Pocahontas Death Day Celebrations in England

English citizens devote themselves to a year of festivities to celebrate the Pocahontas 400 – Peace and Reconciliation project.

March 21, 2017 marks the 400th anniversary of the death and burial of Pocahontas in England.

The British National Archives marked June 2016 as the focal point of the 400th anniversary of the visit of Matoaka, commonly known as “Pocahontas the Algonquin Indian Princess,” to London. The Gravesham Borough Council in the Garden of England county of Kent which oversees all of the Pocahontas 400 celebrations, marks 2016/2017 as the 400th anniversary of her death and burial in the town of Gravesend.

English citizens have devoted themselves to a year of festivities to celebrate this history under the banner of the Pocahontas 400 – Peace and Reconciliation project. The initiative is a collaboration between the council and her final resting place, St. George’s Church in Gravesend.

Pocahontas grave, St. Georges Church Kent UK. Photo - WIKIPEDIA

Pocahontas grave, St. Georges Church Kent UK.

Gravesham Borough Council has been working with schools and community groups county-wide to remember the English version of her life story. Pocahontas 400 events have included school activities, plays, talks by English historians and academic lecturers, a visit from former American Ambassador Matthew Barzun, a family re-enactment day, music performances, and an art exhibition.

Community art workshops for adults and children included making giant eye-catching feathers “similar to those in headdresses” to be given to locals considered to be “Peacemakers of Gravesend” and also used in a parade display. Feather flags have also been made by school children to wave at the parade (colorful feathers are “the symbol most associated with Pocahontas,” say the organizers).

A competition-winning Peace Tree sculpture symbolizing peace and friendship between Gravesend and Virginia made entirely from recycled paper and cardboard was made to celebrate the legacy of Pocahontas. The sculpture will be unveiled and part of it given to a delegation from Virginia at the parade on March 21st commemorating the 400th anniversary of Matoaka’s burial.

The Burial Register of Pocahontas will be on display at St. George’s Church in Gravesend during Commemoration Week.

While there is consensus between concerned parties in England and the U.S that the true story of Pocahontas should be told, honored and respected; the factual reality of the tragedy and heartbreak she actually went through must also be addressed. Using ICMN Arts and Entertainment Editor Vincent Schilling’s original article titled The True Story of Pocahontas: Historical Myths Versus Sad Reality as a guide, there are glaring notable differences between the perspective of her Powhatan Confederacy Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and Patawomeck tribes and the mythical Pocahontas aka the Great and Powerful English Feminist narratives portrayed in British news reports on Pocahontas 400.

Pocahontas Saving John Smith

It was in 1607, at the age of 13 or 14 that she first came into contact with the English.

A portrait of Pocahontas saving the life of John Smith with Father Wahunsenaca. Photo - AP Images

A portrait of Pocahontas saving the life of John Smith with Father Wahunsenaca. Oral history from the descendants of Pocahontas dictate such a thing could never have happened.

The English Pocahontas 400 Narrative says:

“Her first interaction with the English is the story which inspired the Disney movie. Captain John Smith was taken prisoner, and she saved him. He used to tell people the story himself which is why there is scepticism about it. In his account she put herself between him and her father who was about to put John Smith to death. She said ‘Father if you’re going to kill him, you’ll have to kill me first.’” - Reverend Canon Chris Stone, St George’s Church Gravesend (Kent News)

The Factual Tribal/Virginia History says:

According to tribal historians and Pocahontas descendants, John Smith first encountered her when she was roughly nine or 10 years old in 1607. She was seen as a “symbol of peace” by the English by virtue of being a child but could not have saved Smith’s life. The children of the Powhatan were very closely watched, and as the daughter of Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca Pocahontas would have been bound by much stricter standards.

As Smith was being accorded the honor of becoming a werowance (a leader among the Powhatan), there was no reason to kill him. It is impossible for Pocahontas to have thrown herself in front of him to beg for his life because children were not allowed to attend ceremonies of religious significance like the four-day process Smith undertook. (Reference: Vincent Schilling, ICMN article)


Pocahontas Was Kidnapped and Her Native Husband Murdered

The settlers kidnapped Pocahontas after John Smith was released and held her ransom in a desperate plea for food. This is how she ended up being taken to England

The English Pocahontas 400 Narrative says:

“Food was in short supply, so they took her and asked for food for her return, but this incident changed her. While hostage, Pocahontas was educated by Alexander Whittaker and became the first Native American to be baptised as a Christian.” - Reverend Canon Chris Stone, St George’s Church Gravesend (Kent News)

The Factual Tribal/Virginia History says:

Smith did not ask for what he wanted or needed nor did he trade as is commonly taught. He was well-known for entering Native villages and putting guns to the heads of chiefs demanding food and supplies—and he was feared because of it.

In a bid to prevent attacks by the Powhatan, English Captain Samuel Argall kidnapped Pocahontas when she was roughly 15/16. Her Patawomeck first husband was murdered by colonists and she was first to give up her first-born child, a daughter named Ka-Okee. Argall had come to the village where Pocahontas was living with her husband and threatened Chief Japazaw (her husband's brother) and the village with violence unless she was handed over. Fearing that Pocahontas, the ‘Peace Symbol of the Powhatan’ might be harmed and themselves captured, the Powhatan never retaliated for her kidnapping. (Reference: Vincent Schilling, ICMN article)

Pocahontas Marriage: Rape, Love, or Tobacco Profit

The English Pocahontas 400 Narrative says:

“Once baptised, she decided to stay with the English settlers. She then fell in love and married tobacco planter John Rolfe in 1614—John Smith had left America by this point. They, along with their son Thomas, decided to go back to England, bringing members of her tribe with them. When she arrived in London she was received as royalty....” - Reverend Canon Chris Stone, St George’s Church Gravesend (Kent News)

The Factual Tribal/Virginia History says:

Jamestown was failing as a colony and John Rolfe was under pressure to make it profitable by 1616 or lose English support. It’s questionable that Rolfe and Pocahontas married for love: (1) she was not allowed to see her extended family, her daughter included, after being kidnapped, and (2) Rolfe was keen to learn Powhatan tobacco curing techniques, a sacred practice not shared with outsiders. There was much to be gained politically in an alliance with the Powhatan, so eventually he married the ‘Peace Symbol of the Powhatan’.

Mattaponi history is clear that Pocahontas had her son Thomas out of wedlock and because of being repeatedly raped by her English captors before to her eventual marriage to John Rolfe. The colonists pressured Pocahontas to become “civilized” by taunting her with lies that her father did not love her because he made no attempt to rescue her. After the marriage Rebecca “Pocahontas ‘the Peace Symbol of the Powhatan’ ” Rolfe traveled to England with John Rolfe, her son Thomas (now known as Thomas Rolfe), her kidnapper Captain Samuel Argall, and several Native tribal members including her sister Mattachanna (to whom she confessed the horrific rapes that she’d endured). Pocahontas’ presence in England was necessary in securing ongoing financial support; though many elites in England supposedly disproved of colonial violence, settler atrocities against the Powhatan were abundant. (Reference: Vincent Schilling, ICMN article)


Pocahontas Voyage Home: Declining Health or Murder by Poison

John Rolfe, Pocahontas, and Thomas sailed down the Thames to London, stopping in Gravesend on the way back to Virginia

The English Pocahontas 400 Narrative says:

“I think she was homesick, and that’s why they really decided to leave. You have to remember, Pocahontas was only 21 when she died, it’s completely normal for a 21-year-old to want to be with their family,” John Rolfe, an Englishman who claims to be a direct descendant of Pocahontas and John Rolfe (Kent News)

“It was always the last mainland stop before crossing the Atlantic to America, but we’re not actually sure how Pocahontas got to the town. She could either have travelled on land or by ship, but either way it was on her way there that she became ill. When she arrived her illness got worse, and so it’s in Gravesend that she died. We’re not sure what killed her, but it’s thought she may have had dysentery, a kind of infection in the intestines.” - Reverend Canon Chris Stone, St George’s Church Gravesend (Kent News)

The Factual Tribal/Virginia History says:

His mission accomplished, John Rolfe made plans to return to Virginia in the spring of 1617. Pocahontas’ sister Mattachanna and other tribal members who had traveled to England and made it back to Virginia were clear that Pocahontas was in good health there and on the ship preparing to go home. Pocahontas vomited and died after a dinner with Rolfe and her kidnapper, Captain Argall. The Powhatan assessment was that her sudden death was due to being poisoned. Many of the Powhatan women accompanying Pocahontas [who could have further corroborated these accounts] ended up being sold as servants or carnival attractions or sent to Bermuda if they became pregnant after being raped and sold into slavery. Instead of taking Pocahontas’ body home to Virginia, Rolfe and Argall took her to Gravesend where she was buried at Saint George’s Church on March 21, 1617.

Though some historians claim that Pocahontas betrayed her people, Mattachanna confirmed to their father that this never happened—Pocahontas had been well aware that the English were using her and she was desperate to return home to her father and daughter. (Reference: Vincent Schilling, ICMN article)

The Legacy of Pocahontas: Inspiration or Devastation?

The English Pocahontas 400 Narrative says:

“We really want to…retell Pocahontas’ story for today’s generation. Pocahontas was a remarkable young woman, who set out, on a small craft, across storm-tossed seas to promote how despite differences, we can live, function and adapt for that cause of peace through unity. Today the legacy of Pocahontas lives on in the youth of our borough.” - Jordan Meade, Gravesham Borough Councillor (Gravesham Borough Council site and (Kent News)

“She really stood for two things; peace and reconciliation. She’s a constant reminder that people of different backgrounds can come together peacefully.” - Reverend Canon Chris Stone, of St George’s Church Gravesend (Kent News)

“She was incredibly powerful, and is still iconic. She sends a message to all young people today that you can achieve so much in such a short period of your life. Personally, I’m incredibly proud to descend from someone so courageous. Not only was she baptised but she took on a completely different culture at such a young age. She even changed her name to Rebecca. It wasn’t just a case of accepting the English settlers, essentially she started to become English. She was promoting the coming together of both cultures, and showing the people that they could work together as a collective. This is what she’s remembered for today, as these are her actions which are seen as most significant. It’s amazing that she had so much influence on people at such a young age, and that she was so willing to show everyone that peace was possible.” - John Rolfe, an Englishman who claims to be a direct descendant of Pocahontas and John Rolfe (Kent News)

The Factual Tribal/Virginia History says:

"Pocahontas is the darling American Indian of the dominant society, but she's not perceived that way by Indian Country," Buck Woodard, director of the American Indian Initiative at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation told the Virginian-Pilot in April 2014 on the then 400th anniversary of Pocahontas’ wedding to John Rolfe. "I'm not saying it's negative, just that she doesn't have the same place. She's definitely part of popular culture. Because of that, she's more strongly connected to Disney or the county seal for Henrico or an apple company. Pocahontas has been appropriated beyond recovery from the Indian community, so it's a little bittersweet. After all, she did marry an Englishman, and her descendants aren't considered Indian today. They're considered part of the dominant society."

The article noted that much of what was commonly known about her comes from English colonists – and that Native oral history had been largely excluded and reflected a different perspective. Four members of the Pamunkey and Patawomeck tribes reportedly said the Indian relationship with Pocahontas had “waxed and waned” in a discussion with Woodward the year before. “They said they didn't really have a connection with her today because she's connected with so many other people," he recounted. "Her descendants may be the 'First Families of Virginia,' but her relatives are the Virginia Indians."

The Virginian-Pilot pointedly observed that “while Jamestown prospered after the marriage, the Indians were overrun. In Virginia, their heritage was erased from official documents. Such omissions have made it difficult for today's Indians to prove their ancestry and, thus, to gain state and federal recognition of their tribes.”

"Colonization is brutal business, and not just in early Virginia,” Mark Summers, Historic Jamestowne's manager of public and educational programs told the Virginian-Pilot. “People around the world can relate to the Jamestown/Native American story.” 

Who Knows Best? Bring the Bones of Pocahontas Home!

The English Pocahontas 400 Narrative says:

Kent News states that ‘descendant’ John Rolfe told them ‘the tribe his alleged ancestor descends from’ supports her remains not being repatriated: “They have said they do not wish for her to be moved and think it’s very important that she remains where she is because there is a great deal of respect for her legacy in Gravesend.” (Kent News)

The Factual Tribal/Virginia History says:

Virginia tribes have requested that Pocahontas’ remains be repatriated; English authorities claim that the exact location of her remains are unknown. In April 2000 the Los Angeles Times reported on world-renowned entertainer Wayne Newton’s efforts in gathering a team of forensic experts to locate Pocahontas’ remains in England for reburial in Virginia. Newton, a Patawomeck Pocahontas descendant through her daughter Ka-Okee, was said to have referred to Pocahontas' burial abroad an "atrocity”.

Patawomeck Tribal Historian William "Night Owl" Deyo was surprised to learn of Rolfe’s existence and media comments from ICMN. He confirmed to us via email that “it would not be possible for Mr. Rolfe of Yorkshire to be descended from Pocahontas. Pocahontas and John Rolfe had only one child, a son, Thomas Rolfe, who is only known to have had two daughters. There were no Rolfes to carry on the surname.” Deyo further clarified that it has been well documented that Thomas had one daughter, Anne, by his [first] English wife and one daughter, Jane, by the wife he had in Virginia. And again—Mattaponi history is clear that Pocahontas not only had her son Thomas out of wedlock but because of being repeatedly raped by her English captors before to her eventual marriage to John Rolfe

Eurocentric Scientific Racism: Measuring the Skull of Pocahontas

In a blog post on the 400th Anniversary of Pocahontas’ visit to London, the British National Archives shared some of the materials available in their public records.

Celebrated writer and commentor John Chamberlain noted ‘some ten or twelve old and younge of that countrie, among whom the most remarquable person is Poca-huntas (daughter to Powatan a kinge or cacique of that countrie) maried to one Rolfe an English man…’ had been brought to England by Sir Thomas Dale, Deputy Governor of the Virginia Colony in a letter of 22 June 1616. He further observed that though the New World seemed promising, no immediate profit was expected. This underscores Jamestown’s initial failure as a colony and the pressure John Rolfe was under to make it profitable or lose English support.

Letter (excerpt) from John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton, dated 22 June 1616 (catalogue reference: SP 14/87, f.135v). Source: British National Archives, Open Government License

Letter (excerpt) from John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton, dated 22 June 1616 (catalogue reference: SP 14/87, f.135v). British National Archives Open Government License

In Chamberlain’s next letter to Carleton in January 1617, he related gossip on Pocahontas’ recent attendance at a masque hosted by King James I where she was given the status of a visiting ambassador [symbolic in nature, no equivalency in today’s terms]. On other occasions she also had audiences with the Queen [Anne of Denmark] and the Bishop of London, John King.

‘The virginian woman Poca-huntas, wundefinedth her father[‘s] counsaillor have ben wundefinedth the king and gracioussly used, and both she and her assistant well placed at the maske, she is upon her return (though sore against her will) yf the wind wold come about to send them away.’

Image of Letter (excerpt) from John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton dated 18 January 1617 (catalogue reference: SP 14/90, f.56). Source: British National Archives, Open Government License

Image of Letter (excerpt) from John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton dated 18 January 1617 (catalogue reference: SP 14/90, f.56). Source: British National Archives, Open Government License

A third letter from Chamberlain in late March 1617 reports Pocahontas’ death: ‘…the virginian woman (whose picture I sent you) died this last weeke as she was returning homeward.’

Image of Letter (excerpt) from John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton, dated 29 March 1617 (catalogue reference: SP 14/90, f.250v).

Image of Letter (excerpt) from John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton, dated 29 March 1617 (catalogue reference: SP 14/90, f.250v). Source: British National Archives, Open Government License

The last of the BNA Pocahontas files is an early 20th century Home Office document (HO 45/14558). Reportedly despondent that “our American Princess has slept for centuries in an unknown grave in this distant land” and wanting to repatriate Pocahontas’ remains if they could be found, American journalist, lecturer, and temperance activist Edward Page Gaston, applied to exhume her remains from St. George’s Church graveyard. Permission was granted by the HO in 1923.

As noted by the Kent Archaeological society, The History Vault (UK) website and the Twenty-ninth Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, 1924 to the State Legislature of NY, the unsuccessful exhumation attempt (“Finding the Grave of a Princess”) was carried out by ‘interested parties’ including: Canon Gedge, ‘The Blind Rector of St. George’s’; Eurocentric scientific racist Sir Arthur Keith of the Royal College of Surgeons; W.P. Pycraft of the British Museum; James Van Allen Shields and Philip Franklin both of the English Speaking Union; and Sir Thomas Colyer-Fergusson.

By all accounts the process of exhuming remains in the church graveyard for examination was disastrous and the press coverage overwhelmingly negative.

The actual skull of Pocahontas?

In a newspaper cutting documenting the search for the remains of Pocahontas from the Daily Mirror dated 1 June 1923, Mr. W.P. Pycraft, an anthropologist from the British Museum measured skulls found at the Gravesend site in a quest to find the remains of Pocahontas based on scientific race-based theory.

The image does have human skulls contained therein and ICMN chose not to post the image as a gesture of respect.

It can be accessed here: Newspaper cutting from the Daily Mirror - 1 June 1923 - documenting the search for the remains of Pocahontas

The image (catalogue reference: HO 45/14558). Source: British National Archives, Open Government License

The BNA shares that the British tabloid The Daily Express reported: ‘Princess Pocahontas, the pretty Red Indian princess who married an Englishman and was buried at Gravesend after living happily with him in this country for many years, may have been sold to a rag and bone man for a balloon’. The Evening News said ‘This is a meddling curiosity, a peeping sacrilege’, a sentiment consistent with the rest of the British press.


In Conclusion: A Celebration of Rape, Abduction, Forced Religion and Murder by Poisoning

Art Historian Crow Creek Dakota Hunkpati Stephanie Pratt has been visiting schools in Gravesend as part of the Pocahontas 400 project. She told BBC News that she feels a connection to Pocahontas and sees herself as a cultural ambassador.

“I am part of her story. I am following in her footsteps. I married an English person, I changed my culture, I became an ambassador for my people–which is what I really think she was.”

Accepting Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and Patawomeck tribal history as actual fact, dictates that the English Pocahontas 400 project is an unfortunate misguided celebration of genocidal settler colonialism and “the rape, abduction, and murder of a young Native American girl by those who were supposed to keep her safe”.

Pocahontas 400 was made possible with funding from Heritage Lottery, Arts Council England and Celebrate England Funding.

Follow ICTMN Correspondent Lisa J. Ellwood on Twitter at www.twitter.com/IconicImagery