The real Pocahontas was nothing like the Pocahontas depicted in Disney’s 1995 animated classic. There are a multitude of ways that Disney lies about, or at the very least exaggerates, the life of Pocahontas, but they’re not the only culprits when it comes to spreading falsehoods about the Native American princess (who wasn’t actually a princess, by the way). The history of Pocahontas has been riddled with dramatizations, oversimplifications, and outright lies from the very beginning - and all of that dishonesty only adds to the tragedy that is Pocahontas’s true life story.
The truth about Pocahontas is infinitely sadder than the bright and cheery, wind-color-painting version presented in popular culture. Her interactions with English settlers were far less whimsical and musical than Disney would have you believe; it was instead the sort of violent and prejudiced interaction that we’ve come to expect from that era. Pocahontas herself is still an inspiring and important historical figure, but her actual life story is not a feel-good tale about the common threads between people of different backgrounds. Instead, it’s the exact opposite.
Pocahontas’s most significant interaction with the English was a lot less Disney-friendly than popular culture would have you believe, and it was far more indicative of the real relationship between colonists and Native Americans. Unhappy with Chief Powhatan, a group of English settlers paid a rival Native Ameriacn group to coerce Pocahontas onto an English ship so that she could be held for ransom. Captain Samuel Argall ordered her capture, and then compensated the Native Americans who helped him with a copper kettle for their troubles.
Pocahontas is known as being one of the main Disney princesses, but that is only partially true historically. Pocahontas was the daughter of Chief Powhatan, the head of a major alliance of Algonquin-speaking groups, which was one of the largest alliances in North America. The area he represented was known as the Tsenacommacah. However, Pocahontas had 26 brothers and sisters to share her status with, so she was far from the only royal child running around Tsenacommacah, even if she was reportedly the chief’s favorite daughter. The chiefdom did not share its power hereditarily, either, so the idea of Pocahontas being royalty is not exactly true.
Pocahontas is the most common name that we know this important historical figure by, but it might actually be the least formal name she held. “Pocahontas” was a mildly pejorative nickname that translated into something along the lines of “spoiled child.” She was also known as Mataoka for most of her childhood and later went by the name of Amonute. Then, after her conversion to Christianity, she became known as Rebecca - a name she would carry until her death.
The tale most commonly told about Pocahontas might not even be a real story at all. Supposedly, Pocahontas saved the English colonist John Smith from execution at the hands of her father, and then the two went on to begin a romantic relationship. Apparently, the love between the two helped the European settlers of Jamestown get along with the Native Americans for a brief period.
But some question whether or not Smith was ever in any real danger, whereas others question whether the meeting ever even happened. John Smith earned the reputation of being a bit of an exaggerator, and there’s no direct evidence that his interaction with Pocahontas or her father ever occurred. Most sources believe that Pocahontas would have been about 11 years old when the meeting was said to have happened, which is far too young for a romance between the two.