Quite a title, huh? However, this is exactly what the oral history of Pocahontas’s tribe, the Powhatan, teach us. In my last blog, I tried to give an overview and an idea of how Pocahontas came to be familiar with the colonists and how they were familiar with her. If you would like, that post is still on the blog, the date of it is March 10th and is the beginning of this post on this subject. In my last post, I left off with Pocahontas coming of age and promised to tell you about her marriage to Kocoum, as well as her abduction by a few of the colonists and her subsequent marriage to John Rolfe. Let’s start there.
In the Powhatan society, a young girl and boy’s coming of age is celebrated, and it was no different for Pocahontas. However, because there was a rumor of an abduction planned for Pocahontas, her celemony was limited to special friends and family only. There is a special dance called the courtship dance during which male warriors searched the dancers for a mate. This is probably where their courtship began. After a time, they were married. Kocoum was an elite warrior. He was among 50 of the top warriors that guarded the capital of the Powhatan confederacy. He was also the younger brother of Wahunsenaca’s (Pocahontas’s father) friends, Chief Japazaw. Because the priests (called quiakros) feared that the colonists plotted to kidnap Pocahontas, the couple went to live in Kocoum’s home, which was isolated from the colonists and farther north. She was, in fact, being hidden from the English. Kocoum and Pocahontas had a child, little Kocoum, a boy. It was Captain Samuel Argall, an English colonist, who accomplished the feat of kisnapping Pocahontas.
I have to pause here to tell you of a movie I once watched where it rendered that Pocahontas and her father had a falling out and that he had banished her from the tribe, thus she had taken up with the English. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pocahontas was a princess, dearly loved by her father. She was also married to Kocoum and had a child by him. Never would she have been banished from the tribe. That movie did nothing but further false data about this very brave woman. But back to Captain Argall. Why did he wish to capture Pocahontas? Why did he take such extreme measures, for he certainly did. Once he had learned of her hiding place, he had gathered together not only men, but weapons and arms to attempt her capture. But why?
Remember that the English colonists were looting the Powhatan villages of their stores of food. They were also raping their women and children and oftentimes stealing their women and children in order to make them servants for the English. But there was more. The Powhatan had many diverse and rich agricultural fields. There were no trees to cut, no land to clear. All one had to do was go in and destroy the village and take over the land — which was considered easier than clearing the land oneself. Because of this the colonists expected retribution at any time by the very powerful tribe. It could have happened, also. But remember that Wahunsenaca considered the English a branch of his tribe. Though the abuses were numerous, he still sought other ways to deal with the problem, rather than killing them outright.
Through trickery and deceit, Captain Argall managed to get Pocahontas onto his ship. She was supposed to be returned. She never was. She was held for ransom. What he demanded from her father in the ransom a) the return of English weapons that had been taken from Jamestown, b) the return of the English prisoners Washunsenaca held captive and c) a shipment of corn. Washunsenaca at once paid the ransom. In fact Argall’s writes of the transaction in his log in 1613, “This news much grieved this great king (Wahunsenaca), yet without delay he returned the messenger with this answer, that he desired me to use his daughter well, and bring my ship into his river (Pamunkey), and there he would give me my demands; which being performed, I should deliver him his daugher, and we should be friends.” Although Wahunsenaca quickly carried out the ransom demands, Pocahontas was never released. According to the book, THE TRUE STORY OF POCAHONTAS, by Dr. Linwood “little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star,” “…oral history states that abefore Argall took sail (back to Jamestown), several of Argall’s men returned to Pocahontas’s home and killed her huusband, Kocoum.” It was tradition that he would have come for her and rescued her, something that Argall could not have. Little Kocoum survived because upon Pocahontas’s capture, he was put into the care of several of the women of the tribe. There are still many descendents of Kocoum who are alive and well to this day. You may again wonder why the Powhatan didn’t retaliate. Part of that is Pocahontas’s father’s fear for her life if he did so, the other is a tribe cultural foundation of appeasing evil. If one could, one always sought a balance between submitting to evial demands and preventing the loss of life. Even so, the quiakros (priests) of the tribe advised a swift retaliation, but Wahunsenaca would not do it, fearing for his daughter’s life.
One of Pocahontas’s elder sisters, Mattachanna, and her husband, Uttamattamakin, who was also a priest, were allowed to visit Pocahontas during her captivity. Oral tradition is very distinct on the fact that Pocahontas confided that she had been raped and that worse, she suspected she was pregnant. Again, rape was unheard of in Powhatan society. Shortly after this confession, Pocahontas was quickly converted to Christianity in order to rush her into marriage. At this time, it would have been inconcieveable for a Christian man to marry anyone who was not Christian. It is supposed that Sir Thomas Dale was actually the biological father of Pocahontas’s child, since, according to scholars William M.S. Rasmussen and Robert S. Tilton, it was Thomas Dale who was most closely linked to Pocahontas during her kidnapping. Note also that her son’s name was not “John,” but rather “Thomas.” It would also explain why Rolfe (who was secretary of the colony at the time) did not record the birth of Thomas.
Was the marriage one of love? Oral history casts doubt on this. She had just had a child, was rushed into marriage in order to make it appear that the birth had taken place after the marriage, plus she was not free to live her own life. Did he love her? In a letter to Dale, Rolfe refers to her as a “creature,” not a “woman.” Regardless, they were married and Rolfe became the heir to the friendliness of the Powhatan people, which included their knowledge of the tobacco plant and how it was processed. After all, if there weren’t gold in the New World, there had to some way to make the colony prosperous. Rolfe had left England in 1609 with the goal of making a profit growing and processing tobacco. He arrived in 1610 and for three years, he had been unsuccessful at both growing it and processing it. Remember also that the year 1616 was the “deadline for the initial investments in the Virginia colony.” From the book THE TRUE STORY OF POCAHONTAS. Time was running out. The colony was failing. And Rolfe’s crop was failing.
“According to …sacred oral history, the Native people of the New World possessed the knowledge of how to cuure and process tobacco successfully. The Spanish gained this knowledge from the Native communities they had subdued.” THE TRUE STORY OF POCAHONTAS. Eventually, because of Rolfe’s marriage to Pocahontas, the prists of the tribe gave him their secret. The result was that Rolfe’s tobacco — grown on Powhatan land and cultivated by the Powhatan priests — put the Spanish taste and flavor to shame. He was a success. Suddenly refinancing the Virgina Company became a reality and the financial worries were over. However, oral history also points out that the efforts of the Powhatan priests had the opposite effect of what they had hoped. Instead of the English embracing them as brothers, it appeared that they greed was unleashed. Tobacco became the gold of the New World. More Powhatan lands were trespassed, killing and enslaving more Powhatan people as they did so.
Captain Samuel Argall captained the ship taking Rolfe, Pocahontas, their son and members of the Powhatan tribe to England. The trip had many reasons: finances were needed to refinance Jamestown. Approval from the public was needed. Pocahontas provided a means to “show” the English people that the people of Jamestown and the natives were on friendly terms. Again, Pocahontas’s sister, Mattachanna and her husband accompanied Pocahontas to England, as did several other Powhatan people. It appeared that with so many of her own couuntrymen in tow that there was some safety. Wisemen advised Wahunsenaca not to let her go, saying that she would never return. But a rescue was considered too risky.
It was in England that Pocahontas’s eyes were opened to the truth. It was here that she met again and learned that John Smith was not dead. Moreover that he had utterly betrayed her father and her people. He had taken a solemn oath to her people to represent them to the English, and that he would bring the English under the power of the Powhatan. She learned he had never intended to honor his word. Pocahonta let out her rage toward Smith at their meeting. She was not angry because of any lost love or any young girl crush on the man. Rather she was enraged that he could so easily betray her father and her people. It is known that with horror, Pocahontas became aware of the Englishman’s true intention toward her people: to take their lives, their lands and everything they held dear. She longed to go home and inform her father of all she had learned. She intended to do exactly that.
They set sail back to England in the spring of 1617 with Samuel Argall again as the captain of the ship. That evening Pocahontas, Rolfe and Argall dined in the captain’s chamber. “Pocahontas quickly became ill. She returned to her quarter by herself, sick to her stomach, and vomited. She told Mattachanna that the English must have put something in her food. Mattachana and Uttamattamakin tried to care for Pocahontas in her sudden illness. As Pocahontas began to convulse, Mattachanna went to get Rolfe. When they returned, Pocahontas had died.” — THE TRUE STORY OF POCAHONTAS. They hadn’t even attained open sea yet. They were still in the river. Rolfe immediately asked to be taken to Gravesend, where he buried Pocahontas and left Thomas there for his English relatives to take. Rolfe never saw him again.
Upon returning to the New World, Mattachanna and her husband, the high priest, Uttamattamakin, reported to Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca the events in England, including the murder of his daughter. It is from this account that the oral history has been passed down from generation to generation. But who killed her and why? Again, from the book, THE TRUE STORY OF POCAHONTAS, “Rolfe and the Virginia Company associates ascertained that Pocahontas knew that Smith had lied to her father and that some English businessmen were behind a scheme to remove her father from his throne and take the land from the Powhatan people. This justified the decision by the English colonists not to take Pocahontas back to her homeland…Certain people believed that Pocahontas would endanger the English settlement, especially because she had new insights into the political strategy of the English colonists to break down the Powhatan structure, so they plotted to murder her.”
Again, from the book, THE TRUE STORY OF POCAHONTAS, “…Dale, Rolfe, and Whitaker had close ties to each other. All three had major roles in what happened in Pocahontas’s life after she was abducted. Dale eventually took custody of Pocahontas after Argall took her to Jamestown. Whitaker maintained Pocahontas’s house arrest and surveillance. All three sought to convert Pocahontas to Christianity. Rolfe married Pocahontas. Dale provided a large tract of land for Rolfe to grow tobacco. A Dale-Rolfe-Whitaker trio comprising agreements and pacts is not out of the realm of possibility, but … sacred oral history does not reveal who or how many persons were behind her murder. We believe it is most likely that more than one person was involved.”
So ends my story of the abduction and murder of a true heroine. A heroine because she tried to unite two different peoples. A heroine because she endured much, all to help her people. She did it with little complaint, though it goes without saying that she yearned for the company of her own people, her own little son and the husband of her heart, Kocoum. It’s not exactly the Disney or fairytale story that we’ve all been spoon-fed. However, it shows the courage and persistence of a young woman who did all she could to help her father and her people. She is a true American heroine.
Well, there you have it. What do you think? It’s doubtful Hollywood would make a movie of this story, though I wish that they would. But this is the story that has been passed down from generation to generation amongst the Powhatan people and their various tribes, specifically the Mattaponi. For further information, I would highly recommend the book, THE TRUE STORY OF POCAHONTAS by Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star.” Read it for yourself and come to your own conclusions. It is a story or oral tradition. It is not a made-up story.
So come on in and let me know what you think of this. Leave a comment, if you please.