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How a Norfolk man created The Special Relationship with North America

Were it not for a man from Heacham, Norfolk, it’s likely Americans would now be speaking Spanish, French or Dutch!

The passengers of The Mayflower, the majority of them from Norfolk and Suffolk, are thought to have created America, but it’s John Rolfe who should take the credit – through his marriage to Native American Pocahontas that saved the colony of Jamestown.

The marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas

The marriage between Pocahontas and John Rolfe.

The wedding on April 5, 1614, six years before The Mayflower sailed, was the first inter-racial church wedding in US history, and the pairing helped establish the English colony in the New World. Without this First Couple of colonial America there may not have been a Special Relationship.

Pocahontas (c1596-1617) was the daughter of Powhatan, also known as Wahunsenacah, who controlled much of what is now Virginia and was intent of ridding his territory of the colonialists.

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 Rolfe 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 was taken captive.

Depiction of Pocahontas marrying John Rolfe.

Rolfe himself was a widower – his wife Sara died 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.

The baptism of Pocahontas before marrying John Rolfe.

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.

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.

Pocahontas Heacham village sign

The village sign at Heacham featuring Pocahontas.

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.

Smith was one of the leaders of the Jamestown settlement but returned to England in 1609 to tell his story, that the Indian princess laid her head down on his as her father was about to deliver a killing blow with his war club. There is some debate about the truth of Smith’s account – he was known to exaggerate.

In fact, Smith, who was born to a farming family in Lincolnshire in 1580 and left his apprenticeship in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, to fight for the Hapsburgs against the Turks before signing on as an Adventurer on a Virginia-bound voyage in 1606, was described by a future governor of Virginia, George Percy, as ‘an Ambityous, unworthy and vayneglorious fellowe’.

Even on the voyage to Virginia, Smith was arrested for mutiny, spending most of the voyage in irons and was nearly hanged.

A contemporary image of John Rolfe and Pocahontas.

After Pocahontas’ death John Rolfe returned to America and became America’s first entrepreneur, but his and his wife’s son Thomas remained in Norfolk, being 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.

Meanwhile his father, an astute farmer, had a vision of success Virginia that ended saving the state financially and assured north America remained 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 or Dutch were it not for Pocahontas and John Rolfe – even if it did mean the introduction of cigarettes to our lives!

Historic Norfolk people linked to North America

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