Matoaka (better known by her nickname “Pocahontas,” meaning “little wanton” or possibly “the naughty one” or “spoiled child”), was born about 1600 to the Native American chief Powhatan. Powhatan had numerous wives (each wife gave him a single child and then was sent back to her village to be supported by the paramount chief until she found another husband), and thus Matoaka had many half-brothers and half-sisters. Her mother’s name is unknown.
The legend that she saved John Smith from being clubbed to death by her father in 1607 has no evidence behind it. Smith told the story for the first time 17 years after it supposedly happened, and Smith also claimed that he was saved from death by a woman on two other occasions. The rescue legend was part of a longer account used as justification to wage war on Powhatan’s Nation. Early histories did establish that Matoaka befriended Smith and the Jamestown colony. She often went to the settlement and played games with the boys there. When the colonists were starving, “every once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought him (Smith) so much provision that saved many of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger.” But as the colonists expanded their settlement further, the Virginia Indians felt their lands were threatened, and conflicts arose again.
In 1612, at the age of 17, Matoaka was taken prisoner by the colonists while she was on a social visit, and was held hostage at Jamestown for over a year, during which time she converted to Christianity and agreed to marry John Rolfe. This marriage occurred in April 1614, resulting in her being given the name Rebecca Rolfe. She never married John Smith. Little is known about her life while imprisoned, although colonist Ralph Hamor wrote that she received “extraordinary courteous usage.” Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow, in a 2007 book, asserted that Pocahontas was raped during this time, citing oral tradition handed down over four centuries. However, according to historian Helen Rountree, “Other historians have disputed that such oral tradition survived and instead argue that any mistreatment of Pocahontas would have gone against the interests of the English in their negotiations with Powhatan.”
Matoaka’s marriage to John Rolfe was the first recorded interracial marriage in American history. This marriage brought a peace between the English colonists and the Powhatans, and in 1615 Matoaka gave birth to her first child, Thomas.
In 1616, Matoaka and John Rolfe sailed to England. Matoaka proved popular with the English gentry, and she was presented at the court of King James I. In March 1617, Matoaka and John prepared to sail back to Virginia. However, the day before they were to leave, Matoaka died, probably of smallpox, and was buried at the parish church of St. George in Gravesend, England.