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autobiographical fragments

Pocahontas has left us little in the way of autobiography. She could not write her own memoirs, for instance, nor did anyone record an oral history interview with her. John Smith recorded some of her words, and while they are not strictly autobiographical, they do give us some sense of what she was like.

The best evidence we have of how Pocahontas wanted to present herself is the portrait created by Simon Van de Passe in 1616. Van de Passe sketched her from life while she was visiting London that year, and then used his sketch to create an engraving to be sold as a souvenir of her visit. It seems likely that she had a say in how he chose to present her. The way her name appears in the engraving is significant, for instance, as is her clothing and posture.

The girl we know as Pocahontas had several names over the course of her life. When she was born, she was publicly named Amonute, and her parents may have given her a private or secret name then too. By the time the English colonists arrived, she had the childhood name of Pocahontas (meaning playful or mischievous). Captain John Smith and other English people used that name even when she was an adult. However, when the English colonists kidnapped her in 1613, she was no longer using that name herself. She was probably widowed or divorced by then, and she was using an adult name, Matoaka (meaning kindled or kindles). In 1614, she converted to Christianity and took a Christian name, Rebecca. When she married John Rolfe that year, she added his name to hers.

Comparing her portrait with other related images helps clarify the choices she made in self representation. See the more formal portrait of Queen Anne that was painted the following year and the portrait of Lady Elizabeth Grey that was painted about the same time. See also an engraving of other Virginia Indians made in 1590, a nineteenth-century engraving of Pocahontas, and a 1995 poster of the movie about her. Among the symbols in her portrait that would have been more meaningful to Pocahontas's contemporaries than to us are the ostrich feathers (representing royalty) and her pearl earrings (representing Virginia).

For more on Pocahontas's names and portrait, see Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004).

Simon Van de Passe, Matoaka als Rebeca Fillia Potentiss Princ: Powhatani Imp: Virginia., 1617.

Queen Anne of Denmark
Paul Van Somer, Anne of Denmark (Queen Anne of England), 1617.

Elizabeth Grey
Paul Van Somer, Lady Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent, c.1619

Theodore de Bry, Ladies of Secota
Theodore de Bry, "One of the Chief Ladies of Secota," in A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1580.

Pocahontas, 1883
illustration of Pocahontas for Mary Cowdon Clarke's World Noted Women, 1883.

Pocahontas movie poster
advertising poster for the movie Pocahontas, 1995.

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In the autobiographical sections of John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia, he included some of Pocahontas's words. They are excerpted below from the Original Electronic Text found at Documenting the American South. Spelling has been modernized, as has punctuation to some degree.

Smith knew that many of his readers would want to know something about the Powhatan Indians' language, and so he included a vocabulary list and some translated phrases. Pocahontas was largely responsible for teaching him the language, and so the phrases he included give us a sense of the developing relationship between Smith and Powhatan and Pocahontas.

Ka katorawinos yowo - - What call you this?
Maskapow - - the worst of the enemies.
Mawchick chammay - - The best of friends.
Casacunnakack, peya quagh acquintan uttasantasough - - In how many days will there come hither any more English Ships?
Mowchick woyawgh tawgh noeragh kaqueremecher - - I am very hungry? what shall I eate?
Tawnor nehiegh Powhatan - - Where dwells Powhatan?
Mache, nehiegh yourowgh, Orapaks - - Now he dwells a great way hence at Orapaks.
Vittapitchewayne anpechitchs nehawper Werowacomoco - - You lie, he stayed ever at Werowocomoco.
Kator nehiegh mattagh neer uttapitchewayne - - Truly he is there I do not lie.
Spaughtynere keragh werowance mawmarinough kekaten wawgh peyaquaugh - - Run you then to the King Mawmarynough and bid him come hither.
Utteke, e peya weyack wighwhip - - Get you gone, and come again quickly.
Kekaten Pokahontas patiaquagh niugh tanks manotyens neer mowchick rawrenock audowgh - - Bid Pocahontas bring hither two little Baskets, and I will give her white Beads to make her a Chain.

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The longest fragment of Pocahontas's thoughts and words comes from the day when Pocahontas met Smith in England in 1616. When he left Virginia in 1609, she had been told that he was dead. Their reunion in England did not go as well as Smith must have hoped.

Being about this time preparing to set sail for New-England, I could not stay to do [Pocahontas] that service I desired, and she well deserved; but hearing she was at Branford with diverse of my friends, I went to see her.

After a modest salutation, without any word, she turned about, obscured her face, as not seeming well contented. And in that humour her husband, with diverse others, we all left her two or three hours, repenting my self to have writ she could speak English.

But not long after, she began to talk, and remembered me well what courtesies she had done, saying, "You did promise Powhatan what was yours should be his, and he the like to you. You called him father being in his land a stranger, and by the same reason so must I do you." Which though I would have excused, I durst not allow of that title, because she was a King's daughter. With a well set countenance she said, "Were you not afraid to come into my father's Country, and caused fear in him and all his people (but me) and fear you here I should call you father? I tell you then I will, and you shall call me child, and so I will be for ever and ever your Countryman. They did tell us always you were dead, and I knew no other till I came to Plimoth. You Powhatan did command Uttamatomakkin to seek you, and know the truth, because your Countrymen will lie much."

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