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Who is Pocahontas? Seven things to know about the woman President Trump keeps referencing

Published: Tuesday, November 28, 2017 @ 12:55 PM
By: Debbie Lord, Cox Media Group National Content Desk

During a ceremony honoring Native American code-talkers on Monday, President Donald Trump referred to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as "Pocahontas,” a reference to a Native American woman born in Virginia in the late 1500s.

"We have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her 'Pocahontas.' But you know what, I like you, because you are special. You are special people. You are really incredible people," Trump said to World War II veterans attending the ceremony.

The president has often used the name when referring to Warren. In the past, Warren has said she is part Native American, including listing herself as such in an Association of American Law Schools directory. She has never presented any documentation to prove a connection to Native American ancestors.

"It is deeply unfortunate that the president of the United States cannot even make it through a ceremony honoring these heroes without having to throw out a racial slur. Donald Trump does this over and over thinking somehow he is going to shut me up with it. It hasn't worked out in the past, it isn't going to work out in the future," Warren told MSNBC after Trump's remark Monday. Trump did not call Warren by name.

Who is Trump talking about when he uses the name Pocahontas? Who was the real Pocahontas and what is true about the legend that has grown up around her? 

Here are a few things to know about the Native American “princess.” 

1.  Her given name wasn’t Pocahontas.  

The woman who would become famous as Pocahontas was born in 1596 in the Tidewater region of Virginia in an area called Werowocomoco. She was given the name Matoaka, which means "bright stream between the hills.” She was also known as Amonute. The name that stuck, however, was Pocahontas. It was likely a childhood nickname. It means, “playful one.”

Her father was Powhatan, the leader of an alliance of about 30 Algonquian-speaking groups known as Tsenacommacah. History doesn’t record her mother’s name. When she was a teenager, she would convert to Christianity and take yet another name, Rebecca.

2. She saved John Smith. Maybe.

As with much of the story of Pocahontas’ early life, there is some doubt as to what is true. The most famous story of Pocahontas centers on her efforts to save Captain John Smith, an English explorer. Smith arrived in Virginia in 1607 along with more than 100 settlers to the New World. In the months after his arrival, Smith was captured by a hunting party of Tsenacommacah Indians. The man who captured him was Opechancanough, a relative of Powhatan.

Smith wrote of the capture later, describing the story that has become Pocahontas’ legend. According to Smith, "... at the minute of my execution she [Pocahontas] hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown." Historians also have doubts about Smith’s account. Some believe that instead of being on the verge of execution, he may have been part of a ritual intended to symbolize his death and rebirth as a member of the Tsenacommacah tribe.   

3. She was captured by the English and held captive

In 1613, Samuel Argall, an English captain in the First Anglo-Powhatan War, was trying to form an alliance with a group of Native Americans called the Patawomencks, a branch of Pocahontas’ tribe. Argall lured Pocahontas on board his ship where he held her for ransom, demanding that Powhatan release captive Englishmen and supplies. Powhatan refused, and Pocahontas remained captive for the next year.

During that time, Pocahontas was baptized by a minister, Alexander Whitaker. She took the name of Rebecca after she was baptized.

4. A first marriage?

One version of Pocahontas’ early years claims she was married to a man -- Kocoum -- and had a daughter, Ka-Okee. Kocoum, the story goes, was killed by the English after Pocahontas was captured.

5. She was taken to England

In 1614, Pocahontas is said to have told her father that she wished to remain with the English and not come back to her tribe. She had met tobacco farmer John Rolfe during her captivity, and on April 5, 1614 she and Rolfe married. The couple had a son on Jan. 30, 1615. During the two years the couple spent in Virginia, there was a period of peace between the settlers and the natives.

In 1616, Pocahontas and her family were taken to England by the Virginia Company – a trading company formed to establish settlements in the New World. The company, wanting to show how the “taming” of the Native Americans made the English colonies safe, ordered Pocahontas and Rolfe back to England. They arrived there in June, 1616.

It is reported that Pocahontas was treated kindly while there. The Virginia Company presented Pocahontas as a princess to the English.

6. She never returned home

After nearly a year in England, Pocahontas, Rolfe and their son boarded a ship to return to Virginia. The ship had not gone far when Pocahontas and Rolfe fell ill. They were taken ashore. Pocahontas, thought to be 21 at the time, died on March 21, 1617, and was buried in Gravesend, England. Her husband survived, and would return to Virginia with their son. 

7. Some famous descendants

While Warren does not claim she is a descendant of Pocahontas, several famous people do have a genealogical connection to her. Here are a few:

 Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (Woodrow Wilson's wife)

American actor Glenn Strange

Astronomer and mathematician Percival Lowell 

Members of the first families of Virginia, including George Wythe Randolph, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, and Virginia Gov. Harry F. Byrd.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)  

Sources: Biography.comhistory.com; Wikipedia