Pocahontas wasn’t even her real name. Most kids who go to school in North America know the story of Pocahontas, the young Native American girl who threw herself on Captain Smith to save his life from her father’s rage and jealousy.

They fell rapturously in love, despite an age and cultural difference as wide as the Atlantic Ocean, but lived happily ever after in history books, bedtime tales and a gorgeous Disney movie with a soundtrack from Vanessa Williams.

Except maybe not. For starters, her name was Amonute or Matoaka, depending on how close a person was related or acquainted with her.

The daughter of Wahunsenaca—known to most of the world as Chief Powhatan—was given the nickname of Pocahontas, which means “playful one” or “little wanton” for her mischievous nature or possibly “spoiled child” or “naughty one” given her favoured status with her father. She likely grew up away from her father for a few years, with her mother’s tribe, though very little is known of her mother.

The pivotal moment in Pocahontas’ story was likely fully misunderstood, both by historians and by Captain Smith himself.

John Smith was using some ‘alternative facts’

In his diaries decades after the fact, Smith said he was forced to the ground and his head held onto two large rocks while others prepared to “beate out his braines” until Pocahontas put her head on his to stop the pummelling.

While Captain John Smith claimed he believed Pocahontas’ father, Chief Wahunsenaca, was going to “beate out his braines” on rocks while surrounded by men from the Powhatan tribe, it’s possible this was part of an elaborate and misunderstood adoption or welcoming ceremony.

It’s believed Pocahontas was about 10 years old when this happened, whereas Smith was in his late 20s.

Historians have determined that what Smith was saved from wasn’t so much impending death as it was a misunderstood (by him) adoption or welcoming ceremony by Wahunsenaca to bring Smith into his tribe. Of course, if you’re forced onto the ground and your head held into place on large rocks while people speak a different language in a very animated manner, you might assume the worst too.

Pocahontas likely didn’t fall madly in love with the man more than twice her age but her relationship with the English settlers did prove beneficial, as she took the settlers supplies during an awful winter in which their population dwindled rapidly. She was seen as a peaceful envoy and welcomed by the English for her role in saving Smith’s life (though, again, it’s unlikely his life was in danger).

Within a few years, the relationship between the English and the Powhatan tribes began to turn sour and at one point Pocahontas disappeared for few years, possibly married to a fellow tribesman named Kocoum with whom she had a son.

Pocahontas as a bargaining chip

In 1613, Pocahontas was lured aboard a British ship and held hostage as a way to force her father to resume trading with the settlers. By 1614, she was baptized into the Anglican church with the name Rebecca and, perhaps reluctantly, married farmer John Rolfe. The two had a son, Thomas, the following year.

After being taken hostage or kidnapped for a long stretch of time, Pocahontas was baptized into the Anglican church and given the name Rebecca, as depicted in this painting.

Pocahontas, Rolfe and their son travelled to England with a group of about a dozen members of the Powhatan tribe and it’s believed she was quite the social butterfly during their stay. It was during this time the famous portrait of Pocahontas in the red puffy dress or coat and fashionable hat was painted, one of the earliest and most prominent illustrations of her.

Pocahontas
This is the Pocahontas the world first knew, a woman called Rebecca married to an English farmer who had a son named Thomas.

The birth of an urban myth

Early in 1617, she was set to return to the colonies with Rolfe but instead remained in Gravesend, England, suffering from unknown illnesses. She died there, at roughly the age of 21, and is buried there. Her father died shortly thereafter and whatever truce had been struck between colonists and Native Americans disintegrated.

Despite the Disney-ified story, Pocahontas, whose real name was Matoaka, never loved nor showed any real affection for Captain John Smith. She married British settler John Rolfe in 1614.

Historians also suggests Pocahontas saw her one-time rumoured love Captain Smith while in England; she’s said to have shunned and ignored him and wanted nothing to do with him. For what it’s worth, Smith didn’t write or mention anything about that aggressive and terrifying ceremony until the 1620s, when Pocahontas and her father had died and couldn’t tell their side of the story. (Then again, would anyone have asked them? Probably not.)

Pocahontas Statue
This statue of Pocahontas stands in Gravesend, Kent, in England, as a tribute to her and the role she played in helping to save the English settlers in Virginia in the early 1600s.

There was no grandmother tree, no pesky hummingbird, no impish raccoon in Pocahontas’ real life; no passionate romance between a love-struck girl and a strapping older British captain. But that doesn’t make for quite as entertaining a movie, does it?

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Amber Healy

Amber Healy has been writing, both personally and professionally, since she nagged her hometown paper to give her an internship in 1996. She's a big believer that the most fascinating stories are hidden under layers of seemingly boring drivel.