Alias Rebecca

In 1613 a young woman descended the gangplank of a 130-ton ship called The Treasure. The ship, captained by Samuel Argall and owned by the aristocrat and politician Robert Rich had in the year before crossed the Atlantic in a record fifty-seven days, depositing fifty colonists in Virginia.  It had been less than three years since the settlement had suffered the harrowing of the ‘Starving Times’. During this period in the winter of 1609 – 1610 the colonists had resorted to eating dogs, snakes, belt and shoe leather before resorting to the cannibalism that the infamous Captain John Smith would describe as the Virginia passtime of eating the “dish of powdered wife”.

Maintenance of a supply of food had dogged the colony since its inception and the pressures put upon the local Algonquian speaking tribes to supply the colony had led to the outbreak of warfare. In the context of this conflict, the crew of The Treasure had for a year attempted in vain to gain supplies from local Native tribes for the settlers before alighting on a woman known to be her father’s “chief jewel”.

The arrival of the woman to the settlement would have triggered the gathering of a crowd. Yet as she walked into the palisaded settlement and entered amongst the squat English houses, they watched not the triumphal entry of a princess but instead a hostage. As she gazed into the crowd, she may have recognized a face or two, but it had been some time since she had passed visits to the settlement cartwheeling and playing with the English boys of a similar age.

I am of course here telling a part of the story of the life of Pocahontas, to be specific her kidnap by Captain Samuel Argall during the first Anglo-Powhatan War. Understanding her story and how it was spun by both contemporaries and later writers and artists is as key to understanding the forging of English identity in the early modern period as Elizabeth I’s Armada Portrait of 1588.**

To find the tangible facts of the life of Pocahontas we must peel away centuries of protestant myth-making tied to the colonial project. The Pocahontas biographer has to wade through and pull apart the fact from the fictions of colonial self-promotion as the chief written sources of her life were written by men directly linked to the promotion of English colonisation either for political or financial reasons. Historians have to read between the lines; they contend that she was born around the year 1596 and that as such she was a prepubescent child when the English arrived in 1607. As part of the naming practices of her people she was known by the names Matoaka and Amonute and that she was a favourite daughter of Wahunsenaca (also known as Powhatan) the paramount leader of a large and sophisticated alliance of Algonquian speaking people living in the Virginia Tidewater basin. Pocahontas meaning ‘little wanton’ according the writer and colonist William Strachey was probably a nickname and nod to her spirited and playful character.

In late 1607 the colonist and one-time leader of the Jamestown settlers Captain John Smith was captured whilst on a mission exploring the Chickahominy river. He was bought to the capital of the Powhatan people at Werowocomoco and here Pocahontas was to take part in a ceremony which would be seized upon and misrepresented throughout history. In December the young Pocahontas was present at a ceremony which sought to adopt Captain John Smith. He would be adopted into the Powhatan people as a Werowance – a minor leader under Wahunsenaca – that would mean the Chief of the Powhatan in his mind could control the new English settlers. The ceremony it is now believed would allow Smith into the tribe via a ritualised death through a faked execution and rebirth. Smith either via misunderstanding or conscious exaggeration turned this event into a tale of capture, terror, near execution and miraculous rescue to sell the part-travelogue, part-autobiography he published in 1624. In a letter to Queen Anne in 1616 he stated that he was manhandled by a multitude of hands and laid against a rock and then:

“…at the minute of my execution, she [Pocahontas] hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown.”

In his self-promotional 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia he would add the flourish of the young Princess taking his head into her arms. This tale of her befitting the trope of ‘noble savagery’ was either genuinely or purposefully misunderstood and this edited version of events hit its zenith in Disney’s imagined, implausible and completely inaccurate love affair.

From 1607 – 1609 we know that she was a regular visitor to Jamestown. Accounts have her speaking some English (she had taught Smith some Algonquian in return during his captivity), bringing gifts of furs and food and cartwheeling and playing with the young boys of the settlement. Her visits to the settlement would have tailed off with the beginnings of hostilities between the English and Powhatan people.  In a horrific outpouring of violence in August 1610 a wife of the chief of the Paspaheghs was captured alongside her children. Her children were drowned before her, before she being tied to a tree was murdered.

In the midst of this violence according to the surviving oral history of the Mattaponi people she had by 1613 come of age, married a warrior called Kocoum, had a son amongst the Potowomac tribe from whence she was subsequently captured by Samuel Argall. In her capture Pocahontas had found herself to be a bargaining chip used to strongarm Powhatan into ceasing hostilities and ending what is now known as the first Anglo-Powhatan war (there would follow two more wars, the third saw her uncle Opchanacanough then in his eighties shot in the back as a prisoner at Jamestown).

What happened after her capture is foggy. According to English sources following a year of proselytising (lessons and preaching) from the Reverend Alexander Whitacker she elected to convert to Christianity and live amongst the English forever despite being given the opportunity to return to her father. In the oral history of her descendants she suffers sexual violence at the hands of the English and is given no choice but to remain amongst them. Whatever the case her casting off of the ‘savagery’ of her cultural practises in the English view was finalised with her baptism in early 1614 during which she was renamed Rebecca before marrying the widower John Rolfe.

Rolfe is an incredible historic character in his own right; not only was his second (of three) wife a living legend, but he had sailed to the New World upon the ship that would inspire Shakespeare to write The Tempest and saved the burgeoning colony from economic destruction with the introduction of a sweeter, more pleasant strain of tobacco Nicotiana Tabacum which provided the colony with the stable product to produce and export it desperately needed. In a twist of fate the introduction of tobacco would trigger waves of migration and the spread of farms up the James River further and further into Powhatan lands. This pressure would see the fragile peace created by the Rolfe’s marriage punctuated by a massacre of settlers in 1622 (this period of the colony is covered in Sky/Now TV’s Jamestown which focuses on the experience of the first bulk of female settlers – the ‘Maids to Make Wives’).

To quash rumours of conflict and disorder in Virginia Pocahontas, her husband and their child Thomas were brought to England in 1616 on the orders of the Governor of the Colony. Again, in a weird quirk of fate, a woman who was known to be unmatched amongst women in her grace and deportment was lodged in an inn named The Bell Savage. Her arrival in England was meant to cement in the English imagination the success of the Virginia colony, attract more settlers and illustrate the success of the company in fulfilling one of the missions of its charter – to subjugate and bring civility to a people described in English sources as savages, heathens, cannibals and children of the Devil. The image we have of her in her life is from this period.

The one image we have of her from life is a masterclass in propaganda and symbolism of which the Virgin Queen herself would be proud and was created during her time in England. In it Pocahontas is framed as an allegory of the success of the English imperial project. She is framed not with the signifiers of her status within her own culture but instead through symbols that an English audience would understand. Instead of deer skin she wears the fashions of an English royal. The expensive ruff and Jacobean gown which in portraits related to the engraving is of a rich and royal red velvet show her wealth and status. In her hand she holds an expensive ostrich feather fan (these also being the symbol of the Prince of Wales). She also wears a very luxurious, very cutting-edge beaver skin hat encircled with what looks like pearls. Both of these items, it was hoped could be traded for and found in the New World. The text in the lingua franca of educated Europe that encircles the image tells us the sitter is Matoaka, also known as Rebecca the daughter of the Powerful Prince and Emperor of the Native people of Virginia, Powhatan. The image was created to highlight that the English were successful in their mission to spread their culture and religion to the people of the New World.

Her image promoted a colonisation that would see her people pushed from their lands and a cycle of violence that would lead to enslavement and the Reservation. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Natives and then peoples of Africa became convenient ‘others’ to measure English civility against. In the early Stuart era it was hypothesised that the Natives were just as white people some writers even asserted that they might purposefully darken their skin to keep away the “biteing of muscetoes” yet by 1676 the Native American had begun to be understood in racial terms as “tawney” and later “red”. In the decades after her death the Native peoples shifted in the English imagination from noble savage, pliant and desparate to be converted to a people to be violently subjected and othered. Whilst Rolfe and Pocahontas’ marriage had been heralded as evidence of cross-cultural harmony by 1691 miscegenation laws in Virginia banned any white English man or woman from marrying those of Native or African descent.

Understanding the story of Pocahontas can help us understand the deep colonial roots of the English nation. Within two years of Pocahontas’ death the first enslaved Africans would arrive in Virginia. To highlight how pervasive the early Empire was in areas of history already very familiar to us The Treasure which had kidnapped Pocahontas and The White Lion which bought the first slaves to America were owned by the same man – Robert Rich, later Earl of Warwick. He would lead the Parliamentarian fleet in the Civil War and his heir married Oliver Cromwell’s daughter Frances. Cromwell of course is known for his own colonial violence in Ireland and during the interregnum oversaw the shipping of Civil War prisoners to the colonies including Barbados.

Her mythologised story of a love affair with Smith and saving his life was proposed as a Southern alternative to the North’s Puritans and Pilgrims in the nineteenth century. In the shadow of the ‘Trail of Tears’ and ‘Manifest Destiny’ her image was again returned to as American artists painted her baptism and marriage. It was used by Americans to promote the push for assimilation and the Boarding School. Pocahontas’ story reminds us that when we pick up the story of the Native Americans in the 1860s at A-Level or GCSE, or when we look at Slavery that that story is rooted in English history.

We have a long and complex connection with Empire to grapple with. The men who kidnapped Pocahontas saw themselves as English, the Americans were the Natives. I really think our students should understand this.

**I use English here as Virginia was an English colony tied to earlier Elizabethan settlement at Roanoake and whilst Scotland would have colonies, the population at large in Ireland was largely framed in the same visual and literary tropes as the Native Americans – at turns to be civilised, not to be trusted, or destroyed. When I talk of the ‘colonial project’ I use this as short-hand for the mission to develop both trade and spread and propagate English modes of living and worship amongst the Native peoples in a land that was seen as the ‘wilderness’.

Extra Reading:

Indians and English: Facing off in Early America by Karen Ordahl Kupperman

Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early America by Karen Ordahl Kupperman

Red, White and Black: the Peoples of Early North America by Gary B. Nash

Between Two Worlds: How the English Became American by Malcolm Gaskill


  1. I’m writing about her and Jamestown as well. I will link to your post! It’s more in-depth and informative than mine. My post is an overview of what I learned while visiting Jamestown.


    1. Thanks! Really nice to hear that there’s been an engagement. Your post looks brill by the way. 🙂


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