Princess Matoaka was born in the year 1595 in Virginia, America, the daughter of an native American, Powhatan. He was a powerful man ruling over forty native American tribes. Matoaka was the favourite and most beautiful of all his children.
When she was a small girl Powhatan gave her the nickname of Pocahontas "the playful one" by which she is still known today. Whilst she was growing up the Europeans were beginning to arrive in her native land, eager to find gold and set up colonies. Along with them objects like mirrors and knives which they traded for corn. The world of Pocahontas was rapidly changing and it must have been very exciting to a child's mind.
Unfortunately there was already a growing mistrust between the native Americans and the Europeans and Powhatan was particularly wary of the settlers. Relations grew worse and in 1607 when Captain John Smith was caught on native American territory he was brought in front of Powhatan for trial. Smith was certain he would die, and this would have been the case were it not for the actions of the chieftain's daughter, Pocahontas. When her pleas for Smith's life to be spared were refused, she bravely threw herself between the Captain and his executioners. Powhatan was forced to let him live.
John Smith later became leader of the settlers who built Jamestown, the first settlement in Virginia which was named after the English King, James I. John was possibly the first European Pocahontas had seen with her own eyes and legend has it that she had fallen in love with this mysterious stranger. She certainly saved his life on another occasion, when she brought supplies to the starving settlers.
Pocahontas grew up into a beautiful woman and Captain John Smith returned to England in late 1609 badly wounded. It is thought that Pocahontas was heartbroken believing him to be dead, but actually he recovered fully and became a hero in the King's Court by telling tales of his wondrous escape. Relations between the native Americans and the settlers back in Virginia were steadily growing worse and Powhatan issued instructions that the 'white man' should stay within the confines of Jamestown. Pocahontas was still fascinated by them however and was easily enticed to the settlement where she was held captive, and a ransom notice given to her father. It is said Pocahontas enjoyed her captivity though, and this seems likely since she became the first native American to be baptised. This happened in the year 1613, or thereabouts and her new name was Rebecca.
Shortly after this ceremony she assisted Anglo- American relations even further by marrying John Rolfe, magistrate of the colony. The couple were married in 1614 with Powhatan's blessing for this useful match. They lived on John's tobacco plantation for two years where Pocahontas had a son, Thomas. In April 1616, the Governor, Sir Thomas Dale, sailed for England, and as promised took the Rolfes and their son Thomas with him, together with an escort of twelve native Americans. They arrived in Plymouth before travelling to London. They were received with excitement and wonder at court. Princess Pocahontas was praised for her beauty and became known as 'la belle sauvage' (the beautiful savage).
She spent a year in England and arrived in Gravesend in 1617 hoping to set sail for Virginia. Unfortunately she became seriously ill just offshore from Gravesend and was hurriedly returned to land where she spent her last few hours.
There is still some mystery about what she died of but plague seems to have been suspected as she was hastily buried in St. George's Church. She was only 21. In the registers of the Parish Church of the time is found the entry: "1617. March 21st. Rebecca Wrolfe, Wyffe of Thomas Wrolfe, Gent., a Virginia Lady borne, was buried in ye Chancell." Unfortunately the original church was destroyed in a fire in 1727, and to this day no-one has found exactly where her body lies.
Her infant son, Thomas, was taken back to London and educated by his uncle, Henry Rolfe. When he reached adulthood he sailed to America, back to the land that was his mother's home.
Gravesend has long been a place of pilgrimage for American visitors, and the importance of Pocahontas in English history has been recognised by several ceremonies, beginning with the placing of a plaque in the church in the late nineteenth century. At the start of this century, in 1914, a tablet and stained glass windows were donated to St. George's Church. These were given by the Society of Colonial Dames of America, and they refer to Pocahontas as "the friend of the earliest struggling colonists".
In 1958 a bronze statue of Pocahontas was unveiled by the Governor of Virginia in the St. George's Church gardens. The statue can be seen by visitors today, as can a colourful mural opposite the main entrance to the railway station. Some artefacts from Gloucester, Virginia may also be seen in the Chantry Heritage Centre, Fort Gardens. The statue of Pocahontas is at the start of the Maritime Heritage trail in Gravesend.