On March 21, 1617, a 21-year-old woman from Virginia’s Pamunkey tribe died at Gravesend, England. She went by many names—Matoaka, Amonute, and, at her passing, Rebecca—but she’s best remembered today as Pocahontas. Her death was unexpected: Pocahontas had arrived in England the previous June and spent months touring the country, celebrated by the press as an “Indian princess.” Pocahontas’s tale of trans-Atlantic travel, her marriage to the Englishman John Rolfe, and her alleged conversion to Christianity became part of a compelling cultural narrative that helped promote white colonial interests, especially in the Virginia Company.
Despite the brevity of her life and the mystery surrounding the cause of her death, Pocahontas remains one of the most recognizable Native icons in American culture today. Hollywood movies have portrayed her as royalty—or as Smith referred to her in his 1616 letter to Queen Anne, “Lady Pocahontas”—whose dramatic act of self-sacrifice saved the lives of Smith and the settlers at Virginia’s Jamestown colony. This story of romantic heroism—the stuff of legend—has defined Pocahontas’s image for centuries. Crucially, these early 17th-century descriptions of the young Pamunkey woman established a cultural template for European and white American representations of Native Americans. Whether Pocahontas, or Lewis and Clark’s faithful guide Sacagawea, or the quintessential sidekick Tonto, indigenous people have appeared in a variety of cultural productions as mere props in the larger drama of colonialism in North America.