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Ask Rufus: 200,000 Cousins

 

An engraving by Mallet in 1683 of Powhatan's village near Jamestown. It was here where Pocahontas was said to have saved John Smith, but it was John Rolfe who she married in 1613.

An engraving by Mallet in 1683 of Powhatan's village near Jamestown. It was here where Pocahontas was said to have saved John Smith, but it was John Rolfe who she married in 1613. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

A 1683 copy of a 1612 engraving of Powhatan seated in his lodge with a tobacco pipe in his hand. Of Powhatan's many daughters, his favorite was Pocahontas.

A 1683 copy of a 1612 engraving of Powhatan seated in his lodge with a tobacco pipe in his hand. Of Powhatan's many daughters, his favorite was Pocahontas.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

With Thanksgiving approaching, preschools and elementary schools always have their Thanksgiving programs. These programs almost always portray a friendly, sharing relationship between the first Anglo-American settlers and the Indians on whose land they settled. Usually the story focuses on the Pilgrims who landed in 1620 in present day Massachusetts. 

 

My granddaughter, Harper, is six and lives in Alexandria, Virginia. On Friday her school had a program on the Indians of Virginia. Before school gets out on Tuesday, there will be another program. Then, rather than having a Thanksgiving meal, all the students bring a non-perishable food item to share with the needy just as it is said the Indians shared food with the Pilgrims on the traditional first Thanksgiving.  

 

The Friday program prompted Harper to call me and ask if she had any Indian ancestors. She also asked if I knew who Powhatan was. I told her yes, that he was the leader of the Indian nation where Jamestown was settled in 1607. I then told her he was her grandfather 15 greats back and that Pocahontas was her grandmother 14 greats back. 

 

When the English arrived in 1607 at the site that became Jamestown, it was part an Indian nation known as Tsenacomacah. The nation was ruled over by a powerful chief, Powhatan (1547-1618), who was also known as Wahunsonacock. He is said to have had more than 100 wives, though the names of only about 13 are known. Period accounts say Matoaka -- also known as Pocahontas (1595-1617) -- was his favorite daughter. 

 

Pocahontas actually did befriend John Smith but it was John Rolfe (1585-1622) who she married in 1613. She returned with him to England where she died in 1617 and was buried at Gravesend east of London. They had one son, Thomas Rolfe. 

 

I always thought it was neat to be descended from Pocahontas. My great-aunt Marcella Billups Richards in the 1930s helped with a history of the Sykes family and had traced back through her mother, Ida Sykes, and then the Rives, Eldridge and Bolling families to Rolfe.  

 

When the Disney Pocahontas feature was released, there was a newspaper article mentioning plans for a grand reunion of the descendants of Pocahontas. I recall hearing or reading nothing else about the reunion until about a month later. The new article said plans for the reunion ended when genealogists said if you go back more than 10 generations, there could be well over 200,000 living descendants. If that is correct, then there are an awful lot of unknown cousins running around. 

 

Actually the bottom line is everyone is descended from some famous person. The only difference is whose family kept a record that goes back more than a few generations. If your family tree is incomplete, have some fun digging. Who knows what you might find? It doesn't matter if you are white, black or red. There are a lot more records out there than people realize, and everyone has interesting ancestors just waiting to be discovered.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]

 

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