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Tracing the path of Pocahontas

Apr. 05, 2013 @ 01:00 PM

This week we are looking at a wedding anniversary. Or what would have been a wedding anniversary if all the participants had not passed away long ago.

The actual ceremony took place 399 years ago today, and the bride's name was Rebecca, but that was not what she was called when she was born 19 years earlier, around the year 1595. Then her people named her Matoaka. There are various explanations for the meaning of this name, but I like the one that says it is Little Snow Feather and that among her people there was a tradition that given names were kept secret and she was called by a nickname that meant spoiled or naughty child. That nickname is the one by which history now remembers her. It was Pocahontas.

I guess you all know the story as well as I do. She was the daughter of Powhatan, the senior chief of the Native American tribes who lived along the tidewater area of Virginia. At that time the European hold on the American continent was tenuous. The settlement at Jamestown was rife with disease and many of the settlers were starving. They tried to live off the land as much as they could and one of their leaders, Sir John Smith, was exploring and looking for food along the Chickahominy River, when he was captured by Indians. He was taken to a village about 15 miles from Jamestown where he met the chief of the Powhatans.

What happened next is a matter of conjecture. According to a story he told 10 years after the event, Smith was about to have his brains beaten out when the 12-year-old Pocahontas threw herself across him and begged her father to let him live. The chief relented and Smith returned to Jamestown.

It is a nice story, and it is the tale Smith told when Pocahontas later went to England, but Smith wrote two books about his adventures in the intervening years and did not mention the event. In a book entitled "True Travels" published in 1630 however, he says he was rescued by a young girl when facing death but that this happened when he was captured by the Turks in Hungary in 1602. Could the same thing have happened to the same man twice? Was he mixing up the two occasions? No one knows, and it does not matter -- it's a good story and people like it.

Whatever it was that did happen, Pocahontas became friends with the settlers and the following year again saved some of them by warning them of her father's intention to kill them. There was peace between the two groups for a while but then, in 1613, skirmishes occurred and during one of them Pocahontas was captured by the British. She was an important prize and was held captive until the Indians returned the settlers they had taken prisoner in their raids.

Negotiations dragged on into 1614 and, while Pocahontas was living with the English, a minister, Alexander Whitaker, undertook to teach her English. He also taught her about Christianity and was so successful she converted and was baptized as Rebecca.

Eventually the two sides agreed on the prisoner exchange but Pocahontas/Rebecca liked her life with the British and chose to stay with them. Shortly afterwards, in April of 1614, she married a tobacco planter named John Rolfe. This was the first recorded marriage between an English settler and a Native American and, in January 1615, the union was blessed with a son when Thomas Rolfe was born.

Early in 1616 John Rolfe decided to return to England and with him he took his wife and son.

Pocahontas became a celebrity in London. She was invited everywhere and attended a Royal reception at Whitehall Palace but England did not suit her. She became ill and, in 1617, her husband decided the family should return to Virginia. They only got as far as the port of Gravesend and there Pocahontas was taken off the ship to an inn where she died.

Theories about the cause of her death include smallpox, pneumonia, TB and even poisoning, but we will never know. She was buried on March 21, 1617, in the parish of Saint George's at Gravesend near London. Just over 100 years later the church burned to the ground, so the exact site of the grave is unknown, although a life-size bronze statue now stands in the churchyard.

Pocahontas was born into a Native American society and, but for the intervention of the English settlers, we would probably have never heard of her. As it is in this state alone we a have a county named after her and there is a town called Matoaka; many other states also honor her memory and numerous movies and books have been written about her. She only had one child but her descendant's include two President's wives, Admiral Richard Byrd, Pauline de Rothschild and many more. If she can achieve that, who knows what the future will say about the rest of us.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.