Guest Post: Did Squanto meet Pocahontas, and What Might they have Discussed?

This is a guest post by Dr E. M. Rose. Dr Rose is a Visiting Fellow, Department of History, Harvard University, and can be reached at emrose@fas.harvard.edu. These observations emerged during research Rose conducted in the spring of 2017 as Visiting Fellow at The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture (OIEAHC)/Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation at Historic Jamestowne.

Two of the most famous Native Americans in early colonial history may well have met in London. Matoaka, nicknamed Pocahontas, who lived near the Jamestown settlement in Virginia and Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, who greeted the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, were apparently living near other in the English capital in late 1616. Pocahontas and Squanto were both part of a small and complexly entwined commercial community of merchants, sea captains, and maritime entrepreneurs, whose ventures spanned the globe. The two Native Americans were kidnapped in America within a year of each other and eventually came to England, where they were welcomed enthusiastically.[1] Although there is, as yet, no documentation to prove that such a meeting took place, circumstantial evidence suggests that they met when they were staying only a few hundred yards down the street from each other in the homes of men with interlocking business interests. Although the histories of Jamestown and Plymouth are usually treated as separate chapters in most narratives of American history, they were closely linked.

“Squanto’s London, 1616.” Detail of the Agas Map of London, with highlights. Illustration prepared by Scott Walker, Harvard University Map Collection, based on the 1561 woodcut Agas map of London at the Map of Early Modern London project.

“Squanto’s London, 1616.” Detail of the Agas Map of London, with highlights. Illustration prepared by Scott Walker, Harvard University Map Collection, based on the 1561 woodcut Agas map of London at the Map of Early Modern London project.

First, some background on Pocahontas and Squanto and their presence in London in 1616. Captain John Smith first described Pocahontas turning cartwheels in James Fort, and claimed that as a child she had rescued him from execution.[2] She was the daughter of Wahunsonacock, mamanatowick or paramount chief of the Powhatans.  After her kidnapping in 1613, when her father would not negotiate her exchange for English prisoners, she eventually threw in her lot with the colonists, converting to Christianity, taking the name Rebecca, and marrying tobacco farmer John Rolfe (not John Smith, who had long been back in England).[3] Their marriage signaled the end of the first Anglo-Powhatan war and established peace for a few years. Later, with her father’s blessing, Rebecca sailed in the spring of 1616 to England with her husband, her child Thomas, and a large contingent of fellow Powhatans to raise funds for a Christian mission to her people under the auspices of the Virginia Company.[4]

Tisquantum (Squanto) was abducted by a one-time associate of John Smith, in 1614, the year after Pocahontas was taken by Captain Samuel Argall. He and about two dozen others were seized by Captain Thomas Hunt, and sold in Spain, along with a cargo of dried fish. Tisquantum subsequently “got away for England” as William Bradford explained, and lived in England “a good time” according to John Smith.[5]  On an expedition in the summer of 1616 Squanto made it as far as Newfoundland in Canada, but was back in London by the end of the year. He was housed in the Cornhill section of London with John Slaney, treasurer of the Newfoundland Company.

The two young Algonkian-speaking Natives, Pamunkey (Pocahontas) and Pawtuxet (Squanto), were in the English capital at the same time, both preparing for return voyages across the Atlantic. Squanto was desperate to return to his homeland; Pocahontas wanted to stay in England, according to John Chamberlain.[6]

Like others from her delegation, Pocahontas may have joined the household of Sir Thomas Smythe when, on January 6, 1617, she famously attended the performance of a masque at the court of King James and Queen Anne, just before she was scheduled to return to Virginia with her family. Smythe was an important London merchant, the head of the East India Company as well as the Virginia Company and the Bermuda Company. He was also deputy governor of the Muscovy [Russia] Company and governor of the Levant [Turkey] Company, among others.[7] As Treasurer of the Virginia Company he had authorized the expenditure to bring Pocahontas and her entourage to England, an allowance of four pounds per week which she was provided during the year she was there, and payment for the engraving of her portrait by Simon van de Passe.

The end of Cornhill Street where Squanto lived with Slaney was three hundred yards down the road from Smythe’s house and corporate headquarters on Philpot Lane. Slaney and Smythe were both investors in the East India Company, and probably knew each other from business meetings at Philpot Lane about selling pepper and spices from South Asia, as well as fish, sassafrass and beaver pelts from America. St Dionis Backchurch on Fenchurch Street, even closer to Cornhill, was Smythe’s parish church and the place where two of the Virginian men staying in Smythe’s home in 1616 were interred. Considering the circumstances, it would have been extraordinary if Pocahontas and Squanto had not met at church, in the Leadenhall market, or at the homes or offices of one of the merchants.

The aftermath: London was not a healthy environment for these newcomers; many of the Native Americans on that trip fell ill before the return boat sailed out of the Thames, among them Pocahontas, who died in March, 1617 and was buried at a church in Gravesend.[8] Her young child, who was too ill to travel, was left to be raised by relatives while Rolfe returned to the colony; Rolfe’s brother-in-law Tommocomo and others returned to Tsennecommacah, the Powhatan name for their homeland on the Chesapeake.

Squanto himself remained healthy throughout his travels, but European diseases attacked Native Americans on both sides of the Atlantic and devastated his people, just as it did Pocahontas’s. In the years immediately after 1616, New England suffered a horrific epidemic which practically wiped out his Patuxet tribe. Squanto was one of the few survivors. Having sailed across the Atlantic in 1619 with Thomas Dermer, who took him back to New England as translator, and after learning his family and friends were dead, Squanto went to live with the Pokanoket. Their great leader, the sachem Massasoit, took advantage of the opportunity to use the English-speaking Squanto as an intermediary. Squanto was therefore in Plymouth to greet the newly arrived Mayflower passengers in their own language.[9] Indeed, Squanto probably spoke better English than the Pilgrim children who had grown up in the Netherlands speaking Dutch. He continued his close association with them until his death in 1622.[10]

If they met in London in late 1616, what might Squanto and Pocahontas have discussed?[11] The Pawtuxet and the Pamunkey spoke versions of Algonquian but may not have understood each other fully.[12] They both spoke the language of Shakespeare’s Britain as well (the Bard had died while Pocahontas was on her way to England), so they could have conversed in English. Like people the world over they would have talked of food and homes, homelands, traditions, missing friends, and recent sights. Squanto was eager to return to his homeland; Pocahontas was going to stay in England. They would have talked of family: Pocahontas’s father apparently had one hundred offspring; little is known of Squanto’s relatives. They also could have compared notes about their abductions and subsequent adventurous lives.[13]

They likely complained about English food, for they may have missed such familiar fare as clam chowder, fresh lobster, Chesapeake crabs, and turkey.[14] Squanto was a hunter, trained to bring home meat and fowl. Pocahontas was a farmer, responsible, as were other Powhatan women, for growing maize, beans and squash.[15] They might have compared notes on new tastes: honey and lamb stew, for example, were unknown on the Eastern seaboard of America.[16] Staples of a London diet would have included some familiar food, such as the eels for which Squanto fished in New England, as he could have done in England. Among other foods he would not have known from home, he would have encountered fresh oranges during his time in Spain, and Pocahontas might well have tasted pomegranates at court. In a maritime merchant’s house they might also have tasted pepper and dried currants, and learned of nutmeg from Indonesia. Together they might have enjoyed a Christmas mince pie made from a contemporary recipe with mutton, beef suet, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, and currants.[17]

They could have toasted each other with new drinks. Having been in Malaga, Squanto would have known of the fortified sweet wine that was the local specialty. Pocahontas knew of root beer sarsaparilla. In the home of Sir Thomas Smythe, the head of the East India Company, they might have been among the first to of hear of a hot drink made of tea leaves, and maybe even had news of coffee.[18]

They might have compared Squanto’s wetu, a temporary but warm hut covered with pelts, mats or reeds with the cold wattle-and-daub houses of the English, or with the Powhatans’ bark-covered houses made of saplings—all probably equally smoky.[19]

Both Native Americans gained knowledge of worlds far beyond the Atlantic littoral. Squanto might have told Pocahontas about Spain and the Mediterranean, which she could compare to the stories of the Spanish spy Diego Molina who was on the ship that took her to England. She could have shared information with Squanto about the Netherlands and Ireland from the stories of her escort, deputy governor Sir Thomas Dale, who had fought in both places.[20]

Another topic they might have discussed was the translation of Algonquian and English words—especially religious ones that had no equivalents in the other language. Squanto’s name, for example, apparently comes from a word meaning spiritual power. Pocahontas’s new name also had a religious interpretation. At her baptism shortly before her marriage she had taken the biblical name Rebecca to highlight the mixing of “two nations in your womb” (Genesis 25:23). Squanto was likely to have been baptized by Catholic friars in Spain; Pocahontas was inducted into the Church of England. Both were raised with Native American traditions and beliefs, such as similar stories of creation.

Squanto and Pocahontas would likely have discussed the debilitating diseases introduced by the English, but they would have had only an inkling of the devastating impact they were to have. Pocahontas’s tribe had suffered terrible droughts, but not yet catastrophic epidemics. Squanto did not yet know the full effect of diseases on his homeland.[21] The English around the Chesapeake who suffered from the brackish water and hungry mosquitoes tried traditional Native American remedies when they ran out of medicine.[22] Conversely, the Powhatans in London relied on English medicines. Although Pocahontas died, her son survived, and her ill friend, baptized Mary, utilized concoctions prepared by a London apothecary and paid for by the Virginia Company.[23]

Squanto and Pocahontas might have compared notes on dancing, which was a popular pastime in this period. Captain John Smith reported that Pocahontas and her female colleagues entertained him with a dance which he described as a royal masque (although Smith had never attended one). At the court masque Pocahontas had seen the king’s new favorite displaying his legs in high leaps, and “light and airy bounds.”[24] Squanto would likely have seen sailors dancing on his various voyages (the hornpipe was well known in England in this period, but not associated with sailors until the following century), and he may also have seen an English maypole and Morris dancing.

They also could have discussed English interest in Native American products and industries. Squanto, for example, is remembered for introducing the English to the fur trade, while in her famous portrait, Pocahontas sports an elegant beaver hat in the latest fashion. Pocahontas and her husband were knowledgeable about the latest developments in the production of tobacco, which may have been familiar to Squanto as well.

Squanto is celebrated for having taught the Pilgrims how to combine seeds with fish for fertilizer, although that story may be apocryphal, reflecting neither Pawtuxet nor English practice. Although Squanto could have observed the agricultural techniques of his people, it seems more likely he learned about them in conversation with a woman like Pocahontas because planting in his community would have been the work of women.

There were any number of topics both serious and lighthearted that they could have discussed over bread, ale, cheese. But doubtless, one would have stood out above all others. Since they were in England and newly immersed in English customs and traditions, most likely they spoke about the weather. But that could be the subject for another blogpost because the early seventeenth century witnessed strikingly cold weather, which some have dubbed a “Little Ice Age,” a global crisis in climate as newsworthy then as it is today.[25]

Putting Squanto and Pocahontas in conversation with each other calls attention to the transatlantic and even global nature of exploration, enterprise and Christian mission in this period. English overseas enterprise was not a unidirectional undertaking. It provoked a wide range of responses with impacts that reverberated in England as much as they did in America. London was an important center for the exchange of ideas and the meeting of individuals from all over the world. The people involved represented several cultures, not just two in binary opposition. Against that backdrop, these brief notes might be considered as contributions to a “microhistory of empire.”

The imagined conversation between a Patuxet and a Pamunkey, a young man (assumed by some to have been a pneise, a specially trained warrior) and an elite matron, also highlights the differences between and among indigenous peoples. Squanto and Pocahontas were raised in different regions possessing distinct cultural and historical traditions, languages and politics. The colonists who established the first permanent English settlements in America did not encounter some undifferentiated, unsophisticated, inarticulate Natives, but specific historic actors who must be viewed in the context of their own times, places, and individual life experiences. They were multi-lingual, politically and culturally aware, and they reacted in different ways, alternatively embracing and rejecting distinct elements of European tradition.


These footnotes point to reliable online materials which list the relevant primary and secondary sources available in print and links to electronic versions.

[1] The site of the kidnapping of Pocahontas is identified with a historical marker. The kidnapping of Squanto and its impact is described in the exhibit “Captured: 1614,” part of Our Story—A Wampanoag History project, which will expand and travel in the years leading up to the commemorations of the 400th anniversary of Plymouth planned for 2020.

[2] For more on Pocahontas see Historic Jamestowne; Encyclopedia of Virginia; Virtual Jamestown; and The National Park Service.

[3] For a nineteenth century depiction of the baptism of Pocahontas which hangs in the capital see https://www.aoc.gov/art/historic-rotunda-paintings/baptism-pocahontas. For the marriage see http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/colonial/indians/marries.html. For a more recent description see http://historicjamestowne.org/history/pocahontas/marriage/.

[4] The 1616-1617 trip to England was commemorated in a three-day conference in London at the British Library and the Institute for Historical Research, co-sponsored by OIEAHC: Pocahontas and After: Historical culture and transatlantic encounters, 1617–2017.  Publication of some of the papers is forthcoming. For now see Jane Dismore, “Pocahontas in England,” History Today, May 24, 2015, http://www.historytoday.com/jane-dismore/pocahontas-england.

[5] Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, 1606-1646, ed. William T. Davis (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), http://eada.lib.umd.edu/text-entries/of-plymouth-plantation/, p. 112; John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles (1624) repr New York: Macmillan, 1907, 2:62 online through the Library of Congress (image 84), https://www.loc.gov/resource/lhbcb.0262b/?sp=84.

[6] John Chamberlain reported in January 1617 that Pocahontas was returning to America “though sore against her will.” The original passage in Chamberlain’s handwriting is reproduced in a blog post from the National Archives. See also The Pocahontas Archive at Lehigh University.

[7] “Smythe, Sir Thomas (c.1558-1625),” in The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris (Cambridge University Press, 2010), http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1604-1629/member/smythe-sir-thomas-1558-1625. See also the entry in the Encyclopedia of Virginia.

[8] Pocahontas is buried at St Georges. “Pocahontas statue in Gravesend relisted 400 years after her death,” The Guardian March 15, 2017. See https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/mar/16/pocahontas-statue-gravesend-400-years-listed and http://www.stgeorgesgravesend.org.uk/history/pocahontas1.php>.

[9]  Charles C. Mann, “Native Intelligence. The Indians who first feasted with the English colonists were far more sophisticated than you were taught in school. But that wasn’t enough to save them.” Smithsonian Magazine, December, 2015, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/native-intelligence-109314481/#Mc4XiXdOgOjj2Gk4.99. For background on the Mayflower landing see http://www.plimoth.org.

[10] The circumstances under which Squanto died are still in dispute. For the various possibilities concerning where he is buried see Susan Milton, “Are Chatham remains those of Squanto?,” Cape Cod Times, March 9, 2011, http://www.capecodtimes.com/article/20110309/News/103090305. There is a marker commemorating him at Burial Hill, Plymouth, MA.

[11] Especially pertinent to this discussion of Pocahontas and Squanto in London is the work of Coll Thrush on Indigenous London, for which see the review and interview with the author on this blog, and his podcast on Benjamin Franklin’s World co-sponsored by the OIEAHC.

[12] I thank Professor James Rice of Tufts for pointing out that the languages might have been like French and Italian, not hard to learn but not immediately mutually understandable. There may have developed an Algonquian trading language, but it would only have covered basics necessary for exchange.

[13] See previous links for citations. See also the museum and cultural center maintained by Pocahontas’s Pamunkey tribe.

[14] For information of food see http://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/homework-help/whats-dinner and http://historicjamestowne.org/collections/selected-artifacts/foodways-2/, and a blog post on food in Jacobean England. For a post on food mentioned by Shakespeare see Rebecca Rupp, “To Feast or Not to Feast: Toasting the Bard’s Birthday,” The Plate, National Geographic blog, March, 2015, http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/23/to-feast-or-not-to-feast-toasting-the-bards-birthday/.

[15] For food consumed inside the James Fort see the archeological remains unearthed at Historic Jamestowne.

[16] Plimoth plantation, for example, offers classes in keeping honeybees, which were only introduced into the New England ecosystem in the early seventeenth century. Sheep were Old World animals.

[17] English Heritage offers a recipe from 1591 with cloves, pepper, saffron and currants. Elinor Fettiplace’s recipe of a decade later notably includes nutmeg along with cinnamon, orange rind, and mace.

[18] England’s first coffee shop would open in Oxford in 1650.

[19] For houses see http://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/homework-help/building-home. Jameston Settlement has built a recreation of a seventeenth-century Powhatan village.

[20] See the entry on Sir Thomas Dale in the Encyclopedia of Virginia.

[21] Madeleine Johnson, “The Pilgrims Should Have Been Thankful for a Spirochete,” Slate, November 20, 2012, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2012/11/leptospirosis_and_pilgrims_the_wampanoag_may_have_been_killed_off_by_an.html.

[22] Daphne Gentry, and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, “Lawrence Bohun (d. 1621).” Encyclopedia Virginia (Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2013) on Dr Bohun’s indigenous medical chest, https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Bohun_Lawrence_d_1621

[23] On May 1, 1620 the Company authorized payment “for ye administring of Phisick and Cordialle” for “one of the maides wch Sr Thomas Dale brought from Virginia a native of yt Country,” who “is now verie weake of a Consumpc̃on.” The Records of the Virginia Company of London, ed. Susan M. Kingsbury (Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1906) 1:338, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mtj8.vc01/?sp=344

[24] The phrase is from Ben Jonson’s masque The Golden Age Restored, the Twelfth Night masque of 1616 in which George Villiers, the king’s new favorite first performed. See http://www.luminarium.org/editions/goldenage.htm

[25] See “New Worlds of Climate Change: The Little Ice Age and the Colonization of America,” November 11, 2017, http://www.climatehistory.net. See also Professor James Rice’s comments on the environmental history of Native America.

2 comments on “Guest Post: Did Squanto meet Pocahontas, and What Might they have Discussed?

  1. Phil Obbard says:

    This is an amazing, thought-provoking read. There’s a novel/movie waiting to be made here…

  2. Jane Dismore says:

    Thank you for referring to my feature in HistoryToday (although the year it was published was in fact 2016). You may also like to know that I had another feature about Pocahontas in England published in the Eastern Daily Press in May 2016, called ‘When American married Norfolk’ . This concerned her alleged visit to the town of Heacham in Norfolk, where her husband’s family came from. She is much feted there. My features considers the likelihood of such a visit. If you would like a scanned copy, please email me: janedismore@hotmail.co.uk.

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