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Portrait of Pocahontas, from Generall Historie of Virginia,
New England, and the Summer Isles,

by Captain John Smith (London, 1632).

Portrait of Pocahontas, from Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, by Captain John Smith (London, 1632).

Portrait of Pocahontas, from Generall Historie of Virginia,
New England, and the Summer Isles,
by Captain John Smith (London, 1632).

In many records, such as court records, wills, and other legal documents, women are generally silent or even invisible. Some traditional historical sources, such as biographies or letters, reflect the experiences of extraordinary women. While valuable, these sources tell only part of the story.

It is even more difficult to find primary sources dealing with Native American women. Accounts of early Native American culture are mostly oral, but the writings of European settlers, such as Captain John Smith, yield some information about seventeenth-century Indian culture. Smith’s observations are written entirely from an English perspective, but his descriptions offer historians details about the Powhatan people—their daily life, housing, agricultural practices, clothing and fashion, and even gender-based divisions of labor (see below).

The engraved portrait of Pocahontas (also known as Matoaka or Amunute, and baptized as Rebecca) illustrates some of the difficulties historians encounter when researching Native American women. Like John Smith’s accounts of the indigenous peoples of Virginia, this image portrays Pocahontas, daughter of the paramount chief Powhatan, from an English perspective. However, it also reflects the Powhatan princess’s acceptance of English culture and religion after her 1613 capture and captivity.

Pocahontas married English settler John Rolfe in 1614 with her father’s consent. Their marriage immediately improved relations between the English and the Powhatan. In 1616, the Rolfes and their son, Thomas, traveled to England at the behest of the Virginia Company of London. Mistress Rolfe was honored in London society as a royal princess of Virginia. Her presence generated enthusiasm among the English for educating Virginia Indians.

In January 1617, as the Rolfes began their journey home to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill and had to be taken ashore at Gravesend, England, where she died in March 1617. She was buried there under the chancel of St. George’s Church.

An English Description of Powhatan Women

Captain John Smith wrote the following about Powhatan women in 1612:

“The women are cut in many fashions agreeable to their yeares, but ever some part remaineth long… The women are alwaies covered about their middles with a skin… They adorn themselves most with copper beads and paintings… In each eare commonly they have 3 great holes, whereat they hange chaines bracelets or copper.”

“The men bestowe their times in fishing, hunting, wars, and such manlike exercises scorning to be seene in any woman like exercises, scorning to be seene in any woman like exercise; which is the cause that the women be verie painefull and the men often idle. The women and children do the rest of the worke. They make mats, baskets, pots, morters; pound their corne, make their bread, prepare their victuals, plant their corne, gather their corne, beare al kind of burdens, and such like.”

“Betwixt their hands and thighes, their women use to spin the barks of trees, deare sinews, or a kind of grasse they call Pemmenaw; of these they make a thred very even and readily. This thred serveth for many uses: As about their housing, apparell; as also they make nets for fishing, for the quantity as formally braded as ours. They also make with it lines for angles.”

Source: John Smith, The Complete Works of Captain John Smith; (Vol. I), Philip L. Barbour, ed. (University of North Carolina Press, 1986), pp. 160–161, 162, and 163–164.