Edward Norton has discovered that he is directly related to Pocahontas, the Native American woman whose life and tragic run-in with European colonialism have inspired many stories.
Norton’s surprising ancestor was revealed during his recent appearance on the PBS show Finding Your Roots in which celebrities learn about their ancestral histories. He said he was told as a child that he was a direct descendant of Pocahontas, but always assumed it was fanciful "family legend".
It turns out, these rumors were true. Historian and host Henry Louis Gates Jr confirmed that Pocahontas was the 12th great-grandmother of the Hollywood actor by tracing documents about his ancestors right back to the 1614 marriage certificate between Pocahontas and John Rolfe.
“You have a direct paper trail, no doubt about it, connection to your 12th great-grandmother and great-grandfather, John Rolfe and Pocahontas,” Gates explained.
Born in 1596, Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, the paramount chief of the Powhatan people whose ancestral lands lay in east Virginia. When English colonialists arrived and settled in Jamestown in 1607, Pocahontas was about 11 years old. Around this time, Captain John Smith was captured by Powhatan's brother Opechancanough and was displayed at several Powhatan towns across east Virginia.
Smith was set to be executed by having a warrior smash his skull with a club. So the story goes, Pocahontas stopped the execution of Captain John Smith by laying her head upon his, preventing the skull-smashing from occurring.
By 1613, she was captured by the English and held ransom. After being forced to convert to Christianity, she was married to the tobacco planter John Rolfe in April 1614. Two years on, Pocahontas was shipped to the UK where she was presented as an exotic spectacle of the “New World”. She died in March 1617 of an unspecified illness in the town of Gravesend, south England.
Being the 12th great-grandmother of Pocahontas might sound impressive, but it’s worth remembering the number of people in your family tree doubles with each generation. We all have four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and 16 great-great-grandparents. Following this, each and every one of us has 16,384 12th great-grandparents.