Picturing Pocahontas

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

The corpulent visage of Henry VIII peers at me across the centuries from the pages of Baziliwlogia: A Booke of Kings. As I leaf through the 1618 edition, another engraved portrait jumps out at me — a New World princess from Virginia. Though nobility radiates from her resolute eyes, Pocahontas couldn't be more different from the other royals. A Jacobean stovepipe hat and lacy ruff can't hide her non-Anglo roots. Was this the face that launched a thousand myths?

"Yes," answers Wendy Wick Reaves, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery. This engraving of Pocahontas is the only known life portrait. "life portraits," Reaves continues, "are our greatest treasures." The engraving is the oldest item in the NPG's 18,000-piece collection.

The Portrait Gallery also owns a more recent image, an oil painting of Pocahontas done more than a century later by an unknown artist who probably worked from the engraving. Mythmaking has begun to work its subtle magic on her face: the complexion is fairer and anglicized; the high cheekbones no longer seem so prominent. The hair is European brown not Native American black; the intensity in the eyes has softened. Anyone trying to get a reasonable fix on the lady, somewhere between dry history and the Disney version, soon finds out that none of the details of her real life come from her own words. Historians have pieced together her life from the accounts of others, most notably her friend, Capt. John Smith, whose veracity of detail and recollection is, to put it mildly, questionable. During the intervening four centuries others have showered her with virtues. Poets and writers from Thackeray to Hart Crane celebrated her charm. More lately rocker Neil Young sang, "I would give a thousand pelts / To...find out how she felt." And now we have the animated eco-warrior princess from Disney.

Needless to say, many fabled stories of her life are partly fiction. Top among them is her rescue of Capt. John Smith from execution, romanticized in eternal stone relief in the U.S. Capitol. Their celebrated love affair probably never happened, either. We do know that Pocahontas was born Matoaka, the favored daughter of Powhatan, the powerful chief of the Powhatan Confederacy of Tidewater Algonquian tribes. "Pocahontas" is a pet name meaning "frolicsome." In 1607, when she was about 12, she first saw the 104 Jamestown colonists struggling to survive on a low-lying peninsula (now an island) in the James River. Virginia's stifling summers and the swampy ground bred disease. With remarkable lack of foresight, the colony had far too few workers skilled in the basics of survival, and those not brought low by disease (more than half succumbed by the end of the first summer) lived in fear of random Indian arrows. Both English and Powhatans murdered each other in periodic skirmishes and reprisals. Far from being a peace-loving Indian leader, Powhatan hacked and tortured his way to power. He even hired Indian warrior mercenaries to butcher his rivals. In shooting Indians, the English proved no better. Twice a day by royal decree, they recited a prayer for the "plantation" that declared its aim to "display the banner of Jesus Christ, even here where Satan's throne is...."

Pocahontas managed to visit the fort during sporadic peaceful moments. William Strachey, secretary of the colony, described the little girl as "wanton," because she cavorted with young colonists, cartwheeling naked "all the Fort over."

One Englishman, Capt. John Smith, proved an exception to the general haplessness of the little colony. A man of action and a veteran of foreign wars, Smith saw Pocahontas as a possible bridge to the Indians, and perhaps a key to the survival of the colony. No one at Jamestown could forget that the 116 English colonists of Sir Walter Raleigh's Roanoke Colony from the 1587 expedition had vanished without a trace. Smith learned Algonquian words and customs from Pocahontas, and her friendship brought tangible benefits to the English. This much of the standard story is true.

And so is the part that tells how Smith wandered into a Powhatan ambush. The Indians killed his comrades, took him prisoner and led him before Powhatan, who treated him to a feast. Whether Powhatan intended it as the last meal of a condemned man or the celebration of an honored guest is still debated. Years after the rescue, Captain Smith — eccentrically writing about himself in the third person in his Generall Historie — recalled how Indian warriors brought out "two great stones . . . and thereon laid his head," preparing to smash it with their war clubs, when Pocahontas took it "in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death."

Many historians doubt Smith's life was ever in peril. A popular theory, based on tenuous evidence, holds that Smith unwittingly participated in an adoption ceremony in which ritualized death brought symbolic rebirth as an Indian. "Clubbing," notes ethnohistorian Helen Rountree, "was a punishment for disobedient subjects, not a treatment for foreigners." Slow torture and execution by flaying, burning and dismemberment should have been the fate of an adversary of Smith's stature. In any case, Powhatan gave Smith the Indian town of Capahosic to rule, called him a son and returned him to Jamestown unharmed.

For a while, there was a measure of peace. Powhatan supplied the colonists with food, often brought by Pocahontas. When relations worsened, she shuttled back and forth, trying to explain how each side felt. She saved the life of a young colonist who wandered into an Indian camp. Perhaps the boldest act of her life was warning Smith about her own father's impending act of treachery, probably saving his life and ensuring the survival of the colony. He later wrote Queen Anne that Pocahontas "was . . . the instrument to preserve this Colonie from death, famine and utter confusion." The colonists repaid her kindness by kidnapping her to get concessions from her father. By this time, Smith had returned to England.

Pocahontas eased relations between Indians and colonists by marrying widower John Rolfe, the founder of English tobacco-growing in Virginia. An able student of English, she was baptized and took the Christian name of Rebecca. Eventually, the sponsors of the Jamestown Colony saw marketing possibilities in this regal, converted, English-speaking princess. Luring new colonists to Jamestown and finding investors for the venture was a hard sell. What better "poster girl" than Pocahontas?

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.

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