Rolfe, John (DNB00)

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ROLFE, JOHN (1585–1622), colonist, grandson of Eustacius Rolfe, of an old Norfolk family, and son of John Rolfe, who married, on 24 Sept. 1582, Dorothea Mason, was baptised at Heacham, Norfolk, on 6 May 1585. Representatives of the Rolfe family still occupy Heacham Hall. A twin-brother, Eustacius, died in childhood. Rolfe married in England during 1608, and sailed with his wife for Virginia in June 1609. On the voyage he was wrecked and cast on the Bermudas, where a daughter, who died an infant, was born to him. The parents reached Virginia in May 1610, whereupon the mother died. In 1612 Rolfe signalised himself as the first Englishman to introduce the regular cultivation of tobacco into Virginia. He was thus a leading settler, when, on 5 April 1613, whether captivated by the grace and beauty of the newly converted savage or, as his fellow-colonist Hamor wrote, ‘for the good of the plantation,’ and in spite of personal scruples, it is impossible to say, he married Pocahontas.

Pocahontas, or Matoaka (1595–1617), was a younger daughter of Powhattan, overking of the Indian tribes from the Atlantic seaboard to ‘the falls of the rivers.’ This potentate was naturally perturbed by the arrival of English colonists upon the Virginian seaboard in 1585, and he and his subjects were probably instrumental in the extermination of the early colonists, no traces of whom were ever found [see under Ralegh, Sir Walter]. On 30 April 1607 a second colony, sent out by the Virginian Company of London, anchored in Chesapeake Bay. The fresh colonists, who settled at Jamestown, soon entered into friendly relations with the natives. One of the most prominent of their number, Captain John Smith (1580?–1631) [q. v.], essayed the exploration of the Indians' country. In December 1607 he sailed up the Chickahominy river on the second of such expeditions, was captured by the Indians and eventually taken to Powhattan's chief camp, about eighteen miles south-east of Jamestown (5 Jan. 1608). According to the account of these transactions which he sent to England a few months later, Smith succeeded in convincing the king of the friendliness of his intentions, and was accordingly sent back to Jamestown with a native escort. Eight years later, when writing a short account of Pocahontas, then in England, for the benefit of Queen Anne, consort of James I, Smith embellished this plain tale with some romantic incidents. According to this later version, first published in 1622, Powhattan, after a parley with his chiefs, decided upon the Englishman's execution, and the natives were preparing to brain him with their clubs, when Pocahontas, ‘the king's darling daughter,’ rushed forward and interposed her own head between Smith and his executioners, whereupon Powhattan ordered his life to be spared. Other writers corroborate Smith's statement that from 1608 Pocahontas was henceforward a frequent visitor at Jamestown, where she played with the children, and acted as an intermediary between the colonists and Powhattan. Smith returned to England on 4 Oct. 1609, after which her regular visits to the English camp ceased. In Smith's earlier narrative, or ‘True Relation’ (1608), Pocahontas is mentioned incidentally as a child of ten, ‘who not only for feature, countenance, and proportion’ greatly exceeded the rest of her countrywomen, but was ‘the only nonpareil’ of the country. In the later ‘General History’ (1622) she is depicted as the good genius of the settlers, warning them of hostile schemes on the part of the Indians, and sending them provisions in times of scarcity.

When, in the spring of 1612, Captain Samuel Argal, a leading colonist, was trading for corn along the Potomac, it came to his ears that Pocahontas was staying on a visit with the chief of the district. Through the agency of this chief's brother, whom Argal alternately threatened and cajoled, the princess, now about sixteen years of age, was lured on board Argal's vessel, and taken, as a hostage for the good behaviour of the Indian tribes, to Jamestown, where she arrived on 13 April 1612. In the following year she was converted to Christianity, and christened Rebecca. Powhattan appeared flattered when his daughter's projected marriage with Rolfe was announced to him, and it was hoped that the match would cement a friendly alliance between the planters and the Indian potentate. It was followed by an exchange of prisoners and other overtures of good-will. In 1616 Sir Thomas Dale, who was acting as governor of the colony, carried Pocahontas, with her husband and child, to England, where she and her native attendants were handsomely received by the London company and others, the queen and courtiers (who had at first looked askance at Rolfe's union) paying her marked attention. She renewed her acquaintance with her old friend Captain Smith, and attended the Twelfth Night masque of 1617 (Jonson's Christmas), in company with the queen.

During her stay in town Simon de Passe engraved the well-known portrait of her, the features of which are agreeable, modest, and not undignified. She is described in an inscription upon the plate as ‘Matoaka, alias Rebecka, wife of the worshipful Mr. Thos. Rolff. Ætatis suæ 21 A° 1616.’ Another portrait in oils was painted by an Italian artist, and belonged to the Rev. Whitwell Elwin of Booton Rectory, Norfolk, whose family intermarried with the Rolfes; an excellent engraving from it appeared in the ‘Art Journal’ (1885, p. 299).

Pocahontas, although reluctant to return to America, pined under an English sky, and in March 1617, after all arrangements had been made for her departure, she died at Gravesend. In the parish register of St. George's Church, Gravesend, is the crude entry: ‘1616, May 2j, Rebecca Wrothe, wyff of Thomas Wroth, gent., a Virginia lady borne, here was buried in ye chauncell’ (Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. v. 123; cf. Court of James I, under date 29 March 1617). Several of her attendants proved consumptive, and gave trouble to the company after their mistress's death. Rolfe subsequently married Jane, daughter of William Pierce, and died in Virginia in 1623, leaving a widow with children. By the princess Rolfe left a son Thomas (born in 1615), who after his mother's death was brought up by his uncle, Henry Rolfe of London. He returned to Virginia in 1640, and married there Jane, daughter of Francis Poythress, leaving a daughter Jane, who married Robert Bolling, and had many descendants. Ben Jonson introduced Pocahontas into his ‘Staple of News’ (1625), and since his day she has formed the title character of many works of prose fiction, by Sigourney, Seba Smith, Samuel Hopkins, John Davis, and others. The romantic incident of the rescue is depicted in stone as a relief upon the Capitol, Washington.

[Capt. John Smith's works, ed. Arber, 1884; Wingfield's Discourse of Virginia; Newport's Discoveries in Virginia; Observations by George Percy (Purchas); Spelman's Relation of Virginia; Whitaker's Good News from Virginia; and Hamor's True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia—all written 1607–15; Stith's History of Virginia; Brown's Genesis of the United States; New England Hist. and Genealog. Regist. January 1884; Nichols's Progresses of James I, iii. 243; Revue de Paris, t. xlii. (1832) 211, 321; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1611–18.

Since Thomas Fuller expressed doubt of the veracity of Captain Smith in his Worthies, Mr. Charles Deane was the first, in a note to his edition of Wingfield's Discourse (1860), to impugn Smith's story of his rescue by Pocahontas. Mr. Deane repeated his doubts in a note to his edition of Smith's True Relation in 1866, and the same view was supported in the Rev. E. D. Neill's Virginia Company in London (ch. v., printed separately as Pocahontas and her Companions, London, 1869), and in the same writer's English Colonisation in America (chap. iv.). Charles Dudley Warner, in the Study of the Life and Writings of John Smith (1881), treats the Pocahontas episode with sceptical levity. Deane's views were also supported by Henry Adams in the North American Review, January 1867; by Henry Cabot Lodge in his English Colonies in America; by Justin Winsor in History of America, vol. iii.; and, with some reservations, by J. Gorham Palfrey in his Hist. of New England (1866), and by Mr. J. A. Doyle in his English in America: Virginia (1882). Bancroft found a place for the story in his narrative until 1879, when, in the centenary edition of his History of the United States, he abandoned it without expressing judgment. Coit Tyler, in his History of American Literature, laments that the ‘pretty story’ has lost historical credit. Professor S. R. Gardiner, in his History of England (1883, iii. 158), regrets its demolition by historical inquirers. The balance of trained opinion is thus in favour of treating the rescue episode as a poetical fiction. Its substantial correctness is, however, contended for by Wyndham Robertson in Pocahontas and her Descendants, 1887, by Poindexter in his Capt. John Smith and his Critics (1893), by Professor Arber in his elaborate vindication of Smith (Smith's Works, ed. Arber, esp. p. cxvii), and by Mr. William Wirt Henry, the most eloquent champion of the story, in his Address to the Virginia Historical Society (Proceedings, February 1882).]

T. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.238
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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158 i 18-19 Rolfe, John: for Edwin of Boston Hall ... of the Rolfes; read the Rev. Whitwell Elwin of Booton Rectory, Norfolk, whose family intermarried with the Rolfes;