Indian sachem, b. about 1550; d. in Virginia in April, 1618. His true name was Wahunsonacook. The name Powhatan is derived from his early home at the falls of James river, near the site of Richmond. By his prowess and ability he rose from an ordinary chief to the command of thirty tribes, that numbered 8,000 persons, and occupied the lands between James and York rivers.
The site of his principal village is now occupied by the town of Shelby, on the north side of York river, about fifteen miles from Jamestown, in the county of Gloucester. He had a guard of forty warriors, and was always attended by a sentinel at night. In 1609, when Capt. Newport and Capt. John Smith, with thirty of the colonists, visited him, to treat for a supply of food, he received them with hospitality. He was then stalwart, gray-haired, and seemingly about sixty years old, with several wives, and a family of twenty sons and ten daughters. In the intercourse between the whites and Indians, both parties endeavored to overreach each other. One of Smith's trades was the exchange of two pounds of blue glass beads for 300 bushels of Indian corn. When Capt. Newport returned to Virginia from England, he brought with him a gilded crown for the great sachem, and at the ceremony of coronation Powhatan was declared “Emperor of the Indies.” As an acknowledgment of the honor conferred, Newport was decked with a worn mantle, and received a pair of cast-off moccasins. About a year later Capt. Smith made an attempt to capture the wary emperor, in order to obtain a fresh supply of Indian corn. In retaliation, Powhatan prepared to destroy the English settlement; but his purpose was frustrated by the timely warning that was given the colonists by his daughter Pocahontas. He never trusted the white settlers, never visited Jamestown, and on the occasion of the marriage of his daughter sent his consent by an Indian representative.—His daughter, Pocahontas,
Indian princess, b. about 1595; d. in Gravesend, England, 21 March, 1617, was partial to the white people, and, it is believed, in 1607, when she was twelve years of age, saved the life of Capt. John Smith. He had been taken prisoner by some of the tribe under Opechaneanough, who sent him to his brother, Powhatan. On the trial of Smith, Powhatan was seated in an arbor of boughs, with a daughter on each side of him. There were present about 200 warriors and many women. When he was about to be executed, Pocahontas threw herself over Smith's prostrate body, to shield him from destruction, and her subsequent intercession with Powhatan saved his life. This event is said to have taken place at Shelby, in Gloucester county. Smith's account, given in his “General History of Virginia,” is discredited Charles Deane, LL. D., in his edition of Smith's “True Relation,” and by the Rev. Edward D. Neill, in his “History of the Virginia Company of London,” on the ground that the incident is not mentioned in Smith's earlier
narrative, but only in his “New England Trials” (1622), after the prominence Pocahontas had attained in England. On the other hand, Mr. William Wirt Henry, in an address before the Virginia historical society, 24 Feb., 1882, points out that a part of Smith's original narrative was suppressed, the preface, signed “J. H.,” saying: “Somewhat more was by him written, which being (as I thought) fit to be private, I would not adventure to make it publicke.” Other parts of the preface show that the design of the publication was to encourage emigration to Virginia, which might have been prevented by report of the hostile action by Powhatan. Mr. Henry has shown that the grammatical confusion of the original narrative at the point where the incident, if true, should have appeared, adds probability that it was suppressed. That Pocahontas saved Smith and the colony from peril is attested by the so-called “Oxford Tract” (“The Proceedings of the English Colonie”) printed in 1612, four years before her prominence in England. “Very oft,” it says, “she came to our fort with what she could get for Capt. Smith, that ever loved and used all the country well, but her especially he much respected, and she so well requited it that when her father intended to have surprised him, she, by stealth in the dark night, came through the wild woods and told him of it. If he would, he might have married her.” This was in 1609, after Smith's release, when he returned to Jamestown, and sent presents to Pocahontas and her father. The Indians had been for some weeks friendlier, and the child Pocahontas was often seen dancing and capering, much to the amusement of the colonists, among whom she was a general favorite. In 1612 Pocahontas dwelt away from her father, with one of his tributary bands, when Capt. Samuel Argall bribed their leader, for a copper kettle, to betray her into his hands, that he might treat advantageously with Powhatan for her release. But nothing came of this nefarious transaction. During Pocahontas's captivity in Jamestown an attachment arose between her and a young widower, John Rolfe.
She was baptized in the small village chapel, on 5 April, 1613, and not long afterward, in 1614, they were married by the Rev. Alexander Whittaker. The ceremony was witnessed by the colonists, her brothers, and other Indians, and Powhatan sent his consent. Pocahontas wore a tunic of white muslin, over which hung a handsome robe, embroidered by herself, her forehead was decked with a glittering band, her hair with feathers, and she wore the white bridal veil. This event produced a peace of many years' duration. Pocahontas's Indian name was Matoaka; at her baptism she was christened Rebecca. In 1616, at the end of April, Mr. and Mrs. John Rolfe bade farewell to the colony, and, under the care of the governor, Sir Thomas Dale, in company with several Indian men and women, sailed for England. On their arrival, on 12 June, the “Lady Rebecca,” as she was called, was entertained by the bishop of London, visited by Sir Walter Raleigh, and presented by Lady De la Warr, as an Indian princess, at the court of King James. She was graciously received and royally entertained; but his majesty found great fault with his subject, Rolfe, for venturing to marry “the daughter of an emperor” before obtaining the royal consent. The “Lady Rebecca” appeared at the London theatres and other public places, and was an object of much interest with the people. “La Belle Sauvage” became a favorite name for taverns. On the eve of her return to this country she was suddenly attacked by small-pox, and died. Her remains were buried in Gravesend. The church register describes her erroneously as the “wife of Thomas Rolfe.” She had never learned to write. Among the many memorials of Pocahontas is a stained-glass window placed by her descendants in St. Luke's Episcopal church, Smithfield, Va., represented in the accompanying illustration. It is the oldest Protestant edifice on this continent, having been built of imported brick in 1632. Since the destruction of the cathedral at St. Augustine, Fla., it is, with the exception of the adobe cathedral at Santa Fé, the most ancient Christian monument in this country. John Rolfe, her husband, had been advanced to the office of secretary and recorder-general of Virginia, and as such returned to the colony. Pocahontas had one son, Thomas, born in England, who was educated by his uncle, Henry, a London merchant. On attaining manhood, he followed his father to Virginia, as a tobacco-planter, and became opulent and distinguished. He left an only daughter, from whom sprang the Virginian families of Bolling, Fleming, Murray, Guy, Robertson, Whittle, and Elbridge, and the branch of Randolphs from which John Randolph, of Roanoke, was descended. John Randolph was proud of his direct descent from the Indian princess, and some of his traits are ascribed to this origin. Among Rolfe's descendants is the present bishop of Virginia, Dr. Francis M. Whittle, who lately confirmed a class of Indian youth at Hampton (formerly Kecongtan), where Pochino, brother of Pocahontas, was commander. See a critical judgment in the introduction to “Captain John Smith's Works
,” edited by Edward Archer (Birmingham, 1884); and “Pocahontas and her Descendants
,” by Wyndham Robertson (Richmond, Va., 1887).