Saturday — January 15, 2022
The Human Trafficking Series: Pocahontas
by: Cesar J Segura
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Human Trafficking has been mentioned a lot in the news lately due to the prosecution of British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell in connection with the convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. However, human trafficking has been part of American history for generations. Often, when we think of the story of Pocahontas, we think of images of a Disney character frolicking through the woods with her pet racoon and humming bird. However, this story romanticizes one of the most well documented cases of a Native American Woman being a victim of human trafficking.
Now, Disney did get some of the facts of the story right. Born into the Powhatan tribe, Matoaka was the daughter of their Chief, Powhatan Wahunsenaca. At her coming-of-age ceremony, Matoaka selected to go by the name of Pocahontas to honor her mother (who historians presume to have died in child birth). Around the same time, Pocahontas courted another character who had a role in the Disney movie, Kocoum. He was the younger brother of Chief Japazaw of the Potowomac tribe. The couple was married and expecting their first child while Pocahontas was around 14 in 1610.
Within 2 years, rumors had developed of a possible kidnapping conspiracy against Pocahontas. Colonials wished to conduct the kidnapping to spare whites from further attacks by natives. Captain Samuel Argall, an English Colonizer demanded Pocahontas be given up temporarily under threat of violence against the Potowomac tribe. During this interaction, a copper pot was left with the Potowomac people which Argall later claimed to have been left as payment for Pocahontas. Soon after Pocahontas was taken aboard Argall’s ship, Kocoum was murdered by the colonizers. Though it was thought by the Potowomac people that this was a temporary arrangement, the colonizers did not intend to return Pocahontas. In captivity, Pocahontas was repeatedly raped by her captors eventually becoming pregnant with her second child, Thomas.
Upon becoming pregnant, the colonists’ actions against Pocahontas became evident. Mattaponi history dictates that her son was born out of wedlock. Eventually from pressure from colonists, Pocahontas converted to Christianity taking the name Rebeca. In the meantime, the Jamestown colony was failing and at risk to lose the support of the English Crown. Therefore, a marriage between John Rolfe (a colonizer) and Pocahontas was arranged to seek additional tobacco growing and curing techniques from the Powhatan people. These techniques were Powhatan sacred knowledge and only shared amongst tribal people. Thanks to his marriage, Rolfe was afforded the knowledge from the Powhatan. The techniques worked with the colony of Jamestown becoming the hub for a thriving tobacco industry.
In the year of 1616, plans were made for Pocahontas to travel to England. She was accompanied by her husband John Rolfe, son Thomas, her kidnapper Captain John Argall and some Native guests (including her older sister, Mattachanna). Her visit was used to show a friendship existed between the Native communities and Colonists. After being sent on a parade across the country, plans were made for Pocahontas to return home to Virginia. On the voyage, Pocahontas died shortly after a dinner with Rolfe. Many (including Mattachanna), believe that Pocahontas was poisoned as she was in good health prior to the dinner. It was thought that she was murdered in order to silence her on the previous atrocities she faced at the hands of the colonizers. Upon her death, John Rolfe and Captain Argall had Pocahontas buried in Gravesend, England in an unmarked grave.
As you can tell, the true story of Pocahontas is far different than the highly romanticized version published by Disney and John Smith. In reality, the true story of Pocahontas is one of a young Native woman who was a victim of Human Trafficking. In the hundreds of years that have passed since Pocahontas was alive, Native American Women continue to be victimized by human trafficking at an alarmingly high rate compared to the general population. On average in the United States and Canada, 40% of sex trafficking survivors identify as being Native. In the next parts of this series, we will explore further historical stories of human trafficking victims and the alarming parallels in contemporary society.