The discovery of Richard III’s skeleton may not in itself be sufficient to disprove the dark stories about him but it has revived interest; perhaps one day man and myth will be separated for good. The process was respectful, from the first cut into the concrete, to the last handful of earth crumbled onto his coffin, giving him the dignity he was denied at death. The only inelegance came in the debate about where he should be reburied.
On 30 May 1923 a search took place in Gravesend, Kent, for the remains of another person of high rank, of a kind of royalty, whose life was also shrouded in myth and who, for some, had achieved almost cult-like status. Pocahontas, daughter of the mighty Native American chief Powhatan, had died at Gravesend in March 1617. Her story has long been enshrined in folk culture; some people, thinking of the Walt Disney animation, believe her to be fictional. Although fiction certainly played a part in the film, Pocahontas (a nickname—she was Matoaka to her father and Amonute to others) was very real.
Regarded as the mother of modern Americans, America had long been making noises about getting her back. Like Richard III, one difficulty was that the place where she was buried had changed. The records of St George’s church showed she was buried in its chancel, reserved for persons of significance, but in 1727 the church burnt down and was rebuilt; her location was no longer certain. When the Home Office finally granted permission to a committee of eminent Americans to carry out a search, it did not foresee the fiasco that would result.
That she had come to England at all may surprise some. Converting to Christianity and christened Rebecca, in April 1614 Pocahontas had married her English-born husband, young widower John Rolfe. King James requested their presence in London to promote the success of the Jamestown colony in Virginia where, after an unpromising start, Rolfe had become a successful tobacco farmer. The King wanted to impress investors in his Virginia Company, raise funds and encourage new settlers.
In June 1616, the Rolfes arrived in England with the colony’s Governor, Sir Thomas Dale, Powhatan’s shaman and others. A public relations exercise was badly needed to show how far the colony had come since its founding in 1607. In the early years the settlers suffered great hardship and violence. Powhatan, chief of the Algonquian-speaking tribes and overlord of the vast Chesapeake lands, was loved and feared by his people and played fast and loose with the settlers; inexperienced, often desperate, they too courted trouble.
But his young daughter, curious about the English, developed a warm relationship with the colony’s early President, Captain John Smith, which included mutual language tuition. It was commonly believed that they fell in love and she prevented her father killing him. Jazz singer Peggy Lee even immortalised them in Fever:
Captain Smith and Pocahontas
Had a very mad affair
When her daddy tried to kill him
She said “Daddy oh don’t you dare”
“He gives me fever….”
However, Pocahontas, born around 1595, was just a child when they met and there is no evidence of a romantic relationship. Even saving Smith’s life—a story he first told much later, when back in England—is unlikely. However, she did save many settlers from attack and starvation. In 1613, she was held hostage to negotiate peace between them and Powhatan. Treated as an honoured guest she was given language lessons, instruction in Christianity and taught the ways of an English lady.
Her marriage to Rolfe had the approval of Powhatan and Dale and produced an eight-year peace. Received at Court in 1616 as royalty, Rebecca was impressed by Queen Anne, unimpressed by stout, scruffy King James, and stayed in various places around London and Middlesex. It is believed she also went to Heacham, Norfolk, where Rolfe’s wealthy family lived, but although there are positive indications, no evidence has materialised.
Rolfe was appointed Secretary of the colony and, in March 1617, they began their return voyage with their two-year-old son, Thomas. Rebecca’s health had deteriorated and she died at Gravesend, possibly of TB. After her burial, father and son continued, but by Plymouth Thomas was ill. Rolfe made provision for his upbringing in England. In 1632, Thomas married an English woman and settled in Virginia; their descendants, including prominent American figures, were proud of their ancestor Pocahontas.
Hardly surprising then, that at some stage they would want her back. In 1875 a letter from the Virginian Governor’s office to the Rolfe family at Heacham Hall said: ‘The people of Virginia feel a strong desire to possess for preservation an accurate portrait of the Indian Princess, Pocahontas’, a desire easier expressed than fulfilled. In 1909, the Home Secretary received a letter from the National Pocahontas Memorial Association, New York, whose directors included Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie. They wanted a ‘magnificent memorial’ to her in Washington, with a crypt to house her remains, for which a search should be made. A warship from each country would escort them, which ‘would do more to bind the friendship existing between the two countries than any other event of the past century’. In the meantime stained glass windows commemorating Pocahontas were donated to St George’s Church by the Colonial Dames of America.
After intermittent consideration, in January 1923 the Home Office sought consent for a search from the (blind) Rector of St George’s, Canon Gedge. He advised that the partially burned bones from the chancel had been relocated more than once and that the church was enlarged in 1897. The most likely place, he said, for the remains of Pocahontas (as she was still referred to) was in the vault of the unknown Curd family, for which he provided a plan. He asked that any permission include a wider search if it be empty, because ‘it might be difficult to arrive at the precise spot’.
Satisfied that the search would not arouse local feelings or cause objections by any of Pocahontas’s descendants whom the Home Office said still lived in England, it granted permission to Edward Page Gaston, an American investigator, who stated that the search would be done ‘in a reverent but thorough manner’. At 6.30am, on 30 May, the vault was opened in the presence of Gedge, Gaston, officials from the British Museum and the English Speaking Union, the society fronting the search—and much of the British press.
It was a disaster. Over the centuries the area above the Curds’ coffins had become a dumping ground for displaced skeletons, animals and rubbish. The press had a field day. ‘100 skeletons dug up!’ shouted the Daily Express, reporting ghoulishly: ‘They brought up bucket after bucket of bones which were sorted into heaps on the grass.’ Four skulls, ‘one approximating to the Red Indian type’ were ‘among the bucketfuls brought up from the vault’. They were taken to the British Museum for analysis, but none was pronounced to be that of Pocahontas.
The churchwardens expressed their disgust at 300-year-old bones being disturbed and local people muttered that the ‘curse of Pocahontas’ would fall upon Mr Gaston. Canon Gedge, whose wife had been seen making coffee in the graveyard, reinterred fifty skeletons in a short ceremony to appease public opinion. Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, protested against ‘antiquarianism run riot’ and denounced as ‘ghouls’ those he had read about, including ‘men of science’, who were said to be ‘searching for a skull with black hair’. An internal Home office memo noted later that more bones were found ‘than the Rector’s letters led to expect’.
Fortunately the fiasco does not seem to have permanently damaged relations between the two countries. In 1928, an appeal by the Rolfe family to raise money for Heacham church invited Pocahontas’s descendants in the USA to help ‘strengthen the bond’ between Virginia and Heacham by contributing towards a memorial to her, to be situated near that commemorating John. It was unveiled in 1933. Some of her descendants have visited St George’s Church, outside which a bronze statue of her was erected in 1958, and at the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Gravesend welcomed members of the Virginian Indian tribes.
Unlike Richard III, Pocahontas may never be rediscovered, but like him, whether in myth or reality, she will always fascinate.
Jane Dismore’s current book is Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (pub. Sept 2014 by Blink Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing)
© Jane Dismore April 2015