American Indian Council
By Vera Palmer
Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 17 , 1935
Famous Mussel-Shell Jewelry of Powhatan's Daughter Sought
by A. P. V. A. But Price of $5,000 Bars Treasure From Virginia
This famous Sedgeford portrait of Pocahontas and her son, Thomas Rolfe, carefully preserved through the centuries, although its travels and whereabouts have been been shrouded in mystery.
Who knows anything about the Sedgeford Portrait of Pocahontas and her little son, Thomas Rolfe?
This is the question now being asked earnestly by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. So says Miss Ellen Bagby, chairman of the Jamestown committee of that organization, and therefore the ex-officio guardian angel of all that pertains to the memory of the Indian princess. The portrait itself is fairly well known, but its story is lost in the dim and mysterious shadows of antiquity.
There are some authorities who believe that it was painted from life and that the picture was brought to Virginia by John Rolfe soon after he had buried his lovely young wife under the chancel of the church at Gravesend, in Kent, England, close to where she died when starting on her homeward voyage.
Others, however, hold to the opinion that although the painting is ancient, yet it is not the work of a contemporary artist because the little Thomas is represented as a much older child than could have been possible, even at the time of his mother's death. History tells us that he was only a little more than 2. The child in the portrait might pass for 4.
There is a third theory concerning the date of this old picture, and it is as interesting as it is practical. Eustace Neville Rolfe, who happened to be head of the Rolfe family in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, purchased the famous painting in about 1880 from a Mrs. Charlton. That lady stated at the time that her husband had bought it in America many years before.
Mr. Rolfe and his brother-in-law, Holcomb Ingleby, examined the canvas most carefully and came to the conclusion that, although very old, it is a copy of an earlier work and that the copyist was an artist of dangerously active imagination who put something into the portrait that was not intended by the original painter. They believe this answers affirmatively that the dusky Virginian and her son could have sat for the picture, and also explains the prodigious growth of the little boy.
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There is something tremendously satisfying about the portrait, for it is filled with the mystery of the Indian people. Even the young Thomas seems to have been far more the son of his redskin mother than of his Anglo-Saxon father. Modern eugenists would answer, "Of course. Do not boys inherit from their mothers, girls from their father?" But these coldly scientific facts bothered nobody back in the early seventeenth century.
For many years the portrait was known as the Heacham Hall Pocahontas, but when that estate, which had been in the Rolfe family hundreds of years before John came into the world, was sold at about the turn of the present century, the canvas was removed to Sedgeford, another Rolfe property. Where had it been through all the years from the time the bereaved John Rolfe brought it with him from England to his home here on the edge of the wilderness? The story of its fate seems to have been lost completely. If the picture hung on the wall of one of Virginia's stately Colonial mansions it is strange that the fact is not known. That it was carefully preserved proves, however, that its value was appreciated, and probably that its identity was known.
The picture is not the property of Major Clement Ingleby of Sedgeford Hall, Norfolk, England, who has loaned it for an indefinite period to the museum at King's Lynn, the near-by town, where it is now on exhibition.
One who saw it recently states that the tunic worn by Pocahontas is of richest crimson fabric, while the lower dress is olive green. Both garments are curiously ornamented with silver jewelry. The dress of young master Rolfe was not described by this observer but it certainly savors of the "gay nineties," being nothing more nor less than the familiar "shirtwaist" worn by little boys during that much-talked-of decade. Whether or not dress at that time gained its inspiration from the early Stuarts has not be made plain. If so, the fact should be "played up," in the interest of history.
A writer of the eighteen-eighties in describing the portrait declared that the "coloring is so rich you can form but a poor idea of her glowing happy face from the copy in black and white.
shy gladness with which the deep, dark eyes, almost living in their earnestness,
look out from the canvas into one's very own, is more than maternal. I think she
is feeling that the little hand which she clasps so closely in hers entitles her
to be considered one with the nation she so loved and served; it is almost as
though she would say, if the secret springs of her heart could find utterance,
'I too, am English now.' "
Of transcendent interest concerning the portrait, however, are the earrings worn by Pocahontas. They are in existence today and are the only personal belongings of Powhatan's daughter known to have survived the long intervening centuries. They have been handed down carefully in the Rolfe family from father to son for generations and are owned now by Robert Girdlestone Meggy of Brooklyn, New York.
Their present owner cherishes the precious earrings reverently, but he told Miss Bagby that as much as he would hate parting with them, yet he would let them go for $5,000. The price is thought to be exorbitant, even for so valued relics, and brought keenest disappointment to the board of the A. P. V. A. that for years has longed to own them.
Each earring is formed of a double mussel-shell, the rare white kind found only the eastern shore of Berings Strait. Would it not be interesting to trace the journey of those shells during their transportation across the vast tractless continent? It is probable that many years elapsed between the time they were taken from Berings' shore until the enriched the dusky beauty of Powhatan's daughter. It all happened, of course, long before the Anglo-Saxon set foot on the New World.
Double shell earrings were worn very generally among the American Indians we are told, but the white variety was reserved exclusively for the adornment of priests and princes. These royal jewels are set in silver rims, inlaid with small steel points. This mounting, it is thought, suggests that they were set, or re-set, in England.
The latter assumption is more or less confirmed by an old tale concerning these valuable ornaments. It is declared that they were reset in England for Pocahontas by that Duke of Northumberland who was the brother of George Percy the colonist, who wrote "The Trewe Relacyon of What Happened in Virginia." This document is a letter from the emigrant to his brother, the nobleman, who remained at home.
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Many Virginians have seen these famous earrings, for they were on exhibition at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, and were shown again at the Jamestown Exposition in 1907. Only a few months ago the officers of the A. P. V. A. had them on private view at the John Marshall House, where they would become a part of the permanent exhibit were the association able to acquire them by purchase.
When Pocahontas died and was buried at Gravesend, her small son was left by his father in the care of the little boy's uncle, Henry Rolfe, with whom he lived until maturity. The descendants of this Henry Rolfe were know as the Rolfe's of Essex, the last member of this branch of the family being J. Girdlestone Rolfe. His second wife was Isabella Golden Clark, to whom he gave the earrings at the time of their marriage in 1923, and she bequeathed the precious earrings to her sister, Mrs. Jessie Hodgson Meggy. In this way they went out of the Rolfe family. The present owner inherited them from his mother, who had obtained them from her sister, Mrs. Rolfe.
The story of the earrings is fairly conclusive, for their fate was a far more tender one than that which may have been encountered by the portrait between early Colonial days and the time it came into the possession of Mr. Charlton, whose widow evidently did not know from whom he bought it. To many people in England 50 years ago and even to day "in America" seems to be sufficient. Anywhere between the Atlantic and the Pacific; Canada and the Gulf, is all one to them, and what difference does a mere name of person or place make so long as the basic fact is established. In this instance, he bought it in America. And that was that.
[Editor's Note: According to Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhattan Nation, "Pocahontas" was a nickname, meaning "the naughty one" or "spoiled child." Her real name was Matoaka. The legend is that she saved a heroic John Smith from being clubbed to death by her father in 1607 (she would have been only about 10 or 11 at the time). Matoaka, otherwise known as Pocahontas and Rebecca Rolfe gave birth to one child, Thomas Rolfe. She was not a "princess" - the Powhatan Nation does not recognize royalty. See related article, The Pocahontas Myth]
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