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Picturing Pocahontas

An image at the National Portrait Gallery may be the truest account we have of the Indian princess

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In the spring of 1616, Pocahontas, Rolfe, their infant son, Thomas, and a retinue of Indians sailed for England. Pocahontas was presented to King James I and the court. She became America's first celebrity. Poet and dramatist Ben Jonson met her, asked her several questions, then stared at her intently for 45 minutes without saying a word. She finally got up and walked away.

But the damp English weather and the smoke from London's coal fires began to take a toll on her health. Several coughing spells forced her to bed. After seven months, though Pocahontas was very ill, Rolfe's family prepared to sail back to Virginia. Rolfe wanted to get back to raising tobacco. Pocahontas had helped the colony win more backing and royal favor for Virginia, but she paid a tragic personal price. While the anchored ship waited for a fair wind, she died of tuberculosis or pneumonia in Gravesend. She was about 22 years old. After the funeral, Rolfe, who was told their baby son wouldn't survive the journey, left Thomas with an uncle and sailed back to the colony, never to return.

Sometime during Pocahontas' stay in England, Simon Van de Passe, the 21-year-old son of a famous Dutch engraver, did her portrait on a copper plate. Prints were sold to the curious, eager to feast their eyes on the exotic princess who had so bravely assisted the colonists.

By John F. Ross

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