She was the real princess who inspired one of Disney’s most popular film characters.
This month marks the 405th anniversary of the death of Pocahontas and her legend lives on through her connection to one Kent town in particular.
Born in around 1595 – it is not known exactly when – she was the daughter of the powerful chief Powhatan from the Tsenacommacah area in what is today Virginia.
Although she is best known as Pocahontas, this was not her real name and she was actually called Matoaka.
Her father gave her the nickname Pocahontas meaning “playful little girl” and she was born into the period when European colonial competition was starting to take hold in North America.
Powhatan’s rule was under threat from repeated invasion by Spanish, English and French sailors.
In 1607, three ships from London arrived in Chesapeake Bay and despite being allowed to land, Powhatan opposed and told them they could not stay.
So the settlers built a fort which was attacked by the Native American peoples led by Powhatan who were repressed by ship cannon fire.
The ships sailed home before winter and 105 men stayed in the new colony but the harsh winter was a struggle for the first settlers and they were saved from starvation thanks to a Captain John Smith who had obtained corn from another tribe of the indigenous Americans.
Later that year, the first meeting between Pocahontas and Captain Smith is recorded after he was captured by Powhatan on a hunting party.
He was brought before the tribe and set to be executed but at the moment he was brought out, the young Pocohontas, who would have only been aged about 11 or 12 at this point, ran out and placed her head over his signalling his release.
It was Captain Smith who later wrote about how Pocahontas rescued him from execution, thus making her a heroine and household name.
From this moment on, it was on the understanding Smith and Powhatan would be friends and allies and Smith was allowed to return to his base.
Historians have suggested this ritual had been planned by Powhatan but to Smith it appeared Pocahontas had saved other lives as well in the past by warning colonials of impending attacks.
In 1612, another English captain Samuel Argall captured Pocahontas after hearing she was visiting other tribes along the Potomac river to hold her as ransom for eight English settlers being held Powhatan.
She was taken to Jamestown in March 1613 and was treated as an honoured guest to bring friendship between Powhatan and the English.
During the next year, she was put into the care of a reverend who started teaching her about Christianity and she met John Rolfe, a tobacco planter, who she later married.
Rolfe fell in love with Pocahontas and also believed the marriage would further strengthen bonds with her father.
Following her earlier Christian teachings, she was baptised with the name Rebecca and they were married in April 1614.
They had a son, Thomas, and in 1616 sailed to England along with the governor of the new Virginian colony Sir Thomas Dale.
The Virginia Company, under royal charter to colonise the east coast of America, provided a subsidy for Pocahontas, Rolfe and their son and they stayed at an inn off Fleet Street in London.
Her arrival with the Native Americans who had travelled to England with her was met with curiosity and Pocahontas was hosted for dinner by the Bishop of London.
But she was taken ill and later moved out of the city to Brentford.
Smith met with Pocahontas again a few months later and there was a promise reinforcing the bond between him and her father.
In November 1616, Argall became deputy governor for Virginia and wanted to return with the Rolfes.
Eventually winds favoured the ship to depart London the following March and it stopped at Gravesend as it was the last place along the river to take on fresh food and water.
By this time, aged about 20 or 21, Pocahontas had already been taken ill and was brought ashore either dead or dying.
She died on March 21, 1617 and she was buried in St George’s Church in the town centre.
Burial records showed she was placed in the chancel of the church which was set aside especially for clergy and notable members of society.
When they arrived in Virginia, Rolfe wrote: “My wife’s death is much lamented: my child much desired, when it is of better strength to endure so hard a passage, whose life greatly extinguisheth the sorrow of her loss.
“All must die. But ’tis enough that my child liveth.”
Pocahontas is commemorated in Gravesend with a statue in the grounds of the church she’s buried in.
The bronze sculpture was unveiled in 1957 and is a replica of another designed by the same American artist WA Partridge in Jamestown from 1922.
A memorial tablet was placed into the chancel in 1896 and in 1914 two memorial windows were installed in the church.
Due to an error in the burial register, the exact location of Pocahontas’ resting place is unknown and complicated after a fire at St George’s Church in 1727 and rebuilt meaning the exact site of the grave is no longer known.
In 1923, permission was granted to exhume graves in the churchyard in the hope of finding Pocahontas’ body.
The excavations were probably inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb the previous year.
One of the representatives wrote he was saddened “our American Princess has slept for centuries in an unknown grave in this distant land”.
In 1975, Republican Senator William Whitehurst tabled a motion in the House of Representatives calling for the body of Pocahontas to be disinterred and carried back to the land of her fathers. But it was still a complete mystery to this day where she is buried.
Pocahontas is remembered every year on her anniversary in Gravesend and this year will be no different.
Cllr Shane Mochrie-Cox, Gravesham council’s cabinet member for community and leisure, said: “The story of Pocahontas is deeply ingrained in the history of Gravesend.
“Her legacy lives on in the enduring bonds forged with our friends in Chesterfield County in Virginia, USA, two communities that would never have come together in friendship without her.
“The Mayor of Gravesham and myself will commemorate this anniversary by laying flowers beside her statue in Gravesend, when there will also be a blessing from the Rev Jim Fletcher of St George’s Church.”