January 30, 2010

Happy Birthday, Thomas Rolfe

Thomas Rolfe was born on this day in 1615 to a very famous mother: Pocahontas.


(At left is a portrait that is supposed to be a picture of Pocahontas and Thomas.)

At the time
of her son's birth, Pocahontas was called Rebecca Rolfe, because she had converted to Christianity, taken an English “first” name, and married Englishman John Rolfe. Even Pocahontas wasn't her "real" name—it was a childhood nickname that meant something like “rambunctious.” Her formal names were Matoaka and Amonute.

Pocahontas's father, Wahunsunacawh, was chief of the Powhatan Indians that lived in what is now Virginia near England's fi
rst successful colony, Jamestown.

Pocahontas is most famous for saving the life of colonist John Smith. But the incident may never have happened (we only know about it from Smith's retelling many years later), and even if it did happen, most references to the incident in popular culture are mythologized. For example, there is no evidence that Smith and Pocahontas fell in love—indeed, Smith wrote that she was only “tenne” years old when she saved his life.

Whatever happened (or did not happen) in the Pocahontas-John Smith encounter, it is clear that this Powhatan princess befriended the English settlers in Jamestown and eventually, as mentioned, married one of them. In 1616 John Rolfe took his wife and son to London, where Pocahontas met King James and other society folk, interacted
with John Smith (who had returned to England in 1609 after being injured in the New World), and sadly died at age 21, probably of a disease, just as the family was getting ready to return back to North America.

Pocahontas's son Thomas grew up in England, and he married and had a daughter. Through this daughter, Anne Rolfe, Pocahontas and Thomas have descendants who live in England. In 1635 Thomas returned to the New World. There he remarried and had a second daughter, Jane Rolfe. Through this daughter, Pocahontas and Thomas have had many descendants in America, including TWO former first ladies, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson and Nancy Reagan.


National Geographic Kids has an interactive adventure about John Smith and Jamestown with lots of info and several mini-games.

Look at four very different portraits of Pocahontas at the Henrico County, VA, website. (Henrico County has a picture of Pocahontas on its flag and seal.)

Many people are most aware of Pocahontas because of the Disney animated movie. Of course, no one expects a Disney movie to be accurate history, but people who don't know better probably think that at least some of the broad strokes of the tale are true. However, they aren't.

I ran across several items on the Internet in which Indians complained about the inaccuracy and mythology of the Disney version of the Pocahontas story. Here's one,
and here is another.

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