The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe in 1614 changed the demographics of Virginia residents. Their only child, Thomas Rolfe, was the first descendent in a line that now spans over seven generations. Thomas was the culmination of years of contact between the Powhatan Indians and the English. His choices between his English heritage and Powhatan heritage affected all his future descendants.
Thomas was born in Virginia in 1615, the first recorded birth of a child born to a Virginia Indian princess and an English gentleman. The child was presumably named after the Governor, Sir Thomas Dale. His mother, Pocahontas, had converted to Christianity in 1614 and taken the name Rebecca before she married John Rolfe. The English saw her as a perfect example of what Christianizing efforts produced. John Rolfe introduced a sweet tasting tobacco to the struggling colony, which allowed Virginia to prosper in later years. However, Thomas and his parents did not stay long in Virginia.
The Virginia Company wanted to attract new colonists, and more investment money to Virginia. Their plans to do so entailed escorting Pocahontas, a Christian Indian, to England and present her and Thomas at court. The Virginia Company wanted everyone to know how well their efforts worked in the new colony, hoping that support for the Virginia colony would increase. In 1616, Rebecca (Pocahontas), John, and Thomas traveled to England, accompanied by nearly a dozen other Powhatan Indians. Once they arrived, they traveled to many places and visited with distinguished men and women. They met such notables as King James, Queen Anne, Sir Walter Raleigh, and the Rolfe family. The Virginia Company considered this time well spent. They continued to raise money and attract new settlers.
The time in a foreign land was hard on Rebecca, Thomas, and the other Virginia natives. After seven months, they began their departure from England to return to Virginia. In March 1617, aboard the ship that was to sail them home, Rebecca and Thomas fell ill. Rebecca died before they could leave their departure point in Gravesend, where she was buried. John continued his voyage to Virginia, but realized that his son's health was fragile. John decided to leave young Thomas in England with Sir Lewis Stuckley until John's younger brother, Henry, could take over care. John intended for Thomas to stay in England until he regained enough strength to return to Virginia. This was an especially important turning point in Thomas' life. He would not return to Virginia until 1635 at the age of 20, and he would never again see his father.
In 1622, John Rolfe died unexpectedly in Virginia. The explanation for his death is not fully known, although it may have been through sickness. Another prominent figure that died in these years of Thomas' absence was his grandfather, Powhatan. He was the chief of the Powhatan Indians and died of seemingly natural causes in 1618. At one point during Powhatan's sickness, it was rumored among the Indians that Thomas would be the heir to the Powhatan domain. Upon Powhatan's death, however, it was clear that this was not the case. Opechancanough, Thomas' uncle, took over in Powhatan's place. When Thomas returned to Virginia in 1635, he found that his grandfather did not forget him. Through John and Rebecca Rolfe, Powhatan left Thomas thousands of acres on the James River, some of which is directly across the James River from Jamestown Island. He was also left the plantation where he was born, Varina. John Rolfe had secured this land for Thomas by taking out a royal patent before his death in 1622. Shortly after Thomas returned to Virginia, Thomas married Jane Poythress. The date of the marriage is not known, but with land and a wife, Thomas Rolfe was established. Now, he looked to find his Powhatan relatives and establish family connections.
In 1641, Thomas petitioned the Governor for permission to meet with his mother's people. The petition was accepted and Thomas met his uncle, Opechancanough. Unfortunately, there are no recordings of their meeting. Thomas evidently made the choice between his Powhatan and English heritages in 1646 when he became a lieutenant in the English military. The General Assembly in the colony granted Thomas the land called Fort James in return for his service. Thomas was now part of the English policy to dismantle and control the land of his Powhatan ancestors.
Around 1650, Thomas and Jane had their only child, Jane. Jane went on to marry Colonel Robert Bolling in 1675. The couple had one son, John. John Bolling was the third in line of descendants from Rebecca and John Rolfe, and from Bolling came seven children. John sparked off the trend of having more than one child, each successive generation doing the same.
Where does this leave Thomas? There are but a few documents that trace his life past the time of 1646, and records regarding his death are lacking. However, it seems that he became a man of wealth, as can be seen through land patents and deeds. The last reference made to him is in a deed from 1698 by John Bolling. John inherited Fort James through his mother, Jane, and transferred the land to William Brown in this deed. Thomas' name was mentioned in the document as deceased, and it is the last known reference to him.
Although Thomas Rolfe's heritage was Powhatan and English, he lived as an Englishman. When Thomas cemented that by becoming a lieutenant for the colony, he decided the manner in which thousands of his descendants would live for years to come.
Bruce, Philip. Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 1. New York: Kraus Reprinting Corporation, 1968.
Hening, William Waller. Hening's Statutes At Large. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
Mossiker, Frances. Pocahontas, The Life and the Legend. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
Robertson, Wyndham. Pocahontas And Her Descendants. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1982.
Stanard, William. Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 21. New York: Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1968.
Tyler, Lyon G. Tyler's Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Volume 4. New York: Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1967.
Woodward, Grace Steele. Pocahontas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
Research Library of Colonial America. Virginia, Four Personal Narratives.
Did You Know?
No Virginia Indian tribes have federal recognition. The normal way – petitioning the Bureau of Indian Affairs – cannot be taken because of Walter Plecker’s "paper genocide" in the 1900s. Since the 1990s, six of the state-recognized tribes have been trying to get it through an Act of Congress. More...