Pocahontas and John Rolfe Marry in Church 399 Years Ago Today!

Today, April 5, 2013, is the 399th wedding anniversary of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. Rolfe and Pocahontas were married in the church in Jamestown, Virginia, by the Anglican Rev. Richard Bucke on April 5, 1614. This was the first interracial church marriage in America.

As a point of reference, in this year William Shakespeare was retiring to his home town of Stratford-on-Avon from his writing career in London. Also, King James I of England had commissioned the King James Version of the Bible which was started in 1604 and completed in 1611, three years before this marriage.

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.

The Peace of Pocahontas

The Peace of Pocahontas begins with the marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. It lasts for eight years until 1622. This Peace of Pocahontas is extremely important to the history of America. The colony now has a cash crop, tobacco, thanks to John Rolfe, to enable it to prosper financially. Yet, due to the effects of disease and Indian attack, the colony has been unable to keep enough settlers alive to assure the colony’s viability.

This period of peace allows many more settlers to survive, and allows many more settlers to arrive from England, to establish a critical mass of colonists in Virginia so that the Indians can’t force them out if the peace ends.

John Rolfe has yet to learn the value to his tobacco crop of his marriage to Pocahontas. For Rolfe it is a love match. It is also an extremely important strategic alliance for the Virginia colony since it was the reason for the Peace of Pocahontas. And Rolfe’s marriage alliance would prove extremely important for his tobacco.

The Jamestown Church John Rolfe and Pocahontas Were Married In

In the summer of 2010, almost 400 years later, archeologists have finally located the foundation of the Jamestown church John Rolfe and Pocahontas were married in, which was built in 1608. It was the second church built in Jamestown, as the first church had burned down along with everything else on January 7, 1608. Then in the summer of 2011, archeologists finished excavating the entire footprint of the 1608 church and were surprised at how large it was, 64 feet by 24 feet. This is larger than the later 20 feet by 50 feet brick church which has now been reconstructed. It was much larger than any other building, and would have dominated the 1.1 acre fort.

The Marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas

Marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas

Shortly after her baptism, on April 5, 1614, Reverend Richard Bucke marries Princess Pocahontas and John Rolfe in the Anglican Church in Jamestown. John Rolfe is a 28 year old widower, and Pocahontas a 16 year old widow. Pocahontas’ sister, Mattachanna, her husband the priest Uttamattamakin, and other Indians attend and witness the marriage.

The Baptism of Pocahontas

Baptism of Pocahontas Painting in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda

Pocahontas is baptized as a Christian in early April 1614, by Reverend Alexander Whitaker who, along with John Rolfe, has instructed her in Christian teachings. The baptism probably took place in Whitaker’s Henrico Puritan church, but perhaps in the Jamestown Anglican Church. The baptism is attended by John Rolfe, Governor Dale, and some of Pocahontas’ Indian relatives. Princess Pocahontas, who already has adopted English attire, is given the English name of Rebecca.

The Baptism of Pocahontas is commemorated in the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. A large painting, 18 feet wide by 12 feet high, of the imagined scene hangs in the rotunda of the building, one of eight similarly sized paintings of the history of the United States. It was commissioned in 1836 and installed in 1840. The painting is a testament to how important the period of peace that followed was to the survival of the colony and the establishment of the United States.

Also, in the 1800’s, American settlers on the frontier had a lot of conflict with Indians. In addition, few Indians had been converted to Christianity in over 200 years of trying. Princess Pocahontas’ baptism represented the ideal that American government officials had for the way they wanted Indians to behave.

The event was further commemorated in 1870 when an engraving of the Baptism of Pocahontas painting appeared on the back of a $20 bill.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Three G’s – Gold, Glory, and God

Gold

The Virginia Company of London proclaims that Protestant English colonization of America is God’s will. They get ministers to preach that God wants a Protestant English colony in Virginia rather than a Catholic Spanish colony like Mexico, most of South America and Central America, and St. Augustine in what is now Florida. The Virginia Company of London also preaches that it is God’s will to evangelize and convert the native savages of Virginia to the Protestant religion. So Rolfe’s goals are in line with what today are called the three G’s of colonization, Gold (literally or figuratively), Glory (of self and/or King and country), and God.