Narratives of Early Virginia: Letter of John Rolfe, 1614 by Lyon Gardiner Tyler

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Title: Narratives of Early Virginia: Letter of John Rolfe, 1614 – Author: Lyon Gardiner Tyler – Publishing house: Forgotten Books

★★★★☆

* Naturally, this book deals with many sources. My focus will in this review be John Rolfe’s Letter, which was written in 1614.

At the time of the early European settlement in America the majority of marriages were arranged and considered as a pact – often financial – between respectable Christian families. The settlers’ attitude to native Americans was at best friendly and neighborly, but there were many conflicts concerning land, hunting and customs. Marriage between a white colonist and a native American woman was not common. The very fact that John Rolfe felt the need to write his letter after having married Pocahontas – his excuses – is proof of this.

The letter of John Rolfe from 1614 was written and addressed to Sir Thomas Dale (leader of the Virginia Colony) in a time, when England is a dominating country concerning colonies and settlements – in this case – America, and also Africa, India, and other parts of Asia. There is a huge focus on conquering, importing goods and building colonists. Even though, it is a copy of the original letter, it is still what you can call a primary source, because the words and opinions of John Rolfe are conveyed. In this copy the language is improved compared to the original, so that it is easier for a modern reader to understand, however, the original language and biblical expressions are kept (examples: the last lines, p. 244: “[…] God to raine downe upon you” –symbolism; being cleansed for behaving badly; personal pronouns and verbal endings: “thou”, “doth”, etc. (p. 239: ”But (my case standing as it doth)”).

In his letter, John Rolfe explains his reasons for marrying a Native and non-Christian American, and he defends himself and his own role as a good Christian. One of the first things you notice is how he continuously expresses his beliefs in Christianity (Line 3, p. 239: ”[…] to peruse these lines, I trust in God”). As an example, he mentions daily prayers and the protection of God (lines 14-15, p. 239: ”[…] my daily and earnest praiers have bin, still are, and ever shall be produced forth with as sincere a godly zeale […]”), and furthermore, his own dedication to religion (lines 16-17, p. 239: ”[…] possibly may to be directed, aided and governed in all my thoughts, words and deeds, to the glory of God”). At the beginning of the letter, John Rolfe speaks directly to Sir Thomas Dale (his superior officer in command) and asks for his understanding (the last paragraph, p. 239: “[…] I here seeke, then to shelter my selfe under the safety of your favourable protection […]”).

In the end of the letter, it is clearly shown that John Rolfe sees Sir Thomas Dale as an authority. He believes in him and accepts his judgments. (lines 3-4, p. 244: “But shal it please God thus to dispose of me (which I earnestly desire to fulfill my ends before sette down) […]”). He also honours his country and the colonization (last paragraph, p. 240: “[…] the good of this plantation, for the honour of our contrie […]”). Furthermore, he mentions his dedication to his work and that he is reliable (lines 5-8, p. 244: “and I will never cease (God assisting me) untill I have accomplished, and brought to perfection so holy a worke, in which I will daily pray God to blesse me, to mine, and her eternall happines”).

As a historical source, the letter is of little value because the only facts we learn are that interracial marriages actually occurred in the English colonies in America in the early 17th Century and that the persons named in the letter were historical characters (this is also supported by other sources). Furthermore, although it can be considered as a primary source (because of its documentary history), it is a first person document and it mostly describes feelings and intentions, and its object is persuasion. Another reason that this could be seen as a weak historical source is that one only hears one point of view and never get the response from Sir Thomas Dale.

However, one could argue that as a cultural and sociological source, it is important because of the picture it gives of how colonization and culture clash influence the new communities. The fact that John Rolfe married Pocahontas (a Native American woman) was frowned upon by respectable Christians so his action could be considered as a kind of rebellion, even though she converted to Christianity and became “civilized” (lines 22-23, p. 242: “[…] her desire to be taught and instructed in the knowledge of God, her capablenesse of understanding […]”).

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