To most of us who have read of the early history of Virginia only in our school histories, Pocahontas is merely a figure in one dramatic scene--her rescue of John Smith. We see her in one mental picture only, kneeling beside the prostrate Englishman, her uplifted hands warding off the descending tomahawk. Pocahontas (born Matoaka, known as Amonute, (1596 - March 1617) was a Native American woman notable for her association with the colonial settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, the paramount chief of a network of tributary tribal nations in the Tsenacommacah, encompassing the Tidewater region of Virginia. In a well-known historical anecdote, she saved the life of a captive of the Native Americans, the Englishman John Smith, in 1607 by placing her head upon his own when her father raised his war club to execute him. A large number of historians doubt the veracity of this story. Pocahontas was captured and held for ransom by the English during Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. When the opportunity arose for her to return to her people, she chose to remain with the English. In April 1614, at the age of 17, she married tobacco planter John Rolfe, and in January 1615, bore their son, Thomas Rolfe. In 1616, the Rolfes travelled to London. Pocahontas was presented to English society as an example of the "civilized savage" in hopes of stimulating investment in the Jamestown settlement. Pocahontas became something of a celebrity, was elegantly f ted, and attended a masque at Whitehall Palace. In 1617, the Rolfes set sail for Virginia, but Pocahontas died at Gravesend of unknown causes, aged around 20-21. She was buried in St George's Church, Gravesend in England, but the exact location of her grave is unknown, as the church has been rebuilt. Numerous places, landmarks, and products in the United States have been named after Pocahontas. Her story has been romanticized over the years, and she is a subject of art, literature, and film. Many famous people have claimed to be among her descendants through her son Thomas, including members of the First Families of Virginia, First Lady Edith Wilson, American Western actor Glenn Strange, Las Vegas performer Wayne Newton, and astronomer Percival Lowell. Pocahontas' birth year is unknown, but some historians estimate it to have been around 1596.In A True Relation of Virginia (1608), Smith described the Pocahontas he met in the spring of 1608 as being "a child of ten years old." In a letter written in 1616, he again described her as she was in 1608, but this time as "a child of twelve or thirteen years of age." Pocahontas was the daughter of Chief Powhatan, paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of about thirty Algonquian-speaking groups and petty chiefdoms in Tidewater, Virginia. 10] Her mother's name and origins are unknown but she was probably of lowly status. The colonist Henry Spelman, who had lived among the Powhatan as an interpreter, noted that when one of the paramount chief's many wives gave birth to a child, the mother was returned to her place of origin, to be supported there by the paramount chief until she found another husband. 11] In the traditional histories of the Powhatan, Pocahontas' mother died in childbirth. 12] 13] An oral history of the Mattaponi Reservation Peoples, who are descendants of the Powhatan peoples, claims that Pocahontas' mother was first wife of Powhatan, and that Pocahontas was named after her. 14] Pocahontas' childhood was probably little different from that of most girls who lived in Tsenacommacah. She would have learned how to perform what was considered to be women's work, which included foraging for food and firewood, farming, and searching for the plant materials used in building thatched houses.
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