Pocahontas's Trail

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Thursday, March 1, 2007

GRAVESEND, England -- Pocahontas, the Indian princess who helped the English colonists in Jamestown, Virginia, is buried in this riverside town east of London. She died here in 1617 while trying to make the long trip back to her native land.

This determined young woman helped bring peace between the Indians and colonists, was kidnapped and held hostage, became a wife and mother and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean -- all by the time she was 21. Her story has been told in popular songs, historical movies and Disney cartoons.

While Pocahontas always has been popular, interest in her story is especially high this year, the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in North America. Pocahontas was 11 or 12 when the English arrived in 1607, and she became a go-between for her people and the settlers.

Her final resting place in this town on the River Thames is popular with tourists.

"Many people come here from the United States and from many other countries, too," said Sandra Soder of the Gravesend Historical Society as she showed a visitor around St. George's Church. Historians believe that Pocahontas is buried in a vault under the altar, but the exact spot is unknown because a fire destroyed the original church in 1727.

Recent visitors from Virginia included a group of Native Americans and Governor Timothy M. Kaine.

Pocahontas is thought to have died from a lung disease -- either pneumonia or tuberculosis. She had been living in England for about a year with her husband, John Rolfe, and their son when they decided to return to Virginia. Pocahontas was not well when she got on the ship. When she grew sicker, she was taken ashore at Gravesend, "the last place to take on fresh water and vegetables" before heading to sea, Soder explained.

A life-size statue of Pocahontas, a gift from Virginia, is in the churchyard.

There is little surprise in the fact that, 400 years after she lived, Pocahontas still fascinates people. Not only did she help feed the starving English settlers, she also is credited with saving the life of Captain John Smith, who became her friend. After Smith was badly injured in a gunpowder explosion and sent back to England, Pocahontas was told that he had died. She was stunned to see him years later when she went to England.

Sometime after Smith left Jamestown, Pocahontas was kidnapped by colonists who held her for ransom. Still, she was "treated like an honored guest," Soder said.

It was during this time that she met Rolfe, a successful tobacco planter. Before their wedding in 1614 Pocahontas became a Christian, taking the name Rebecca at her baptism. Their son, Thomas, was born the next year, and the three of them sailed to England the year after that.

"She had a lot of courage," said Catherine Eyers, 9, who lives in Gravesend and visited the Pocahontas statue on a recent Sunday.

"Pocahontas is such a part of our history," said Angela Driscoll-Hicks, another visitor, adding that she hopes to travel to Virginia soon. But instead of crossing the ocean by ship, as Pocahontas did, she will fly.

-- Mary Jordan


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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