Native History: Pocahontas Marries John Rolfe in Jamestown
This Date in Native History: On April 5, 1614, Pocahontas, daughter of the Algonquin chief, married tobacco farmer John Rolfe in Jamestown, Virginia, in a ceremony that forged an agreement between the tribe and the first permanent English settlement in America.
Born in 1595 to Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas—also known as Matoaka or Amonute—was 11 or 12 when English colonists first settled along the James River. She met Captain John Smith in December 1607 when he was captured and taken to Powhatan’s residence at Werowocomoco.
According to Smith’s writings, he was offered a feast, then grabbed and stretched out on two flat stones. Natives were ready to beat him with clubs, but stopped when Pocahontas rushed in and took his “head in her arms and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.” Powhatan then adopted the man as his son, Smith wrote in 1624.
The incident likely was something of a ritual to determine Smith’s intentions, said Buck Woodard, a cultural anthropologist and director of the American Indian Initiative at Colonial Williamsburg.
“There’s a little bit of confusion about what was happening,” he said. “Smith indicates he was going to have his head beat in, but scholars suggest it was some sort of theatrics, an adoption ceremony.”
Pocahontas likely served as an emissary for her father, a common practice among the Algonquin, Woodard said.
“The open arms of a harmless child was a symbolic gesture,” he said. “When there was an outside group, a foreigner or outside entity, and you were unsure of their intentions but you wanted to demonstrate a level of peace, you sent a child.”
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