Weekend Planner

A Jamestown journey

Pocahontas played important part in Virginia settlement

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Vera Vida
Globe Correspondent / October 29, 2003

JAMESTOWN, Va. -- America's first permanent English colony was established here in 1607 by 104 men and boys, but a girl was the star of the Virginia settlement story, capturing people's imaginations for close to 400 years.

She was, of course, Pocahontas, the Indian maiden who may have had more nonsense written about her than anyone in US history. But there is no doubt that she was real and had a great effect on the fledgling colony that predated Plymouth by 13 years. And Pocahontas -- her name was Matoaka; Pocahontas was her nickname, meaning "the playful one" -- was only about 11 at the time.

To find out about this early community so different from the Massachusetts colony, a visit to the Jamestown Settlement is highly recommended, especially around Thanksgiving, when the annual Foods and Feasts of Colonial Virginia is held. (This year's dates are Nov. 27-29.) Foods that Pocahontas might have eaten as a child will be prepared, such as fish coated with clay, then covered with hot coals until cooked through.

The early 17th-century dishes will be made for visitors to see, not to sample. Last year we watched a "historic interpreter" cook a turkey on a spit "for most part of a day" at the re-created Powhatan Indian village, an intriguing part of the living history museum operated by the Commonwealth of Virginia.

"The turkey is moister and the flavor of the smoke is wonderful," said Kim Scholpp, the interpreter in deerskins who was cooking the bird.

Others in the Powhatan village were making corn cakes, corn dumplings, and stews of corn, beans, and squash. The aromas were enticing, and we regretted not getting a taste of something -- anything. But never mind. Colonial Williamsburg, with restaurants offering splendid Southern meals, was a 10-minute drive away. We ate mostly in Williamsburg but did little sightseeing there because this time we were in Virginia to see Jamestown.

At the Jamestown Settlement, we alsosaw how the English settlers processed a pig into sausages, lard, hams, and bacon. Interpreters demonstrated how pies and tarts were made and how foods were preserved 400 years ago. But for the most part, the life of the early settlers was difficult, and the food was scarce. Crops did poorly, and the winter of 1609-10 became known as "the starving time." It didn't help that many of the first settlers were "gentlemen" who did not do manual work such as farming. And until "bride ships" were sent, the men had to survive without wives.

The settlement, about a mile from the original site, is a delight to visit today. There is much to see, such as the re-created triangular James Fort, with the colonists' thatched-roofed houses, a church, a storehouse, and an armory inside a wooden palisade. Nearby are re-creations of the three ships, the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, that carried the settlers on their arduous five-month voyage.

Best of all, we liked the Powhatan village, with its dome-shaped houses made of bent young saplings covered with mats woven from reeds. Outside, the village has a ceremonial dance circle. We half-expected to see Pocahontas coming to greet us, as she had the strangers from England, whose lives she would save with her gifts of food.

After learning her story, we understood why Herman Melville said, "When I think of Pocahontas, I am ready to love Indians."

"The playful one" was the favorite daughter of Chief Powhatan, whom Europeans dubbed a "king," making his daughter a "princess." King or not, Powhatan was a powerful ruler who had united 32 Algonquian-speaking tribes. One of the stories about the high-spirited Pocahontas -- documented by John Smith -- stated that she saved Smith's life by interceding when her father was about to execute him.

But Smith and Pocahontas were not lovers; theirs was evidently more of a father-daughter relationship. After all, she was about 11 and was said to enjoy cartwheeling naked with the young English boys of the settlement. This was nothing to cause raised eyebrows.

Traditionally, a Powhatan girl wore no clothing until about the age of 12, when she began to dress as an adult in a deerskin apron. Pocahontas hadn't reached that rite of passage.

Four years after Smith returned to England because of a serious injury, Pocahontas was kidnapped by the English. While living among the colonists, she was converted to Christianity and, at about age 18, married an Englishman, John Rolfe, a planter who had introduced tobacco as a cash crop in Virginia. They had a son, Thomas, and together the three Rolfes traveled to England, where Pocahontas was honored as a princess but died before the family could return to Virginia. She was about 22.

For Jamestown, peace with the Indians was made with the marriage of Rolfe and Pocahontas, but it lasted only a while. As more Europeans arrived in Virginia and encroached on Indian lands, Powhatans killed many settlers in a number of uprisings. But by 1644, their revolts had little impact on the growing English settlement, and within a short period, Pocahontas's ever-fewer people were reduced to living on reservations.

Jamestown Settlement is preparing for the 400th anniversary of the colony with several new buildings, one of which houses a theater and an exhibition hall and is expected to be completed next year.

Visitors learn that there are in fact two Jamestowns, the state-operated Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne, the site of the original settlement, which is on an island and administered by the National Park Service and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. Historic Jamestowne, where an important archeological program is in progress, has been closed because of extensive damage from Hurricane Isabel on Sept. 18 but is expected to reopen next month. Call 757-898-2410 for an update.

We enjoyed wandering in Colonial Williamsburg, the bustling 18th-century capital of the Virginia colony, and seeing the handsome original and reconstructed brick buildings. Carriages rolled past the Governor's Palace carrying tourists, and many people were strolling, map in hand, to see the sights.

Christmas was in the air. At an outdoor market selling fresh and dried fruits and other natural materials used to decorate doorways and windowsills, we bought two tiny fresh pineapples for our Christmas-table centerpiece. We were sorry that we wouldn't be in Williamsburg on the night of its Grand Illumination (Dec. 7 this year) -- so named because of the hundreds of candles burning in the windows and the fireworks at night.

Vera Vida is a freelance writer who lives in Cohasset.

Jamestown itinerary


4 p.m. Check in

Hampton Inn Historic Area

505 York St., Williamsburg


Rates start at $79 per room Includes continental breakfast.

7 p.m. Elegant dining

Regency Room of Williamsburg Inn

136 East Francis St., Williamsburg


Entrees $26-$38

Indulge in open-faced ravioli with crayfish and truffles, followed by sweet-onion-crusted wild salmon.


9:30 a.m. Breakfast

Jamestown Settlement Cafe

Off Route 31 South, Williamsburg


99 cents to $2.29

New cafe offers bagels, muffins, fresh fruit, coffee.

10:15 a.m. Explore a colony

Jamestown Settlement

Off Route 31 South, Williamsburg


$10.75 adults, $5.25 ages 6-12

Visit three re-created ships that brought the colonists to Jamestown; see the re-created fort.

2 p.m. Lunch in Williamsburg

The Trellis Cafe

403 West Duke of Gloucester St., Williamsburg


Entrees $5.95 to $13.95

Desserts by Marcel Desaulniers, author of ``Death By Chocolate.''

3:30 p.m. Back to Jamestown

(information above)

7:30 p.m. Colonial spot

Shields Tavern

422 East Duke of Gloucester St., Williamsburg


Entrees $16-$30

After appetizers created from 18th-century recipes, try saffron pasta in sage-garlic butter.


9 a.m. Southern breakfast

Old Chickahominy House

1211 Jamestown Road, Williamsburg


Entrees $2.95-$7.95

The homemade buttermilk biscuits are a signature dish.

10:30 a.m. Longtime favorite

Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg

Admission: $39 adults, $19.50 ages 6-14

Visit for a bit of shopping.

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.