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Paging Pocahontas



I was standing at the border of Henricus Park high above the James river and the Dutch Gap, looking northeast across the water and wondering where, on the opposite estuary, John Rolfe and Pocahontas had built their residence, Varina Farms.

I knew that John Rolfe had been killed by Pocahontas’ tribesmen who probably also torched the farm. And yet, had British America’s first plantation house completely disappeared?

In those days I spent part of my time in southern Virginia, impressed by its beauty and history. The idea of conducting a bit of research fascinated me, and one day I decided to explore myself the area where the Varina plantation had presumably existed.

A few facts

But before I continue with my account, a few facts about Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Pocahontas, also known as Matoaka, a daughter of Paramount Chief Powhatan of the Algonquian Indians, was a child of ten or eleven years when in 1607 she first encountered an Englishman. In the beginning, Virginia had only two centers of importance: Wicomico in Gloucester County, the capital of the Powhatan Indians, and Jamestown, the first British settlement.

Frequently coming to Jamestown with women who bartered food and furs for tools and trinkets, she ran around naked, and found Captain John Smith's interest who considered the child extremely intelligent, pretty and sweet. For her, Smith was a father figure. He was probably the first person to teach her English language and manners. Early on he recognized her value as a friend of the British and a mediator between them and the native Americans.

It may be true that she, at one point, saved him from the horror of a mock execution at the court of Powhatan. She mediated between her father's tribes and the English and ensured that the latter received food from the Indians when suffering famine due to an unusual series of cold and wet years.

In 1610, after Smith —badly blessed— had returned to England (and she was made to believe he was dead), she was kidnapped by the British to be exchanged against some captives held by the Indians, plus ransom. She was taken to a new settlement, Citie of Henricus, also called Henricopolis, situated where the Dutch Gap meets the James River. Henricus, considered a safer and healthier place than Jamestown, was expected soon to eclipse the latter. The first brick church, the first hospital and the first college in America were being built at Henricus.

Here, Pocahontas met in July 1613 John Rolfe, the first English planter who had smuggled seeds of the sweet Spanish Varina tobacco variety out of Bermuda. The princess, now probably 18 years old, fell in love with Rolfe. In April 1614, after Pocahontas had been baptized and released from captivity, her father Powhatan and the British governor agreed that Rolfe and Pocahontas could marry. During the massacre of 1622, Henricus Citie was destroyed by Indians but it is being rebuilt today and well worth visiting. (Access from Jeff Davis highway near Chester, or from I-295 near Varina)

The couple had a son, Thomas, and moved to Rolfe's tobacco plantation which he called Varina Farms, located in Henrico County. Rolfe's tobacco proved very successful in Britain and promised to make the new colony not only viable but rich. From his father-in-law Powhatan Rolfe had received, as a wedding gift, 450 square miles of land, which means that his Varina Farms, the first plantation in British America, comprised the present Henrico County plus the city of Richmond (Janet Chase Stoneman: A History of Varina on the James. Manuscript 1957)

In spring of 1616, Governor Sir Thomas Dale took Rolfe, Pocahontas and her child, as well as a dozen Algonquian Indians, to England to drum up support for the Virginia Company. Pocahontas was received with royal honors and was surprised to meet her old friend Smith. Despite her success at court and in the palaces of the rich and famous she was not happy. She complained that London was chaotic, smelly and filthy.

In March 1617 John Rolfe decided to take his family back to Virginia but Pocahontas was already lethally ill, probably with tuberculosis, and died in England, only 23 or 24 years old. She is buried at Gravesend. Husband and son returned to Varina Farms. John Rolfe was apparently killed by the Indians in 1622 but his son Thomas later became an important businessman and politician in Virginia.

Many historians believe that, without Pocahontas, Jamestown (and with it Virginia) would have become another "lost colony" of the British. There is little doubt that Pocahontas deeply influenced America's history. She helped to establish, at least temporarily, better relations between the colonists and the Indians but she could not save her paternal tribes from their cruel fate. In 1616, Captain Smith wrote: Pocahontas "was the instrument to pursurve this colonie from death, famine, and utter confusion."

The memory the world kept of her is arguably stronger than that of any other native American personality. In the few years of her life she — as a dark-skinned "savage" — succeeded in rising to a rank equal of European royalty. In retrospect, Pocahontas may have been, for three short years, the only queen America ever had.

Trespassing

I knew a small town near Richmond airport which happens to be called Varina. That is where I started my exploration. I stopped at the local gas station and asked for Varina Farms. A blank gaze answered. Never heard of. I asked whether they knew that Varina was probably the third oldest British settlement in America, after Jamestown and Henricus. I got another blank gaze but the advice to see a local amateur historian.

I was lucky finding him a his home. Yes, he had heard of Varina Farms. It probably still existed but he did not know where. I should see the Fire Marshal, he would know. Again I was lucky at the fire station. The marshal was there, he knew Varina Farms and showed me on the map how to find it.

So far, so good. But when I arrived at the end of a small road there was the ominous sign “No trespassing. Private property.”

I gathered all my courage and continued driving. But after a few hundred yards I saw two men with rifles looking at ne. I jumped on the brake, got out and walked toward them. No, they were not taking aim at me. They were friendly and asked me what I wanted. I explained. One of them took the cellphone asking his wife to lock up the dogs and receive those people who had come all the way from Washington, D.C. (my number plate) to be briefed on the history of Varina Farm.

Shortly after we were graciously received by the lady of the mansion, a mid-19th century Federal style building. The eastern wing is believed to have been built on the remnants and with the materials of the original residence of John Rolfe and Pocahontas.

Attached to the eastern part is a small stone cubicle known as Pocahontas’ kitchen. A narrow space with a low ceiling which could very believably have served as a kitchen in those days when to avoid fire hazard kitchens were kept separate from the main house.

Had Pocahontas herself been cooking here? Or had she just supervised the work of the cook? In any case I thought I had found the place I had been looking for, guarded and knowingly preserved by a family that has owned one of America’s most historic estates for over a century.

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—— Heinrich von Loesch