The Natives of Werowocomoco and the Legend of Pocahontas

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Contrary to the notion that Europeans were the actors and Indians were merely acted upon, there is evidence, by way of stories, of mutual incorporation and transformation that left no one unchanged. Let’s explore this search for a common ground in the Native Northeast region of Werowocomoco and the contribution of Pocahontas.

A vintage drawing of John Smith meeting with Powhatan.
In 1607, Powhatan had John Smith and his exploratory party captured and then orchestrated a ritual of incorporation. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

The Natives of Werowocomoco

Located on the York River in the Chesapeake, Werowocomoco served as the home of Powhatan, the paramount chief of the Powhatan Confederacy. Spanning 6,000 square miles, the Powhatan Confederacy included perhaps 15,000 Algonquian-speaking people from 30 distinct groups.

As the paramount chief, Powhatan maintained power in this vast region through district chiefs and viceroys.

The First English Settlers at Chesapeake Bay

By the time John Smith and a small group of English settlers ventured into the Chesapeake Bay to establish Jamestown in 1607, a mere 12 miles from Werowocomoco, Powhatan held sway over much of Tidewater, Virginia. And, of course, Powhatan’s initial goal was to bring the colonists into his world on his terms.

Now, you must be thinking: This is the part where Pocahontas saves John Smith’s life. And you’re right—but only partly.

Simply put, Pocahontas wasn’t the sexy savior of Jamestown. She didn’t literally save John Smith’s life, as John Smith would have you believe. Neither did they fall in love with each other, as Walt Disney would have you believe.

And, nor did Pocahontas and John Smith wind up in a love triangle involving another Englishman, John Rolfe, as the filmmaker Terrence Malick seems to want you to think.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North AmericaWatch it now, Wondrium.

The Pocahontas Connection

What really happened is that in December 1607, Powhatan had Smith and his exploratory party captured.

Powhatan then orchestrated a ritual of incorporation, acting out a situation whereby Smith could have been killed—but he wasn’t. By having his daughter Pocahontas throw her body across Smith’s, Powhatan symbolically took pity on him.

An artist's depiction of Pocahontas saving the life of Capt. John Smith.
By having his daughter, Pocahontas, throw her body across John Smith’s, Powhatan symbolically took pity on him. (Image: New England Chromo. Lith. Co./Public domain)

With this ritual, Powhatan meant to establish his authority over Smith and the newcomers that he represented. Powhatan surely believed that he had incorporated the English as subordinates.

Native Authority Over the English?

Powhatan would have also expected the English to serve as potential allies against his enemies. The ritual also made his daughter, Pocahontas, an intermediary between the two leaders and their communities.

Powhatan cemented the relationship by establishing a system of gift exchange in which he provided the English with corn in return for trade goods such as copper and metal tools. But these gifts actually served as emblems of a deeper relationship predicated on expectations of reciprocity and mutuality.

Learn more about the commonly held views of Native Americans to the realities of what was.

The Real Story of Pocahontas

Even though Pocahontas was probably only 12 years old at the time, she did exactly what her father expected of her. Yet, our understanding of who Pocahontas really was is so skewed that most people don’t know that her name wasn’t even Pocahontas.

She was born Matoaka. That was her secret name, known only to kin. Amonute was her public name. Only later did she earn Pocahontas as a nickname by exhibiting the youthful behavior of a playful one or a mischievous girl.

The Life of Pocahontas

As soon as the cultivation of tobacco made it possible for increased settlement in the James River Valley, colonists began pressing for, or simply taking, Indian land.

And Pocahontas was in the thick of this, tasked with keeping the peace. She conveyed food, gifts, and important messages between the English and the Powhatan. She even negotiated the release of Powhatan prisoners held by the colonists, while simultaneously shielding Englishmen from her father’s wrath.

She risked her own life to preserve both the Virginia Colony and the Powhatan Confederacy. In her search for common ground, Pocahontas imagined a world in which each could coexist.

A Diplomatic Union for Pocahontas

And yet, contests over land erupted in war in 1610. Fighting did not end until Pocahontas was captured, and taken hostage by the English and their Native allies, the Patawomeke, in the spring of 1613.

Peace was made when Pocahontas married colonist John Rolfe in 1614. But, was their union purely diplomatic and political? The same might be asked of her baptism and conversion to the Anglican faith, which led to her take the name Lady Rebecca.

Pocahontas in England

A portrait of Pocahontas.
In her search for common ground, Pocahontas imagined a world in which each could coexist. (Image: Simon van de Passe/Public domain)

Amidst simmering hostilities, the Virginia Company struck upon the idea of bringing Pocahontas, John Rolfe, and their infant son, Thomas, back to England as a way to promote the colony.

The family arrived in England in June 1616. Pocahontas stayed at the Bell Savage Inn. She was received by King James I, and sat for a portrait with  the engraver Simon van de Passe. She might have seen a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, or witnessed a Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Pocahontas: The Legend

Plans were made for a return trip to Virginia; however, shortly after setting sail, Pocahontas fell ill and her declining condition forced the ship to stop at Gravesend in Kent, where she died on March 21, 1617, perhaps of pneumonia or of tuberculosis. She was only 22 years of age.

Powhatan’s daughter was not merely a princess but an intermediary; she was a woman, a wife, and a mother, whose life was devoted to pulling the English into a Powhatan world on Powhatan terms, terms that dared to imagine that the land could be shared.

Learn more about nature in native American myth.

Things Fall Apart

Unfortunately, the peace between the English and the Powhatan Confederacy didn’t survive Pocahontas’s passing. Powhatan, too, died in 1618, and continuing conflict over the land precipitated intense conflict in the following years.

In 1640, Thomas Rolfe—the son of Pocahontas—had returned to Virginia as a young man. He chose to follow in his father’s footsteps by cultivating tobacco on Powhatan lands. And in so doing, he contributed to the colonization of them.

Peace Disrupted in Powhatan

Powhatan had once asked this to John Smith, “What will it avail you to take that by force you may quickly have by love, or destroy them that provide you food?”

The question was lost on most Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic. Instead, as Swiss artist Matthäus Merian’s 1628 engraving The Massacre of the Settlers in 1622 attests, Europeans depicted themselves as innocents being mercilessly slaughtered by savage Indians. Such an interpretation, in its silence on causation, speaks volumes.

Common Questions about the Natives of Werowocomoco and Pocahontas

Q: What was the real name of Pocahontas?

Pocahontas was born Matoaka—that was her secret name. Amonute was her public name. 

Q: How did Pocahontas contribute in maintaining peace?

Pocahontas conveyed food, gifts, and important messages between the English and the Powhatan. She negotiated the release of Powhatan prisoners held by the colonists and also shielding Englishmen from her father’s wrath.

Q: How and when did Pocahontas die?

Pocahontas died on March 21, 1617, perhaps of pneumonia or of tuberculosis.

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