American Indians

The history of this continent's original inhabitants encompasses a broad range of cultures and experiences. American Indians varied greatly from region to region, as did their reactions to European settlement. The Smithsonian is currently building the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, D.C., that will house one of the world's largest collections of American Indian artifacts.

Pocahontas (circa 1595-1617)

Unidentified artist
Oil on canvas, after the 1616 engraving by Simon van de Passe, NPG.65.61
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Transfer from the National Gallery of Art; gift of Andrew W. Mellon, 1942

Pocahontas (Matoaka) illustrates the romantic notions that Europeans often built around the people they encountered in the New World. Even today, the legend of Pocahontas remains so powerful that it is difficult to separate the facts of her life from the myth. Pocahontas was the daughter of Chief Powhatan (Wahunsonacock), the powerful leader of thirty-two Algonquian bands known as the Powhatan Confederacy, in what is now eastern Virginia. She, along with some other Indians, came into contact with the English settlers of Jamestown in 1607. Legend has it that the following year she saved Jamestown's leader, Captain John Smith, from a brutal execution after he had been captured by her uncle Opechancanough. Smith later claimed that the story was true, although his initial accounts of Jamestown make no mention of either his close brush with death or Pocahontas's involvement in it. Some believers in the tale have construed Pocahontas's action as an act of love. On the other hand, many suspect that the incident was a total fabrication, made up by Smith to boost his image. Still others have speculated that if the incident did occur, it was simply part of an Indian ritual that Smith may have misunderstood.

In any event, not long afterward, Pocahontas served as a go-between in negotiations between Smith and her father, and on one occasion warned Smith of an Indian attack on a party that Smith had organized to negotiate with Powhatan. Little more is known of Pocahontas until 1612, when she was captured by the English and held as ransom for the return of English prisoners. While in Jamestown, she converted to Christianity, taking the name of Rebecca. She married the tobacco farmer John Rolfe in 1613, and the union initiated a temporary truce between Powhatan and the colonists.

In 1616, the Rolfes sailed to England, where Pocahontas was welcomed by King James I and Queen Anne as royalty. While there, they received a surprise visit from Captain Smith, whom Pocahontas had supposed to be dead. Her troubled reaction was interpreted by some as a manifestation of her undying love for Smith. The next year, as the Rolfes were preparing to return to Virginia, Pocahontas contracted a fatal illness. After her death, Rolfe returned to America, where he died in 1622. Their son, Thomas Rolfe, who was raised by his father's family in England, later went on to become a successful Virginia landowner.

Black Hawk (1767-1838)

John Cameron (active 1848-1872) after James Otto Lewis (1799-1858)
Hand-colored lithograph, 1836, NPG.79.90
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Black Hawk (Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak) was an influential Sauk chief who took exception to an 1804 treaty whereby the Sauk and Fox tribes of Illinois and Wisconsin agreed to leave fifty million acres of land east of the Mississippi River at that point in the future when white settlers should begin moving onto them. While resenting the treaty's terms, Black Hawk and his dissident allies also challenged the agreement's validity, because the tribal representatives at St. Louis had been intoxicated when they signed the treaty.

Valid or not, the agreement had to be implemented in the 1820s, as more and more settlers streamed into the area in question,. The bulk of the Sauk and Fox tribes affected had moved across the Mississippi River by the early 1830s. Black Hawk and his followers were among those forced to migrate, but they bridled at the resettlement and kept returning to Illinois. For a period outright war was avoided, but hostilities finally broke out in early 1832. Unfortunately for Black Hawk, the Indian allies and British assistance from Canada that he was hoping would assist him in this struggle never materialized. By late summer, the uprising was crushed, and Black Hawk was a prisoner. After traveling to Washington where he met President Andrew Jackson, he was sent to Iowa to live out his final days. In many respects the story of the Black Hawk War is typical of the multitude of conflicts that resulted from tribal displacement during the period of westward expansion. Today his autobiography, Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, dictated while he was in prison and published in 1833, is a classic in American literature.

Geronimo (1829-1909)

Reed and Wallace Studio (1884-1892)
Photograph, 1890, NPG.80.246
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Geronimo (Goyathlay, or "One Who Yawns") has the distinction of being the last American Indian to formally surrender to the United States government--but only after a long struggle. Geronimo was the leader of the Chiricahua band of the Apache tribe in what is now southwest New Mexico, southeast Arizona, and northern Mexico. He grew up in a time of intense regional conflict between Mexicans, Americans, and Indians. In 1858 Mexican soldiers killed his mother, wife, and children, and Geronimo vowed to take revenge. No settler on either side of the border--and no fellow Indian--was immune to his attacks.

Both the Mexican and the American armies, aided by rival Apaches, pursued him for more than ten years. Though they captured Geronimo twice, he escaped both times. In 1886 Geronimo surrendered for the last time, but on his own terms. He remained in the custody of the army, and after a brief imprisonment, he worked as an army scout in Oklahoma. Later in life, with few other resources available, Geronimo capitalized on his fame, selling souvenirs and appearing at public events such as Teddy Roosevelt's 1905 inaugural parade. Said a judge who presided at his trial, "There is not, probably, in the history or tradition or myths of the human race another instance of such prolonged resistance against such tremendous odds."


Powhatan Renape Nation, Rankokus Indian Reservation
Powhatan version of the Pocahontas legend
Historical and artistic perspectives on Pocahontas from the American Studies Group at the University of Virginia
Pocahontas, John Rolfe, Jamestown and Virginia links
Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project, Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities

Geronimo biography, quotes and other information