New Discovery About John Rolfe’s Birth Date

Baptism record of John Rolfe from Heacham parish church held at Norfolk Record Office

All the sources on the birth of John Rolfe have said he was baptized, along with his twin brother Eustacius, in the village church in Heacham, county of Norfolk, England, on May 6, 1585. Now the Norfolk Record Office, county of Norfolk, England, has reviewed the records and found an error in the previous information.

The Norfolk Record Office has now reviewed the original Heacham parish register which is in their custody and determined that the correct date is May 3, 1585. John Rolfe’s birth date is not separately recorded, but is generally assumed to be the day before or the date of his baptism.

It’s my understanding that in those days baptism was held as close to the time of birth as possible so that those infants who died shortly after birth would be able, in the belief of the time, to go to heaven. So the date of baptism may have been the date of birth or the day after birth.

The Norfolk Record Office has posted this information, as well as an image of the record which is difficult to read, on their Facebook page. Here’s a link. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=540297&l=54156aedd4&id=212070242221022

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.

The Devil’s Isles

As the Sea Venture approaches the shore of the Devil’s Isles, the boatswain takes soundings, measurements of the depth of the sea by dropping a weighted rope over the side that is knotted every six feet. Each knot is a fathom, and the boatswain counts the knots as he lets out the line. First it is thirteen fathoms, then seven fathoms, then four fathoms. Finally everyone knows why the islands are uninhabited and feared, as no ship has ever landed or anchored safely in these waters because of a massive reef encircling the islands. There are the remains of many ships wrecked on the reef.

Land! The Devil’s Isles

Around noon on Friday, July 28, 1609, Admiral Sir George Somers who is on watch and has been for three days and three nights cries “Land.” Admiral Somers and Captain Newport know where they were, and it is not good. They have been blown by the tempest near an area we now call the Bermuda Triangle and are approaching the dangerous and dreaded islands they know as the Devil’s Isles.

These islands are uninhabited and more feared and avoided by sea travelers than any other place in the world. The Devil’s Isles are legendary in that it is known that all who go there have terrible experiences. Besides shipwreck, there are tempests, thunders, and fearful things seen and heard.

Silvester Jourdain’s Description of the Tempest

Another passenger, Silvester Jourdain describes the tempest which hit the Sea Venture thus:

“… we were taken with a most sharp and cruel storm …which did not only separate us from the residue of our fleet … but with the violent working of the seas our ship became so shaken, torn, and leaked that she received so much water as covered two tier of hogsheads above the ballast; that our men stood up to the middles with buckets … and kettles to bail out the water and continually pumped for three days and three nights together without any intermission; and yet the water seemed rather to increase than to diminish. Insomuch that all our men, being utterly spent … were even resolved, without any hope of their lives … to have committed themselves to the mercy of the sea … seeing no help nor hope … that [they] would escape … present sinking.”

Now Ten Feet of Water in the Hold of the Sea Venture

They throw overboard much luggage, beer, oil, cider, wine, vinegar, and all the cannon on the starboard side of the Sea Venture. The men are very tired, having worked from Tuesday until Friday morning without sleep or food. And at Friday noon there is now ten feet of water above the ballast, twice the depth on Tuesday. William Strachey says there is a “general determination” to shut the hatches, commend their souls to God, and commit the ship to the mercy of the seas.

The Sea Venture Is Separated From the Fleet

The Sea Venture, with John Rolfe on board, loses contact with all the other ships of the fleet in the first day. They cut loose the ketch on the fear that the ketch will swamp and pull both ships under, and the ketch and those aboard are never heard from again.

The other six ships emerge from the storm after 48 hours. Eventually all six of the other ships and the Virginia, which had turned back and started again after repairs, all reach Jamestown in good time. Only the Sea Venture is blown along with the storm and endures much, much more.

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.

Second Charter of the Virginia Company of London

On May 23, 1609, King James I signs the second charter of the Virginia Company of London, updating it. Among other changes, the territory of the Virginia Company of London is now 200 miles north and south of Point Comfort on the Chesapeake Bay.

Three Weeks After Leaving London, the Sea Venture Finally Sails From Falmouth, England, and Leaves English Waters

Shortly after leaving Plymouth, England, the winds change and the nine vessels of the Third Supply fleet, including the Sea Venture, have to put in at Falmouth, farther along the south coast of England. Six days later, on June 8, 1609, the winds are favorable and the fleet sails again.

Because of the distance from London to the south England ports, the loading of final provisions, and the need to wait for favorable winds to sail south along the European coast, the journey has now been more than three weeks and they are just leaving English waters.

Loading More Provisions in Plymouth, England

Plymouth, England, Eddystone Lighthouse

On May 20, 1609, the Third Supply fleet, including the Sea Venture, arrives in Plymouth on the southern coast of England, a port protected by the Isle of Wight. It has taken five days to sail down the Thames River to the English Channel, then south and west along the Channel to Plymouth. In Plymouth the fleet of seven ships from London meets up with its other two members so that all nine ships are together. Now the final provisions are put on board. The main food supplies are hogsheads, or large casks, of five tons of salt beef, casks of salt pork and salt cod, tons of hard biscuits, beans, oatmeal, flour, butter, cheese, and beer. The water of the time isn’t usually clean and pure, so people drink weak beer or some other drink with a little alcohol in it to kill the germs and parasites.

All is in readiness and on the evening of June 2, 1609, the winds and tides are favorable and the fleet sails from Plymouth.

Other Passengers of Note on the Sea Venture

Namontack

Two Indians, Namontack and Matchumps, who earlier were sent to England by John Smith, are returning to Virginia. Reverend Richard Bucke, an Anglican minister, age 27, is on board. Also on board are Captain George Yeardley whose wife Temperance sails on the Falcon; William Pierce whose wife Joan and 10 year old daughter Jane sail on the Blessing; Mistress Horton and her maid Elizabeth Persons; William Strachey, the gentleman poet who knows Ben Jonson and other literary types and who will become Secretary of the colony and who writes a detailed account of his adventures; Ralph Hamor, who will become Secretary of the colony after Strachey; Stephen Hopkins, a preachy Puritan layman who will later go to the Plymouth Colony with his wife and children but who leaves them behind in England for his Virginia adventure; and Silvester Jourdain, who writes an account of his adventures.

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.