So who was Pocahontas, really? She was the daughter of Powhatan, the powerful chief of the Algonquin tribes in the region near the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. Her birth name was actually Matoaka, while her nickname, Pocahontas, meant "frolicsome, playful little girl." Her famous rescue of John Smith occurred in late 1607 when he was brought to Powhatan's residence and threatened with execution. Many historians believe that the threatened execution of Smith was really an act designed to signal Smith's acceptance as a member of the community. Thus, Pocahontas was probably not really rescuing him, for he was likely never in real danger; instead, she was playing a part in an important tribal ritual.
Pocahontas was known among the English for her beauty and high spirits, but as relations between the English and the Algonquins worsened, she became caught up in their conflict. Shortly after she married a young Alqonguin in 1610, the English kidnapped her in an attempt to get Powhatan to return English prisoners and pay a ransom. She remained a captive for several years, but had relative freedom within the British compound. She began to learn about Christianity during this period, and in 1614 she was baptized as Rebecca and married the English planter John Rolfe. She sailed to England with her husband and son in 1616, where she had a reunion with Smith, whom she had believed to be dead. While abroad, she became ill with smallpox and died in 1617 at the age of 22. Some of these details are still disputed, but most historians believe this information is reasonably accurate. Keep it in mind as you examine the various interpretations on the following pages.