Pocahontas (1595?–;1617), the Indian heroine who befriended the early Virginia colonists. Her father was Powhatan, a chief. Her real name was Matoaka; Pocahontas was a nickname meaning “playful one" and may have been applied to all the chief's daughters.
In 1608 Captain John Smith, of the Jamestown colony, was captured by Powhatan. According to Smith's Generall Historie (1624) his head was placed on a stone, and he was about to be clubbed to death, when Pocahontas laid her own head upon his to protect him. Powhatan then agreed to spare Smith's life and later freed him. This story was first told by Smith in a letter of 1616. Some historians doubt that the incident occurred because Smith did not tell of it in earlier accounts of his adventures.
Pocahontas is also said to have sent corn to the starving settlers and to have helped several escape the wrath of her people. In 1613 she was captured and held at James-town as a hostage for the good behavior of the Indians. There she was converted to Christianity and baptized under the name of Rebecca. In 1614 she married John Rolfe (1585–1622), the colonist who had introduced the commercial cultivation of tobacco to Virginia. Both English and Indians regarded the marriage as a bond of friendship between the two races and it brought about a peace of eight years. This time was important in helping to establish the colony.
Pocahontas and her husband went to England in 1616. There she was regarded as a princess and was presented to King James I. While preparing to return to America in 1617, she died unexpectedly and was buried at Gravesend, England. Many prominent Virginia families trace their ancestry to Pocahontas through her only child, Thomas Rolfe.