealed circles of darker earth, caused by the decay of the organic wood in otherwise-light sand and clay soil. Archaeologists identified the location of the wall where the postholes were lined up in a row.3
The English built a similar wall to protect Jamestown, but obviously they were not the first to fortify a site. The romantic idea of "noble savages" living in peace and harmony in Pocahontas's childhood, before the arrival of the English, is far from the reality of pre-colonial Virginia. Threats from rivals forced Native Americans across the state to fortify; a palisaded town was also excavated on Wolf Creek in Bland County when I-77 was constructed.
The Patawomekes were associated with Powhatan, but not fully obedient. Powhatan's control of over 30 tribes was centered on the York River, and he was still expanding his power over adjacent tribes when the English sailed up what he called "Powhatan's River." (The English renamed the river after their king, James I, and today we refer to the "James River.") When the English arrived in 1607, only the Chickahominy tribe near the core of his influence stayed largely independent. The tribe allied with Powhatan only after the threat from Jamestown became too great, and they decided to join the paramount confederacy in order to fight the English.4
Not surprisingly, Powhatan's influence was weak on the perimeter of his territory. The Patawomekes had previous disobeyed his orders not to sell corn to the English when Powhatan was trying to starve the colony at Jamestown. The weak allegiance of the periphery tribes was demonstrated most clearly in 1613 when Pocahontas was visiting Japasaws, chief of the Patawomekes. Instead of committing to pay tribute to the paramount chief, Japasaws arranged for Pocahontas to be captured by an English ship captain, Captain Samuel Argall, who was at the town seeking to buy more corn.
Captain Argall carried Pocahontas back to Jamestown. She was then assigned to Sir Thomas Dale's settlement at Henricus, on the south bank at the falls on the James River. There she and John Rolfe became a couple, got married, and had a son.
After converting to Christianity and getting married to John Rolfe in 1614, Pocahontas was known as Rebecca Rolfe. She evidently chose to become a part of the English society. As a member of the Algonquian world, she was just one of many children fathered by Powhatan and had little status. In English society, she had special status equivalent to a princess. As the daughter of Powhatan and the wife of John Rolfe, she must have anticipated she could overcome discrimination based on her background.
In 1616 Rebecca Rolfe, John Rolfe, and their son Thomas Rolfe (born in 1615) traveled to London, together with other Native American companions. The Virginia Company used them all in a marketing campaign to generate interest and funding for their investment in the colony; she visited King James and Queen Anne at the the royal palace during her seven month visit to England.
In March 1617, on the ship sailing back to Virginia with her family, "Rebecca" died. After she was buried at Gravesend on the English coast, John Rolfe arranged for his ailing son Thomas to be cared for in England while John Rolfe himself returned to Virginia.
Thomas Rolfe finally made it back to the home of his mother when he was 20 years old. By that time, his father John Rolfe and his grandfather Powhatan were long dead. Rolfe apparently did meet his uncle Opechancanough, before the 1644 uprising. The son of Pocahontas, like his mother, chose to commit to being a member of English society. He had one daughter and later one grandson, John Bolling, who had multiple children.5
Many members of the "First Families of Virginia" (FFV's) trace their ancestry back to Pocahontas through John Bolling. That link limited the ability of segregationists in the 1920's to identity a pure-white Virginia race, while defining everyone else as Negro and restricting their civil rights, social mobility, and economic opportunity through Jim Crow laws.
The 1924 Racial Integrity Act facilitated discrimination, as state officials sought to identify everyone with one drop of Negro blood and to recategorize remaining Native Americans in Virginia as "blacks" - but the FFV's related to Pocahontas ensured that the definition of white allowed for one drop of Native American blood.
Edith Bolling Wilson, wife of President Wilson and a native of Wytheville, Virginia, was especially vocal about her ancestral link to Pocahontas, nine generations earlier. Her ancestry was traced back through the first marriage of Robert Bolling to Pocahontas' granddaughter, Jane Rolfe (and 511 other ninth-generation ancestors). Such descendants were described as "Red Bollings." That was in contrast to the descendants of Robert Bolling and his second, white wife, who were known as "White Bollings."6
Edith Galt highlighted her connection to Pocahontas, allowing a person born in Wytheville to create a connection to royalty
Source: "Chronicling America," Library of Congress, Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 24, 1915 (Image 43)
Disney inaccurately portrayed Pocahontas and John Smith as lovers
Source: Disney Entertainment, Pocahontas Photo Gallery