Pocahontas is the most myth-encrusted figure in early America, a romantic “princess” who saves John Smith and the struggling Jamestown colony. But this fairy tale, familiar to millions today from storybook and film, bears little resemblance to the extraordinary young woman who crossed cultures and oceans in her brief and ultimately tragic life.
The startling artwork (above), the oldest in the National Portrait Gallery collection, is the only image of Pocahontas taken from life. Made during her visit to London in 1616, the engraving depicts a stylish lady in beaver hat and embroidered velvet mantle, clutching an ostrich feather fan. Only her high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes hint at her origins far from London. The inscription is also striking; it identifies her not as Pocahontas, but as “Matoaka” and “Rebecca.” In short, there seems little to link this peculiar figure, peering from above a starched white ruff, with the buck-skinned Indian maiden of American lore. So which image is closer to the woman we know as Pocahontas?
She was born Matoaka, in the mid-1590s, the daughter of Powhatan, who ruled a native empire in what is now eastern Virginia. Powhatan had dozens of children, and power in his culture passed between males. But she did attract special notice for her beauty and liveliness; hence Pocahontas, a nickname meaning, roughly, “playful one.” This was also the name she was known by to the English who settled near her home in 1607. John Smith, an early leader in Jamestown, described her as beautiful in “feature, countenance, and proportion” and filled with “wit and spirit.”
But contrary to her depiction in films by Disney and others, Pocahontas wasn’t a busty teenager when the English encountered her. Smith called her “A child of ten years old,” while another colonist described her as a “young girle,” cartwheeling naked through Jamestown. There is no evidence of romance between her and Smith (a lifelong bachelor, who, to judge from his own portrait, was far from handsome). Nor is there a firm basis for the tale of Pocahontas saving the English captain from execution by flinging her body across his. The only source for this story is Smith, who exaggerated many of his exploits and didn’t mention his rescue by Pocahontas until 17 years after it allegedly occurred.
She did, however, help save Jamestown from starvation and Indian attack. She brought the colonists food, acted as an intermediary and warned the English of an impending ambush by her father. Smith lauded Pocahontas for this aid and gave her trinkets, but a few years later, the English kidnapped her and demanded a ransom of corn and captives held by Powhatan. When Powhatan failed to satisfy the English, his now-teenaged daughter stayed with the colonists. Whether she did so by choice isn’t clear, since all that’s known of her words and thoughts come from accounts by the English.
One of them was John Rolfe, a widowed settler and pioneer planter of a new strain of tobacco. He was besotted by Pocahontas and wrote that she showed a “great appearance of love to me.” In 1614 she was baptized Rebecca (after the biblical bride who carried “two nations...in thy womb”) and wed Rolfe, with both natives and colonists present. Jamestown flourished thanks to Rolfe’s tobacco, and his marriage brought a short-lived peace to Virginia.
It also provided an opportunity for the colony’s stockholders to tout their success in planting a cash crop and “civilizing” heathen natives. And so, in 1616, the Rolfes and their infant son sailed for London on a marketing trip sponsored by the Virginia Company. Pocahontas attended balls and plays, impressing the English with her manners and appearance, and sat for her portrait bedecked in courtly regalia. The copper-plate engraving, by the Dutch artist Simon van de Passe, was published in a volume devoted to English royalty. The inscription beneath her image makes clear the portrait’s message: Matoaka, daughter of an Indian “Emperour,” had been “converted and baptized,” becoming Rebecca Rolfe, a respectable, thriving and thoroughly Anglicized lady.
But look closely at the portrait. Pocahontas appears grave, her cheeks are sunken and her hand is skeletal. Perhaps this was simply the artist’s rendering. But it may have reflected her failing health. In common with so many natives exposed to Europeans in this period, she and her young son fell ill in England, possibly from tuberculosis. Soon after the Rolfes set sail for Virginia, Pocahontas had to be brought ashore at the Thames port of Gravesend. She died there in March 1617, at the age of about 21.
Rolfe, who “much lamented” her death, returned to Virginia and later married an Englishwoman. His son by Pocahontas, Thomas Rolfe, inherited his father’s plantation, married a colonist and joined the militia, which vanquished his mother’s people when they rose up a last time in rebellion.
Most of this sad history was lost in the romantic mist that enveloped Pocahontas in later centuries. Her burial site in a Gravesend churchyard has also vanished. All that remains is her enigmatic life portrait, a Mona Lisa without a smile, whose thoughts we can only imagine. “I would give a thousand pelts,” Neil Young wailed in his ballad “Pocahontas,” to “find out how she felt.”
Smithsonian’s history columnist, Tony Horwitz is the author of seven books and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the harsh conditions faced by low-wage U.S. workers.