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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Do you know the story of Rebecca Rolfe?

You probably do, but you may not realize it. She was born about 1596 in what is now tidewater Virginia. Her given name was Matoaka but, in the tradition of many Algonquin tribes, she would receive several names. The one that seemed to stick was Pocahontas.
She was an inquisitive and mischievous child. She was loved by everyone in her village and even respected at a very young age. Pocahontas was just eight years old when the first English settlers arrived (1603) and built a small enclave on land belonging to a powerful chief named Powhatan, who was her father (the members of his tribe were also known as Powhatans).
For the next few years Pocahontas makes friends with the English whose culture she finds interesting. Also, because she is so well liked by both the Powhatans and the English, Pocahontas is able to act as an intermediary between the cultures to settle minor disagreements.
By 1607, the colonists assume control over more of the Powhatans’ land to plant their crops, largely tobacco, to be sent back to England. Tensions mount between the two groups to a degree that even Pocahontas cannot keep them from open warfare. She is still only 11 years old. During the course of the hostilities, the Virginia Colony’s Governor, Captain John Smith, is captured and held prisoner. The most famous legend that links Pocahontas with John Smith was her saving his life as he was about to be executed by Powhatan warriors on her father’s orders. She rushed in and took Smith’s head in her arms to protect him then pleaded with her father for his release, which was granted.
Most historians believe this event did not occur. Some even believe that, if anything, John Smith was being initiated into the Powhatan tribe as an honorary member. Chief Powhatan even referred to Smith as “his son.” Additionally, John Smith did not write about the alleged “rescue” until years later. Many believe that he probably exaggerated the story. He even used an almost identical story, set in different country, in another book. The other “Disney-ized” legend was that Pocahontas and John Smith were romantically involved. This is also believed to be untrue. Smith was 29, Pocahontas was 12.
Later in 1608, young Pocahontas was able to negotiate an exchange of prisoners between the Powhatans and the English which leads to a temporary uneasy peace. But the next year, war resumes. John Smith is seriously injured by an accidental gunpowder explosion and leaves for England. He never returns to Virginia. The Powhatans are later told that he had died.
By 1613, the hostilities continue. This time it is Pocahontas, age 17, who is taken prisoner by the English. Because she is so admired, they treat her very well. Even so, she remains a prisoner for ransom for almost a year. Chief Powhatan refuses to pay any ransom for his daughter. Pocahontas is hurt and angry that her father will not ransom her, and she tells him that she prefers to stay with the English.
While she is technically an English prisoner, Pocahontas studies their culture and religion. She decides to convert to Christianity and be baptized. She takes the biblical name Rebecca. The significance of Rebecca, in the Book of Genesis, was that she was the mother of both Jacob and Esau, and therefore the mother of two distinct peoples. Pocahontas may have felt that she too had loyalty to two peoples, Powhatan and English.
During her “imprisonment,” Pocahontas met a pious tobacco farmer named John Rolfe. They married in 1614, living on his plantation. She was 18 years old. Their union also created an atmosphere of peace between the Powhatans and the Colonists. The following year, their son Thomas was born.
In 1616, Rebecca (Pocahontas), John, and Thomas travelled to England. She was admired everywhere she went as a symbol of the “tamed savage” of the Americas and proof of the success of the Virginia Colony. English religious groups hoped her visit would help raise money to be used in converting more Indians to Christianity. Until modern day, Pocahontas was thought to be an Indian Princess but she was not, at least in a conventional sense. Inheritances in the Powhatan culture went to the siblings the chief first, then to the children of the chief’s sisters.
While she was in London, Pocahontas learned that John Smith was still alive and living nearby. She cordially met with him one more time; it had been seven years since their last meeting.
John Rolfe and Rebecca lived in a London suburb for some time. Then, while preparing to return to Virginia, Rebecca became seriously ill. Some believe she was a victim of small pox, for which Native Americans had little immunity. She dies at Gravesend, England, in March, 1617. She was only 22. A very short, but full, lifetime. 

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