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Rebecca Rolfe aka Pocahontas
Is she anything like the Disney version of the young Indian princess who falls in love with Captain John Smith and saves his life? Not really. Popular stories about Pocahontas tell about her courage, compassion, and beauty. The legend depicts the brave Pocahontas intervening between her People, the mighty Algonquin tribe and the early colonial settlers. As the legend goes, Pocahontas also puts her head down next to John Smith’s on the execution block. As romantically appealing as this story may be, historical documents support a more likely version.
Pocahontas was one of many children of Powhatan, the main chief of an alliance of Virginia Indian tribes. Pocahontas was a nickname for the famous daughter of Powhatan. Her secret personal name given as a young child was Matoaka. Although it has been said that Pocahontas was the favorite of Powhatan’s children, she was not a “princess” as in the European royalty sense. Not unlike the tabloids of today, the story of Pocahontas is mixed with more trickery than truth. It is likely that the twelve year old Pocahontas and the much older Smith crossed paths, but not on the level of romantic relationship.
The romance version usually leaves out that Pocahontas was an innocent victim of the colonists and was kidnapped as a teenager by British settlers and held hostage. Disputes were happening between the British and Powhatan over land and resources. Powhatan was not immediately forthcoming with the hostage demands and Pocahontas continued to stay in the British settlement. The highly intelligent Pocahontas learned English quickly as British ministers went about trying to “civilize” her. She adapted quickly to British culture and chose to stay on. By the time she was nineteen she was baptized “Rebecca” and had married Englishman-colonist John Rolfe.
Rolf was a successful planter and cultivator of tobacco. However, heavy English import taxes made his business suffer. King James I, an early anti-smoker, refused to lower tariffs. What was Rolfe’s solution to this business dilemma? It was a promotional tour in Europe that used his English-speaking Indian wife as an attraction while Rolfe introduced tobacco samples. Pocahontas was a big hit, poised and glamorous as Rebecca Rolfe, Forest Girl. On tour Pocahontas dressed in high-necked English dresses and the Indians that travelled with her and were part of the show dressed in Traditional regalia. Pocahontas was presented at royal court and all throughout London with great acclaim.
The ending to the real version of the Pocahontas story is a sad one compared to the romantic versions. The taxes were never lowered for the tobacco and the trip to England ended badly for Pocahontas. She travelled on the tour with twelve other Indians from her tribe. Pocahontas and six of those from her tribe succumbed to a European disease. Pocahontas died of smallpox in 1617, shortly before she was to return to America. She was buried in England at the age of twenty-two.
As dramatically different the stories are of Pocahontas, there are similarities between the Disney version of Pocahontas and the historical version such as the courage, beauty, compassion, and the incredible strength of a girl named Matoaka.
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