Matoaka and Algonquian Women

Rebecca in London

Timeline for Matoaka

  • 1596 Birth (est.)

    1607 Visits James Fort and plays with English boys; intervenes in John Smith’s Capture

    1609 Stops visits to James Fort

    1611 Resumes visits to James Fort

    1612 Marries Algonquian “Captain” Kocoum (lives in Wahunsenacah’s household)

    1613 Trade visit to Patawomeck and visits friends; captured by Captain Argall in a scheme with Iopassus (and his wife), brother of chief of Patawomecks, and held for ransom; brought to Jamestown as prisoner

    1614 Courted by John Rolfe and instructed in tenets of Christianity by Rev. Alexander Whitaker; baptized and given the name Rebecca (Genesis, Chapter 24); marries John Rolfe; tutors husband on how and where to plant, cultivate, and harvest tobacco; first tobacco crop is produced and sent to England

    1615 Gives birth to Thomas Rolfe

    1616 Goes to London accompanied by John Rolfe, Uttamattomakin, chief priest of the Powhatans, her sister Mattachanna, and Mattachanna’s husband. Meets the royal family and is visited by John Smith.

    1617 Dies at 21 years of age and is buried in chancel of St. George’s Church, Gravesend. Cause of death is unclear; speculation includes tuberculosis, pneumonia, mental anxiety over the expectation that she would be responsible to convert others upon her return to Virginia, and even poisoning. For Rolfe’s grievous feelings of the loss and why he left Thomas in England, go here and type in the search of the Records of the Virginia Company the words “much lamented,” then choose the first entry.

    St. George’s Church, Gravesend

Matoaka and the Algonquian Exchange

Algonquian women’s, and Matoaka’s specifically, contributions to the Algonquian Exchange cannot be overstated. Matoaka’s most significant and unrecognized act was to tutor John Rolfe on tobacco culture. The Algonquians grew some tobacco before John Rolfe brought the seeds he had gotten after his shipwreck in Bermuda. Thus Matoaka was already familiar with tobacco-growing in the Chesapeake. Together they grew a successful crop of sweet-scented tobacco in 1614. The popularity of Virginia tobacco and the increase in tobacco use in England fulfilled the Virginia Company’s goal of a sustainable colony. The arrival of Africans in 1619 and the growth of the tobacco culture set Virginia on the path towards a slave society, an outcome the Rolfes could not have anticipated.

Algonquian Women

Algonquian women were the lynchpins of the domestic economy. They were the agriculturalists, those most acquainted with the climate, environment, and soil of the region. Algonquian women planted and cared for the most important subsistence crops of corn, beans, and squash. They assisted men in night-fishing expeditions. When the men went on hunting excursions, the women preceded them carrying mats and other provisions needed to set up camps. They performed numerous tasks in the household economy, caring for children, preparing food, teaching young boys how to shoot a bow and arrow, tanning skins, and preparing gift exchanges. In a matrilineal society, they could also inherit a chieftancy as did Cockacoeske, also known as Cockacoeweske, a Pamunkey chief, and a descendant of Opechancanough, brother of the paramount chief Wahunsenacah. After the death of her husband, Totopotomoy, Cockacoeske became queen of the Pamunkey and ruled between 1649 until 1656. In 1677 she signed the Treaty of Middle Plantation placing under her authority tribes that hand not been under Powhatan control since 1646.

See Kathleen Brown’s brilliant essay on women at Jamestown.

%d bloggers like this: