She was a favorite daughter of the most powerful Native American in Virginia. She took a keen interest in the new settlers on the island in the big river that flowed to the bay. And she grew up to take a specific role as peacemaker between the English and the Powhatan Indians—a role that her early death cut short, giving her uncle an opportunity to order a massive sneak attack that killed hundreds of colonists.
The world of Pocahontas changed dramatically during her lifetime. At her birth, her father, Wahunsenacawh, had expanded his political leadership across 8,000 square miles from the banks of the James River north to the Potomac River, covering more than 30 communities that included nearly 15,000 people. The English who came to Jamestown Island in 1607 resisted his wish that they become another subject community. Pocahontas was directly involved in the relationship between the English and the Powhatan Indians that whipsawed between friendly trade of food and open warfare and kidnapping. She herself was kidnapped from a village on the Potomac River and held in captivity for a year before she announced to Chief Powhatan her conversion to Christianity and her desire to marry English tobacco grower John Rolfe.
She chose to take an English name, “Rebecca,” that means “mother of two peoples,” and they married in the large church inside James Fort on April 5, 1614. They had a son. They traveled to England to promote the colony to investors, and Rebecca was celebrated in the highest London society. But as the Rolfes began their return to Virginia, she took ill and died in Gravesend, England. The Powhatan Indian confederacy rapidly declined after her uncle’s attack in 1622 failed to stop English colonization.
Her native world was largely lost to time until the Jamestown Rediscovery Project began excavating the James Fort site in 1994. The archaeological research has uncovered thousands of native artifacts—the largest known collection of Virginia Indian artifacts from the contact period. In 2010, the Jamestown Rediscovery team found the church site of her James Fort wedding. This website and a new exhibit in the Archaearium museum on the island present a vivid picture of Virginia Indians and colonists sharing the same space and fashioning a new world out of their two cultures.