The Algonquian Exchange and Liminals

Paspahegh Weroance Wowinchopunck
Matoaka(aka Amonute, Pocahontas, Rebecca))
Algonquian Town of Secota

Algonquians Fishing


Liminals (see my essay where I use the word “creoles” as a related term) were figures at the intersection of Algonquian and English cultures, a perfect junction to observe the dynamics of Algonquian exchanges. At times, they were English men and boys exchanged for Algonquian counterparts. In the case of Indians, they were men the English had captured, transported to England to learn English, and returned to aid in colonization. Indians served as interpreters or storehouses of knowledge on growing corn, and hunting and fishing techniques. They taught settlers how to survive in a wilderness setting. English boys, such as Henry Spelman, who at age 14 colonial leaders sent to live with Wahunsenacah as an interpreter, also served important roles. Spelman spent nearly a year with Indian groups and wrote a narrative of their practices of marriage and divorce, Indian law and punishment, child naming practices, religion, sickness and burial practices, and ritual ceremonies. When Wahunsenacah used him to lead a deadly ambush of an English trading party, he ran away and later provided knowledge that led to the capture of Matoaka (Pocahonatas).

Algonquian Examples

Wahunsenacah exchanged Namontack, one of his most trusted servants, for fifteen-year-old Thomas Savage. Wanchese, a Roanoke Indian and Manteo, a Croatoan, were sent to England to learn English and returned to the Lost Colony to help the invaders. Wanchese subsequently ran away back to his people, but Manteo continued to provide information on the various Indian groups of Ossomocomuck.

The Spanish also used Indians. In 1561, The Spanish captured Pacquiquineo (Don Luis De Velasco) in a raid, transported him to Spain where he met the King Philip II. The Spanish believed he would be useful in in their plans to establish a mission in the Chesapeake. After traveling to New Spain (Mexico) where he was given the name Don Luis de Velasco, and a conversion to Christianity, he returned in 1570 to the James River with the Jesuits. He cooperated with the Jesuits briefly but returned to his people in February 1571. Then he led a raid on the mission and killed the missionaries. In 1572, the Spanish governor dispatched a military expedition to the James River and captured some of Pacquiquineo’s people. In kangaroo court style, they were declared guilty and hung from the ship’s yardarms. Pacquiquineo was not found and vanished from sight. Speculation remains as to his subsequent whereabouts.

Matoaka (Pocahontas)

Matoaka was a secret name Indians used for Pocahontas, one of Wahunsenacah’s many children. The tribal identity and name of her mother is unknown. By custom, Wahunsenacah took many wives each of whom returned to the general Powhatan population to be supported by him. The name Pocahontas likely relates to her reputation as a playful, mischievous, and fun-loving child of eleven years of age in 1607. Amonute was another Algonquian name, and the English gave her the Christian name Rebecca when she was baptized in 1614. Shortly after, she married John Rolfe, a widower, she gave birth to a son Thomas, and traveled to London. On the way back, she became gravely ill, died, and was buried under the chancel of St. Gregory’s church at Gravesend, England. Other details of her life can be found in the above link. Her value to the Jamestown colony was substantial. On one occasion she warned the fort about an eminent attack from Wahunsenacah. She was a frequent visitor to the Jamestown colony, and her beauty and manner charmed English royalty and belied the stereotypes of primitive savages.

Liminal Exchanges

These few examples do not do justice to Algonquian contributions to New America. Liminals provided invaluable assistance as language interpreters, sources of information on Algonquian customs and lifestyles (see John White watercolors and Henry Spelman’s Relation of Virginia), fishing and hunting practices, organizing and planting fields, growing crops, law and governance, and other contributions that need research and far more attention than has been given to them. Algonquian fall harvest festivals predated the official U.S. Thanksgiving Day proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln two and a half centuries later.

The Algonquians as a community enforced strict penalties for stealing and lying. The death penalty could be imposed for these crimes and robbery, murder, or adultery. On Indian laws and governance, Thomas Jefferson compared European governments unfavorably to Indian societies that live without government but are happier. Europeans divide people into wolves and sheep, where the rich prey upon the poor. The sheep are happier when only public opinion powerfully restrains morals than when laws place subjects under the care of wolves.


Matoaka’s life is encrusted in legends and myths. One of the most popular and indelible myths surrounds John Smith with whom she is said to have had a romantic relationship. Smith’s account of his capture includes the myth that Matoaka saved his life.


Most reliable accounts describe this event as a ritual ceremony that Smith misunderstood. In fact, Wahunsenacah staged the killing as symbolic of Smith’s incorporation into his paramount chieftancy, even offering to call him his son and offering residence at Capahowasick, a town just south of his capital of Werowocomoco. Other more circumstantial evidence challenges the myth: Smith claims having been saved by beautiful women on three other occasions in his life; he was at Jamestown for only two years, most of which were spent away from the fort; and most importantly, there is no substantial evidence to support the claim. Regardless, a Disney movie (Pocahontas 1995) and a more recent movie (The New World 2005) support the saving, although they recognize an unlikely romance. Countless images on the Internet engender bogus impressions of a princess. In fact, there is only one actual real image of her drawn by Simon van de Passe (see above) when she visited London with her real love, John Rolfe.