R is for Rebecca Rolfe

This is my contribution to Round Eleven of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.

PocohontasYou may not recognise the name Rebecca Rolfe, but she is a major figure in American folklore, became an animated star for Disney and was the first American to be buried in England. You will know her better by her original name – Pocahontas.

She was born near what is now Richmond, Virginia, the daughter of the supreme chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, an alliance of Algonquin tribes who lived around Chesapeake Boy.

It was in this area where the English first settled in 1607. When Pocahontas was ten, she intervened to save the life of the soldier and colonist John Smith who had been captured by a Powhatan hunting party led by her brother.

This made her popular with the settlers and relations with the Powhatans were good, but they deteriorated and war broke out in 1610 when she was kidnapped by the settlers and held hostage.

The Abduction of Pocahontas

The Abduction of Pocahontas

Four years later she was married to widower John Rolfe as part of the peace settlement, but it was a marriage of convenience. Rolfe wrote that he was ‘motivated not by unbridled desire of carnal affection, but for the good of this plantation, for the honour of our country, for the glory of God, for my own salvation’.

Pocahontas was baptised and given the name Rebecca and the couple moved to England in 1616, living in Brentford, west London, with their son Thomas and a retinue of Powhatans.

Rolfe was the first to export Virginia tobacco to England and Rebecca became a walking advert for the colony and the charms of the native Americans, all aimed at getting potential investors to part with their money.

And so she became famous for the last year of her life and was presented at the court of King James I as a foreign royal, ‘the Indian princess’. (His Highness didn’t impress her much)

Statue of Pocahontas in Gravesend

The Rolfes were boarding a ship to return to Virginia when Rebecca became seriously ill, possibly with smallpox, and she died soon after she was taken ashore. She was buried at St George’s Church, Gravesend, in 1617 where you can find the statue on the left.

Her last words to her husband were: ‘All must die. It is enough that the childe liveth.’ And through her son, Thomas, she has many descendants in the USA, including Nancy Regan, née Anne Frances Robbins.

One last factoid about Pocahontas, the English translated her name as ‘Bright Stream Between Two Hills’, but it seems that this was actually a childhood nickname meaning ‘Little Wanton One’.

Her prettier and secret name, known only to other members of her tribe, was Matoax which means ‘Little Snow Feather’.

With acknowledgement to The Second Book of General Ignorance.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

14 comments… Add yours
  • Rolfe Pudding 14th November 2012

    As usual – fascinating.

  • Roger Green 14th November 2012

    Rolfe – I guessed RIGHT. Interesting tale.
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • Leslie 14th November 2012

    I hate to echo someone else, but all I can think is “fascinating!”

    abcw team

  • Chrissy Brand 14th November 2012

    Another slice of UK- US folklore that I didn’t know of!

  • Kate 14th November 2012

    Wonderful historical facts for us to enjoy. Our country has some interesting tales to tell. Kate, ABC Team

  • rhymeswithplague 14th November 2012

    I knew that Pocahontas married John Rolfe, but I had forgotten that her name was changed to Rebecca.

    Put me down as fascinated also.

  • photowannabe 14th November 2012

    It’s been so long since I heard the story that I had forgotten the details.
    A fascinating part of history.
    Didn’t know about Nancy Regan either.

  • Oakland Daily Photo 14th November 2012

    Many years ago I was sitting on a bench next to the Houses of Parliament along the Thames and struck up a conversation with a local sharing the bench. He told me about Pocahontas being buried in England. I was gobsmacked. Then the movie New World came out and fleshed out the story for me. Your post has inspired me to make my way to Gravesend to visit her last resting place

  • Mama Pajama 15th November 2012

    fantastic. thank you for that, I love learning!

  • john 15th November 2012

    popping into you blog
    is like picking up an old copy of Reader’s digest at the doctors’ back in the 1970s

    entertaining and informative!
    (and cheap!)

  • Katherine 16th November 2012

    I wonder why, if she died on the way back to Virginia, they went to all that trouble to get her back to England again.

    • Martha 11th August 2014

      Matoaka Pocahontas Rebecca Powhatan Rolfe died aboard ship before they cleared land; thus was buried in England. Also, her father attempted to return with the son but he became ill or was sickly and unable to make the journey so he was left in England with an Uncle (Henry I think) and grew up there.

  • rhymeswithplague 17th November 2012

    Katherine, Ian said “they were boarding a ship” so I think they took her ashore (in England) before it sailed….

    • Mr Parrot 17th November 2012

      You are correct Mr Plague, although I probably should have spelled it out. Rebecca had boarded the ship but fell ill before it set sail and was taken ashore.


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