Jan 302014


Today is the birthday (1615) of Thomas Pepsironemeh Rolfe, the only child of Pocahontas by her English husband, John Rolfe. His maternal grandfather was Wahunsunacock, paramount chief of the Powhatan confederacy in Virginia, and, therefore, also known simply as Powhatan. Thomas Rolfe (and his two marriages) made it possible for following generations, both in North America and in England, to trace descent from Pocahontas (including Nancy Reagan and astronomer Percival Lowell).


Pocahontas (born Matoaka, known as Amonute, and later known as Rebecca Rolfe, c. 1595 – March 1617) was captured by the English during hostilities in 1613, and held for ransom. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. When the opportunity arose for her to return to her people, she chose to remain with the English. In April 1614, she married tobacco planter John Rolfe.

Thomas Rolfe was born in Virginia and named after Governor Sir Thomas Dale, who accompanied Thomas Rolfe and his parents on their trip to England aboard the Treasurer in 1616. He was a year old during this voyage, and (being half Native American) was not necessarily immune to the diseases and hardships of the voyage. Thomas survived, but a year later in spring 1617 was stricken with a severe fever, as was his mother. Pocahontas was presented to English society as an example of the civilized “savage” in hopes of stimulating investment in the Jamestown settlement. She became something of a celebrity, was elegantly fêted, and attended a masque at Whitehall Palace.


Just as the family was preparing to re-embark on the George for Virginia (while still in Gravesend in Kent), Pocahontas died of a fever (possibly tuberculosis). Thomas was left in Plymouth in England with Sir Lewis Stukley, and was later transferred into the care of his uncle, Henry Rolfe. His father, however, sailed without him to Virginia (after being persuaded by Admiral Argall and other members of the journey that his son was too sick to continue the voyage) and this was the last time that the father and son saw one another. Thomas remained in his uncle’s care in England until he reached roughly 20 years of age, by which time his father had already died. As Henry had raised Thomas, he felt he deserved compensation from his brother, and therefore petitioned the Virginia Council in October 1622, claiming entitlement to a portion of John Rolfe’s land. It is assumed that Thomas Rolfe returned to Virginia in 1635, and there is no further mention of Rolfe’s whereabouts or doings until 1641.

Once established in Virginia again, Thomas Rolfe fostered both his reputation as a plantation owner, and as a member of his mother’s lineage. As Thomas Rolfe was a child of a European man and a Native American woman, some aspects of his life were particularly controversial. Thomas expressed interest in rekindling relations with his Native American relatives, despite societal ridicule and laws that forbade such contact. In 1641, Rolfe petitioned the governor for permission to visit his “aunt, Cleopatra, and his kinsman Opecanaugh.”

Thomas married Elizabeth Washington in September 1632 at St James’s Church, Clerkenwell and they had a daughter named Anne Rolfe in 1633. Elizabeth died shortly after Anne’s birth. Anne Rolfe married Peter Elwin (or Elwyn) and through that line many people claim descent from Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Thomas later married a woman named Jane Poythress, who was the daughter of Captain Francis Poythress, a prosperous landowner in Virginia. They had a daughter together (who was named Jane after her mother). Thomas left his daughter with his cousin Anthony Rolfe to claim his inheritance. In 1698, Thomas Rolfe’s grandson John Bolling (Jane’s son) released to William Browne his rights in the land, in a deed in which Bolling is identified as “…son and heir of Jane, late wife of Robert Bolling of Charles City County, Gent., which Jane was the only daughter of Thomas Rolf, dec’d…” As confirmed by the 1698 deed quoted above, his daughter Jane married Robert Bolling. Robert Bolling and Jane Rolfe Bolling had one child; their son John was born January 26, 1676.

While Thomas did receive land from his father, it is believed that a fair percentage of his land came from the Native Americans, as well. There were rumors in 1618 that when Thomas came of age, he would inherit a sizable portion of Powhatan territory; this information was transmitted through Argall to London, stating, “‘Opechanano and the Natives have given their Country to Rolfe’s Child and that they will reserve it from all others till he comes of yeares….” Thomas’s step-grandfather, named Captain William Peirce, received a grant of 2000 acres of land on June 22, 1635 for the “transportation of 40 persons among whom was Thomas Rolfe.” He then listed Thomas as heir to his father’s land. Prior to March 1640, Thomas took possession of this land which was located on the lower side of the James River.


Thomas also inherited a tract of around 150 acres on June 10, 1654 in Surry County, across from Jamestown; the land was described in a later deed as “Smith’s Fort old field and the Devil’s Woodyard swamp being due unto the said Rolfe by Gift from the Indian King.”

The year after the 1644 attack on the colony by Native Americans, four forts were established to defend the frontier: Fort Henry, Fort Royal, Fort James, and Fort Charles. Fort James was to be under the command of Thomas Rolfe as lieutenant as of October 5, 1646. He was given six men, and was instructed to fight against the Powhatan — his own people:

And it is further enacted and granted, That left.[Lieutenant] Thomas Rolfe shall have and enjoy for himselfe and his heires for ever ffort James alias Chickahominy fort with fowre hundred acres of land adjoyning to the same, with all houses and edifices belonging to the said forte and all boats and amunition at present belonging to the said ffort; Provided that he the said Leift. Rolfe doe keepe and maintaine sixe men vpon the place duringe the terme and time of three yeares, for which tyme he the said Leift. Rolfe for himselfe and the said sixe men are exempted from publique taxes.


Then, on October 6, 1646, Thomas was put in charge of building a fort at Moysenac, for which he received 400 acres of land. This fort was located on the west side of Diascund Creek. Several years later, Rolfe patented 525 acres on August 8, 1653, “…lying upon the North side of Chickahominy river commonly called and known by the name of James fort…”, apparently including the 400 acres he had received in 1646. This Fort James land was repatented by William Browne on April 23, 1681. The tract was described in the patent as “formerly belonging to Mr Thomas Rolfe, dec’d”, thus establishing that Rolfe had died before that date. The exact year and place of his death are unknown.

Pocahontas did not leave any fully Native American descendants. However, many non-Native people in the United States claim descent from her through her son, Thomas Rolfe, and Thomas’s daughter, Jane. Moreover, many people in Great Britain also claim descent from Pocahontas through Thomas’s daughter, Anne, by his wife Elizabeth Washington.

The birth of Thomas Rolfe, as he was both European and Native American, reinstated peace between the Powhatans and the European settlements. Early in his career as deputy governor, Argall reported in a letter published within the Virginia Company Records that Powhatan “goes from place to place visiting his country taking his pleasure in good friendship with us laments his daughter’s death but glad her child is living so doth opachank.”

I think it is rather a shame that fictionalized accounts of Pocahontas, which usually play fast and loose with the historic facts (especially Disney), do not say much, if anything, about her son.  To my mind he represents a hope that never materialized of unity and accord between indigenous peoples and European colonists in North America.

As I have mentioned several times before, the settlement of the Americas led to the importation of myriad fruits and vegetables into Europe.  In Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor Falstaff shouts deliriously, “Let the sky rain potatoes” as a sign of the joy at these new arrivals. Potatoes were initially aristocratic food only, and the potato flower was used as an ornament on high quality china.  The pumpkin was also apparently very popular quite early on among the nobility, and also appears in Shakespeare:  “It pleased them to think me worthy of pompion” (Love’s Labour’s Lost: V, ii).  The word “pumpkin” originates from the word “pepon” which is Greek for “large melon,” or, more generally, something round and large. The French adapted this word to “pompon,” which the English changed to “pompion” or “pumpion,” and later American colonists changed that to the word that is used today, “pumpkin.”


Related recipes for pumpion pye (i.e. pumpkin pie) start showing up in various editions of two cookbooks in the 1650’s onward, The Compleat Cook by Nathaniel Brook, and The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May, such as this one from Brook in 1671:

To make a Pumpion Pye.

Take about halfe a pound of Pumpion and slice it, a handfull of Tyme, a little Rosemary, Parsley and sweet Marjoram slipped off the stalks, and chop them smal, then take Cinamon, Nutmeg, Pepper, and six Cloves, and beat them; take ten Eggs and beat them; then mix them, and beat them altogether, and put in as much Sugar as you think fit, then fry them like a froiz; after it is fryed, let it stand till it be cold, then fill your Pye, take sliced Apples thinne round wayes, and lay a row of the Froiz, and a layer of Apples with Currans betwixt the layer while your Pye is fitted, and put in a good deal of sweet butter before you close it; when the Pye is baked, take six yolks of Eggs, some white-wine or Verjuyce, & make a Caudle of this, but not too thick; cut up the Lid and put it in, stir them well together whilst the Eggs and Pumpions be not perceived, and so serve it up.

It is a fascinating dish, and because it combines English apples and North American pumpkin, is a worthy dish to celebrate Thomas Rolfe.  The pie has three layers, apples on the bottom, a sort of thick pancake (froiz) of mashed pumpkin and eggs, and then another layer of apples and currants, bathed in a sweet and sour syrup (caudle) of verjuice and egg yolks.  Very complex.  Deana Sidney in her excellent blog, Lost Past Remembered, recreated this pie and it looks wonderful.  The image here is hers.


A full account of her recreation of the pie can be found here, and is well worth a visit:


This pie would certainly make a talking point at Thanksgiving dinner, or at any dinner for that matter. Sidney does note that 10 eggs seems like a lot for ½ pound of pumpkin, and, in fact, May’s recipe, quite similar to Brook’s, calls for 1 pound.  You’d need to experiment. The flavorings are also interesting: thyme, rosemary, parsley, marjoram, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and cloves.  Without the sugar this would make a superb gravy for beef, and, in fact, I have frequently experimented with similar combinations. The herbs and spices marry well together.