The Wedding of the 17th Century


When Pocahontas pledged herself to John Rolfe in April of 1614, she cemented an alliance that would bring seven years of peace between the English and the Powhatan. Four hundred years later, on April 5, 2014, the wedding will be reenacted at Jamestowne Island on the footings of the very church where the couple exchanged vows four centuries ago. Sheryl Mays and Mark Summers of Preservation Virginia anticipate the event.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Today we’re skipping back an extra century to the 1600s and the colony at Jamestown, which would become America’s first permanent English settlement. My guests today are Sheryl Mays, Director of Public Programs and Operations at Historic Jamestown and Mark Summers, Manager of Education and Public Programs. Thank you both for being here today.

Mark Summers: Thanks a lot for having us.

Sheryl Mays: Thank you.

Harmony: Well I’m excited to have you both on the program today, because we’re talking about one of the most fascinating figures of early America, and that’s Pocahontas. She is so interesting to me, because her story is part fable. We’ve had guests on this show who think her role is overstated. We’ve had guests on this show who think she is a self-sacrificing leading diplomat of America’s early years. Would we even have the country that we have today had it not been for Pocahontas?

So I’m really glad to have a chance to talk about her history and her wedding which is what brings you here today on the show. The premise for our talk today, Sheryl, is something I think you can speak to, which is the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Pocahontas’ wedding: her marriage to John Rolfe. Talk to me a little bit about this event at Jamestown and what you’re going to do to bring this event in history back to life.

Sheryl: Well we’ve been working on a year-long project initiative called “The World of Pocahontas,” which looks at the Atlantic world, the world in which she’s living and which the English settlers came to. And what we’re doing is, we’ve started with lectures last fall. We’ve begun to do eyewitness programs. People that would have had some association or relationship or come in contact with Pocahontas to sort of bring people into the story from the time of her capture through to the wedding.

The wedding itself, we’re very fortunate that 400 years ago it was on or around April 5. This year very lucky, 400 years later, it’s actually April 5 is a Saturday. So we’re having the big event on Saturday, April 5 at Historic Jamestown. We’re going to have the wedding re-enactment twice during the day and it will be on the site of the 1608 church that where we believe she was married in the fort.

Harmony: Doesn’t that just give you chills, the same footprints?

Sheryl: The same footprint. In 2010 our archeologist at Jamestown rediscovered the 1608 church and the footprint, which was a church with the chancel and four burials. So we knew from the dimensions based on primary documents that it was the church site. It is the early first church of Jamestown and we will be able to have them placed right in front of the chancel where they would have married in 1614.

Harmony: And now, Mark, let’s talk a little bit about Pocahontas. This is a small question with a great big answer, but I’m hoping you can give us the highlights. Who was Pocahontas?

Mark: Well we know that she was the daughter of Wahunsenacawh, who historians know today as Chief Powhatan, the title the English sort of used to refer to him. So this is a man who was in charge of over 14,000 people about 30-32 different tribes and about 2,800 warriors. According to several English records, Pocahontas was his favorite daughter, favorite or somewhat of a very high status in the sense that she was special. She was seen as a precocious kid that her father seemed to dote upon. Whether that means she’s a princess in the English sense is really irrelevant, because from Chief Powhatan’s point of view, this is a daughter he loves and admires and sort of, I think, lets get away with certain things.

Harmony: So of many children, a favorite child, and she comes to be an emissary between the Indian presence, the native American presence, and the English presence. So I wonder -- we’re just guessing here, this is pure extrapolation -- but if a favorite daughter becomes a go-between between those two parties, what does it tell us about the importance of her role between the fort and the native peoples in the early days?

Mark: Well the fact that, in a weird way, the way I would get at it is, we see throughout the story from both the English and the Powhatan perspectives the role of children really throughout this entire story as emissaries, perhaps because they’re not threatening.

You know, one of the things that we have a lot of the words of the Powhatans that come down to us through English sources through English words, but we see that they would have had translators. One of the things that the English and Powhatans did was essentially exchanged young people. We know that a boy named Thomas Savage lived with the Powhatans for many years and was later treated like a son by Chief Powhatan. So we see over and over again these young people being used as emissaries on both cultures. We may call that today “exchange students.”

And so Pocahontas may be not only of high status, but her role, maybe, as a young girl is not threatening. We also know that her nickname apparently means, you know, the English refer to as “little wanton one,” but we would probably say she was a precocious kid, a curious kid, we’re told that she did cartwheels through the fort. When she was a little girl she played with the English boys in there.

So even though we never hear her speaking with her own words, we see her through other people, and even at a young age she’s sort of somebody who’s curious, engaging, intelligent and perhaps not threatening. So what better emissary might there be than a highly-favored daughter who happens to be someone who’s not, you know, not a warrior, not someone who’s going to be intimidating.

Harmony: I read her as an emissary as well, and actually you’ve mentioned that she’s young. At the time of first contact she’s 13?

Mark: That’s hard to say, because we have two different versions of that story from John Smith himself. It depends on which version of his book you read. In 1608 he publishes she’s about 10 years old. And then in he writes the same another edition of that book years later and he says she was about 12-13. So that’s a kind of a tough one, but I would say she was probably like their equivalent of a 5th grader, you know, today, you know, 5th-6th grade – somebody who’s kind of a kid, not quite into puberty, but sort of a little older kid.

Harmony: We’re here today talking about the commemoration of her wedding, but history tells us she was married already.

Mark: And that’s another one where you have a lot of debate, you know, there’s an American Indian we’re told that she’s married to, she would have been a teenager and then we don’t hear from him again when John Rolfe marries her. There’s another school of thought that the name they used for this Indian actually was a nickname for John Rolfe so there’s even dispute amongst that. But there is a sort of strong world tradition or anthropological tradition that she was married before she met John Rolfe to an American Indian, which would explain why she might be living in the Potomac region.

Harmony: So she seems like a playful little girl doing cartwheels, running around back and forth, but I think she probably played a pretty large role as an emissary between those two groups in the beginning. Do you think that Pocahontas’s role in history really helps the English colony to establish itself early on?

Mark: Yes, I mean put it this way, even if a lot of the things we know about Pocahontas are legendary, even if a lot of the things we hear about Pocahontas come from the English, therefore they’re going to be biased, therefore these sources are going to be a little bit flawed. Keep in mind that when Pocahontas gets married to John Rolfe we know there’s seven years of peace.

We see in the English records the sense that we have converted this high-status individual to Christianity so therefore one of our missions in our charter is being fulfilled, particularly the highest-status person, they have this whole idea that they’re going to be ok now; that all this starvation and war is over with and the seven years of peace is a testament, I think, to her power, her status because, you know, if it had been just a regular Englishman marrying just another Powhatan later, another American Indian -- which we think there’s probably other marriages of this type going on -- well then none of these other marriages created this lasting peace.

So I think in many ways, even if we don’t get Pocahontas’ own words from her own mouth, even if that we never really learn everything from the Powhatan point of view, even if the English stories are exaggerated, the fact that her wedding creates peace, to me, is the ultimate testament to her status. And even when she’s a little girl, she’s attributed -- by more than just John Smith, by other writers -- as being consistently a favored daughter, an important person and emissary who in earlier times had warned the English of attack. We hear this from several records and had been a major part of trading food to them.

So even if not every one of these stories is exactly word-for-word true, there are multiple writers consistently over a decade keep attributing great things to her, and they all keep saying that she’s a striking person who makes a profound influence on them.

Harmony: A big sacrifice, too, I think.

Sheryl, as you begin to think about commemorating this wedding, and when you work with your partners in the historical community what are the things that it’s important for you to bring out at this wedding? What do you want visitors to learn when they come?

Sheryl: Well, I think we’ve done a little bit of work with that when we’re presenting eyewitness accounts. These eyewitness accounts are from people who would have interacted with her. I think it’s important to broaden the story because I think we think Pocahontas, she gets married, she goes to England. But I think what we’re trying to do by a lecture series, an exhibit which I want to talk about, but we have an exhibit that talks about native presence in the fort.

We are finding a wealth of artifacts inside the fort related to native presence, which I think people are often, when they come to Jamestown, think of conflict only with the Native Americans.

They think of Pocahontas as an emissary, but what we see are a large portion of activity going on related to Native Americans in the fort and I think that’s an important story beyond just the wedding and what happens. The peace is absolutely important, but it’s the full story of, let’s hear from people who interacted with her. Let’s hear the full story beyond the wedding and give people a fuller sense of what was going on in that period in the Atlantic world.

So that’s one of our missions with this. Not just the commemoration of one day, but sort of taking it more broadly and focusing on, “What was it like in the period?” She was very important to the story and obviously to, I believe, the survival of the colony, but beyond that, what else was going on and what was the Native American influence within Jamestown at the time?

We have a Pamunkey woman, Wendy Taylor is her name, and she is going to be portraying Pocahontas. So it’s really important for us to really look at how we portray Pocahontas in this role. Who do we choose; someone from one of the descendent communities in Virginia. So I think that’s really important also.

Harmony: Mark, Sheryl has mentioned “The World of Pocahontas” exhibit that tells us a little bit about the native culture at the time. What is that exhibit telling us?

Mark: Right. And we think about this. We’ve had this sort of conflict between, you know, Pocahontas the legend and what’s the real story of Pocahontas. And then, you know, will we have any artifacts directly related to her? We have a site where we know she was married, and then we have a lot of other native materials. They don’t come with labels saying, “Ok, this individual carried this and this individual carried this,” necessarily, but what we do have is that we have the largest deposit of Algonquin-speaking Powhatan type native material, and it’s on an English site.

And it’s interesting to see that there are certain artifacts that conservators can speak to where there’s a lot of nuance, that there’s no guarantee “Well, which culture actually made this? Is it American Indians trying to make things like the English, the English people trying to make things like the Native Americans?” So we find these things are mixed together in the same levels that they were thrown away at the same time. It shows you a strong native presence not just outside of the fort, inside the fort people living in the fort who weren’t English.

Harmony: So fascinating. I hope everybody gets down to see that exhibit.

Sheryl: I did want to mention that our sponsorship for the exhibit and our programming. James City County is generously supporting “The World of Pocahontas” project and it’s really to help bring the story to the residents of James City County, Williamsburg and Yorktown and also bring it to the larger population of people we hope will come and visit.

Harmony: I love the effort that we’re making to draw in the Native American storyline; bring in the stories and histories of these native peoples that for so many years was not recorded, but there are a lot of different sources to find this history, to chase down this information and really bring that history back to life and honor it. So it’s wonderful to see this event happening, it’s wonderful to surface some of this history that we haven’t heard a lot about before so I’m excited for the event. Hope everybody checks out the website to learn about “The World of Pocahontas” exhibit and the upcoming wedding. Thank you both for being here today.

Sheryl: Thanks for having us.

Mark: Thank you.