1.3 Case Study - The story of Pocahontas

Many children will be familiar with the story of Pocahontas and work for this unit will enable them to  compare and contrast their existing understanding  with historical sources of information and to reflect on the values and beliefs of a past society. The activities outlined below deal with important issues such as;

  • Relating to people different from ourselves
  • Treating people fairly
  • Thinking about laws which protect human rights
  • Migration - why do people move home? How does their arrival in a new place effect both the indigenous people as well as themselves? What happens to people they leave behind?
  • Questioning stereotypes - children may think about native Americans in terms of cowboys and Indians  stories. The story of Pocahontas provides opportunities to challenge these stereotypes.

Such issues arise throughout different periods of time and may be both controversial and emotive.  Consequently, the examples of activities linked to the story of Pocahontas may be adapted for different periods of time since they encourage children to consider how people relate to each other and to question whether they are all treated fairly

Background information

Pocahontas was an Indian princess, the daughter of Powhatan who was a powerful chief of the Algonquian Indians living in Virginia. She was born about 1595. Her name means playful and her other formal names at birth were Matoaka  and Amonute. Amonute means white or snow feather and in several pictures Pocahontas is depicted holding some feathers. Pocahontas probably saw white men for the first time  in 1607 and there are different stories surrounding her meeting with Captain John Smith, one of the English settlers from Jamestown. Stories suggest that Pocahontas saved Smith's life and cradled his head in her arms just as he was about to be killed by her father.

Pocahontas became friends with Smith and in the following years she helped the English settlers, providing them with food when their crops failed and helped to negotiate  the release of English prisoners. In 1613 Pocahontas was captured by a Captain Argyll who held her as a hostage in exchange for prisoners captured by her father.  Pocahontas was treated as a guest whilst she was a prisoner. She learned about the Christian faith and was given the name Rebecca when she was baptised. Pocahontas married John Rolfe who was a young widower from Norfolk in England. Although her father, Powhatan did not attend the marriage, he sent her a present of a pearl necklace.

Pocahontas lived with her husband at Varina farm where they grew tobacco. Their son Thomas was born in 1614.  In 1616 they set sail to England along with other members of the Algonquian tribe and landed at Plymouth. One member of the tribe, Uttmatomakkin  was charged by Powhatan to make a notch in a wooden staff every time he saw an Englishman and it is said that he had thrown the staff away by the time they left Plymouth.  Pocahontas' stay in London is  well  documented; she attended the royal court and met King James and also went to watch a play at the Globe theatre.  It is also likely that she went to Heacham in Norfolk to stay with her husband's family.

In March1617 Pocahontas set sail with her husband back to America. However, she was taken ill off the coast of Kent and her body was buried in Gravesend churchyard. Her husband and son returned alone to Varina farm. The entry for her burial can be found in Gravesend burial register. 

More details about Pocahontas' life can be found at APVA Preservation Virginia.

And at New English Review which includes 4 pictures of Pocahontas; the entry in Gravesend burial register and a statue of her outside the church in Gravesend.

Heacham Online has a picture of the memorial to Princess Pocahontas which was erected in 1933.

St George's Church, Gravesend has further information about Pocahontas and pictures of a stained glass window and statute dedicated to her at Gravesend.

Discovering Jamestown has information about life in Jamestown in North America and pictures of both the English settlers and the Powhatan Indians.

BBC Famous People has the story of Pocahontas and interactive activities suitable for Key Stage 1.

Disney, (1995)   Pocahontas, Ladybird Books.

Why should we remember Pocahontas?


1.Who was Pocahontas and what do we know about her already?

a) To introduce the activity, ask the children if they know anything about Pocahontas. Who was she? Where was she born? What did she did do? Write down children's comments and save for the final session when they can review their learning.

Introduce Pocahontas through looking at different pictures/statues of her and ask the children to describe what they can see.  What is she wearing? What sort of person does she look like?  Describe the expression on her face. It might be helpful to label the different pictures recording children's comments around the side.

b) Tell the story of Pocahontas. BBC Famous People provides a simple account which children may read for themselves. Teachers may also choose to tell the story themselves, based on the information provided in this section and from the identified websites. Prepare sequencing activities to enable the children to re-tell the story in their own words and to explain and give reasons for their sequences.

2.  What was life like for Pocahontas  and  the native Americans?

Talk about ways of life of the native Americans.  Encourage children to ask questions and to research some of their own answers. Prompt questions may include; what were their homes like? What did they eat/wear? How did they enjoy themselves? What were some of their occupations and what did they spend their time doing? What was the countryside like where they lived? How did they travel and communicate?

Create a play area with the children where they can play and adopt the roles of ways of life which they have been researching. Children might make props to go in the play area which they could use following their research.

3. Why did the British  settlers go to North America and what  was their journey like?

Show the children a map of the North Atlantic and trace the route the ships would travel from England to Virginia. Talk about some of the reasons why the settlers might have wanted to leave England  ( looking for new places to trade; searching for places where they could practise their religion freely; excitement in travelling) and about some of the dangers which they would face on the voyage ( bad weather; masts breaking; sails being ripped; poor food; lack of water; basic navigation aids). Show pictures of the ships in which the settlers would travel and talk about some of the dangers of the voyage.  Ask the children if they were travelling to a new land what they would take with them. Talk about some of the things which the settlers took with them.

Ask children to imagine that they are one of the settlers and to draw a picture of themselves and to create an autobiography. What is their name? How old are they? Who is in their family? Why have they left England? What have they brought with them? How are they feeling as they arrive  in North America? When they have completed their autobiographies - take on the role of a radio reporter who is greeting new arrivals in North America. Ask the children to reply in role about who they are and what  their feelings about leaving England  are and arriving in a new land. 

4. Did the native Americans and the settlers treat each other fairly?

a) Ask the children to draw an imaginary map on  a large sheet of paper  of where Pocahontas lived - encourage them to draw different features of  the landscape - rivers, forests, mountains, plains and the sea. Ask them to draw in the places where Pocahontas might have lived with her family and to show where their favourite places are. When everything is drawn, tell the children they have taken up too much space. The English settlers want some of their land. Give the children scissors and ask them to cut off some land from their map to give to the settlers.

b) Discuss with the children how they felt about this. Did they want to give away parts of their land? Which parts did they give the settlers? Did they think it was fair that they had to give up parts of their land? Encourage children to raise questions such as whom does the land belong to? Who has the best claim to the land? Ask them to think about how they might get their land back.

Alternatively play games in the hall where children are divided into native Americans and settlers. Place mats on the floor. Initially permit all children to have access to the mats. Gradually reduce the number of mats which  the native Americans are allowed to stand on.  Talk with the children about how they felt.

c) The settlers were dependent on the native Americans for supplies of food in the early days and Pocahontas arranged for food to be supplied to them. Talk with the children about whether the native Americans should support the settlers with food. What might they ask for in return?

d) More able children might be encouraged to think about rules for the native Americans  and for the settlers.  How can they live peaceably together?

5. What happened to Pocahontas and why should we remember her?

a) Tell the children the story of Pocahontas' kidnap and subsequent marriage. Encourage children to discuss whether it was fair to kidnap her after she had helped the English settlers.

b) Explain how Pocahontas  travelled to England.  Ask the children  to imagine whether she would like England. How would she feel about leaving her home?  What might Pocahontas find strange in England? What might people in England think about Pocahontas?  Tell the children that Pocahontas died on her way home back to North America. 

c) Return to pictures from activity 1. What else have children learned about Pocahontas? Have their views changed? What else would they like to know? Do they think the pictures/statues reflect the sort of person the children think she was like?

d) Ask the children if they think people should remember Pocahontas and why? Children might like to consider creating their own memorial to Pocahontas and explain why they have represented her in this way.

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