- February 27, 2024
An enquiry last year to the Lynn Museum from a researcher in the United States has led to the mystery behind the King's Lynn “Pocahontas” portrait being solved.
This world-famous portrait, until now, believed to bear Pocahontas and her son, Thomas Rolfe, has resided in the King's Lynn Town Hall since 1990, hanging above the staircase leading to the Mayor's Parlor.
Pocahontas (1595-1622) was the daughter of Virginian Indian leader Powhatan. In 1608, she famously pleaded for, and saved, the life of Capt. John Smith, who had been captured by the Indians and was about to be executed by her father. In 1614, she met and married John Rolfe, of Heacham, travelling to England with him and being presented to Queen Anne, consort of James I. Tragically, she died young of an illness and was buried in Gravesend, the first American Indian to be buried in England.
Little was known about the origins of the painting, besides that it was acquired by Eustache Neville Rolfe (1845-1908), of Heacham Hall, from a Mrs. Charlton, who stated that “her husband had bought it in America years ago.” Rolfe was sold the painting as the portrait of his ancestor “Pocahontas and her son Thomas Rolfe,” and it was displayed in Heacham Hall for many years.
Art experts had more recently examined the painting and described it as by an unknown artist of the “American School, circa 1800.” The painting, if it depicted Pocahontas, who died in 1622, was clearly not a contemporary portrait. Why then was it painted, and did the artist really mean to depict Pocahontas? Or was it a portrait of two different people painted from life?
The solution to these questions has lain quietly in a copy of the “Illustrated London News” for more than 160 years, just waiting to be discovered.
A copy of the magazine was chanced upon by Bill Ryan, a researcher in Florida, working on a book about the Seminole Indians. He at once got in touch with the Lynn Museum. On page 59 of the Jan. 29, 1848, edition of this popular Victorian magazine, he saw an illustration he recognized: A drawn version of the King's Lynn “Pocahontas” portrait. It is undeniably based on the portrait depicted in the oil painting. But instead of Pocahontas, the portrait is described in the magazine as “The Wife and Child of Osceola the Last of the Seminole Indian Chiefs.”
The text (from the magainze) continues: “This picture, painted by a North American Indian artist, has lately been brought to London by Colonel Sherburne, who has applied, through the American representative here, for a channel by which to present the painting to the queen, the picture portrays Pe-o-ka, the wife of Osceola, the principal War Chief of the Seminoles, in Florida, and her son, on hearing of his treacherous capture under the white flag, his imprisonment, and death in a dungeon, by the American General, after a seven-year war with the Seminole tribe.”
We now have evidence of the real identity of the woman and child and proof that the painting is not of Pocahontas and has no connection with her, the Rolfe family or Norfolk! Instead of an imaginary picture of Pocahontas painted nearly 200 years after her death, we have something arguably of greater historical importance and interest: A painting of real people, Pe-o-ka, one of Osceola's two wives, and their son, most probably drawn from life. We now know their identities, and as a portrait of Native Americans painted circa 1837-38, the painting now becomes a unique and fascinating historical artifact in its own right.
We have virtually no information about Pe-o-ka, and this painting is the only known image of her. What happened to her after her husband, Osceola, was captured and died in prison, is not known. The story of Osceola was well reported in Britain at the lime. A warrior of the Seminole tribe of Florida, he had been waging a guerrilla war against American forces since 1835 before he was captured under a flag of truce in 1837. This treacherous act on the part of the U.S. Army is described in the “Illustrated London News” article and the Victorian public sympathies appear to have been with the Indians.
Osceola died in prison of malaria, but not before he had several portraits painted by “North American Indian artists” (white men who painted Native American Indians). Among them were George Catlin and Robert John Curtis, who painted portraits in early 1838.
“The Illustrated London News” gruesomely reports that after Osceola died, "surrounded his wife, children weeping warriors in a dismal dungeon,” his head was severed “and placed in a jar of spirits, and now adorns the shelf of an apothecary in St. Augustine, Florida … His body was taken by the surgeons, and the headless skeleton of the chief may now be seen in the closet of a physician of note in Charleston." Other, perhaps more reliable, reports state that Osceola's headless body was burled with honors at Fort Moultrie, Charleston, S.C.
Who painted the portrait of Pe-o-ka is not known, and the style of painting appears different from that of the artists Catlin or Curtis. The painting was made after her husband's capture by the U.S. Army in October 1837, and according to Sherburne, after his death three months later. She was at her husband's side when he died. George Carlin witnessed Osceola's death at Fort Moultrie and describes how "He made signs to his wives (of whom he had two), and also two … little children by his side." (Osceola is reported to have had two wives, one being a black woman called Morning Dew.) Catlin also writes that the 250 Seminole prisoners were to be expelled 700 miles west of the Mississippi, far away from their native lands. Knowing the tragic background events and history of Pe-o-ka and the Seminole tribe, it is perhaps easy to read a sad but proud demeanor in her face in the portrait.
The 1848 article states that Col. Sherburne intended to present the portrait to Queen Victoria. The Royal Collection has recently confirmed that the painting was never presented. What happened to the painting after 1848 is unknown, until it appeared in the Rolfe collection by 1875 via “Mrs. Charlton.” Sherburne reportedly died in England, and it is possible the painting never returned to America. At some point the historical background of the painting was lost, and it was assumed to be a portrait of the famous historical figure Pocahontas.
Now that the true identity of the two people in the painting is known, a missing piece of the jigsaw in the proud history of the Seminole Native American people of Florida has been found. Further research may well reveal more fascinating insights into the history of the painting and of Pe-o-ka and her son.
King's Lynn Museums