Historic Girls - E. S. Brooks

Ma-Ta-Oka of Pow-Ha-Tan

The Girl of the Virginia Forests

[Generally known as "The Princess Pocahontas."] 
A.D. 1607.

Throughout that portion of the, easterly United States where the noble bay called the Chesapeake cuts Virginia in two, and where the James, broadest of all the rivers of the "Old Dominion," rolls its glittering waters toward the sea, there lived, years ago, a notable race of men.

For generations they had held the land, and, though their clothing was scanty and their customs odd, they possessed many of the elements of character that are esteemed noble, and, had they been left to themselves, they might have progressed—so people who have studied into their character now believe—into a fairly advanced stage of what is known as barbaric civilization.

They lived in long, low houses of bark and boughs, each house large enough to accommodate, perhaps, from eighty to a hundred persons—twenty families to a house. These "long houses" were, therefore, much the same in purpose as are the tenement-houses of to-day, save that the tenements of that far-off time were all on the same floor and were open closets or stalls, about eight feet wide, furnished with bunks built against the wall and spread with deer-skin robes for comfort and covering. These "flats" or stalls were arranged on either side of a broad, central passage-way, and in this passage-way, at equal distances apart, fire pits were constructed, the heat from which would warm the bodies and cook the dinners of the occupants of the "long house," each fire serving the purpose of four tenements or families.

In their mode of life these people—tall, well-made, attractive, and coppery-colored folk—were what is now termed communists, that is, they lived from common stores and had all an equal share in the land and its yield—the products of their vegetable gardens, their hunting and fishing expeditions, their home labors, and their household goods.

Their method of government was entirely democratic. No one, in any household, was better off or of higher rank than his brothers or sisters. Their chiefs were simply men (and sometimes women) who had been raised to leadership by the desire and vote of their associates, but who possessed no special authority or power, except such as was allowed them by the general consent of their comrades, in view of their wisdom, bravery, or ability. They lived, in fact, as one great family bound in close association by their habits of life and their family relationships, and they knew no such unnatural distinction as king or subject, lord or vassal.

Around their long bark tenements, stretched carefully cultivated fields of corn and pumpkins, the trailing bean, the full-bunched grapevine, the juicy melon, and the big-leafed tabah, or tobacco.

The field work was performed by the women, not from any necessity of a slavish condition or an enforced obedience, but because, where the men and boys must be warriors and hunters, the women and girls felt that it was their place and their duty to perform such menial labor as, to their unenlightened nature, seemed hardly suitable to those who were to become chiefs and heroes.

These sturdy forest-folk of old Virginia, who had reached that state of human advance, midway between savagery and civilization, that is known as barbarism, were but a small portion of that red-skinned, vigorous, and most interesting race familiar to us under their general but wrongly-used name of "Indians." They belonged to one of the largest divisions of this barbaric race, known the Algonquin family—a division created solely by a similarity of language and of blood-relationships—and were, therefore, of the kindred of the Indians of Canada, of New England, and of Pennsylvania, of the valley of the Ohio, the island of Manhattan, and of some of the far-away lands beyond the Mississippi.

So, for generations, they lived, with their simple home customs and their family affections, with their games and sports, their legends and their songs, their dances, fasts, and feasts, their hunting and their fishing, their tribal feuds and wars. They had but little religious belief, save that founded upon the superstition that lies at the foundation of all uncivilized intelligence, and though their customs show a certain strain of cruelty in their nature, this was not a savage and vindictive cruelty, but was, rather, the result of what was, from their way of looking at things, an entirely justifiable understanding of order and of law.

At the time of our story, certain of these Algonquin tribes of Virginia were joined together in a sort of Indian republic, composed of thirty tribes scattered through Central and Eastern Virginia, and known to their neighbors as the Confederacy of the Pow-ha-tans. This name was taken from the tribe that was at once the strongest and the most energetic one in this tribal union, and that had its fields and villages along the broad river known to the Indians as the Pow-ha-tan, and to us as the James.

The principal chief of the Pow-ha-tans was Wa-bun-so-na-cook, called by the white men Pow-hatan. He was a strongly built but rather stern-faced old gentleman of about sixty, and possessed such an influence over his tribesmen that he was regarded as the head man (president, we might say), of their forest republic, which comprised the thirty confederated tribes of Pow-ha-tan. The confederacy, in its strongest days, never numbered more than eight or nine thousand people, and yet it was considered one of the largest Indian unions in America. This, therefore, may be considered as pretty good proof that there was never, after all, a very extensive Indian population in America, even before the white man discovered it.

Into one of the Pow-ha-tan villages that stood very near the shores of Chesapeake Bay, and almost opposite the now historic site of Yorktown, came one biting day, in the winter of 1607, an Indian runner, whose name was Ra-bun-ta. He came as one that had important news to tell, but he paused not for shout or question from the inquisitive boys who were tumbling about in the light snow, in their favorite sport of Ga-wa-sa  or the "snow-snake" game. One of the boys, a mischievous and sturdy young Indian of thirteen, whose name was. Nan-ta-qua-us, even tried to insert the slender knob-headed stick, which was the "snake" in the game, between the runner's legs, and trip him up. But Ra-bun-ta was too skilful a runner to be stopped by trifles; he simply kicked the "snake" out of his way, and hurried on to the long house of the chief.

Now this Indian settlement into which the runner had come was the Pow-ha-tan village of Wero-woco-moco, and was the one in which the old chief Wa-bun-so-na-cook usually resided. Here was the long council-house in which the chieftains of the various tribes in the confederacy met for counsel and for action, and here, too, was the "long tenement-house" in which the old chief and his immediate family lived.

It was into this dwelling that the runner dashed. In a group about the central fire-pit he saw the chief. Even before he could himself stop his headlong speed, however, his race with news came to an unexpected end. The five fires were all surrounded by lolling Indians, for the weather in that winter of 1607 was terribly cold, and an Indian, when inside his house, always likes to get as near to the fire as possible. But down the long passage-way the children were noisily playing at their games—at gus-ka-eh, or "peach-pits," at gus-ga-e-sa-ta, or "deer-buttons," and some of the younger boys were turning wonderful somersaults up and down the open spaces between the fire-pits. Just as the runner, Ra-bun-ta, sped up the passage-way, one of these youthful gymnasts with a dizzy succession of hand-springs came whizzing down the passage-way right in the path of Ra-bun-ta.

There was a sudden collision. The tumbler's stout little feet came plump against the breast of Ra-bun-ta, and so sudden and unexpected was the shock that both recoiled, and runner and gymnast alike tumbled over in a writhing heap upon the very edge of one of the big bonfires, Then there was a great shout of laughter, for the Indians dearly loved a joke, and such a rough piece of unintentional pleasantry was especially relished.

"Wa, wa, Ra-bun-ta," they shouted, pointing at the discomfited runner as he picked himself out of the fire, "knocked over by a girl!"

And the deep voice of the old chief said half sternly, half tenderly:

"My daughter, you have wellnigh killed our brother Ra-bun-ta with your foolery. That is scarce girls' play. Why will you be such a po-ca-hun-tas?"

The runner joined in the laugh against him quite as merrily as did the rest, and made a dash at the little ten-year-old tumbler, which she as nimbly evaded, "Ma-ma-no-to-wic," he said, "the feet of Ma-ta-oka are even heavier than the snake of Nun-ta-quaus, her brother. I have but escaped them both with my life. Ma-ma-no-to-wic, I have news for you. The braves, with your brother O-pe-chan-ca-nough, have taken the pale-face chief in the Chickahominy swamps and are bringing him to the council-house."

"Wa," said the old chief, "it is well, we will be ready for him."

At once Ra-bun-ta was surrounded and plied with questions. The earlier American Indians were always a very inquisitive folk, and were great gossips. Ra-bun-ta's news would furnish fire-pit talk for months, so they must know all the particulars. What was this white cau-co-rouse,  (captain or leader) like? What had he on? Did he use his magic against the braves? Were any of them killed?

For the fame of "the white cau-co-rouse,"  the "great captain," as the Indians called the courageous and intrepid little governor of the Virginia colony, Captain John Smith, had already gone throughout the confederacy, and his capture was even better than a victory over their deadliest enemies, the Manna-ho-acks.

Ra-bun-ta was as good a gossip and story-teller as any of his tribesmen, and as he squatted before the upper fire-pit, and ate a hearty meal of parched corn, which the little Ma-ta-oka brought him as a peace-offering, he gave the details of the celebrated capture. "The 'great captain,' " he said, "and two of his men had been surprised in the Chicka-hominy swamps by the chief O-pe-chan-ca-nough and two hundred braves. The two men were killed by the chief, but the 'captain,' seeing himself thus entrapped, seized his Indian guide and fastened him before as a shield, and thus sent out so much of his magic thunder from his fire-tube that he killed or wounded many of the Indians, and yet kept himself from harm though his clothes were torn with arrow-shots. At last, however," said the runner, "the 'captain' had slipped into a mud-hole in the swamps, and, being there surrounded, was dragged out and made captive, and he, Ra-bun-ta, had been sent on to tell the great news to the chief.

The Indians especially admired bravery and cunning. This device of the white chieftain and his valor when attacked appealed to their admiration, and there was great desire to see him when next day he was brought into the village by the chief of the Pa-mun-kee, or York River Indians, O-pe-chan-ca-nough, brother of the chief of the Pow-ha-tans.

The renowned prisoner was received with the customary chorus of Indian yells, and then, acting upon the one leading Indian custom, the law of unlimited hospitality, a bountiful feast was set before the captive, who, like the valiant man he was, ate heartily though ignorant what his fate might be.

The Indians seldom wantonly killed their captives. When a sufficient number had been sacrificed to avenge the memory of such braves as had fallen in fight, the remaining captives were either adopted as tribesmen or disposed of as slaves.

So valiant a warrior as this pale-faced cau-co-rouse  was too important a personage to be used as a slave, and Wa-bun-so-na-cook, the chief, received him as an honored guest rather than as a prisoner, kept him in his own house for two days, and adopting him as his own son, promised him a large gift of land. Then, with many expressions of friendship, he returned him, well escorted by Indian guides, to the trail that led back direct to the English colony at Jamestown.

This rather destroys the long-familiar romance of the doughty captain's life being saved by "the king's own daughter," but it seems to be the only true version of the story, based upon his own original report.

But though the oft-described "rescue" did not take place, the valiant Englishman's attention was speedily drawn to the agile little Indian girl, Ma-ta-oka, whom her father called his "tomboy," or po-ca-hun-tas.

She was as inquisitive as any young girl, savage or civilized, and she was so full of kindly attentions to the captain, and bestowed on him so many smiles and looks of wondering curiosity, that Smith made much of her in return, gave her some trifling presents and asked her name.

Now it was one of the many singular customs of the American Indians never to tell their own names, nor even to allow them to be spoken to strangers by any of their own immediate kindred. The reason for this lay in the superstition which held that the speaking of one's real name gave to the stranger to whom it was spoken a magical and harmful influence over such person. For the Indian religion was full of what is called the supernatural.

So, when the old chief of the Pow-ha-tans (who, for this very reason, was known to the colonists by the name of his tribe, Pow-ha-tan, rather than by his real name of Wa-bun-so-na-cook) was asked his little daughter's name, he hesitated, and then gave in reply the nick-name by which he often called her, Po-ca-hun-tas, the "little tomboy"—for this agile young maiden, by reason of her relationship to the head chief, was allowed much more freedom and fun than was usually the lot of Indian girls, who were, as a rule, the patient and uncomplaining little drudges of every Indian home and village.

So, when Captain Smith left Wero-woco-moco, he left one firm friend behind him,—the pretty little Indian girl, Ma-ta-oka,—who long remembered the white man and his presents, and determined, after her own wilful fashion, to go into the white man's village and see all their wonders for herself.

In less than a year she saw the captain again, For when, in the fall of 1608, he came to her father's village to invite the old chief to Jamestown to be crowned by the English as "king" of the Pow-ha-tans, this bright little girl of twelve gathered together the other little girls of the village, and, almost upon the very spot where, many years after, Cornwallis was to surrender the armies of England to the "rebel" republic, she with her companions entertained the English captain with a gay Indian dance full of noise and frolic.

Soon after this second interview, Ma-ta-oka's wish to see the white man's village was gratified. For in that same autumn of 1608 she came with Ra-bun-ta to Jamestown. She sought out the captain who was then "president" of the colony, and "entreated the libertie" of certain of her tribesmen who had been "detained,"—in other words, treacherously made prisoners by the settlers because of some fear of an Indian plot against them.

Smith was a shrewd enough man to know when to bluster and when to be friendly. He released the Indian captives at Ma-ta-oka's wish—well knowing that the little girl had been duly "coached" by her wily old father, but feeling that even the friendship of a child may often be of value to people in a strange land.

The result of this visit to Jamestown was the frequent presence in the town of the chieftain's daughter. She would come, sometimes, with her brother, Nan-ta-qua-us, sometimes with the runner, Ra-bun-ta, and sometimes with certain of her girl followers. For even little Indian girls had their "dearest friends," quite as much as have our own clannish young school-girls of to-day.

I am afraid, however, that this twelve-year-old, Ma-ta-oka, fully deserved, even when she should have been on her good behavior among the white people, the nickname of "little tomboy" (po-ca-hun-tas)  that her father had given her,—for we have the assurance of sedate Master William Strachey, secretary of the colony, that "the before remembered Pocahontas, Powhatan's daughter, sometimes resorting to our fort, of the age then of eleven or twelve years, did get the boyes forth with her into the market-place, and make them wheele, falling on their hand turning their heeles upward, whome she would followe and wheele so herself, all the fort over." From which it would appear that she could easily "stunt" the English boys at "making cart-wheels."

But there came a time very soon when she came into Jamestown for other purpose than turning somersaults.

The Indians soon learned to distrust the white men, because of the unfriendly and selfish dealings, of the new-comers, their tyranny, their haughty disregard of the Indians' wishes and desires, and their impudent meddling alike with chieftains and with tribesmen. Discontent grew into hatred and, led on by certain traitors in the colony, a plot was arranged for the murder of Captain Smith and the destruction of the colony.

Three times they attempted to entrap and destroy the "great captain" and his people, but each time the little Ma-ta-oka, full of friendship and pity for her new acquaintances, stole cautiously into the town, or found some means of misleading the conspirators, and thus warned her white friends of their danger.

One dark winter night in January, 1609, Captain Smith, who had came to Wero-woco-moco for conference and treaty with Wa-bun-so-na-cook (whom he always called Pow-ha-tan), sat in the York River woods awaiting some provisions that the chief had promised him,—for eatables were scarce that winter in the Virginia colony.

There was a light step beneath which the dry twiggs on the ground crackled slightly, and the wary captain grasped his matchlock and bade his men be on their guard. Again the twigs crackled, and now there came from the shadow of the woods not a train of Indians, but one little girl—Ma-ta-oka, or Pocahontas.

"Be guarded, my father," she said, as Smith drew her to his side. "The corn and the good cheer will come as promised, but even now, my father, the chief of the Pow-ha-tans is gathering all his power to fall upon you and kill you. If you would live, get you away at once."

The captain prepared to act upon her advice without delay, but he felt so grateful at this latest and most hazardous proof of the little Indian girl's regard that he desired to manifest his thankfulness by presents—the surest way to reach an Indian's heart.

"My daughter," he said kindly, "you have again saved my life, coming alone, and at risk of your own young life, through the irksome woods and in this gloomy night to admonish me. Take this, I pray you, from me, and let it always tell you of the love of Captain Smith."

And the grateful pioneer handed her his much-prized pocket compass—an instrument regarded with awe by the Indians, and esteemed as one of the instruments of the white man's magic.

But Ma-ta-oka, although she longed to possess this wonderful "path-teller," shook her head.

"Not so, Cau-co-rouse," she said, "if it should be seen by my tribesmen, or even by my father, the chief, I should but be as dead to them, for they would know that I have warned you whom they have sworn to kill, and so would they kill me also. Stay not to parley, my father, but be gone at once."

And with that, says the record, "she ran away by herself as she came."

So the captain hurried back to Jamestown, and Ma-ta-oka returned to her people.

Soon after Smith left the colony, sick and worn out by the continual worries and disputes with his fellow-colonists, and Ma-ta-oka felt that, in the absence of her best friend and the increasing troubles between her tribesmen and the pale-faces, it would be unwise for her to visit Jamestown.

Her fears seem to have been well grounded, for in the spring of 1613, Ma-ta-oka, being then about sixteen, was treacherously and "by stratagem" kidnapped by the bold and unscrupulous Captain Argall—half pirate, half trader,—and was held by the colonists as hostage for the "friendship" of Pow-ha-tan.

Within these three years, however, she had been married to the chief of one of the tributary tribes, Ko-ko-um by name, but, as was the Indian marriage custom, Ko-ko-um had come to live among the kindred of his wife, and had shortly after been killed in one of the numerous Indian fights.

It was during the captivity of the young widow at Jamestown that she became acquainted with Master John Rolfe, an industrious young Englishman, and the man who, first of all the American colonists, attempted the cultivation of tobacco.

Master Rolfe was a widower and an ardent desirer of "the conversion of the pagan salvages." He became interested in the young Indian widow, and though he protests that he married her for the purpose of converting her to Christianity, and rather ungallantly calls her "an unbelieving creature," it is just possible that if she had not been a pretty and altogether captivating young unbeliever he would have found less personal means for her conversion.

Well, the Englishman and the Indian girl, as we all know, were married, lived happily together, and finally departed for England. Here, all too soon, in 1617, when she was about twenty-one, the daughter of the great chieftain of the Pow-ha-tans died.

Her story is both a pleasant and a sad one. It needs none of the additional romance that has been thrown about it to render it more interesting. An Indian girl, free as her native forests, made friends with the race that, all unnecessarily, became hostile to her own. Brighter, perhaps, than most of the girls of her tribe, she recognized and desired to avail herself of the refinements of civilization, and so gave up her barbaric surroundings, cast in her lot with the white race, and sought to make peace and friendship between neighbors take the place of quarrel and of war.

The white race has nothing to be proud of in its conquest of the people who once owned and occupied the vast area of the North American continent. The story is neither an agreeable nor a chivalrous one. But out of the gloom which surrounds it, there come some figures that relieve the darkness, the treachery, and the crime that make it so sad. And not the least impressive of these is this bright and gentle little daughter of Wa-bun-so-na-cook, chief of the Pow-ha-tans, Ma-ta-oka, friend of the white strangers, whom we of this later day know by the nickname her loving old father gave her—Po-ca-hun-tas, the Algonquin.

The End.