The Legend of Pocahontas in Heacham

The Legend of Pocahontas in Heacham
Art & Culture

Heacham Manor hit the headlines earlier this year when it was revealed that the DNA of the famous Mulberry tree in the grounds of the hotel is to be tested to determine its origin. It is hoped that this lab testing will help to finally settle the age old question of whether the tree was planted over 400 years ago by the legendary Native American Princess Pocahontas.

The Princess and the Farmer

Pocahontas was the daughter of Native American tribal leader, Chief Powhatan. In 1607, Pocahontas' tribe captured the English adventurer Captain John Smith. According to Smith, Pocahontas saved him from execution at the hands of the tribe and pleaded with her father successfully for his release. Two years later, Pocahontas was herself captured and held for ransom by the Jamestown colonists. It was during the year of her captivity that Pocahontas converted to Christianity, and married John Rolfe, adopting the name Rebecca Rolfe.

The Rolfe family were gentleman farmers from Heacham, Norfolk. They were a prosperous family by the standards of the time with more than 35 strips of land in Heacham, but were no means as wealthy as some of the more prominent Norfolk families. It is probably for this reason that John Rolfe was attracted to the New World, with all its unexplored financial potential.

John Rolfe and Pocahontas were married in Jamestown, Virginia on April 6th 1614, creating a climate of peace between the Native-American and the colonists. The following year, John, Pocahontas and their young son Thomas set sail for England.

The Seeds of A Legend

When Rolfe and Pocahontas arrived in England, they were greeted almost as royalty. Indeed, Pocahontas' father, Chief Powhatan, had been officially recognised as such by King James I. The English king sent Chief Powhatan a copper crown, and the Indian chief in return sent a large deerskin ceremonial cloak decorated with pearl sea shells, which is now preserved at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

On the Twelth Night, 6th January 1617, Pocahontas was invited to meet King James I at Whitehall Palace. King James was keen to establish the silk trade in England, and he had been busy planting mulberry trees in the ground of his royal residence, Whitehall Palace, to help kick-start the industry. During this time, King James also gifted mulberry seeds to his many guests and visitors, among them, perhaps, Pocahontas.

So, was this where Pocahontas collected the mulberry seeds which she would later plant in Heacham? Perhaps, or perhaps not. There are other possible explanations, for example, red mulberry trees grow wild in Pocahontas's native Virginia, and she may have taken her mulberry seeds with her across the Atlantic. However the Heacham mulberry trees and mulberry trees cultivated by King James I are all Morus Nigra with black mulberries, appearing to rule this theory out. It is also thought that Pocahontas stopped off at Narford Hall, Norfolk, home to one of the oldest mulberry trees in the UK, on her way to Heacham.

History or Myth?

Pocahontas spent 10 months in England. During this time, it is thought that she visited the family home of her husband in Heacham, and planted the mulberry tree in the grounds of what is today, Heacham Manor Hotel. Thanks to the efforts of local Heacham historian, Christine Dean, we may soon be able to identify the ancestor of the Heacham mulberry tree.

Because mulberry trees pass on one chromosome to their descendents, it is possible, with the aid of DNA technology, to determine where the seed of a particular mulberry tree came from. Experts from the Forestry Commission will compare a six-inch branch from the Heacham mulberry tree against the DNA 'barcode' from nine other trees which Pocahontas may have come into contact with, at Buckingham Palace, Whitehall Palace and Narford Hall.

If a concrete link between the Heacham mulberry tree and one of the trees at Buckingham Palace, Whitehall Palace and Narford Hall can be determined, then we will come closer then ever before to discovering the truth behind the myth of Pocahontas and the Heacham Manor mulberry tree.