Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Lucas. Lucas Wonders, “Who was Pocahontas and why was she so famous?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Lucas!
Pocahontas was actually a nickname given to her by her father, a powerful Algonquin chief named Powhatan. The name meant "Little Wanton" or "little playful one," so it's safe to assume her father believed her to be curious and rambunctious.
When Pocahontas was born around 1595 or 1596, she was named Amonute. She was also known by another name, Matoaka, which means "Little Snow Feather." The world will forever remember this American Indian princess simply as Pocahontas, though.
As famous as she is, not much is known about Pocahontas for certain. None of her words were ever recorded, so historians must rely upon the accounts of others, as well as the oral histories of various American Indian peoples, especially those in eastern Virginia where she lived.
What we know of her story begins with the English colony at Jamestown. One of the colonists, Captain John Smith, was captured by Powhatan in 1607. As the popular legend holds, Smith was about to be executed, but he was saved at the last second when Pocahontas shielded his body with her own.
Historians have some doubts about whether this legend is completely true. Smith only wrote his account of Pocahontas saving him after she later traveled to England and became famous. Moreover, some historians believe that what happened was merely a ritual misinterpreted by Smith and that he was never actually in danger.
Regardless of what actually happened, Smith survived and Pocahontas became well-acquainted with the new colony. She brought the colonists food and shared information to help them get along better with the tribes in the area.
Captain Smith returned to England in 1609 and history loses track of Pocahontas for several years. Eventually, the colonists once again find themselves fighting with Powhatan. To force his hand, Captain Samuel Argall took Pocahontas hostage aboard a ship in 1613.
During her captivity, Pocahontas converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. In 1614, she married prominent colonist John Rolfe. Soon thereafter Powhatan agreed to a truce with the colony.
In 1615, she gave birth to a boy and named him Thomas. The colonists soon realized that Pocahontas, who now went by the name Rebecca Rolfe, could be valuable as an example of colonial success in converting natives to English ways.
The Rolfes and a dozen other American Indians traveled to England in 1616 to meet with many of the most famous and important people of the day, including the King and Queen. She even had her portrait memorialized in a famous engraving by artist Simon Van De Passe. The trip was a great success and generated significant interest in the Jamestown colony.
After touring England for seven months, the Rolfes boarded a ship to return to Jamestown in March 1617. Unfortunately, Pocahontas became deathly ill almost immediately.
The exact condition is unknown, but some historians speculate it could have been pneumonia or tuberculosis. Pocahontas was taken ashore and died on March 21, 1617. She was buried at Gravesend, England.