Historic marriage united two worlds

Re-enactors portrayed the wedding of John Rolfe and Pocahontas earlier this year at Dorey Park in Varina.
On April 10 of this year, just days before the much-heralded celebration across the Atlantic uniting Kate Middleton and Prince William, some 200 onlookers gathered by the lake at Dorey Park to witness the royal wedding of the century.

The 17th century, that is.

In a simple ceremony, with members of the Varina Women's Club, the Chickahominy and Nansemond Indian tribes, and re-enactors from Henricus Historical Park observing and participating, an Indian maiden and a young gentleman joined hands and recited age-old vows: "to love, comforte [and] honour . . for richer, for poorer, in sickenes and in healthe."

With those vows – taken from the 1559 Book of Common Prayer that guided the original ceremony in 1614 – stand-ins for Pocahontas and John Rolfe brought to life the wedding that not only united an Englishman and a Native American in matrimony, but also united two nations in a peace that was key to Virginia's survival as a colony.

Until the 1614 union of Rolfe and his bride, who took the Christian name Rebecca, relations between the colonists and the Indians had been tenuous and uneasy at best. One week, the settlers might have traded peacefully with a tribe – but by the next week, they were often fighting with another tribe.

"[Peace] was very sporadic," notes Jenny Nelson, one of the organizers of the re-enactment. "They were always sniping at each other."

Because this union of Pocahontas and John Rolfe was instrumental in helping the Virginia colony to survive and grow, the Henrico Citizen ranks the event No. 11 in its list of significant events in Henrico history.

It was this significance, says Nelson, that inspired her and her fellow members of the Varina Woman's Club (VWC) to organize the wedding re-enactment as a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Henrico County in 2011.

Not only was the original wedding significant to the history of the county, says Nelson; the "wedding gift" equivalent was also rooted in Varina, where Pocahontas' father designated a tract of land on which the newlyweds would settle. In keeping with the Native American tradition, however, Powhatan believed that no one could own Mother Earth. Rather than give it to his daughter and her husband, he "set aside" the land.

A crush, and a marriage
From all appearances – while it was John Rolfe that Pocahontas would marry – she may have first had a girlish crush on Capt. John Smith.

The lively daughter of Chief Powhatan, leader of the Algonquian Indians in the Tidewater region, Pocahontas was her father's "most deare and wel-beloved" offspring. Known as Mataoka among her own people, the playful, frolicsome girl acquired the childhood nickname of Pocahontas, which translated as "little wanton."

Her first meeting with Smith in December 1607 has become the subject of legend and film, much romanticized by Smith and questioned by historians.

Exploring the Chickahominy River, Smith – according to his own account – was captured by a hunting party led by Powhatan's younger brother Opechancanough and brought to Powhatan's capital near Jamestown. Initially welcomed and offered a feast, Smith was later grabbed and forced to stretch out on two large, flat stones, while Indians armed with clubs stood ready, it seemed, to beat him to death. When it appeared that John Smith was going to be executed, young Pocahontas rushed forward, took Smith's head in her arms, "and laid her owne upon his to save him from death."

Although "execution and salvation" ceremonies were traditional among the Indians, and Pocahontas's actions may have been part of a ritual, early histories confirm that Pocahontas befriended Smith and the Jamestown colony. Pocahontas visited the settlement often, playing games with the boys there, delivering messages from her father and accompanying Indians bringing food and furs to trade for hatchets and trinkets. During the long, hungry winter season, she regularly brought provisions to Smith and the colonists, and has been credited with saving them from starvation.

But as the colonists expanded their settlement further into native lands, relations began to deteriorate. Late in the summer of 1609, a conflict flared between the settlers and Indians that became known as the First Anglo-Powhatan War. Soon afterwards, Smith suffered a seriously burned leg in a gunpowder explosion and had to return to England for medical treatment. When Pocahontas next came to visit the fort, she was told that her friend was dead, and she stopped visiting.

Sometime during the next year or two, Pocahontas married an Indian warrior named Kocoum and settled with him in the Potomac River area. When Captain Samuel Argall learned of Pocahontas' whereabouts, he set out to kidnap her, intending to trade her for concessions from Powhatan.

Capturing Pocahontas in spring of 1613 (legend has it that she was betrayed by relatives in return for a copper kettle), Argall sent word to Powhatan that he would return his daughter only if the chief exchanged her for some English prisoners and for weapons and tools that the Indians had stolen. Powhatan sent only enough of the ransom to keep negotiations open, and asked that his daughter be treated well.

Pocahontas eventually was taken to Henricus, where she lived for a year with Reverend and Mrs. Alexander Whittaker. During her captivity she began to learn English ways, converted to Christianity and was baptized, and caught the eye of tobacco planter John Rolfe. Before long, Rolfe had obtained Powhatan's permission to marry his daughter, and took up his pen to write the governor to request permission.

A deeply religious man, Rolfe agonized for weeks over the decision to marry a "heathen" Indian. In his letter to the governor, he expressed his love for her and his belief he would be saving her soul; in addition, he said, the union would be good for the Virginia Colonies.

In fact, Pocahontas' Christian name, Rebecca, may have been chosen to symbolize that desire for union. As the mother of Jacob and Esau in the Book of Genesis, Rebecca was considered a mother of two "nations," or distinct peoples. Pocahontas, in a sense, could also be viewed as the mother of two nations.

‘Peace of Pocahontas’
Although the marriage was unsuccessful in winning back the English captives, it marked the beginning of the "Peace of Pocahontas" that ensured friendly relations between the colonists and Powhatan's tribes, helped bring an end to the First Anglo-Powhatan War, and enabled the Virginia settlement to grow and survive.

"Since the wedding," wrote one colonist in 1615, "we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powhatan but also with his subjects round about us."

At Varina Farms, just across the James River from Henricus, Pocahontas worked alongside her husband in the tobacco fields, giving birth to son Thomas in 1615.

The following year, the family accompanied Sir Thomas Dale on a promotional voyage to London designed to spur investment in the Virginia Company. To insure ample publicity for his cause, Dale brought Pocahontas and a dozen Algonquian Indians, hoping that she would serve as a symbol of the tamed New World "savage" and the success of the Jamestown settlement.

In England, Pocahontas was treated as a celebrity, presented at the court of King James I and entertained by The Lord Bishop of London. At one society gathering, she was shocked to encounter John Smith, whom she had long believed to be dead. According to Smith's account of the meeting, Pocahontas was so overcome with emotion that she hid her face and was speechless for two or three hours.

After almost a year in England, Rolfe and Pocahontas set sail in March 1617 to return to Virginia. The ship made it only to Gravesend on the River Thames when Pocahontas became gravely ill with a respiratory affliction -- perhaps pneumonia or tuberculosis. She was taken ashore and died, and while the site of her grave is unknown, her memory is honored in Gravesend with a life-size bronze statue at St. George's Church.

John Rolfe returned to Virginia, leaving son Thomas in England to be educated. A climate of peace continued to prevail in the colony -- at least until Chief Powhatan died and his brother Opechancanough took over. In 1622, Opechancanough attacked the colony and massacred 350 people in one hour. John Rolfe died that same year, although it is unclear whether he perished in the attack or as a result of illness.

Who would have thought?
When she first began working on the wedding re-enactment, says Jenny Nelson, "I had no idea it would end up to be such a production." But the retired librarian from Baker Elementary School – who also taught Henrico County history to teachers in the 1970s – soon found herself relishing the task.

Although Varina Farms, the VWC's first choice of wedding venues, is privately owned and could not be used, Nelson was pleased with the Dorey Park site.

Representatives from Henrico's Department of Recreation and Parks decorated the surroundings in 17th-century splendor, in addition to providing the park's barn for a post-wedding reception.

"And we could not have had the wedding – no matter where it was held – without Henricus [re-enactors] and the Chickahominy Tribe," says Nelson. "They made it look so authentic." The event even received a write-up, accompanied by a portrait of all the participants, in the Greater Federation of Women's Clubs' national magazine.

Perhaps even more rewarding, says Nelson, was the feedback she received from spectators. "I had several people tell me it was the best wedding they ever attended," she says, adding with a laugh, "Some told me it was the best wedding they ever attended where no one actually got married!"

Birdie Sours of the Chickahominy Tribe, who served as a consultant for the wedding, says that the Native American participants were "elated" to be asked to asked to contribute.

"This event brought a wealth of knowledge to life," says Sours. "Club members, the Henricus actors and our people breathed life into this event, making it a wonderful living history." 

Although Sours reflects that the Native American people would ultimately "suffer disastrously" in their confrontations with the settlers, the joining of the nations has also brought tremendous positive change.

And while history books might characterize the encounter as a joining of the Old World (Europe) with the New World, says Sours, the Native Americans see the union somewhat differently: as the joining of two old worlds to Mother Earth.

"Who would have thought," says Sours, "that a simple marriage – an economic union between a man and a woman – would have such far-reaching tentacles that have brought global changes of good to Mother Earth?"
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