On this day - 21st Mar 1617: Pocahontas died

On the 21st March 2015 Ireland won the Six Nations which lead to me (well, the Irish half at least!) screaming my lungs out in sheer excitement, meaning that I sadly neglected to write the blog I have been looking forward to posting for months! Gutted! But I’m refusing to miss out so you are just going to have to get it on the wrong day…For it was ‘On This Day’ (well, “That Day” now, I suppose) in 1617 that Pocahontas, real life daughter of Chief Powhatan, died in England on the way back to her homeland. 

Pocahontas by Simon van de Passe 1616

Rebecca Rolfe also known as Pocahontas
Simon van de Passe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pocahontas, heroine of a much beloved Disney classic, was in fact a real-life woman who did indeed save the life of an English settler named John Smith and who travelled to England (as depicted in the ridiculously under-appreciated Pocahontas 2) and was married to another Englishman, John Rolfe. As someone who spent most of her childhood running around the hills barefoot in a Pocahontas costume, discovering (in the midst of a long and stuffy second year History lecture) that this icon of a woman, this goddess of my dreams, this character which I aspired to with my whole heart was really real, was possibly hands down the best moment of my whole university career… no, scrap that… of my life so far! I was beside myself and I have been reading about her ever since. 


Pocahontas saving the life of John Smith
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

There are so many things I would like to write about for this blog but I’m going to focus on one very important message that the real and the disney Pocahontas had in common. That Pocahontas was nothing more and nothing less than an exceptionally strong and independent woman who saw beyond conflict to the importance of peace. The real Pocahontas may not have had a Grandmother Willow to tell her to listen to the spirits to find her path and the power to fulfil it but she certainly had the deeply rooted strength embodied, in true Disney style, by her make-believe deciduous Granny. She was a passionate woman, unafraid of men and quick to embrace new people and ideas. As a young child she quickly befriended the new settlers and often went to play with the English in Jamestown. As a young woman she was captured by the English during the first Anglo-Powhatan conflict. During her capture she learned more about their culture, even becoming baptised and adopting the name Rebecca. 

Baptism of Pocahontas

Baptism of Pocahontas in Jamestown
By John Gadsby Chapman (photograph courtesy Architect of the Capitol) (Architect of the Capitol) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Marriage to an English settler, John Rolfe, followed and she bore him a son, Thomas. Together the Rolfe family travelled to England to promote investment in Jamestown and by presenting the English court with a ‘civilised savage’ go someway to dispel the fear of this ‘heathen’ race. So she was, in actual fact, a pioneering seventeenth century diplomat! 

Pocahontas being presented to King James
Richard Rummell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Her career in diplomacy was cut ruthlessly short by the natural world she so loved. They were on their way back to Jamestown to continue promoting peace between the races when Pocahontas became seriously ill and died in Rolfe’s arms. She was only 22 years old. It is a tragedy that a character of such power died so young. Had she lived, I am certain she would have been instrumental in relations between the settlers and the natives, but we can only guess at how much someone so unique, someone who knew “every rock and tree and creature”, could achieve. 

The wedding of Pocahontas with John Rolfe

The Wedding Ceremony of Pocahontas and John Rolfe
By Geo Spohni [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There has been speculation that her choice of a baptismal name, Rebecca, was a nod to her image of her destiny. Rebecca was a biblical name referring to Rebecca in the Book of Genesis, who as mother of Jacob and Esau is known as the mother of two nations. Pocahontas mothered a son who bridged the divide between natives and settlers. She brought into the world a son who had the blood of two nations running through his veins and whose descendants can still be traced today, First Ladies, Nancy Reagen and Edith Wilson, being some well known ones.  

Pocahontas Rolfe crop

Portrait of Pocahontas and John Rolfe
By J. W. Glass [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pocahontas fought and loved for peace and harmony between two peoples. She loved the land and encouraged respect for it. It is sad that 398 years later the fight is still going on. But “the water’s always changing, always flowing” and so we must never stop learning from the changes and striving for peace. We must never stop listening to the spirit within which counsels us not to run from doing the right thing, however hard and unnatural it seems. We must never stop enjoying our beautiful earth and never stop fighting to preserve it and prevent it being eaten by greed. We must “roll in all the riches all around us”, not exploit them, and “wonder what they’re worth”. We need to love the earth and love each other. “We need to sing with all the voices of the mountains.  We need to paint with all the colours of the wind.” 

- All quotes are from Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) - 

© Isla Robertson 2017