This year marks 400 years since the death of Pocahontas, the native American woman reponsible for bringing peace between tribespeople and colonists in the early days of English settlement in the Americas. She is also a woman who falls into our Top Five Disney Princesses Ever. Despite how the 1995 Disney film ends, Pocahontas actually spent her last days in England and is buried in Kent.
We’ve looked into the real story of a woman who changed history while still in her teens, debunking some common myths between Disney Po and Pochahontas IRL.
Pocahontas wasn’t actually a princess
Although she ranks highly in Disney princess alumni, Pocahontas wasn’t technically a princess. Yes, she was the daughter of a king, and dearly loved by her father (who called her his ‘delight’ and ‘darling’ – n’aww), but the next in line would have been her father’s brothers and sisters. She was probably born in around 1595, and lived with the Powhatan tribe in what is now known as Virginia. The Powhatan tribe lived in relative peace until English colonists began to settle there – which we see in the film – and despite initial harmony, war eventually broke out in the 1620s, three years after Pocahontas’ death.
She had three names growing up, but Pocahontas is definitely the best
It was quite common at the time for girls to take on different names, and Pocahontas was actually the nickname her parents gave her, as she was known for being a bit ‘playful’ (it roughly translates as naughty or mischievous one). She was also known as Matoaka (which means little snow feather) and Amonte (which you can make up your own definition for, as it can’t be translated into English). When she married, she changed her name to Rebecca – but Pocahontas is what she’ll be remembered by, and it’s the name on her statue in Kent.
She fell in love with a John, but not the same one Disney led us to believe
For those of you who haven’t seen the film (where have you been for the past 20 years?), Pocahontas falls in love with a man called John Smith – but he’s not the right John. John Smith was a real man that featured in Pocahontas’ life, but they never fell in love (although she did save his life – twice). The real John she married and had a kid with was John Rolfe – but I guess Disney execs thought John Smith would be an easier name to remember (and it’s so-very-English). It seemed John Rolfe was really into her, though, asking the Virginian governor for her hand in marriage by writing this letter:
‘[…] Pocahontas, to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled, and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth that I was even a-wearied to unwind myself thereout.’
The ‘Peace of Pocahontas’ is a thing, and it stopped everyone arguing
It’s thought the couple married on April 5 1614, when she was 17 years old. They had a child together, Thomas, who was born the next year. Their marriage became known as the ‘Peace of Pocahontas’, triggering six years of peace between Jamestown colonists and the Powhatan tribe. This was great news for the Virginia Company of London – the group responsible for the first English settlements in the Americas – who saw it as one of their goals to convert Native Americans to Christianity. So, the Jamestown colonists decided to bring Pocahontas back to England to show what a great job they did of integrating with the natives and the success of the Jamestown settlement.
She came over to England and mixed with the royals
In a major plot twist, the Pocahontas we all know and love from the final scene of the film who decided to stay with her tribe and watch (the wrong) John sail home in a ship, was now on her way to Plymouth as Rebecca Rolfe, with her husband John.
It was here that she learned that John Smith – the man whose life she saved twice – was living in London, although they never got a chance to meet again once she’d arrived there. He did make sure Queen Anne, the wife of currently-reigning King James, treated her like a ‘royal visitor’ though.
In March 1617, Pocahontas and her husband got on a ship headed back to Virginia, but only got as far as Gravesend, Kent, on the river Thames, before she became seriously ill. She died in her husband’s arms on the riverbank when she was just 21.
Unfortunately, there’s no historical evidence to suggest that Meeko, Flit or Grandmother Willow were around at the time, but we reckon the legacy Pocahontas left behind is enough to be an excuse to re-watch the film this weekend.