Pocahontas: The Real Story

The following is an excerpt from "The Slave Children of Thomas Jefferson" by Sam Sloan

Richard Randolph of Bizarre (1770-1796), who was arrested and charged with infanticide in 1793, was the son of John Randolph of "Mattoax" (1739-1775), who married Francis Bland in 1769. John Randolph of Mattoax was the son of Richard Randolph of "Curles" (1686-1748) and of Jane Bolling (1704-1766). Jane Bolling was the fourth generation in direct descent of Pocahontas, the famous Indian maiden who saved the life of Captain John Smith. Richard Randolph of Curles was the fourth son of William Randolph of Turkey Island.

Although Thomas Jefferson was not a direct descendant of Pocahontas, he married his daughters to at least one man who was. Thomas Mann Randolph Junior was a direct descendant of Jane Rolfe and of her grandmother, Pocahontas (1585-1617). John Eppes was a direct descendant of Robert Bolling, but by his second wife, Anne Stith, not by his first wife, Jane Rolfe.

The story of Pocahontas has been told many times but, nevertheless, it bears retelling here because, as usual, the well known and often repeated version does not describe what actually happened.

According to Captain John Smith, Pocahontas did in fact save his life by jumping in the way while his head was on the execution block about to be pounded into mush on the orders of her father, Chief Powhatan. Everyone agrees that Chief Powhatan had the right idea, and if Pocahontas had not jumped in the way, the Indians would not have been decimated so quickly later on. Of this, there is no dispute. The question is: What exactly was reward of Pocahontas for this?

The official version is that thereafter she got married to "Gentleman John Rolfe" and then sailed off to England where she was well received by the British nobility. It is presumed that she had fallen in love with the Englishman and had voluntarily gone off to live with him happily ever after.

However, the original source documents tell us instead, that upon reaching the age of 18, Pocahontas was captured and kidnapped by Captain Sir Samuel Agrall on or about April 13, 1613. The reason given for this was that they suspected that her father, Chief Powhatan, had stolen some arms and ammunition from them. They intended to hold Pocahontas as a hostage for the return of these arms. Presumably, what happened to her next was what might easily have happen to any young woman in her situation. Then, about one week later, her father, Powhatan, approached the colonists, asking them for the return of his daughter. He was told that they had their own plans for her and had no intention of giving her back. Powhatan apparently accepted the fait accompli and went back to his Indian village, whereas Pocahontas was taken to Jamestown and was delivered to Governor Gates.

Three months later, Powhatan offered five hundred bushels of corn for the return of his daughter. He never offered to return the arms and ammunition which they believed that he had stolen, however. This offer of corn was refused. Later, Governor Gates returned to England but, before doing so, handed Pocahontas over to his successor, Governor Dale.

John Rolfe (1585-1622) was a man whose wife had accompanied him to America but the wife had died shortly after their arrival in 1610. On the way over, they had been ship wrecked in Bermuda. A daughter had been born there, whom they named Bermuda, but the child had died within a few months. With no living wife, John Rolfe somehow arranged to become the husband of Pocahontas. The marriage took place on or about April 5, 1614, by which time Pocahontas had been held a prisoner for nearly one year. She became pregnant and her baby, Thomas Rolfe, was born in Virginia in 1615. She was converted to Christianity and given the name "Rebecca". She and the child were taken to England, where they arrived in 1615. Unfortunately, two years later, she suddenly became ill and died almost immediately of unknown causes in Gravesend, England. John Rolfe married yet again and returned to Virginia. He is believed to have been killed in a famous massacre by the Indians which took place on March 22, 1622. That massacre resulted in the death of 350 colonists, that being nearly half of the total white population at that time.

It was not at all surprising that Pocahontas died so quickly. Rather, it was a surprise that she lived so long. Most of the Indians died of various white man's diseases immediately upon exposure to them. This, however, went both ways, with the white colonists often succumbing to Indian diseases. One of the rewards which the Europeans got as a result of colonizing America was the disease of syphilis which became a great epidemic in Europe shortly after the colonists got it from the Indians for the first time and brought it back to Europe with them. Pocahontas, of course, would have been better off minding her own business and allowing the head of Captain John Smith to pounded into mush. She would probably have lived to a ripe old age as a happy although unknown Indian princess.

Thomas Rolfe, the son of Pocahontas, was raised up by an uncle in England. When he reached maturity, in 1640, completely on his own, he came back to his birthplace of Virginia. He was given land by the Indians, who accepted him as their brother. This made him a wealthy man. He married an English woman, whose actual name is not known although her name is usually given as Jane Poythress, since the Poythress family is believed to have been in Virginia at that time. They had only one child, Jane Rolfe. Jane Rolfe married Robert Bolling in 1675. She died apparently in the aftermath of childbirth in 1676. Her son was Col. John Bolling (1676-1729), who married Mary Kennon. They had one son and five daughters. These six children and their children married into almost all of the prominent families of Virginia, including the Randolphs, making just about every significant family in Virginia a relative of a descendant of Pocahontas.

After the death of Jane Rolfe, Robert Bolling took a second wife named Anne Stith. They are known to have had at least two sons who produced more Bollings. These Stith Bollings, not the Pocahontas Bollings, were the ancestors of John Eppes. The grandmother of John Eppes was Martha Bolling. Her father was Robert Bolling. However, this Robert Bolling was the son on Anne Stith.

The best, and perhaps the only, source which deals clearly with this confusing situation is the 1958 book "Colonial Families of the Southern States of America" by Stella Picket Hardy, p. 76. There have been as many as six persons named Robert Bolling. Unfortunately, except for the above source plus the Bolling family Bible, no genealogical record of the Stith Bollings has been maintained, perhaps out of a desire on the part of everybody named Bolling to claim to be a descendant of Pocahontas.

The Randolphs married the Pocahontas Bollings. One of the daughters of Col. John Bolling and Mary Kennon was Jane Bolling, who married Richard Randolph of Curles and was the great grandmother of Thomas Mann Randolph Junior.

The entire story above obviously hangs by several slender threads. Nobody can say whether it is completely true or not. It is amusing to learn that the "National Inquirer" style of writing was not invented in this century. More than 150 years ago, the Reverend E. D. Neill, Doctor of Divinity, tried to sell books by impugning the chastity and the virtue of Pocahontas. He described her as a common promiscuous slut and said that both she and John Rolfe were adulterers, having had sex together while being married to other people. He further said that Pocahontas had three husbands, the first being an Indian man and the third being an additional husband she took while in England.

However, the documentation supporting this claim turned out to be a listing of her husband in England as being a man sometimes named "Thomas Wrolfe" and sometimes named "Thomas Wrothe". As can plainly be seen, this "Wrolfe" or "Wrothe" was obviously the same person as John Rolfe. All this was happening while the plays of Shakespeare were still being written. There was no uniform spelling system at that time. The Randolphs also spelled their names in several different ways at that time, including even "Randall".

The decline and fall of the Randolphs can be attributed to a number of factors. Starting around the year 1800, the Randolphs no longer produced so many children. Many of the members of the Randolph family died without issue. Branches of the family became extinct. Most of the Randolphs today are not descendants of William Randolph of Turkey Island but rather are descendants of his uncle, Henry Randolph, who had only one son who in turn also had only one son. The Randolph tendency towards incest was certainly harmful in the long run. The strange behavior and possibly even mental illness of Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., may have been in part caused by this. No doubt the American tendency toward democracy, where a man received a high government position because of his merit rather than because of who his grandfather was, eroded the influence of the Randolphs. An eccentric person like Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., would never have three times been elected Governor of Virginia for one year terms had it not been for his Randolph family name.

One cannot say for certain that incest was the cause of this, but there were a number of Randolphs who were deaf mutes or had other mental deficiencies. One sister of Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth, was mentally retarded. (He once described her as an "idiot girl".) Another sister, Jane, never married and died at the age of 25, although history does not tell us exactly what was wrong with her. Several of the siblings of Thomas Jefferson seemed to have something wrong with them. His only brother, Randolph Jefferson, was regarded as something of a simpleton. In "Jefferson at Monticello", p. 22, one of the slaves evaluated him as follows:

"Old Master's brother, Mass Randall, was a mighty simple man: used to come out among the black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night; hadn't much more sense than Isaac."

In addition, there was a highly publicized incident, largely forgotten today, involving the murder of a newborn child, which certainly did not help the public reputation of the Randolphs. This incident is the origin of the well-known Southern saying, "There is always that one nigger in the woodpile". "In the woodpile" was where the freshly murdered possibly half-black infant child was placed.

Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. had twelve full brothers and sisters. One sister was Ann Cary "Nancy" Randolph. She was born on September 16, 1774. Therefore, on October 1, 1792, when this incident took place, she was just 18 years old and unmarried. Her older sister was named Judith, who was born on November 24, 1772. Judith, in accordance with the Randolph family custom, was married to her first cousin, Richard Randolph of Bizarre, who was born in 1770. Richard and Judith had been married in 1790.

All three had been living in the same house together at Bizarre. "Bizarre" was the name of the estate of Richard Randolph, located near Farmville. It seems possible that the following strange but well known incident is how the term "bizarre" got into the English language. According to one version of the story, the first born child of Richard and Judith had died. Therefore, Judith became depressed and Richard took up with Nancy, who promptly became pregnant.

The second version of the story was that Nancy had been engaged to be married to the chronically sickly Theoderic Bland Randolph, who was born in 1771 and died in February, 1792, just before the marriage ceremony was scheduled to take place. John Randolph of Roanoke later expressed the view that Nancy, prior to the marriage, had already become pregnant with the child of Theoderic, which she did not want after Theoderic had died.

However, the prevalent view outside of the Randolph family was that Nancy had a black slave lover named Billy Ellis, and that this relationship had caused her to become unmarried and pregnant. Martha Jefferson Randolph apparently must have known about the unwanted pregnancy, because she sent to the Randolph plantation a concoction sometimes useful for producing abortion. Later on, Richard Randolph, the husband of Judith, who was the sister of Nancy, hired both Patrick Henry and John Marshall, two of the most eminent lawyers in America at the time, for defense against the charges of infanticide. Richard Randolph was suspected of having fathered the murdered child. Richard was acquitted, but died shortly thereafter under mysterious circumstances. His brother believed that he had been poisoned by Nancy.

There are a multitude of sources which confirm this basic story. Among these are the notes of one of the attorneys for the defense, John Marshall, who later on became the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

The details are as follows: The incident involving the birth and immediate murder of the illegitimate child occurred on the night of October 1, 1792, at Glenlyvar, the home of Randolph Harrison and his wife, Mary Randolph, in Cumberland County, Virginia. Randolph Harrison was a first cousin of future President William Henry Harrison, who in turn was the grandfather of President Benjamin Harrison. Five members of the Randolph family, including Richard Randolph, Julia Randolph and Nancy Randolph, had arrived that day as guests. Screams were heard in the middle of the night coming from the room where Nancy was staying. These were heard by Randolph Harrison and his wife, who, shortly thereafter, heard the footsteps of a man walking down the stairs and later on returning. The next morning, they found Nancy and Nancy's bed covered with blood. A trail of blood led from the bedroom to the woodpile behind the house. A Negro slave told them that the unmarried Nancy had suffered a miscarriage. Later, another slave said that a fetus had been deposited on a pile of shingles between two logs on the woodpile.

Richard Randolph was thereafter arrested on a charge of infanticide and held without bail. On April 29, 1793, Richard was formally charged with murder. Three famous attorneys, including John Marshall and Patrick Henry, were retained to defend him. The notes of John Marshall, dated June 28, 1793, state that Nancy was also a defendant to the charge of murder.

At the beginning of the trial, it was not yet proven that a living child had even been born. The other possibility was a miscarriage. The prosecution did eventually establish that Nancy had been manifestly pregnant and had given birth to a living child. However, the Negroes who were the most likely witnesses to the murder and who actually saw the body of the dead child lying in the woodpile were not competent to testify in court. As a result, a jury of 16 magistrates eventually returned a verdict of not guilty.

However, the matter did not end there, because nobody really believed that Richard and Nancy were not guilty. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Martha Jefferson Randolph dated April 28, 1793, stated that he had read about this incident in the Richmond Gazette. He expressed the view that Richard, and not Nancy, was the guilty party. "In either case I see guilt but in one person, and not in her", wrote Jefferson. However, others took an opposing view. John Randolph of Roanoke, who never married, was the younger brother of Richard, the future Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the Ambassador to Russia and a brilliant United States Senator. He viewed the acts of Nancy in dragging his innocent brother into this affair as typical of all women. In a letter dated March 12, 1824, to his niece, he said:

"I have seen such dreadful consequences ensue from the indulgence of a propensity to satire by women that I never discern the slightest propensity towards it in a female without shuddering. This vice .... consigned my most amiable and unfortunate brother to a dungeon, and might have dragged him to a gibbet [hangman's noose], blasted the fair promise of his youth, and rendered an untimely death a welcome and happy release from a blighted reputation."

In fact, Richard died in June, 1796 (the exact date of death is unaccountably missing from the Randolph family history) and John Randolph of Roanoke believed that he had been poisoned...

* * * * * * * *

The above is an excerpt from "The Slave Children of Thomas Jefferson" by Sam Sloan


Will an old Indian curse strike again? Will Baby Bush beat the Curse of Tecumseh?

From: Sam Sloan [mailto:sloan@ishipress.com]
Sent: Monday, November 12, 2001 9:44 PM
To: David Morenus
Subject: Re: Real Pocahontas Story

I would like you to answer a question:

I read in my 6th grade history class in Elementary School that when Pocahontas went to England she was received by royalty there.

Is this really true? Are there accounts of her in the Court of King James or anything like that? Also, did she have a baby with her? Is there any mention of her having brought a baby from Virginia?

Sam Sloan

At 02:28 PM 11/13/2001 -0800, Morenus, David R wrote:

It's really true. According to all standard biographies of her, she was presented to King James, the royal family, and Society in general. She met poet and dramatist Ben Jonson. She dined with the Bishop of London, John King. With her on the visit were her husband John Rolfe and their only son, Thomas, a toddler. When Pocahontas died at Gravesend, Thomas was left behind with Sir Lewis Stukley, to be raised by John Rolfe's brother, Henry.


Here are links:
My Home Page

Contact address - please send e-mail to the following address: Sloan@ishipress.com