In the seaside village of Heacham in the UK, a 400-year-old legend tells that Pocahontas once planted a mulberry tree in the grounds of the local manor house.
The tree, which still stands tall in the gardens around the Heacham Manor Hotel in Norfolk, has recently been subjected to a DNA study in hopes of unraveling fact from fiction, as BBC News reports. While the results proved to be “inconclusive,” the research has shed some light onto this fascinating and tragic piece of history, which is too often shrouded in colonial folk tales and Disneyfication.
Little is known for certain about the woman's life, but we do know that Pocahontas was born around 1596 with the name Amonute (Pocahontas was actually her nickname, which meant "playful one”). She was the daughter of Powhatan, the powerful chief that led a network of Native American tribes in the Tidewater region of Virginia.
So the story goes, as a child, she helped to secure the freedom of colonial explorer Captain John Smith after he was captured by Powhatan's brother Opechancanough and threatened with execution. Around 1613, she was captured by the Jamestown colonists and held ransom, during which time she was “encouraged” to convert to Christianity. She married English tobacco planter John Rolfe in 1614 aged 17 and was forced to travel to England, where she was paraded as an example of a "noble savage".
During her 10 years in England, she spent some at Rolfe's family home at Heacham, which is where the legend of the tree comes in. According to some accounts, Pocahontas collected seeds from mulberry trees around the UK and planted some in Heacham. There are also stories that King James I used to gift mulberry seeds to his many guests. Since Pocahontas is known to have met the English Royal court, perhaps she was given some of his prized mulberry seeds.
To find out, researchers at the Forestry Commission carried out DNA analysis between the Heacham tree and other old mulberry trees in the UK, such as those at Buckingham Palace, Syon House in west London, and Narford Hall in Norfolk. Any clear genetic link between the Heacham tree and the other old trees would suggest the story could be real.
Unfortunately, the results were inconclusive. Joan Cottrell from the Forestry Commission told BBC News that their scientists had studied eight mulberry trees. Although their project suggested they might still have a close common ancestor, the work "failed to get clear results."
"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," Heacham Manor explains in a blog post from 2017. "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."