The 鶹ý Blog

Working to Crack a Cold Case Dating Back More than 400 Years

Professor Declan Hill is developing a study abroad program to take a team of University of New Haven students to England to try to find the remains of Matoaka, known to the world as Pocahontas, hoping to return her remains to her tribal home in Virginia.

June 11, 2024

By Jackie Hennessey, Contributing Writer

Watch Dr. Declan Hill's discussion with Ann Nyberg about the role gangsters have played in North American sports, the fascination with Pocahontas, and how a podcast can teach fans about investigations.

Dr. Declan Hill (left) and Wayne Newton in Las Vegas.
Dr. Declan Hill (left) and Wayne Newton in Las Vegas.

An internationally renowned expert on match fixing, gambling and corruption in sports, Declan Hill, D. Phil., is an investigator at heart. He loves boots-on-the-ground reporting, asking questions, and puzzling things out.

Now, he’s at work on what he describes as “the oldest cold case in America,” searching for the remains of the Native American Matoaka – known to the world as Pocahontas. He is assembling a team of University of New Haven students from across disciplines – forensic science, investigations, criminal justice, and history – who will take part in a study abroad program to research and investigate the case in Oxford and Gravesend, England.

Dr. Hill, an associate professor in the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, has taken up the mantle from Professor Emeritus Henry C. Lee, Ph.D., who since 1999 has been working to pinpoint exactly where Pocahontas’s remains are.

The quest came at the behest of legendary Las Vegas crooner Wayne Newton who has said he is a descendant of Pocahontas. “When he wanted the best to do the research,” Dr. Hill said, “he called Dr. Lee.”

Brokering a Peace Treaty

It’s a winding tale that goes back to the 1600s.

Dr. Hill explained that Matoaka, who was given the nickname Pocahontas (one with a lively nature), was the daughter of Wahunsenaca, Chief Powhatan, who oversaw 30 tribes. Dr. Hill said Pocahontas forged connections between Native Americans and colonists, helped them to survive harsh winters, and saved the life of Captain John Smith. She was taken captive and transported to Jamestown where settlers demanded corn, the return of prisoners and stolen items, and a peace treaty. She later met and married Virginia farmer John Rolfe.

Chief Powhatan asked his daughter to travel to England to speak with King James I and Queen Anne to broker a peace agreement, Dr. Hill said, adding that she was well received. She planned to return to Virginia but fell ill and died and was buried in Gravesend, England.

Over the years, it was believed Pocahontas was buried at St. George’s Church, but it burned down in the 1700s. In the 1920s a man claiming to be her descendant – who was found not to be – dug up graves and disturbed remains looking for her body. While there is a statue commemorating Pocahontas on the church grounds, Dr. Hill said there is evidence her body was moved.

‘I was honored’

Dr. Hill said that Dr. Lee hadn’t been familiar with Wayne Newton or the legend of Pocahontas when Newton first called him. But after Newton met with him and told the story, Dr. Lee agreed to take on the search.

“Wayne Newton pulled out his checkbook and asked ‘what will it cost?’ and Dr. Lee told him that he’d come to America with $50 in his pocket and America had given him everything, and he would do it for free,” Dr. Hill said.

“The story is incredible, and it’s detailed in the I produce with students,” he said.

The podcast caught the attention of staff from the Discovery Channel who have proposed developing a documentary, Dr. Hill said.

When Dr. Lee recently asked Dr. Hill to take over the search, “I was honored,” Dr. Hill said.

‘Great care and respect’

In February Dr. Hill went to Gravesend, spending hours poring over archives and talking with local historians and builders. “I wanted to know what the legends and stories are,” he said. “The builders, the historians, and the people of Gravesend have been amazingly kind and helpful.”

He now believes there are three sites in Gravesend where Pocahontas’s remains could be. With the prevalence and sophistication of DNA testing, the team could make a determination if the remains are hers. There are thousands of known descendants of Pocahontas’s son, Thomas, including the actor Edward Norton, who found that “Pocahontas is his 12th great-grandmother” as part of the PBS show “Finding Your Roots.”

Recently, Dr. Hill met with Newton and traveled to Virginia to talk with tribal members “to see how they would feel about having her remains returned.” He’s assembling the student team to continue the search.

Dr. Hill said he is proceeding with “great care and respect."

“I’m passionate about history and archeology,” he said. “I know the UK well. I was raised there and did my Ph.D. there. My mother was American, and thanks to the influence of Dr. Claire Glynn (director of the University’s Graduate Certificate in Forensic Genetic Genealogy) I did my own genealogic research and discovered that one of my relatives was one of the first babies born in the colony of Virginia in 1609.”

Dr. Hill said that Lee College Associate Dean David Schroeder, Ph.D., “always says our job is to give our students opportunities they didn’t ever think about, and this is one of those opportunities that is full of so much possibility.”