Pocahontas Played Role in Earliest Days of British Empire

A “Baptism of Pocahontas” vignette appeared on $20 National Bank Notes circulated from the 1860s to 1880s. This Proof Back Vignette sold at Heritage Auctions for $2,820 in October 2012.

By Jim O’Neal

After a relatively long period of obscurity, Pocahontas is back in the news. She was one of the many daughters of Chief Powhatan, the Indian chief who tangled with English settlers at Jamestown, Va., in 1607.

Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas and was led by English colonist Captain John Smith. Legend has it that Smith was captured while exploring on the Chickahominy River in December 1607 and Pocahontas prevailed on her father to spare his life.

Serious historians credit Jamestown with being the “beginning of the British Empire.” During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Spain and Portugal pioneered European exploration of the globe and England became quite envious of the treasures they brought home after numerous voyages. France and the Netherlands were also competing targets.

England and Scotland joined forces to create Great Britain, and after they defeated France and the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries in wars largely waged to secure trade routes, the British Empire became the largest empire in history, despite losing the American colonies.

The British Empire was a vast network of dominions, colonies and protectorates ruled or administrated by the United Kingdom. The British domination was so pervasive that the period from 1815 to 1914 was known as Pax Britannia (British Peace). The Royal Navy was omnipotent, maintaining 458 million people (one-fifth of the world) and 13 million square miles – 25 percent of Earth’s land area.

Pocahontas, after being captured and held for ransom in 1613, converted to Christianity, changed her name to Rebecca and married tobacco planter John Rolfe.

The Rolfes traveled to London, where Rebecca became a celebrity and attended galas at Whitehall Palace. Alas, on their return voyage to Virginia, Rebecca died and was buried in an unmarked grave. She has received lasting fame through art, literature and film. Some of her more diverse descendants include Percival Lowell (who discovered Pluto), Glenn Strange (Sam the bartender on Gunsmoke) and two First Ladies … Edith Wilson and Nancy Reagan.

Sadly, Pocahontas never officially earned the title of Princess.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].