The Pocahontas Effect: Native Americans in Early Modern Europe

Growing up in America, you learn about the story Pocahontas, and how she eventually traveled to London with her English husband John Rolfe. And you’re almost led to believe that her life, and ultimate death, in England was a singular event, that she represented an aberration in historical patterns, and that she was the only Native American to travel to Europe. Much like the idea that Pocahontas married John Smith, this is plain, straight-up incorrect – and one of the more fascinating episodes in human history that often goes unmentioned.

French, Spanish, Portuguese, or English, Europeans brought Native Americans back to the Old World by the thousands – either as allied diplomats who’d agreed to meet the monarch, see the military strength of the imperial powers, and learn about Christianity; or, which happened far more often, as captives, of war or otherwise, to be treated as curiosities at the courts of Western Europe.

Some of the earliest Native Americans to visit Europe arrived over a century before Pocahontas, coming mainly from Mexico and Brazil  – some of the earliest points of contact between the Old and New World.1 In 1496, only four years after Columbus’ famed voyage, his brother, Dom Bartholomew Columbus, forced 300 islanders to return to Europe for having the gall to defend their home from Spanish incursion. Despite the catastrophic demographic effects of Spanish conquest on the population of Hispaniola, thirty years later Cortés sent a group of Mexica (Aztec) to the Spanish royal court, to dance, sing, juggle, and play their music.2 

Slowly, but surely, Native Americans from all over the Eastern areas of the Americas were brought to Europe. One Portuguese writer, Gaspar Corte-Real, though perhaps the exception, proved enlightened enough to note that a group of Canadian and/or Greenland natives, “except for the terribly harsh look of the men, … appear to me to be in all else of the same form and image as ourselves.”3 And let’s face it, wouldn’t you look a little rough too it you just spent a month crossing the Atlantic on a ship without plumbing?

Though during the course of the next century thousands of Native Americans would be sold into slavery in the Iberian peninsula, this practice had all but ended by the seventeenth-century, as Americans in Europe often died early deaths from diseases contracted in the over crowded and dirty cities of the former Roman empire. But, Europeans continued to bring Native Americans back to the Old World to instruct them in Christianity, and in the hopes they could ‘embrace civilization’ and act as go-betweens in European-Native American interactions. And nobody did it better than the French.

In 1635, the head of the Jesuits in French Quebec, Paul le Jeune, wrote about a young girl who had been taken to France. Le Jeune describes how this “little Savage” had come to France in 1634, was placed under the care of nuns, taught the lessons of Catholicism, and learned to speak “a great deal of the French language.”4 Apparently, this young Canadian girl came to disavow the spiritual beliefs of her people (which nation she belonged to, however, goes unmentioned), and desired to be baptized and to become Christian. By all accounts this girl actually took to the new religion and the new country she found herself in; more to my thinking, however, she proved sly enough to tell the nuns what they wanted to hear, learned the language of her captors, and knew well enough that if she embraced Christianity she may well have a chance to go back home as a ‘missionary.’ But, no matter the reasons she learned French and ‘desired baptism,’ this poor young girl died of smallpox while in France, never to return home to her family and friends.5

This young girl’s story mirrored that of her more famous compatriot, Pocahontas. Captured by the English in 1613, Pocahontas eventually agreed to marry one of the men in her captors’ ranks, John Rolfe – and bore him a son as a TEENAGER! Taken to England, she took the Christian name of Rebecca, and came to represent the epitome of the civilized savage. The daughter of Powhatan, the leader of the largest confederacy on the east coast south of present day Buffalo, NY, she undoubtedly had her people’s interests in mind when she ‘chose’ to marry Rolfe, and return with him to England.6 Though she did plan to return to her native Powhatan Confederacy in what we now call Virginia, Pocahontas died en route, and rather ironically, at Gravesend, England. Like so many before, and so many after, the now famous (though mostly for the inaccurate story told about her life in the 1990s) Pocahontas fell victim to European incursion, most likely went to Europe begrudgingly at best, and died in a dirty, foreign land.

While not all Native American voyagers to Europe were forced to make the journey, it does seem that none of them were really too impressed with what they found. Used to a far more egalitarian society, they found a Europe where less than 1% of the population controlled 99% of the wealth; where the cities literally had blood, piss, and shit (human or otherwise) flowing through the streets at any given time; and where much of the population suffered from illnesses like the various poxes and plagues that wreaked havoc in Europe for half a millennium.

Not exactly what Disney depicted, huh?


1. Olive Patricia Dickason,The Myth of the Savage: And the Beginnings of French Colonialism in the Americas (Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1984), 205-209.
2. Dickason, The Myth of the Savage, 206.
3. Gaspar Corte-Real, in Dickason, The Myth of the Savage, 208.
4. Paul le Jeune, “Of the Conversion and the Death of some Savages,” Jesuit Relations, 7:287, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites (http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_07.html
5. Ibid
6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pocahontas

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