Matoaka: The True Story Behind the Disney Princess Pocahontas

We’ve had princesses on the mind in our recent blog posts, part of a series about arguing why each could be someone’s favorite. We’re doing things a little differently for a certain Disney princess. Pocahontas is unique among the lot in that she’s based on a historical figure. In this article, we’re telling the stories of the movie heroine and her real-life inspiration.

Meet Matoaka

“Pocahontas” means something like “playful one.” If that sounds like a nickname for a child, that’s because it was. Her birth name was Amonute, and the Powhatan people knew her as Matoaka. They kept the name secret from the English, believing that knowledge of it could give them some power over her. They instead used her more famous moniker, given to her by her adoring father, Chief Wahunsenacawh.

Matoaka’s birth year is believed to be 1596, meaning she was only about 12 years old when she met John Smith. They never shared a romance. In fact, she might not even have spared him from execution. Historians believe the story to be a myth. Smith changed his story over time, with each new iteration upping the drama. Alternatively, he may have seriously misinterpreted a welcoming ceremony where his life only seemed to be in danger.

An Eventful Life

Regardless of the story’s veracity, the English viewed Matoaka as a symbol of peace between their people and the Powhatan nation. The child often accompanied trade expeditions to forts and towns. However, relations between colonizers and natives being what they were, war eventually broke out. Captain Samuel Argall orchestrated the kidnapping of the Powhatan chief’s daughter, who remained captive for a year.

During her imprisonment, she converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. Upon finally being freed, she met and later married John Rolfe — most well-known for his work in transforming tobacco into a cash crop. The union created “The Peace of Pocahontas,” an almost decade-long period of more cordial relations between Powhatan and English. The pair had a child, and their descendants live on today.

Unfortunately, Matoaka did not live long. She accompanied Rolfe and their son to England, where she met King James I. While planning to return to the land now called Virginia, she came down with an unknown illness and passed at just 22 years old. They buried her in the yard of a church that burned down centuries ago.

The Origin of the Disney Princess Pocahontas

Almost immediately after her death, stories of her life became widespread — and increasingly fanciful. The legend of her rescue of John Smith especially resonated down the centuries. Walt Disney Studios would go on to produce the most famous adaptation in 1996, the 400th anniversary of her birth.

The idea emerged after the critical success of Beauty and the Beast, the first animated feature nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. They wanted to adapt another great romance, and the idea of a Romeo and Juliet-like relationship steeped in America’s colonial origins appealed to them. When they discovered the age difference between Smith and Matoaka, they aged up the latter out of good sense.

It’s safe to say that the Disney princess Pocahontas is very different from her historical counterpart. Still, it’s worth mentioning that the filmmakers used the story to spin a surprisingly forthright story of colonialism’s horrors. None of the English characters deny that they’re in the New World to plunder nature and murder natives. Children and adults alike may gain something from its anti-war, anti-racist message. On top of that, they may be interested in checking out the even more compelling true story.

Pocahontas at Your WDW Store

Anyone who enjoys Disney’s Pocahontas will enjoy Your WDW Store’s collection of gifts and goodies. Many of our products are difficult to find, so big-time fans should definitely check out our shop.