The Big Dig for Pocahontas (Part 2)

Introduction: In this article, Melissa Davenport Berry continues the bizarre story of an American who began digging up a graveyard in England in 1923 looking for the bones of Pocahontas. Melissa is a genealogist who has a blog, AnceStory Archives, and a Facebook group, New England Family Genealogy and History.

Today I continue with my story on the Chicago archeologist Edward Page Gaston, who dug up hundreds of graves in 1923 in Gravesend, England, to search for the remains of Pocahontas. A Native American from the Powhatan people, she married John Rolfe of Jamestown, Virginia, traveled with him to England in 1616, and was buried in the parish church at Gravesend on 21 March 1617.

Photo: statue of Pocahontas outside St George’s Church, Gravesend, Kent, England. Credit: Pireotis; Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: statue of Pocahontas outside St George’s Church, Gravesend, Kent, England. Credit: Pireotis; Wikimedia Commons.

To recap: Gaston’s Big Dig stirred up a storm! He claimed to be a direct descendant of Pocahontas and wanted his ancestor returned to her native land.

Just to be clear: Gaston shared no blood lines to Pocahontas. He probably thought that claiming this connection would give him credibility and make his search legitimate.

For whatever reason, Gaston was granted permission to unearth the graves in the churchyard by William Clive Bridgeman, 1st Viscount Bridgeman, the Home Secretary, and by Rev. Canon Gedge, the blind rector of the parish church.

Gaston was assisted by his English associates: William Plane Pyecraft, assistant keeper of the osteological collections in the British Museum; and Sir Arthur Knight, of the Royal College of Surgeons, along with several laborers.

Birmingham Age-Herald (Birmingham, Alabama), 22 June 1923. Credit: Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
Birmingham Age-Herald (Birmingham, Alabama), 22 June 1923. Credit: Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

When the locals saw the graves of their ancestors being dug up, it caused an uproar. To add fuel to the fire, Gaston and his crew were being served afternoon tea among the unearthed skulls and bones.

Lord Marquis Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, protested and was backed by the press. The Brits were furious, and a public outcry could be heard everywhere!

In America the story made headlines all over the country, including this article from the Dallas Morning News.

An article about Pocahontas, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 22 July 1923
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 22 July 1923, page 7

I referenced this article in Part 1 of my story, and here’s more information this article reported:

Referring to Pocahontas, he [Lord Curzon] said he had just read of “a lot of ghouls gathered around the site of her interment, where they are finding a heap of skulls and bones, while men of science are actually sitting by to discover whether among this pile of debris they can find a skull with some black hair on it.”

“In our passion for antiquity,” the Foreign Secretary said, “Let us at least spare the dead!”

Leading English newspapers vigorously endorsed Lord Curzon’s protest against the ruthless disturbing of the peace of the graves at Gravesend.

“It is difficult to see with what justice so many bones should have been upturned,” said “The Manchester Guardian.” “There are many distinguished Englishmen buried overseas and posterity does not conceive it to be a patriotic duty to ransack foreign cemeteries, disturbing the many in quest of the one.”

“The excavations at Gravesend constitute an offense against good taste,” said “The Daily Mail.” “It is difficult to understand why the Home Office should have permitted them.”

Irate editorials ran in America newspapers as well. The Evening Star shared the outcries, noting America’s “editors are as sharp in their criticism as the English.”

An article about Pocahontas, Evening Star newspaper article 16 June 1923
Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 16 June 1923, page 7

The newspaper went on to say:

“Even in the Old Dominion [Virginia], where Pocahontas played diplomat for the first permanent English settlers in her father Powhatan’s court, and where one might expect to find approval of a move to return her bones to America, there is disapproval.”

Here are a few passages quoted in this article:

“There seems to be some justice in the protests against the search for the bones of the American Indian princess, Pocahontas,” the Lynchburg Advance asserts. “Virginia could hardly expect a protracted search of graves in England in an effort to find the bones.”

“What seems to be the most utterly foolish undertaking of the present century is the search for the body of Pocahontas,” declares the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch. “Foolish, because there is but one chance in a million of finding it or of being sure of its identity when found.”

…Gaston’s exhumations are scorned by the Boston Post, which sees in them “an ill-advised disturbance of the English dead, for no good whatsoever.”

…Now what of Chicago, of which metropolis archaeologist Gaston is said to be a native? The Evening Post has spoken: “We agree with the honorable foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, that the Chicago gentleman might be engaged in better business.”

…Other editors discuss the matter from various angles. There would be nothing gained in bringing her body here, says the Milwaukee Journal, “for Pocahontas lives on in the minds of Americans.” “Let Pocahontas rest,” suggests the New York Herald in an editorial caption. “It is creditable to the good folk of Gravesend that they should evidence their sense of outrage,” the Charleston (S.C.) Post declares. “‘Body-snatching’ it is rightly called, says the Providence Tribune.

My favorite editorial comment came from the Savanah Press:

“Archaeologists, zoologists, cranks, and irresponsibles, it seems to us, are being allowed to take a lot of liberties with the dead these days. We are losing sacred regard for a lot of things in this world, and loss of respect for the dead seems to be prominent among our other failings.”

Stay tuned for the last part of this story! I conclude Gaston’s Big Dig and relate a few other attempts to bring Pocahontas’ remains back to America!

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in.

Note on the header image: a portrait of Pocahontas engraved by Simon van de Passe in 1616. It is the only known representation of her made during her lifetime. Credit: National Portrait Gallery; Wikimedia Commons.

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