April 5, 1614 – The Marriage of Pocahontas And John Rolfe

Marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas on April 5, 1614, the First Interracial Church Marriage in America

The marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas was the first interracial church marriage in America. 

John Rolfe and Pocahontas were married 398 years ago today in the Jamestown Church in Jamestown, Virginia, by Reverend Richard Bucke, the Anglican minister.

The scene of the marriage, the Jamestown Church, was a wooden church built in 1608 (the second church, as the first one built in 1607 burned down on January 1, 1608). Archaeologists found part of the foundation in the summer of 2010, and excavated the entire foundation footprint in the summer of 2011. The church was large, 24′ by 64′, larger than the 20′ by 50′ brick church which eventually replaced it.

John Rolfe and Pocahontas were in love. Rolfe secured permission for his interracial marriage from Governor Thomas Dale and then from Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas’ father. Chief Powhatan not only assented to the marriage but offered peace to the English settlers. The ensuing Peace of Pocahontas, which lasted eight years, allowed the English to grow and prosper and get enough settlers into Virginia that the Indians couldn’t later kick them out.

Meanwhile in Jamestown

In Jamestown, between August 11 and August 14, 1609, the other seven ships of the Third Supply arrive. Captain Gabriel Archer on the Blessing reports that they were in high winds and seas for about 44 hours, less than half of the more than 96 hours that the Sea Venture endured. The Sea Venture doesn’t arrive and is thought lost.

The other seven ships of the Third Supply add about 400 settlers to Jamestown.

Risk

John Rolfe knew there was risk involved in his first ocean crossing and also in the colony of Virginia from disease and Indian attack. He accepted and embraced that risk and took his wife along. He probably didn’t think much about the risk of a tempest, a storm yes, but a tempest, no. I imagine shipwreck was far from an expected risk. And castaway on a deserted island for nearly 10 months, he probably didn’t imagine. Yet John Rolfe accepted all the risks, both expected and unexpected, and continued on after disaster.

Castaway on a Deserted Island

At least the storm has abated and John Rolfe and all the others have survived due to courageous leadership and hard work against all odds. But now they are shipwrecked and castaway on an uninhabited, deserted island, the Devil’s Isles, that all mariners fear in the Bermuda Triangle.

Ironically, the day they become castaways, July 28, 1609, goes down in history as the date of the first settlement of Bermuda. But for the castaways, it’s still the Devil’s Isles.

Shipwrecked

The Sea Venture Shipwrecked

The Sea Venture tries to get through the reef around the Devil’s Isles to safe anchorage, but fails. One-half mile off shore, the Sea Venture hits the reef, hard. Fortunately in unfortunate circumstances, she becomes wedged between two large rocks on the reef and will not budge. Luckily, the Sea Venture is upright and held fast in place, and not banging or breaking apart against the rocks. This allows use of the longboats to get all 153 people, including John Rolfe and Sarah Rolfe, safely ashore, and the ship’s dog and their pigs too. Since the ship is still sitting there, they go back for all the remaining provisions which haven’t been thrown overboard, then the rigging, then all the iron used to build the ship, then the masts, and finally some planking.

St. Elmo’s Fire

St. Elmo's Fire

On Thursday night, July 27, 1609, the fourth night of the tempest on the Sea Venture, Admiral Sir George Somers is on watch. He sees “a little round light like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze half the height upon the mainmast, and shooting sometimes from shroud to shroud ….”

For half the night it keeps up, “running sometimes along the main yard to the very end, and then returning…” Admiral Somers calls many people to observe with him what is called St. Elmo’s fire. They take it as a good omen. In the morning, Friday morning, it disappears.

All Men, Including Gentlemen, Bail or Pump

On Tuesday morning, July 25, 1609, Governor Gates divides all the crew and passengers, including gentlemen and except for the women, totaling 140, into three groups in the front, middle, and rear of the ship. John Rolfe, along with the others, is to either bail with buckets or operate the pumps in shifts of one hour of work alternating with one hour of rest. John Rolfe and the others do this for the next 72 hours as the Sea Venture rolls and pitches. This is an extraordinary measure, as gentlemen not only aren’t used to but don’t do manual labor. So the Governor’s requirement that all men participate equally was a desperate move.

William Strachey continues: “The men might be seen to labor … for life, and the better sort, even our governor and admiral themselves, not refusing their turn….” They work “with tired bodies and wasted spirits” for three days and nights. Strachey continues: “During all this time, the heavens looked so black upon us that it was not possible” to see a star at night or a sunbeam by day.

William Strachey’s Account of the Tempest

William Strachey writes a long letter describing the voyage to Virginia on the Sea Venture to a lady in London, thought to be Lady Sara Smythe, wife of Sir Thomas Smythe, Treasurer of the Virginia Company of London and organizer of the details of the expeditions to Virginia. He starts by describing sailing from Plymouth Sound on June 2, 1609, and the ships keeping in sight of each other until St. James Day, Monday, July 24, 1609. He says that Captain Newport reckons they are only seven or eight days from Cape Henry on the Virginia coast at the time. Strachey relates that, starting the night before, Sunday night, “the clouds gathered thick upon us, and the winds singing and whistling most unusually” cause them to cast off the small unnamed ketch they are towing.

William Strachey

William Strachey, who was aboard the Sea Venture with John Rolfe, was born in 1572 in Essex of minor gentry. He entered Cambridge University in 1588. In 1605 he was in London as a member of Gray’s Inn where he studied law. He is a stockholder in Blackfriars Theater and has many friends in literary circles. He is close friends with John Donne, Thomas Campion, and Ben Jonson. He certainly has friends in common with and probably knows William Shakespeare. In 1606 Strachey became secretary to the English ambassador to Constantinople, Turkey, and moved there. They didn’t get along and Strachey was fired. He returned to London in 1608. He buys two shares in the Virginia Company of London, and in 1609 he sails on the Sea Venture to Jamestown.

A Hurricane, Cyclone, or Tempest

Today the word cyclone is used in the South Pacific for what we usually call a hurricane. In 1609 England, the word is tempest.

After ten weeks on board and seven weeks of smooth sailing on John Rolfe’s first ocean crossing, he experiences the storm of the century, the worst tempest that any of the seasoned voyagers on the Sea Venture have ever seen.

Smooth Sailing for Seven Weeks Before The Tempest

Calm Seas Before The Tempest

For seven weeks the voyage from London, England, to Virginia on the Sea Venture is relatively smooth. John and Sarah Rolfe have now been on board for 10 weeks including the time in English coastal waters and English ports.

Sarah Rolfe is probably experiencing morning sickness from her pregnancy. There is little or no privacy. And the food gets worse as they run out of fresh produce. Still, seven weeks of calm seas and good weather is wonderful.

Then the winds come up ….

The Third Supply Fleet Decides to Avoid Spanish Controlled Seas

Admiral Sir George Somers who commands the fleet of the Third Supply, General Sir Thomas Gates the new Governor of Virginia, and Captain Newport of the Sea Venture decide to try to avoid the Spanish controlled waters and cut across the Atlantic Ocean farther north than usual, but not quite as far north as Captain Samuel Argall is exploring at the same time.

Other Ships of the Fleet

John Ratcliffe

The second largest ship of the fleet is the Diamond. It is the vice admiral and is commanded by Captain John Ratcliffe who was captain of the Discovery, one of the three ships that arrived in Jamestown in 1607. The Falcon is the rear admiral or third largest ship of the fleet. It is commanded by Captain John Martin, one of the original Virginia settlers who returned to England in 1608 and is on his way back to Jamestown. The Falcon’s sailing master is Francis Nelson, who went to Jamestown in 1608 as captain of the Phoenix, a pinnace that took 40 settlers to Jamestown as part of the First Supply.

The fourth ship in the fleet is the Blessing captained by Gabriel Archer. The fifth ship is the Unity. The sixth ship is the Lion. The seventh ship of the fleet is the Swallow. On the Swallow as sailing master is the nephew of Admiral George Somers, Matthew Somers. The eighth ship is the pinnace Virginia which was the first ship built in North America in the failed Popham colony at Sagadahoc, Maine. It is commanded by Captain James Davies who was on the expedition to Maine. The ninth ship is a small unnamed ketch.

Sailing Aboard the Flagship, the Sea Venture

A sailing ship

On May 15, 1609, John Rolfe and his wife Sarah board the Sea Venture. After all have boarded the Sea Venture and six other ships at the wharf in London’s Woolwich docks, the seven ships sail down the Thames River toward the English Channel. It takes several days. Then the ships sail west along the English Channel to the port of Plymouth to meet the other two ships, the small pinnace Virginia and the even smaller unnamed ketch, to bring the fleet to a total of nine ships.

The flagship, admiral, and largest ship in the fleet is the Sea Venture, commanded by Captain Christopher Newport. Newport also captained the Susan Constant, the flagship of the first fleet of three ships to arrive in Jamestown in 1607. He also captained the First Supply and the Second Supply. This, the Third Supply, is Captain Newport’s fourth crossing to Virginia. Other leaders on board are the Admiral of the fleet and fleet commander, Sir George Somers, and the new Governor of Virginia, General Sir Thomas Gates.

The Sea Venture Is Square Rigged

Square Rigged Sailing Ship

Sailing ships in 1609 do not have engines or motors, oars, or GPS. They are entirely at the mercy of the wind, waves, and tides. The ships sailing in the Atlantic are square rigged rather than triangular lateen rigged as is often the case in the Mediterranean Sea. Square rigged sails do very well when the wind is behind the ship. Because the Atlantic Ocean had steady wind patterns, this was an advantage. Triangular lateen rigged ships are more maneuverable but much slower when there is a steady wind behind the ship.

Shipboard Accommodations Aboard the Sea Venture

Shipboard accommodations

John Rolfe is facing what is expected to be a 16 week journey aboard a crowded, sailing ship. At about 100 feet long overall from the bowsprit to the aft of the main deck, or slightly less than the length of six Chrysler 300 sedans, the Sea Venture is the largest ship in the fleet. It carries 153 people, 118 passengers and 35 crew, plus supplies for 16 weeks of sailing and for many months of living in Virginia. Of course, there is no dining room, no bathroom, and no entertainment. It is nothing like a modern cruise ship. There is little to do, and passengers usually have to stay below deck so the sailors have room for their sailing duties.

Seeing Possibilities

As John Rolfe boards the Sea Venture in London, England on May 15, 1609, for his epic adventure, who would have thought that he, John Rolfe, a 24 year old gentleman farmer, would in a period of only seven years assure the success of English colonial efforts in America, marry the most important woman in Colonial America, succeed as America’s first entrepreneur becoming the father of American capitalism, create America’s largest export for the next 150 years, and create a billion dollar industry that still thrives after 400 years. In addition, who would have thought he would become a member of the first representative legislative body in the Americas, a fundamental institution that would lead to our uniquely American form of government. Certainly not John Rolfe, and most certainly not anyone else.

First Interracial Church Wedding in the Americas

Wedding of John Rolfe and Pocahontas

Notably, the wedding of John Rolfe and Pocahontas was the first interracial church marriage in the New World. John Rolfe’s initiative in his personal life as well as his business life set an enduring precedent for American life.

Pocahontas’ marriage to Rolfe led to a period of peace, known as The Peace of Pocahontas, which allowed the English foothold in Jamestown to expand until there were too many English for the natives to kill or expel. This period of peace was directly responsible for the success of the Virginia colony, and John Rolfe was responsible for it.

Political Success of English in America

Pocahontas and John Rolfe

Second, John Rolfe fell in love with Princess Pocahontas. He asked for and received permission from the Governor of Virginia to marry Pocahontas, recognizing that interracial marriage was at least discouraged if not prohibited. No white man had ever married a Native American. He also asked for and received permission from Pocahontas’ father, Chief Powhatan, the paramount chief of 31 Algonquin tribes. John Rolfe and Princess Pocahontas were married on April 5, 1614.