400 years on, the inspiring legacy of Pocahontas lives on
PUBLISHED: 15:00 22 January 2017
At the final resting place of the pioneering real-life Native American, a series of special events is taking place. We speak to a descendant and experts about her life
WHEN movie studio Disney released the animated classic Pocahontas in 1995, it drew attention to the life of a quite remarkable woman who lived and died in the collision of two very different worlds.
And while the fictional account was based only loosely on the reality of her extraordinary life, it brought the Native American to a global audience with an interest which continues to this day.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of her death – a life journey which ended in dramatic circumstances at Gravesend – a town which has long marked its association with her.
And now Gravesham Borough Council is marking the date with a year-long series of events bringing her story to life once more in the 21st century, through talks and exhibitions, art and song.
Certainly her life was remarkable – daughter of a tribal chief in what is now Virginia, she was confronted by settlers in the 17th century and, legend has it, saved the life of one Englishman facing execution.
Then kidnapped by the settlers and held for ransom, she converted to Christianity, fell in love with an English tobacco planter and became a society celebrity, known as the ‘civilised savage’.
Celebrations of her life, dubbed Pocahontas 400, began with a ceremony last week at St George’s Church in Gravesend – the burial place of a woman whose historical impact was significant despite only living until she was just 21.
Direct descendant John Rolfe, mayor of Gravesham Greta Goatley, US ambassador Matthew Barzun, Crow Creek cultural ambassador to the UK Stephanie Pratt, Thamesview School pupils, and Jordan Meade, Gravesham cabinet member for tourism, heritage and youth, assembled to lay 21 roses by a statue of Pocahontas at the site of the church.
Cllr Meade said: “Pocahontas 400 is a unique opportunity for Gravesham to promote our rich riverside heritage.
“The borough is extremely proud to be part of such an important story. 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 and I encourage everyone to participate.
“I am very pleased to see the borough is coming together to mark this important milestone.”
Reverend Canon Chris Stone, of St George’s Church, says the true story remains inspiring to this day.
He told KoS: “She really stood for two things; peace and reconciliation. She’s a constant reminder that people of different backgrounds can come together peacefully.”
Mr Rolfe, a direct descendant of Pocahontas who lives in Yorkshire, added: “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.”
Pocahontas grew up as part of a tribe, and as the youngest daughter of Powhatan, the great chief of the Tsenacommacah area – today known as Jamestown in Virginia.
It was in 1607, at the age of 13 or 14 that she first came into contact with the English. They were men who came to America as part of The Virginia Company, a company set up by King James I with the purpose of establishing colonial settlements in America.
“Other attempts had been made by the English to settle in America before 1607 but they were unsuccessful,” explained Rev Stone.
“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’”.
After John Smith was released, the settlers kidnapped Pocahontas and held her ransom in a desperate plea for food. An act which initiated her journey to England.
“Food was in short supply, so they took her and asked for food for her return, but this incident changed her,” Rev Stone says. “While hostage, Pocahontas was educated by Alexander Whittaker and became the first Native American to be baptised as a Christian.”
Adds John Rolfe: “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.”
Her baptism is depicted on a stained glass window at St George’s Church, as it marks an important milestone in the history of Christianity. Pocahontas is also an iconic figure for interracial marriage, as it’s believed she was the first Native American woman to marry an English man.
Rev Stone continued: “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, and it became her job to encourage people to go to America to settle and invest in the Virginia Company who were short of funds.
“While there she met the King and Queen, the Bishop of London, and she actually met John Smith again. She was a kind of celebrity there because people were fascinated by her. You have to remember that Native Americans were viewed as savages at this point. They saw her as a ‘civilised savage’.”
Having finished what she went to London to do, it was time to go back to America, and it was then that she made her way to Gravesend – setting sale from London, down the Thames.
“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,” says Mr Rolfe.
Mr Stone explains why they stopped in Gravesend: “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.”
Nowadays, it’s unclear where on the ground of St George’s Church Pocahontas is actually buried.
The Rev Stone elaborated: “The church that was there at the time, is not the same church that stands there today because a fire burned the original down in 1727 and it was rebuilt in 1732. As a result of this, we don’t know where her grave is, all we known is that the burial records show her name, and that it’s thought she might lie underneath the altar.”
Mr Rolfe claims that the tribe his ancestor descends from are supportive of her body remaining in Gravesend. He said: “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.”
Pocahontas’ death will be honoured in a commemorative parade from St George’s Church and through Gravesend on it’s anniversary of March 21.
For more information about Pocahontas and the events taking place in Gravesend visit visitgravesend.co.uk