On the Pocahontas Trail

Walk in the footsteps of the iconic Native American in Jamestown on the 400th anniversary of her death.

Excavations at Historic Jamestowne
Visitor's interact with historical interpreter at Jamestown Settlement
The World of Pocahontas Unearthed at Historic Jamestowne
Excavation of James Fort at Historic Jamestown

Her name at birth was Amonute, though she was also called Matoaka.  

Pocahontas, the name that inspired myths and movies, was a nickname meaning "playful one." It is that name that has endured across the centuries, immortalized in story, song and art.   

Everyone, it seems, knows of her, but not much is known about her.       

How better to learn about this enigmatic icon than to walk in her footsteps at Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne 400 years after her death in England in 1617.   

At Jamestown Settlement, the re-created Powhatan village provides a chance to travel back to her time. Interpreters demonstrate how the Powhatan people grew and prepared food, processed animal hides, made tools and pottery, and wove natural fibers into cordage. Step into a Powhatan home and feel the hides they used for bedding. Or try grinding corn, gardening or playing a game of corncob darts as Pocahontas likely did.     

“Pocahontas Imagined,” an exhibit exploring her legacy both in myth and fact opens at Jamestown Settlement on July 15 and runs through Jan. 28, 2018. It features copies of portraits, sculptures, memorabilia and interactive experiences to give context to her enduring story. A special children’s area will feature the opportunity to step into a young Pocahontas’s life in a Powhatan village and to try weaving on a frame, decorating clay pots on a chalkboard wall, and learning about hunting and gathering. The exhibit will also include a lecture series on Pocahontas and Native American life in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Three free lectures will be held on Sept. 5 and 13, and Oct. 3.

For another perspective, explore an ongoing exhibit, “The World of Pocahontas, Unearthed,” at Historic Jamestowne, site of the first permanent English settlement in America. The exhibit, based on excavations at the James Fort site beginning in 1994, reveals there was more interaction between the English and the Powhatan Indians within the fort than expected from the historical record. One display features two stone drills and 2,000 mussel shell blanks, revealing that Powhatan women lived and worked in the fort. 

While at Historic Jamestowne, don’t miss the larger-than-life bronze statue of Pocahontas, which dates to 1913. The statue has been so popular with visitors that its hands are worn a bright copper color from being touched so much. And be sure to see the church site of Pocahontas’s wedding to John Rolfe at James Fort as well as the archaeological dig that continues to unearth artifacts from the fort site.

What do we know about a woman who has been featured in movies like Pocahontas and John Smith (1953) The New World (2005) and Disney's fantasy, Pocahontas (1995)?

She was born about 1596, the daughter of Wahunsonacock, the paramount chief of the Powhatan Chiefdom. At its height, the Powhatan Chiefdom had a population of about 15,000 to 21,000 and included more than 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes — each with its own chief. Her father was the chief of the chiefs.     

Contrary to the Disney portrayal of her, Pocahontas as ayoung girl would have worn little to no clothing and had her hair shaven except for a small section in the back that was long and usually braided. She would have learned women's work, separate from men's work, but equally difficult. Powhatan women built houses, did all the farming, gathered wood for fires, collected edible plants, made mats, baskets, pots, spoon-like and other utensils, and processed meat and hides the men brought home.

Pocahontas first met the English settlers from Jamestown in the winter of 1607 when Capt. John Smith was captured Powhatan’s brother Opechancanough and eventually brought to the Powhatan capital and her father.

According to Smith, writing years later, he was first welcomed and offered a feast. Then he was subdued and stretched on two large, flat stones. Members of the tribe stood over him with clubs. Suddenly a girl rushed in and took Smith’s “head in her arms and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.”

The girl was Pocahontas.

Whether this actually happened is a matter of ongoing debate. Smith did not mention Pocahontas in his initial reports from the new colony. Only after her tour of England did he begin sharing the romantic story of her heroism, later elaborated on in his 1624 book, The Generall Historie of Virginia. Some historians believe the ceremony was traditional and that Pocahontas’s actions, even if true, were probably one part of a ritual.

Perhaps the incident, if it happened, led to improved relations between the Powhatan Indians and the settlers. Chief Powhatan sent food to the starving English. Pocahontas visited the fort with her father’s emissaries who negotiated the release of Powhatan prisoners. She disappears from English accounts until 1613 when she was captured by an English captain. She was imprisoned first on a ship and later brought to Jamestown, held as ransom for the return of stolen weapons and English prisoners held by her father. During negotiations, she learned the English language, customs and Christianity.

While detained, she met John Rolfe, a widower and the man responsible for introducing tobacco as a cash crop to Virginia. In April 1614, they married. She took the name of Rebecca. They soon had a son, Thomas. 

The Virginia Company sent the Rolfe family and about a dozen Powhatan men and women to England in 1616 to drum up support for the colony. John Smith had returned there after being wounded and the two met again. Smith reported that at first she was too overcome with emotion to speak having been told, according to some accounts, that he was dead. When she did speak, some accounts report that she reprimanded him for how he treated her father and her people.

In March 1617, the Rolfes set sail to return to Virginia, but did not get far before Pocahontas fell ill. As she lay dying, she comforted her husband, saying, “all must die. ‘Tis enough that the child liveth.” Some historians suspect she perished either from pneumonia or tuberculosis.

She was buried in a churchyard in Gravesend, England, only about 21 years old, having left a legacy that would inspire stories for centuries.

Don’t miss your chance to walk with the other towering figures of American history like Alexander Hamilton or the men, women and children of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.  If you’re looking for something in a more recent century, check out the Civil War sites in Greater Williamsburg.

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