The Real Pocahontas


I could spend many hours in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. I recently encountered Pocahontas there.  The portrait is by an unknown artist, dating from about 1616. It was made from an engraving of Pocahontas during her trip to England as a young bride.

Pocahontas was a Native American “princess,” the daughter of Powhatan. Her father was a sort of chief of chiefs, heading many tribes in the tidewater area of what is now Virginia. As a perk of his high position, Powhatan reportedly married women from all the different tribes, kept each one until she had produced a child, then sent them home without the child. By all reports, Pocahontas was a favorite child of his.

Relations between the Native Americans and the English were sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile–no wonder, since the aim of the English was to exploit the resources of the “New World.”  When I was growing up, every American school child heard the endearing story of how an Englishman, John Smith, was about to be executed by Powhatan (by having his head bashed between two large rocks). Pocahontas, then about 12 or 13, threw herself on the Englishman and begged her father to spare his life.

From the bare bones of this story, there are not one but two Disney movies.  The real Pocahontas was captured by the English during a hostile period in 1613.  While in captivity, she converted to Christianity, and chose to stay with the English when she was offered freedom.  She took the new name “Rebecca.” Shortly afterward, she married an English tobacco planter, John Rolfe.

Baptism of Pocahontas, John Gadsby Chapman, 1840, Public Domain

Baptism of Pocahontas, John Gadsby Chapman, 1840, Public Domain

Her baptism and marriage were portrayed in 1840 by the American historical painter John Gadsby Chapman. The painting shows the groom just behind Pocahontas.  Her brother, in Native American dress, is turning away, presumably in disapproval.

The young bride gave birth to a son, Thomas Rolfe.  Then she and John Rolfe journeyed to England in 1616.  She was a bit of a sensation, presented as an example of the “civilizing” effect the English hoped to have on all the native peoples.  She died in England, at the age of only 21 or 22.

The descendants of Pocahontas, through her son Thomas Rolfe, include many notable Americans such as Edith Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson; Admiral Richard Byrd; Virginia Governor Harry Byrd; socialite Pauline de Rothschild; Nancy Reagan, wife of Ronald Reagan; and many others.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

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