From Algonquin pocahantesu, “She is Playful”, although another translation suggests “Bright Stream Between Two Hills”. Pocahontas’ Pamunkey name was Mataoaka (also spelled Matoax and Matowaka), “She Plays with Things”; both names apparently referring to her vivacious disposition. The exact date pf her birth is not clear; it is said to have been between 1595-1597, but the earlier date is preferred by most writers. It is certain that she was the favorite daughter of Powhatan, the powerful chief of the Virginia confederacy.
In 1608, Captain John Smith of Jamestown was captured and sentenced to death. According to Smith, the girl successfully pleaded with her father to spare him. Although historians have some doubts about the account, it has become a lasting legend of early colonial life.
Smith left for England in 1609, and relations between Indians and colonists deteriorated. In 1613 Pocahontas was taken as hostage by the Jamestown settlers, who demanded and eventually received a large ransom, including English prisoners held by the Indians.
The English treated their captives well and Pocahontas liked Jamestown; she became a Christian and was baptized Rebecca. During her stay in Jamestown, John Rolfe, a young English widower who had introduced tobacco cultivation into the colony, fell in love with her, and she with him.
Sir Thomas Dale, the Governor, hoping that the union might bring Indians and Whites closer together, granted permission for their marriage which took place on April 5, 1613. It is probable that Pocahontas may have been married at the time to Kocoum, a minor chief, but this is uncertain. The expected result of the marriage was that Powhatan kept peace until his death.
In 1616, Pocahontas, John Rolfe and several others went to England, where she was received as a princess, presented to King James I and Queen Anne, and generally lionized. On March 30 or 32, 1617, she caught smallpox while on board ship at Gravesend, England, just before returning to America, and died. She is buried in the chancel of St. George’s Parish Church in England.
Her son Thomas Rolfe was raised in England by an uncle, later returned to America, acquired considerable wealth, and through his only daughter founded the Randolph family of Virginia. While she seems not to have been a particularly beautiful woman, Pocahontas captured the romantic mood of the period, and has become the idealized Native American woman, with all of the attendant realities and misconceptions.