She was captured and held captive by English colonists, then paraded around London as a "civilized savage." This is the true story of Pocahontas that's nothing like the fairy-tale version.
In 1995, Disney released Pocahontas, a film about a whirlwind romance between a Native American woman, Pocahontas, and an English colonist, John Smith. But although both Pocahontas and John Smith were real people, the film takes liberties with the facts about Pocahontas’ life.
For starters, Pocahontas was not even her real name. She was born Amonute and was also known as Matoaka. And even though she was portrayed as Smith’s love interest in the film, Pocahontas was only around 11 years old when they met in real life.
While Smith was out exploring one day, he encountered a group of Powhatan hunters, including Pocahontas’ uncle. They captured Smith and brought him from tribe to tribe to demonstrate that the strange man was human, just like they were. Smith, however, had no idea what was happening.
In his account, he was dragged before Pocahontas’ father, where other members of her tribe forced his head onto a large stone. When another warrior raised a club — meaning, Smith thought, to bash his skull in — Pocahontas suddenly broke through the crowd and threw herself on top of Smith, protecting his head with her own.
There’s a scene like this in the Disney film. But historians suspect that Smith misinterpreted what was happening. It’s likely that the tribe had not aimed to kill him at all, but rather initiate him as a respected chief. What’s more, some tribal oral histories suggest that Pocahontas was not even present. As a young girl, she might not have been allowed at ceremonies like this.
Indeed, most of what we know about Pocahontas comes from English accounts — accounts that were, of course, shaded with misunderstandings and biases. In those accounts, Pocahontas’ story is one of religion and romance; one of an Indigenous woman leaving her society to become a Christian wife and mother. But that’s not the whole truth.
The true story of Pocahontas is an even more fascinating one. Hers is a tale of politics, love, intrigue, and tragedy. As a young child, she bore witness to the uneasy peace between her people and the English settlers. She played an active role in keeping that peace. And sadly, Pocahontas was ultimately betrayed by the English.
Though she is best known as a Disney character today, the real-life story of Pocahontas is even more captivating than what appeared in the film.