You 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.
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)
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.