Pocahontas in England

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (Oct. 2007)

Regular readers may recall that my family and I enjoy regular holidays in Norfolk. During one such holiday some 15 years ago we visited the town of Heacham near Hunstanton where, in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin we fell into conversation with Mrs Freda England the parish historian. She told me of the connections the village had with Pocahontas and Virginia in the US. The conversation stayed in my mind as the germ of an idea, which with the number of Virginia events and exhibitions this year to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, resulted in my spending some time visiting places significant to Pocahontas that she would have known during the last year of her life, 1616-1617 which she spent in England.



Early History

The story of Pocahontas was well known until Disney rewrote it in one of their more disappointing children’s animations.

She was born in 1595, the daughter of Wahunsunacock the Chief of the federation of more than 30 tribes on the east coast of what is now Virginia. The confederacy took its name from the largest town, Powhatan, and Wahunsunacock took that name as a title so that he is now known to history as Powhatan. His daughter is known to history as Pocahontas which means playful, or frolicsome. Her formal names at birth were Matoaka Amonute. Matoaka means white or snow feather. One source states that Amonute was her title appropriate to the role she was intended to play in her tribe’s religion.

She seems to have taken to the English settlers when they arrived from 1607 and played with the boys near her own age, and was described turning cartwheels naked. Powhatan had 100 wives and a child by each. We have the names of some of her brothers and sisters, a brother called Nantaquaus and sisters called Cleopatra (that surely must have been a European name adopted later) and Matachanna.

The famous story about her is that she saved the life of the Englishman John Smith by throwing her body between him and her father when her father was threatening to have him killed. Some say that Smith made the story up because he did not mention it until 1616 many years after the event, in a letter to Queen Anne recommending Pocahontas to her. I do not believe that he would dare lie to the Queen. I favour the explanation of the incident that the threat of death and rescue by a child followed by friendship was a symbolic ritual. 

She was about 10 years old and Smith was a grown man and they formed an affectionate friendship. There is no evidence to support the later suggestions, as used by Disney, that there was any romantic involvement. In view of their age difference had there been any such relationship it would not have been a sweet romance. 

Where Pocahontas did seriously save numerous lives was through her efforts over several years of seeing that food supplies were made available to the English settlers during periods when their crops failed and negotiating the release of genuine captives. One boy whose life she did save was Henry Spelman who came from Congham, 10 miles south of Heacham.

Smith suffered a serious accident and was taken aboard his ship which then set sail in some confusion. He was expected to die but he did survive the journey back to England. Pocahontas however believed him to be dead. 

When she was about 15 she married an Indian man of the Rappahanock people named Kocoum about whom nothing further is known. There are various suggestions to what happened to him. They are that he died; they never married but were contracted in a status comparable to the English engagement, that he divorced her because she was too independent and lively, that they were effectively divorced when he failed to rescue her when she was kidnapped.

She was living with relatives by the Potomac River (which Washington DC now stands on) when in 1613 she came to the attention of Captain Argall. He enticed her on to his ship the George and held her prisoner. She had been kidnapped to be used as a pawn to persuade her father into certain concessions, including the release of Englishmen he held captive. She was taken to Jamestown and then to Henrico where she was placed in the care of the Vicar and his wife, Revd and Mrs Whittacker. As a prisoner she was treated as a guest and corresponded with her father on the subject of her release. She took instruction in the Christian faith and was baptised with the name Rebecca. She also met and married a young widower John Rolfe of Heacham Norfolk. His letter to the governor of the colony Sir Thomas Dale said that she was the creature “To whom my hart and best thoughts are and have byn a longe tyme soe intangled & inthralled in soe intricate a Laborinth, that I was even aweried to vnwynde my selfe therout”

He sounded very much like a man desperately in love.  

Powhaten approved the marriage. He did not attend himself but sent a present of a pearl necklace. Several of her brothers and an uncle were present. They lived at Varina Farm where John Rolfe grew a sweetleaf tobacco which he hoped would be more acceptable to the English palate and which did become a good cash crop for the colony. Their son Thomas was born in Varina 1614. Their marriage did have the effect of producing a few years of peace between the Native Americans and the English settlers.


Voyage to England

The Virginia Company decided to raise more funds via a lottery and called Sir Thomas Dale to England. He brought Pocahontas, John and Thomas and a dozen or so members of the Algonquian tribe, including Pocahontas’s sister Matachanna and her husband Uttmatomakkin who was one of the religious leaders of the tribe. Some old English sources, having difficulty with his correct name, refer to him as Tomocomo.

They set sail in Argall’s ship, the George, the same one where Pocahontas had been held prisoner and they landed at Plymouth in the spring of 1616. Uttmatomakkin had a staff and orders from Powhatan to make a notch every time he saw an Englishman so that he could estimate the population of England. Uttmatomakkin is said to have abandoned the task before he even left Plymouth, so numerous was the population of the port. The party travelled to London overland where at first they lodged in an inn in Ludgate called the Belle Sauvage. There were already some Algonquians in London who had travelled with Sir Walter Raleigh in 1590. It is not known whether the man named Abraham of Virginia who died and was buried in London in the summer of 1616 was a member of this, or an earlier party.


In Norfolk

Pocahontas’s activities in London are well documented by, among other people, John Chamberlain the court intelligencer. However the family’s probable trip to Norfolk is a matter of local oral history and tradition and this is the part that has particularly fascinated me. It is said that after a short stay in London the Rolfe family travelled to Heacham to visit John’s family, particularly his mother and brothers. A visit to show his wife the family home and introduce his wife and child to the family would be a likely thing to do.His father had died when he was aged 9 and his mother Dorothy had remarried Dr Robert Redmayne who became Mayor of Kings Lynn and Chancellor of the Diocese of Norwich. The Rolfe family lived in Heacham Hall and were gentlemen farmers, not nobility. They were prosperous but not wealthy like other Norfolk families, hence the attraction of the potential opportunities of the New World. John had set out with his first wife in 1609 on the Sea Venture. They had been shipwrecked on Bermuda where their daughter was born and named Bermuda after the island. Little Bermuda died only a few months old and her mother died not long after her.


Mulberry Tree and Heacham Hall today

The Tudor house John Rolfe knew was rebuilt in neo classical style during the 18th century. The Hall was used by the RAF during the war and burnt down during that period. The ancient mulberry tree which still grew in the grounds of Heacham Hall within living memory is said to have been her gift.

A fossilised stump of this tree is preserved in the industrial estate which has been built on part of the old Hall Estate. I looked for it twice this summer but could not find it – the family now talk of my having been on a wild mulberry chase.

The Mulberry may have been brought from Virginia where the black Mulberry grows wild. It may have been brought from the gardens of Syon Park where they grew in what is now the world famous Kew Gardens. King James encouraged their being planted as part of his efforts to establish the silk trade in England.


Update September 2009.
Thanks to the kind service of two officers of the Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk I now have some photographs of the remains of the Mulberry tree and understand why I couldn’t find it. It is in an area not generally accessable to the public.

Here it is and I am much obliged to the officials for their interest.


In London

Local tradition says that Pocahontas was very happy in Heacham and that the sea air from the Wash suited her constitution.  However the family did return to London. 

Sunset over the Wash from Heacham Beach, taken by one of my family

As the daughter of the Supreme Chief of the Powhatan Confederation, a man who in European terms would be a King, Pocahontas was accorded the status and title of Princess. As Powhatan’s ambassador she attended at the Court of St James and through the offices of Lord and Lady Delaware the former Governor of Virginia she met King James and Queen Anne on several occasions. She is said to have been impressed by Queen Anne but she and her brother-in-law were not so favourably taken with the King. Not many of his subjects were, he being small, dirty and opinionated.

John Rolfe did not accompany them in the presence of the Royal family; the King criticised him as a mere gentleman farmer for marrying into another royal family without his permission and so he kept his distance. Pocahontas was also known as the Lady Rebecca, that form of address coming from her own status, not his as he was not a knight and did not have the title “Sir”.

Pocahontas found the filthy London air affecting her health and the family moved just outside the city to Brentford. Brentford is now part of greater London but at that time it was a separate village, noted for Syon House and Park, formerly the famous Convent of Syon Abbey, still owned to this day by the Northumberland family.

At this time the 9th Earl of Northumberland, known as the Wizard Earl was a prisoner in the Tower of London, implicated for no good reason in the Gunpowder plot of 1605. He was friends with Sir Walter Raleigh who had been imprisoned with him but executed a few years previously. Falling foul of the reigning monarch and subsequent imprisonment in the Tower seems to have been a Northumberland family tradition. The Earl’s younger brother George Percy sailed to Jamestown on the Susan Constant in 1607 and returned in 1612. He gave Pocahontas and her family the use of one of his houses for the duration of her stay. Nothing remains of that house and the site in Brentford High Street is now the Post Office.

While living in Brentford Pocahontas discovered that John Smith was still alive, probably through the letter about her that he wrote to Queen Anne. They had a difficult meeting. Pocahontas reminded him of their friendship, of the time he had called Powhatan father, and that now she was a stranger in his home country he should call her his child. He replied that it was not now proper that he should call a princess, a wife and a mother “his” child. From the description of the meeting Pocahontas sounded very hurt and it ended uncomfortably.

She dined with the Bishop of London who noted that she was looking ill. Uttmatomakkin was invited by the Revd Samuel Purchas to discuss Algonquian religious practice for the book he was writing. This may have been an attempt to persuade Uttmatomakkin to embrace Christianity. If it was it failed.

She visited the Wizard Earl in the Tower of London and he mended her earrings for her. 

She did not meet Shakespeare who died just before she arrived (he used the description of the storm that shipwrecked her husband on Bermuda as the basis of the play The Tempest) but she attended at least one performance at the Globe Theatre.

Clockwise from bottom left, the rebuilt Globe Theatre, the Tower of London,

the banqueting Hall of the Palace of Whitehall, St James’ Palace.
On Twelth Night 1617 she attended a performance at the Palace of Whitehall of Ben Johnson’s masque Vision of Delight. She was invited to choose a gift. Jamestown tradition says that the Queen presented her with a cameo brooch, the figure carved on which may or may not have been her own likeness, a copy of which was presented to Queen Elizabeth II when she visited Jamestown earlier this year (2007). Heacham tradition says that she chose one of the new King James Authorised Bibles which translation the King had ordered to be placed in all churches and to be used in place of the Geneva Bible. A very fine folio KJV bible appeared in St Mary’s Church in Heacham later that year which may have been that gift. It is now in the archives in Norwich.

Uttmatomakkin did not get a gift, which rankled with him for a long time afterwards. Powhatan had been given a white dog by one of the English delegations attending upon him; Uttmatomakkin felt that he deserved no less from the English king.

Update Summer 2011. Heacham Church included the 1617 Bible in a collection to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version. I was allowed to take some photographs.




Note the beautiful border combining the Tudor rose of England and the Scottish Thistle.




John Rolfe was appointed secretary of the Virginia Company and decided that it was time to return to Varina Farm. In a letter dated 18 January 1617 John Chamberlain wrote that Pocahontas was “on her return (though sore against her will) if the wind would come about to send them away”.

The George set sail from London up the Thames estuary in March. Before the ship had passed Gravesend in Kent Pocahontas died, of a respiratory disease which was probably tuberculosis or pneumonia. One source says she had smallpox, but if she had the party would not have been allowed ashore to arrange her funeral so easily.

Her last words were about Thomas, now nearly three years old. “All must die, ‘tis enough that the child lives”.

She was buried in the chancel of St George’s Church Gravesend on 21 March 1617 described as Rebecca Wrothe a Virginia lady. The George continued round the coast but by the time the party reached Plymouth the health of Thomas was causing concern. He was taken off the ship and his Uncle Henry Rolfe was summoned to collect him. He was brought up in Heacham.

Uttmatomakkin (and I hope Matachanna) did arrive safely back in Virginia. Uttmatomakkin spent a lot of time complaining about the English and Powhatan got rather fed up with him.

Powhatan died in 1618 and his brother Openchancaqnough became Supreme Chief. John Rolfe farmed at Varina and married Jane Pierce. They had a daughter Elizabeth. John Rolfe seems to have died after making his will in 1621 but before the massacre of March 1622.

Thomas grew up and returned to the land of his birth some 20 years later. He inherited both his father’s farm and land from his grandfather Powhatan which meant that he prospered and his descendants are notable to this day.


Descendants of Pocahontas

There are two lines claiming descent from Pocahontas and Thomas Rolfe. The English line claims descent from Anne Rolfe the daughter of Thomas and his first wife Elizabeth Washington. They married at St James Church Clerkenwell on 13 September 1632. Anne was born in 1633 and her mother died soon after. When Thomas decided to go to Virginia to claim his inheritance Anne was brought up in Norfolk by his cousin Anthony Rolfe. In 1659 she married Peter Elwin and their children are the English line. Some US descendants dispute that Anne was Thomas’ daughter; they say she was Anthony’s daughter and thus merely a cousin. However most US descendants do accept the descent of that line.

The US line is from Thomas’s second marriage to Jane Poythress in 1640 and their daughter also called Jane born in Henrico in 1650. She married Robert Bollling in 1675.

An American descendant David Morenus gives his descent on his site here, and also a run down of the Disney films as to where that story and history differ. I gather that the more recent film The New World, while still writing Pocahontas and John Smith as lovers and near contemporaries in age is more accurate in the other events and the overall picture of Stuart Society.

An English descendant Stuart Cresswell lists his descent on his site here.


Places and possessions.

I have photographed some of the places associated with the last year of Pocahontas’s life which she spent in England.

The story of the cameo brooch can be read here, on the website of the carver commissioned to make the duplicate presented to the Queen.

A pair of earrings were passed down in the Rolfe family at Heacham for many years, being given to each new bride for her wedding day. They are now in the possession of the Association for Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, although they were lent to the Museum in Docklands in London for an exhibition but I didn’t get to see them then. The photo above is taken from the APVA website. The shells are rare white mussel from the Bering Strait, thousands of miles from the east coast; the fittings of silver and steel are English workmanship. The handiwork of the Wizard Earl? We may never know.

The only known contemporary portrait of Pocahontas is the engraving done by Simon van der Plass which was used in John Smith’s book. She is holding a feather fan which may be an allusion to her real name, Snow Feather. Her features are angular and she looks ill and much older than 22. Life had changed for the little girl who used to turn playful somersaults. Later portraits followed this engraving, some softening her features, either to make her look more European, or less ill. The village sign in Heacham and the memorial in the church presented in 1933 by Friends of England and Virginia follow that engraving as does the portrait in the US National Gallery. One painting which does not is the 19th portrait of Pocahontas and Thomas which hangs in Kings Lynn Town Hall. This may be the Sedgeford Portrait or a copy of it. It is not available to the public but the parish of Heacham had a print in their Pocahontas and Jamestown exhibition this summer which my husband was able to photograph. The painter has imagined her (or he may have been working from an even earlier portrait now lost) with Thomas at a slightly older age than he was at her death, wearing a loose informal dress, the shell earrings and her father’s pearl necklace. It may be totally inaccurate but they look comfortable, although grave, and affectionate together, and I like that.

Update 2016.
I am a little late with this but the portrait described above believed to be of (either imagined or a copy of a lost original) Pocahontas and Thomas has been reassigned as a contemporary portrait of Peoka, the widow of Osceola, last Chief of the Seminole tribe of Florida. He died in prison in 1837 and her portrait is believed to have been painted shortly afterwards. The details are here in the Newsletter of Kings Lynn Museum. I apologise for missing this and not updating this article earlier. 

The Museum of Rochester exhibited the Gravesend parish register this year and a photograph of the entry of her burial is below. 


Gravesend Church (as rebuilt below) burnt down in the 18th century and the knowledge of the location of her grave and many others were lost. It was known to have been under the chancel which was a position given to men and women of status at that period. There is a statue in the churchyard, a copy of one in Virginia, a gift from the people of Virginia in 1958. Paula Gunn Allen criticised it as depicting her in the dress of a 19th century Lakota woman, not an early 17th century Algonquian. 


Current Native American view.

A delegation of members of the Chickahominy and Mattaponi tribes visited Gravesend last year. Chief Stephen Adkins of the Chickahominys said “We’re here to acknowledge the fact that the people of England have protected the remains of Pocahontas. They have honored her memory, and I think they’ve just done due diligence,” The delegation attended a service at St George’s and blessed the land around it.

The late Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan people was understandably angry at the distortion of history in the Disney films and he gave his view on this and the accepted historical view in the website The Pocahontas Myth.

An American man of Indian descent, Wayne Newton has suggested that her remains should be excavated from Gravesend (all previous efforts to locate them have failed) and returned to the US for burial. 

Her descendant David Morenus comments “Pocahontas died a Christian Englishwoman, Lady Rebecca Rolfe, and so received the burial she wanted. Before colonization, the Powhatan Indians did not bury their dead, per se. Their modern descendants are mainly Baptist. Pocahontas (as Rebecca) was Anglican. She was baptised as an adult believer, but by Anglican rite, not by full immersion”.

Freda England was of the opinion that should Pocahontas be removed from Gravesend it should only be for reinterment in Heacham.

In her book Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat (reviewed here) Paula Gunn Allen tells the story from an unusual biomythographical point of view. I include a mention of her work here, although I have not read the whole, because of her stating that Pocahontas spoke to her across the years, that she heard her most clearly in Gravesend, on the acceptability of the oral tradition and her comments on the quality of the English countryside as beauty beyond speech. Something drew me after my conversation 15 years ago with Mrs England, who died 4 years ago and is buried in Heacham churchyard, to eventually follow up some of the places Pocahontas visited, because so many of them were places I also know well.

One day, in an archive somewhere in East Anglia or Cambridgeshire letters from Kings Lynn may be unearthed that confirm the oral history with acceptable documentation.  She had courage and vision, was intelligent and compassionate, what more would she have achieved had her life not been cut tragically short.


Credits and sources.

St Mary the Virgin Church Heacham Norfolk. Thanks to the Parish Clerk and attendants for permission to photograph, copying of documents, assistance and refreshments.

Rochester Museum.

The Museum in Docklands.

Kings Lynn Museum.

The APVA website.

St Georges Church Gravesend.

Gravesend Museum and Towncentric

Mrs John Rolfe of Heacham by the headmaster and pupils of Heacham Junior School.

The Story of Pocahontas by Jane Neville Rolfe of Heacham

James the First, the Masque of Monarchy by James Travers published by the National Archives. 

Officers of the Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk



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