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how the special relationship began

Native American Pocahontas and her Norfolk husband John Rolfe have a very special American claim to fame - not only did they have the first inter-racial church wedding in US history, their pairing helped establish the English colony in Virginia, and ensured the creation of the United States of America.

Without this First Couple of colonial America, Americans might not be speaking English, but Spanish, Dutch or French instead!

So The Special Relationship was created by a man from Norfolk!

Pocahontas myths

Pocahontas and John Rolfe

the first couple of america

Native American Pocahontas (c1596-1617) was the daughter of Powhatan, also known as Wahunsenacah, who controlled much of what is now Virginia. She has entered history through her association with the early Jamestown settlers and marriage to a Norfolk man – the first inter-racial church wedding in the Americas and the marriage that saved the colony.

During hostilities, Pocahontas (a nickname, her real name was Matoaka) was taken prisoner in Jamestown. She converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and was married to plantation owner John Rolfe, from Heacham in Norfolk, on April 5, 1614 in the town’s wooden church by Reverend Richard Bucke.

At the time of the marriage, Pocahontas, which means 'Little Mischief' or 'the naughty one', was a 16-year-old widow, her first husband Kocoum, having been killed when she taken captive. John Rolfe was a widower – his wife Sara dying shortly after arriving in Jamestown in May 1610.

That Rolfe came to have arrived in the new colony was a miracle. Sailing to the Americas with a new charter organised by the Virginia Company, he survived the storm of the century, the hurricane which inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest, but was nonetheless marooned with Sara on a deserted island for almost 10 months, enduring murder and mutiny and the death of his new-born baby. Even when in Jamestown, he found the townspeople starving and resorting to cannibalism.

So Rolfe marrying Pocahontas was the most important wedding in American history. The English were losing the war with the native Americas and may have been killed or forced to leave, but the marriage bought a short-lived peace between Powhatan and the English, called the Peace of Pocahontas.

During this time the English were able to get enough settlers to Virginia to withstand later attacks by the Indians after the death of Pocahontas’ father, so ensuring the success of the Virginia colony.

The marriage is also the first recorded inter-racial church wedding in what would become the United States.

Pocahontas and Rolfe stayed at Heacham Hall two years later when they travelled to England with their infant son Thomas. Rolfe had been baptised in 1585 in the font at Heacham that is still used in the parish church today.

The ‘Indian Princess’ was also a hit at the English court of James I, but died suddenly, probably of smallpox or tuberculosis, before leaving England, at Gravesend, Kent where she is buried. Pocahontas is commemorated on Heacham’s village sign.

The 1995 Disney animated Pocahontas film is inaccurate - it depicts a romance with John Smith, who she did indeed save from being killed by her tribe. (There were a lot of Johns around - between 1550 and 1800, half of all men were called either John, William or Thomas. Half of England's women were called Elizabeth, Mary or Anne).

Young Thomas was brought up at Heacham Hall (little of the original building is left) by his uncle Henry. He left for Virginia aged 25, and his granddaughter married Robert Bolling, from which match several Virginian families claim descent.

The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe
Pocahontas baptism
Pocahontas drawing

the man who saved English america

John Rolfe returned to America and became America’s first entrepreneur. An astute farmer, he had a vision of success across the ocean in Virginia and ended saving the state financially and assured north America became a British colony.

He began experimenting with growing tobacco, settling on seeds from the West Indies, to develop Virginia’s first profitable export. In just seven years he created a cash crop that saved Virginia financially and became America’s chief export for the next 150 years and one which is still a thriving multi-billion dollar industry 400 years later.

Without Rolfe’s entrepreneurialism and his marriage to Pocahontas, the Virginia colony would have failed and it would have been the French, Spanish and Dutch, rather than the English, who would have colonised what became the United States. So it is true to say that a humble farmer from Heacham in Norfolk is responsible for the United States being English-speaking, using English common law, having an English cultural heritage and enjoying religious freedom.

In fact, it’s probable that Americans would now be speaking Spanish, French of Dutch were it not for Pocahontas and John Rolfe!

Even if it did mean the introduction of cigarettes to our lives!

Norfolk's U.S. connections 

Why Americans will love Norfolk

Pocahontas sign at Heacham
John Rolfe

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