"It's perfectly natural, I'll confess
When some write more and some write less
For those that write the least, to say
I wouldn't have written it that a way."
So wrote Barnett family historian Aunt Mary Barnett (1845-1929) in an early draft of her 1923 family history (copy archived at the Johnson County, Indiana Historical Society). As to the difficulties of genealogy writing in particular, she offered this additional tidbit:
"[I'm in the position of the lady] witness on the stand in a slander case. When asked questions she would say such a person told her so and so; the judge rapped for attention and told her he did not want her to tell about what she had been told, but confine herself to what she personally knew the truth to be. After this advice, the questioning attorney began with 'How old are you.' She said, 'I do not know.' He blurted out, 'That's not reasonable, tell the truth.' She said, 'All I know about my age is what I have been told.'
So it is with me."
And so it is with this memorandum.
Let us begin it, then, in the manner Aunt Mary did, with a sketch of the Barnett's earliest Powhatan ancestors, as that information was 'handed down from generation to generation':
"[Our records start] with the Indian chief, Murmuring Ripple, who died in 1495. According to the olden history, he was the father of Dashing Stream, who was born May 6, 1474, on the banks of a tributary of the Lancer river, which headed in the Blue Ridge mountains. He died in 1540. Dashing Stream was the father of Scented Flower, who was born June 3, 1517, at the junction of the Dan and Staunton rivers in Virginia. Scented Flower was the father of Powhatan [whose real name was Wahunsenacawh, a Pamunkey who became king, or powhatan, of the confederation of coastal tribes], born June 17, 1545, near New River, Va., and died in 1622, at the age of 77 years. [He had] a daughter by the name of Pocahontas, who was born in 1596, near Jamestown, Va."
Oddly enough, this record of Native American lineage is more complete than anything left behind by the family's more "civilized" European ancestors. The reasons are two-fold. First, people almost always immigrate because they are glad to leave their home country, a circumstance that does not encourage the remembering or recording of what came before. Secondly, life was very hard in the early decades of colonial Virginia and there was little time or interest in writing up the details of either people's past history or their current daily lives. Also, those few personal accounts that have survived are often difficult to sort out because of identity confusion, caused by a common tendency to give newborn children the same, timeworn first names over and over and over. Death, which came easily during the early days, further muddied the identification waters because spouses often remarried and the wives naturally changed their names.
While finding good historical data on colonial males is hard enough, it is almost impossible to locate documentation on females. This stems from their status, which was a condition uncomfortably close to chattel. Women were considered men's property--they did not participate in business, were restricted in what property they could own, and couldn't vote or hold public office. As a result, they rarely show up in the public record, a prime source of genealogical evidence. Also, the institution of holy matrimony as it existed in primitive North America often bore little esemblance to the original model back in Britain. In some cases, these "marriages" involved Native American women, making matters that much more delicate. In those days, and indeed well into the twentieth century, individuals having Indian blood were especially restricted with regard to civil and social matters, and rarely appear in the written record. Aunt Mary Barnett spoke to this point as well:
"Ah, well do we remember when our father conveyed the intelligence that the same little Indian girl who was so highly eulogized in our child history . . . was among the number of our great grandmothers. It was given to us as a profound secret, but a real truth, which we pondered over with a feeling of disgrace to think there was Indian blood in our veins. We never dared speak of it. But as time went on everything took a change and so did this."
Taking all these things into account, it's no wonder information on the founding Virginians is so often vague, conflicting, lost [many early public records were destroyed by fire], or simply never put to paper in the first place. It has also become clear that despite their "prominence," the families of English tobacco planter John Rolfe, and his mixed-blood son, Thomas Rolfe, were not excepted from these patterns. As a consequence, it is very difficult, perhaps even impossible, for anyone in America to unequivocally prove descendency from John Rolfe's wife, Matoaka, the favored Powhatan daughter and respected medicine woman who is more commonly known by her affectionate, informal nickname, Pocahontas. Everyone today claiming descent from Matoaka, whether they realize it or not, is fundamentally relying on their family's oral history [See below discussion on Elizabeth Washington of England for the exception].
Until recently, historians had unconditionally accepted the 'Pocahontas genealogy' supplied by nineteenth-century writer and Bolling family descendant Wyndam Robertson (his scholarly standing was bolstered by the presence within the Bolling clan of such notable Virginians as John Randolph and President Thomas Jefferson). The gist of Robertson's conclusions were as follows: Pocahontas had but one child, a son Thomas, and Thomas had but one child, Jane, by his wife, Jane Poythress. Daughter Jane married a Bolling, and from that union came the single bloodlineMatoaka left behind.
Based on extensive new research by scholars and independent researchers, we now know that wasn't the whole story, not by a country mile. To begin the narrative anew:
Pocahontas was born circa 1595-96, and was possibly married, at least for a time, to Powhatan warrior named Kocoum, circa 1610. Vague references have been found suggesting one or two native children were born to this union, but no evidence has surfaced. Kocoum abruptly stepped off the historical stage [for reasons unknown] and in 1613 Pocahontas married John Rolfe [NOT John Smith!]. They had one child, a son, Thomas Rolfe, born in 1614. Pocahontas died of an undetermined illness while on a 1617 business visit to England with her merchant husband and was buried in that country at a place called Gravesend. Their infant son, Thomas, was too small and fragile to withstand the risky sea journey back to America so John Rolfe left him in England under the care of his brother, Uncle Henry Rolfe. Henry raised the boy as an Englishman.
John Rolfe died in Virginia in 1622, either from a lingering illness or during an Indian raid. According to his will, son Thomas could not inherit his father's rather sizable estate before reaching age twenty-one unless he married prior to that time. In what may have been at least a partial response to this stipulation, seventeen-year-old Thomas married Elizabeth Washington in England in 1632. In 1633, Elizabeth died giving birth to a daughter, Anne, who later married Peter Elwyn, and they had at least three sons and four daughters. The Elwyns inherited several of Pocahontas' personal possessions.
In 1635, Thomas Rolfe, now twenty-one years old, returned to the Virginia colony in North America. It is at this point the record gets murky and the serious detective work begins. As previously stated, the official Bolling histories have long maintained their version of events is the only true one--that Thomas had but one child by Jane Poythress, a daughter also called Jane [circa 1650-1676], and that she married Colonel Robert Bolling [1646-1709], and they were the root parents of all of Pocahontas' descendants. But that would mean that during Thomas' entire adult life [by some accounts he died circa 1675, by others circa 1707], he had only one child (The Bollings were apparently unaware of his daughter Anne by the Englishwoman, Elizabeth Washington). Given the way things were done in those days--have as many children as possible to help earn a living and ensure the preservation of the family name--that seems very unlikely. Indeed, there is a large amount of circumstantial evidence suggesting Thomas Rolfe sired several, perhaps many, North American children, and that he did it by several wives.
And it is here the story gets really interesting. While the history books have long insisted Thomas had but one New World wife, the aforementioned Jane Poythress, recent scholarship has shown that Wyndam Robertson, in his 1887 book, "Pocahontas and Her Descendants," took it upon himself, ostensibly in the interest of clearing up all the spousal confusion, to simply designate an 'official wife' ["I adopt (the name) Jane Poythress"]. As a result of this sloppy genealogy by a prominent historian and theologian, 'Jane Poythress,' a clearly arbitrary name, has ever since been identified by nearly all historians as the undisputed, lone American wife of Thomas Rolfe.
New research over the past few decades [Slatten and Moore, John Brayton, and others] has exposed this long-lived, self-serving Robertson fabrication. It has also unearthed tantalizing fresh evidence linking Thomas Rolfe to other females besides "Jane Poythress" (whoever she was). They include: 1) a cousin of Pocahontas named Oconoco, or Oi Poi Canoe. One of their children has been identified as Thomas "Powhatan" Rolfe. Oral tradition says he insisted all his life on being called "Powhatan". 2) a Dorothy Jennings of North Carolina 3) an Indian maid of Dorothy's named Mary Grimes
We almost certainly will never know the absolute truth about these women, for the same reasons it may never be determined whether Thomas Rolfe died circa 1675, or if he was the same Thomas Rolfe of North Carolina (then a part of Virginia), "reputed son of Pocahontas," who died in 1707 at a very ripe old age. In any event, the bits and pieces of evidence suggesting Thomas had both white and Indian liaisons has the ring of truth to it. After all, that was the way things were done in those rough and tumble frontier days, far from British legalities and the Church of England. Furthermore, it must be remembered that Thomas Rolfe was one-half Powhatan, a man who throughout his life remained close to his mother's Native American community, despite his ability to also conduct himself as a proper Englishman.
To summarize then, Thomas Rolfe must have had several children, perhaps as many as twelve according to some reports, and they almost certainly issued from more than one wife or mistress. The following offspring have been named in several different accounts, with varying degrees of evidence and conjecture in their support:
- Anne Rolfe Elwyn, born 1633, mother, Elizabeth Washington
- John Rolfe, born circa early 1640s, mother, "Jane Poythress”/Dorothy Jennings?
- Thomas Rolfe, Jr., born circa 1645, mother, "Jane Poythress"/Dorothy Jennings?
- William Rolfe, born circa late 1640s, mother, "Jane Poythress"/Dorothy Jennings?
- Jane Rolfe Bolling, born circa 1650, mother, "Jane Poythress"/Dorothy Jennings?
- Ann/Anne/Anna Rolfe Barnett, born circa 1648, mother unknown--"Jane Poythress"?
Dorothy Jennings? Oi Poi?
- Thomas "Powhatan" Rolfe, born circa 1665, mother, Oi Poi
In this space, we will continue to discuss only one of these individuals: An undocumented Thomas Rolfe daughter, Ann/Anne/Anna Rolfe Barnett, born circa 1648, according to her family's oral tradition and a specific reference to her in the bible of John Perry Barnett (1764-1828).
Unfortunately, we know next to nothing about Anna [the preferred family spelling, thought to have come down that way because Thomas had another daughter, Anne Elwyn, spelled with an 'e']. As Aunt Mary so poignantly put it, we have been left with only "what we've been told." We don't know who Anna’s mother was, or if the mother was white or Indian. We don't know where or when Anna died. Aside from Barnett family oral and written histories that have survived for well over 300 years, we have to date discovered only one other independent historical reference to her existence [which also illustrates the persistent name problem and spelling confusion]:
"Thomas came to the colony around 1635, and by March 1640 he was in possession of the land south of the James. He married Jane Poythress, and they had two daughters, Anne and Jane." ("History of Henrico County" by Manarin and Dowdey, 1984, page 497)."
We know of only four of Anna's children—Jane, Anne, Henry, and John [Aunt Mary said there may have been as many as a dozen]. Her son, John Barnett, was born circa 1687. His descendants became known to Robert O. Harder's line of Barnett's through the magic of the Internet, after the two branches had lost touch some 300 years ago. Incredibly, it was discovered their separately passed down origin stories were almost identical, giving substantial credence to the overall reliability of the Anna Rolfe Barnett oral tradition.
Anna's other identified son, and the one of primary interest here, was Henry Barnett, born circa 1670 and Robert O. Harder's ancestor. One of Henry’s sons was his namesake, Henry James Barnett, born in 1694. Known as H.J. Barnett, Anna Rolfe Barnett’s grandson was an extremely colorful character who had a life that was long and well-lived. After the Revolutionary War, several members of his family decided it was in their best interest to remove to the new “Kentucky country.” Henry James, then quite elderly, accompanied them west, likely because he needed the extended family support to survive. While on their way to Kentucky via the Ohio River, the old man, who still had "perfect eyesight,” decided to go squirrel hunting. Somehow he injured himself and developed blood poisoning, grudgingly passing away in 1788 at the ripe old age of 94. He was buried in a cemetery in West Virginia, after which the rest of his family continued their journey, settling in what is now northern Kentucky and southern Indiana.
And who was this fellow that became Anna Rolfe's husband? Where did he come from? Again, we know very little. His first name was William, and he immigrated from either England or France--the stories vary--circa 1662. He may have been a Huguenot looking for religious freedom. Some evidence suggests his name was originally Barnard or Bernard, or perhaps Dejarnette. What does seem clear is that shortly after his arrival in the New World the spelling and pronunciation of his name soon evolved into: Barnett.
And so it was William Barnett married Anna Rolfe, circa 1664. Their son, Henry, begat Henry James (H.J.) Barnett, who sired 24 children in a very long and active life. Seventeen of his boys were soldiers in the French and Indian War and/or Revolutionary War, perhaps more serving sons from one father than any other Virginia family. Of these Barnett brothers, some perished during the War of Independence, several others were with Gen'l Washington when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. Robert O. Harder's great-great-great grandfather, John Perry Barnett (a boy of 17, serving as a fifer) sat in a large tree with several other young fellows watching the British march by and stack their rifles to the tune of "The World Turned Upside Down." Such a scene, boys perched high in nearly limbless, leafless trees watching the spectacle, was portrayed in contemporary French paintings of the British surrender, some of which can be seen in the Louvre in Paris. Another French painting of the Yorktown surrender, by Louis van Blarenberghe, can be viewed on the Internet.
This is the Rolfe/Barnett genealogy down to Robert O. Harder:
- Anna Rolfe and William Barnett's son was Henry Barnett (1670-?)
- Henry Barnett had a son, Henry James Barnett (1704-1798).
- Henry J. Barnett married his second [possibly third] wife, Mary Grundy (or Grundie), in
1745. One of their youngest children was John Perry Barnett (1764-1828).
- John Perry Barnett married Elizabeth Self in 1783. One of their youngest children was
Ambrose Barnett (1809-1885).
- Ambrose Barnett moved to Indiana and sired Benjamin Barnett (1842-1929).
Benjamin was Aunt Mary Barnett's brother (she kept the Barnett name by marrying one George
- One of Benjamin Barnett's youngest daughters was Mamie Barnett Nelson (1879-1976),
who had a daughter, Myrtle Nelson Harder (1904-1990), who had a son,
Robert O.Harder (1945-date).
Mamie Barnett left Indiana for northern Minnesota in 1899 and married a Norwegian
lumberman named Marcus Nelson. Mamie became very interested in the local Ojibway
Indians after learning they shared the same Algonquian heritage as the Powhatans. Many
Ojibway men worked for Marcus in his logging camps, and the Nelsons befriended and
socialized with several native families. One of their daughter Myrtle's earliest
recollections was of camping with her family on the shore of Sandy Lake in Aitkin County,
Minnesota. While her father shared meals and spun tall tales to the Ojibway 'savages'
who paddled their birch bark canoes over from the reservation, a spellbound Myrtle
listened from inside the tent, a tiny tot frightened and excited all at the same time. Later,
Myrtle learned to speak Ojibway, steeping herself in the Chippewa way of life. As a
teacher during the 1920s, she clandestinely taught young Anishinaabe children their own
language, flaunting the U.S government's and the children's parent's determination that
Indians should renounce the old tongues and learn only English.
It was, then, this spark from his grandmother and mother, fueled by the family link to
Pocahontas, that gave Robert O. Harder his life-long interest in Native Americans and
their ancient ways.
Many thanks to Wilma Lilliedale Phelan and Barry Barnett for their valuable contributions
to this Pocahontas/Barnett heritage summary.
The Pocahontas image on the left is the popular version that is most often seen. The
older one on the right, painted by Simon van de Pass (1595?-1647) is believed to be
more physically accurate, and may possibly have been done from life while Pocahontas
was in England.