natural, I'll confess
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:
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':
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 resemblance 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:
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 bloodline Matoaka 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 a 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:
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:
In this space, we will continue to discuss only one of these individuals: An undocumented daughter, Ann/Anne/Anna Rolfe Barnett, born circa 1653-65, according to her family's oral tradition.
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 are not at all certain of Anna's birthdate. We don't know who her 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 historical reference to her existence [which also illustrates the persistent name problem]:
We know of only three of Anna's children [Aunt Mary said there may have been as many as a dozen]. There was a daughter, Jane (what a surprise). One son was named John Barnett, 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 interest here, was Henry Barnett, Robert O. Harder's ancestor. And it is with him that the ranges noted above regarding Anna's birthdate [1653-65] raise the possibility the oral tradition may have missed a generation. If Anna was born near the later date, then Harder's Barnett line began with her son, Henry. If she was born closer to the earlier date, than the ancestor known as "Henry" must have been her grandson. It is likely the two men would have had the same name, which could account for the confusion. We do know that Henry James Barnett, whether son or grandson of Anna Rolfe Barnett, was either born in 1694 and died in 1788, or he was born in 1704 and died in 1798 [Aunt Mary unfortunately recorded it both ways]. The oral tradition is unambiguous about one thing--still with perfect eyesight at age 94, Henry was injured while out squirrel hunting and died of blood poisoning.
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. As noted above, either their son or grandson was Henry James Barnett. H.J. 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.
This is the Rolfe/Barnett genealogy down to Robert O.
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.