Pocahontas’ Son

Last night we watched The New World about the first English settlers at Jamestown. I was intrigued about the story of Pocahontas and for the most part in further research, it was about as accurate as it could be for an event that took place so long ago with few original documents. From a Smithsonian piece titled The True Story of Pocahontas, I picked up some new details and a few reality checks.

Pocahontas died in England where she was treated as the princess that she was. Born about 1596, her real name was Amonute, and she also had the more private name Matoaka. Pocahontas was her nickname, which depending on who you ask means “playful one” or “ill-behaved child.” Much that is known came from Captain John Smith who wrote about her many years later describing her as the beautiful daughter of a powerful native leader, who rescued him from being executed by her father. It’s disputed whether or not Pocahontas, who was only age 11 or 12, rescued Smith or did he possibly misinterpret a ritual ceremony, or worse take the tale from a popular Scottish ballad of the time.

Pocahontas grew up to be a clever and brave young woman, who served as a translator, ambassador and leader facing down European power. Pocahontas’ people could not possibly have defeated or even held off the power of Renaissance Europe. The Indians were facing extraordinarily daunting circumstances. Pocahontas was captured and held for ransom by the Colonists during hostilities in 1613. During her captivity, she was encouraged to convert to Christianity and was baptized under the name Rebecca.

It was during her captivity in the settlement called Henricus, that Pocahontas met John Rolfe. She married the tobacco planter in April 1614 at about the age of 17 or 18 and she bore him a son, Thomas Rolfe in January 1615. Their marriage created a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan’s tribes that endured for eight years and was known as the “Peace of Pocahontas.” The birth of Thomas Rolfe, as he was both of European and Native American descent, reinstated peace between the Powhatans and the European settlements. Early in his career as deputy governor, Samuel Argall reported in a letter published within the Virginia Company Records that Powhatan “goes from place to place visiting his country taking his pleasure in good friendship with us laments his daughter’s death but glad her child is living so doth opachank”.

The marriage was controversial in the British court at the time because “a commoner” had “the audacity” to marry a “princess”. According to Rolfe, when she was dying, she said, “all must die, but tis enough that her child liveth”. In the movie, Rolfe is depicted carrying Thomas, their two year old son in his arms, as he was going back to Virginia but that is the most inaccurate part I am aware of. Here is where the story merits mention in this blog about adoption. At the time Pocahontas died, Thomas was sick as well. His father, fearing his young son would not survive the sea voyage, appointed Sir Lewis Stukley as his guardian March 21, 1617. Stuckley later transferred custody and care of Thomas Rolfe to his uncle, Henry Rolfe.

This likely saved his life as his father, John Rolfe died in the Indian massacre of 1622. Also known as the Jamestown Massacre. A contemporary account claims the Powhatan had come “unarmed into our houses with deer, turkeys, fish, fruits, and other provisions to sell us”. The Powhatan then grabbed any tools or weapons available and killed all the English settlers they found, including men, women, and children of all ages. Chief Opechancanough led the Powhatan Confederacy in a coordinated series of surprise attacks; they killed a total of 347 people, a quarter of the population of the Virginia colony.

In his will, John Rolfe had appointed his father in law, William Pierce, as executor of his estate and guardian of his 2 children, Thomas and Elizabeth (by a subsequent marriage). Thomas remained in his uncle’s care until he reached roughly 21 years of age. Sometime before June 1635, Thomas returned to Virginia, his transportation paid for by his Virginia guardian and grandfather by marriage, William Pierce. Once established in Virginia, Thomas Rolfe fostered both his reputation as a plantation owner and as a member of his mother’s lineage. He expressed interest in rekindling relations with his Native American relatives, despite societal ridicule and laws that forbade such contact. In 1641, Rolfe petitioned the governor for permission to visit his “aunt, Cleopatra, and his kinsman, Opecanaugh”.

The date of his death after a life filled with service to the crown and land acquisition is not totally known but has been thought to be around 1685.

As an aside, my mom was born in the Richmond Virginia general area in 1937. It is known that her mother’s family, the Starks, immigrated from Scotland arriving at Stafford County Virginia. As her husband seems to have taken leave of her to return to his mother and other children in Arkansas, it appears my grandmother’s father may have thought her husband had abandoned her. Embarrassed that she was obviously with child and no husband to be seen, I suspect there were still members of the Stark family in Virginia and that is why she was sent there to give birth (and I assume, he hoped she would relinquish her baby there but she did not and brought her back to Memphis, where the two of them fell into the clutches of Georgia Tann). Therefore, I do feel genetic familial roots in Virginia and know that one of my Stark ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War because they arrived here before that began. Later some Starks migrated to Tennessee where my maternal grandmother was born.

Motherless Child

I was listening to an African-American group called Sweet Honey in the Rock sing acapella the old spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and read it dates back to the days of slavery when children were often sold off away from their parents and siblings.  My heart ached listening.

These lyrics caught my attention –

I’m a motherless child,
I can hear my mother calling me,
I can hear my mother’s voice calling me home.
Across the waters, come on home across the waters.

Of course, my thoughts immediately went to adoption and I guess not surprisingly to my own mother.  She yearned to find and connect with her mother.  She had a complicated relationship with the woman who adopted her.  Never felt like she quite measured up to the expectations.

She felt the loss keenly.  Especially when she learned the Georgia Tann story.  She never could reconcile the fact that she was born near Richmond Virginia but had been adopted in Memphis Tennessee as an infant.  She always believed that her adoption was somehow “inappropriate” as she politely worded it in a letter she wrote to the State of Tennessee trying to get her own adoption file.  She was denied on more than one technicality and although some years later a law was passed to allow her to receive that file, that information never reached her.

After her death, I did receive that file from Tennessee.  My mom’s belief that a nurse in cahoots with Georgia Tann had stolen her in Virginia and transported her to Tennessee wasn’t quite the true story.  But that kind of story did happen all too frequently with Tann’s baby stealing and selling scandal.

The real story is sad and my grandmother was definitely exploited in the midst of an impossible situation.  Her widowed father still raising some of his children as a poor sharecropper refused my grandmother support with her baby when she returned to Memphis.  She was a married woman.  Why she was estranged from her husband I’ll never know.  I have some theories.

He was WPA and the large hospital project that brought him to Memphis had ended.  He was widowed too and his mother had his children in her care in Arkansas.  His first wife had died 8 months pregnant on a cold and rainy December morning and her baby in the womb died with her.  The image shared with me by my cousin haunts me still.  A Phil Collins song The Roof Is Leaking makes me think of my grandfather. These lyrics caught my attention –

The roof is leaking and the wind is howling,
The kids are crying cause the sheets are so cold.
I woke this morning and my hands were frozen

My wife’s expecting but I hope she can wait
Cause there’s been signs it will be another bad one
But Spring will soon be here.

Too many sad maternal deaths.  My grandmother lost her own mother at the age of 11 with four other younger siblings, including the baby one, in the household at that time.

His employment ended, my grandmother was already 4 months pregnant and due in January.  My heart believes my grandfather feared for her and the baby’s well-being as he had no certain shelter to offer her come winter.  It may be that his own mother wasn’t happy he had married such a young woman, as young as his oldest sons.  She may not have been welcoming either.  Then came the Superflood on the Mississippi River in 1937 (at the same time my mom was born) and he was out shoring up the levees in Arkansas, when my grandmother arrived back in Memphis.

Whatever the real story is, that I can never know, my grandmother went to the Juvenile Court in Memphis trying to reach him.  No response.  Desperate, she took my mom to the storied Porter Leath Orphanage for temporary care.  The superintendent there alerted Georgia Tann to my mom’s presence.  My mom was the blond, blue eyed kind of baby girl that Tann most coveted for her clients.  And so began the pressure on my grandmother to separate her from my mom.

Four days after signing the surrender papers, my grandmother called Georgia Tann’s office trying to get my mother back.  “I have friends in New Orleans who will take us in,” she told them.  It was to no avail because Tann’s paying customer was already on her way by train from Nogales Arizona to pick up my mom.

My image today comes from a Facebook page titled Memoirs of a Motherless Child.  She relates a story about Brooklyn and it’s connection to her own mother there.  After her mother’s death, she writes –

I later blamed myself for never being able to meet her, know her, experience her because I didn’t go look for her, as if that would have done any good. She didn’t want to be found not because she didn’t love me (took me years to realize that but my inner child still can’t accept it wholeheartedly) but because she loved me so much she didn’t want to hurt or disappoint me. My inner child could very well be making that up too in order to spare me more hurt and trauma. What still hurts the most is I’ll never know what part of me was/is that part of you. So I’ll continue to travel this endless journey of uncertainty until our energies meet somehow.

I believe that is how my mom felt too because by the time she tried to find her mother, her mother was only somewhat recently deceased.  That devastated my mom.  Now that my own mom has also died, I believe she was reunited with the mother who never gave up hoping she would see her precious daughter again as well.  So much sadness when a mother and her child are separated.