From 19th century art to 20th century children’s books to the Disney animated movie to the sultry song Fever, the forbidden love story of Pocahantas and John Smith is embedded in American romantic legend.
The narrative changes depending on who is telling it: Europeans or Native Americans. For the real story is very different from the myth.
For starters, the leading lady in the drama was named Matoaka and also was called Amonute. Pocahontas was a nickname meaning spoiled child or naughty one.
The next problem is timing. The mythical love story begins when Pocahantas saves John Smith from execution. Historically, the event in question took place when Pocahantas, born in 1595, was only 10 or 11 years old and Smith 27 or 28. In Indian perspective, the execution was probably an initiation ceremony, a ritual a child would never be permitted to attend.
The setting, however, was real. Pocahantas lived with her father Powhatan, a powerful political and spiritual leader, in Werowocomoco on the York River in Virginia about 15 miles from Jamestown. Powhatan’s ancestors had occupied the site for several hundred years.
Relations between the natives and newcomers became volatile. Powhatan responded to his new English neighbors by moving further inland and abandoning Werowocomoco. That was about 1609.
The next year Pocahantas, then about 15, married a member of her tribe named Kocoum and bore a child. Pocahantas was captured by the English in 1613 and held as a bargaining chip for ransom. Kocoum was killed.
According to the English version of events, during that captivity Pocahantas fell in love with John Rolfe, whose wife and child had perished in Bermuda after a rather famous shipwreck.
Rolfe is also famous for introducing tobacco as a successful crop for the English in the New World.
His marriage to Pocahantas may have been based on love, but it also had political implications, supporting an alliance between the Indians and the English colonists who also were concerned about incursions by the Spanish. This marriage was the first recorded wedding of a native to an Englishman. So perhaps Pocahantas did love an Englishman named John, but it was not John Smith.
After the marriage, Pocahantas converted to Christianity, traveled to London and was presented to high society as Lady Rebecca Rolfe. She encountered John Smith during her visit to London, but only spoke to him briefly with no confirmation of any love affair.
The rest of her story is short and sad. At 21 she died in England at the beginning of her voyage back to Virginia. According to English sources, she perished from a disease such as tuberculosis. Indian sources suggest that she was poisoned. She was buried at Gravesend Church in England. Her young son, Thomas Rolfe, stayed in England.
Werowocomoco disappeared into lost time until early in this century, when archaeologists confirmed the location and revealed a deeper history of human activity that extends for thousands of years.
“Werowocomoco is the Machu Picchu of the Chesapeake,” according to Joel Dunn of the Chesapeake Conservancy. “It served as the capital of the Powhatan confederacy for hundreds of years and is one of the most significant American Indian sites in eastern North America.”
In 2016, with help from the Conservation Fund and other partners, 264 acres of the Werowocomoco site was acquired by the National Park Service. It is part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, established in 2006 primarily to commemorate Smith’s voyages of discovery and share knowledge about the American Indian societies and cultures of the 17th century.
This year, the National Park Service begins planning how to best manage Werowocomoco and open it for visits. See a short video at www.nps.gov/cajo/planyourvisit/werowocomoco.htm
Ashley Atkins Spivey, archeologist with the Pamunkey tribe, hopes it will help visitors understand the complexity of tribal society and recognize the value of telling the story from the Indian perspective.