What do We Know About Pocahontas and Her Descendants?

Pocahontas, the legendary Native American princess who saved the life of Captain John Smith, has been the subject of many forms of art and literature – from Colonial paintings to Disney movies. The reality of Pocahontas, and of her descendants, is a more complex topic generally colored by legends more than facts. It’s rare to find information that deals only with known facts without the pull of the colorful stories. The following post discusses the known facts and lineage of Pocahontas, as well as provides literary resources to help you learn more should Pocahontas and her descendants be part of your family history or research.

“She was of a ‘Coulour browne, or rather tawnye,’ and her age was somewhere between twelve and fourteen. She probably was round-faced, with the fore part of her ‘grosse’ and ‘thick’ black hair ‘shaven close,’ and the very long ‘thicker part’ being ‘tied in a pleate hanging down’ to her hips. Her hands almost certainly were ‘pretty.’ Her ‘handsome lymbes,’ breast, ‘slender armes’ and face may well have been cunningly tattooed. And she probably wore a headband or crownlet and copper-decorated beads and earrings, her head and shoulders being covered with red colored powder ‘mixed with the oyle of the walnut, or Beares grease.’ In winter this paint ‘armes (in some measure) against the Cold’ and ‘in Summer doth check the heat’ while helping to defend ‘from the stinging of Muskeetoes which here breed aboundantly, amongst the marish whorts, and fenburies.’

“Her name was Matoaka, but they called her Pocahontas, the appellation possibly being derived from the Algonkian adjective meaning ‘playful, sportive, frolicsome, mischievous, frisky.’

“She was a member of one of a confederacy of some thirty well-organized, thriving agricultural and fishing tribes, who lived in approximately 160 villages widely scattered over much of the lower section of the Chesapeake Bay, and had a total population in the neighborhood of 9,000. And she was one of the many children of Powhatan, the confederacy’s overlord or supreme ‘werowance.'”

Thus begins the late Stuart Brown’s diminutive biography of the legendary Native American princess who saved the life of Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame. Mr. Brown, an attorney and antiquarian bookman by day, devoted much of his spare time to recording everything that could be found out about Pocahontas and her progeny. His biography, entitled Pocahontas, which occupies a focused 36 pages, uses only contemporary or near-contemporary facts pertaining to Pocahontas’s appearance, words, and actions. It is fully documented and features a number of reproductions of engravings made of the princess, her father, and scenes from early 17th-century Virginia. Continue reading…

Runaway indentured servants

Runaway Indentured Servants in the Chesapeake Bay Region

Was your relative one of many runaway indentured servants in the Chesapeake Region? If so, you may have discovered that finding them, or their true identity, can be quite a challenge. This potentially colorful leaf on your family tree is absolutely worth exploring – maybe they came to the New World poor and working for a better life, or maybe as a hardened criminal seeking freedom.

The demand for labor in the colonial period was such that by 1775 an estimated 350,000 to 500,000 indentured persons had been transported to America. The majority of these individuals were indigent, eager for a better life in the New World, and willing to work off the cost of their passage by reimbursing ships’ captains or others by the sweat of their brow. Other servants, especially after England’s Transportation Act of 1718 opened the floodgates for exiled criminals, were in America to work off their prison sentences. This combined labor pool was vital to the economic life of the Middle Colonies, including Pennsylvania, which received a significant population of German servants, also known as redemptioners.

Owing to the vicissitudes of 18th-century life, not all servants served out their full term of, typically, seven or fourteen years. Some “owners” were cruel. Working conditions could be demanding, especially in summer months, for Europeans unaccustomed to the hot, humid climate of the Chesapeake region. The countryside was also wide open, which made flight seem like a plausible option. And, of course, some of the servants were hardened criminals, to whom a labor contract would have seemed like a trifling affair.

Whatever the motivation, runaway servants were not an uncommon phenomenon in the 18th century. One source estimates that between 20-25% of indentured servants fled their masters. From the genealogist’s standpoint, this presents a methodological problem, since it was in the runaway’s best interest to conceal his/her identity after making a successful getaway. In other words, even if the runaway kept the same name, it is quite likely that the link to his original residence in America and to his country of origin would be lost. Lost, that is, unless one can uncover his/her identity in the thousands of runaway ads placed in colonial newspapers by disgruntled “owners.” And this is precisely where the research and publications of Joseph Lee Boyle come in.

Since 2009 Mr. Boyle has compiled four volumes of runaway servant ads for the Chesapeake region. In the process he has combed scores of 18th-century newspapers for references to missing servants. Following three collections of runaway servant ads pertaining to Maryland runaways from 1720 through 1774 (“Given to drinking and whoring”: White Maryland Runaways, 1720-1762, “When Drunk is Very Bold.” White Maryland Runaways, 1763-1769and the award-winning “Drinks hard, and swears much” White Maryland Runaways, 1770-1774), Mr. Boyle’s latest book contains more than a thousand runaway advertisements for the colony of Delaware. “Very impudent when drunk or sober.” Delaware Runaways, 1720-1783 includes descriptions of runaways and criminals living in Delaware, as well as those born or having contacts there. The ads contained references to the runaway’s age, sex, height, place of origin, clothing, occupation, speech, and physical imperfections. In compiling this work, Mr. Boyle consulted twenty-one colonial newspapers from Boston to Maryland, relying on Pennsylvania papers most heavily. In all, this book refers to 2,500 runaways and their masters.

Following are examples of the author’s Delaware runaway transcriptions for the year 1762:


RUN away, the 16th of this Instant, from the Subscriber, living in Dover, Kent County, on Delaware, a Mulattoe Servant Man, named Francis Miller, about 34 Years of Age, about 5 Feet 11 Inches high, slim built, walks loose in his Knees, pretty much pock-broken, and a large Beard: Had on when he went away, A blue Kersey Jacket, lined with ozenbrigs, old Check Shirt, old breeches, good Shoes, milled Stockings, and, it is believed, he stole, and took with him, two Great Coats, one old blue Cloth, the other light coloured. It is supposed he is gone up the Country to one Joseph Cookson’s, living in Lancaster County, near the Head of Pequea. Whoever takes up said Servant, and brings him Home to his Master, shall have the above Reward, and reasonable Charges; or if secured in any goal, so that he may be had again, shall have what the Law allows, paid by THOMAS PARKE.

N .B. All Persons are forbid harbouring or concealing him, as they will answer the fate at their Peril.

The Pennsylvania Gazette, January 28, 1762.

January 28. RUN-away from the Subscriber, living in Brandywine Hundred, New-Castle County, an English Man named John Jones, a thick set Fellow, about 50 Years of Age, long visag’d, wears his own hair of a brownish colour, he has on and carried with him, three brown Coats, one whereof is new, with carved mettle Buttons, likewise a red Jacket and old Buck-skin Breeches, and a good Beaver Hat, likewise three pair of blue Stockings, one pair worsted, the rest of his apparel unknown (and supposed to have taken a watch with him). Whoever takes up said Jones and secures him in any of his Majesty’s Goals in this Province, so that the subscriber man have him, shall be paid the sum of THREE POUNDS, by CALEB PERKINS.

The Pennsylvania Journal, and Weekly Advertiser, January 28, 1762; February 4, 1762. See The Pennsylvania Gazette, January 28. 1762.

Image Credit: Advertisements for runaway indentured servants, Maryland Gazette, May 22, 1755. This image belongs to the Gilder Lehrman Collection. Please visit the Gilder Lehrman Collection of American History here to see this image in its original context.

Post morten photography

Post Mortem Photography – A Tradition of the Victorian Era

The tradition of post mortem photography began around the 1880s as a way to creating a lasting memento of a deceased loved one. As photography was still a relatively new technology, it was very expensive, and sometimes the person remembered in death only appears in this one photograph.

Painfully, many subjects of post mortem photography are children. The subjects are frequently propped up by a device to make them appear life-like, are held in the arms of their parents, or are in chairs or beds with toys or other comfort objects.

Credit: Facebook, POST Mortem Photographie

  Credit: Facebook, POST Mortem Photographie

Post mortem photography, Montreal circa 1880

Montreal, Circa 1880. Image via Pbase by Gregory Sullivan.

Today, on Halloween, these pictures are floating all over Facebook as a nod to our creepy Victorian ancestors. I find these images, especially those of young children and babies, heartbreaking. I cannot imagine the pain of these parents made to sit very still for the photographic process, holding their dead baby to create one final, lasting image.

Post mortem photography

Image via Tumblr

Have you come across these images in your own research? Do you find them creepy, or an incredibly painful image full of love and loss?

Take a look for yourself at some of the following websites:

17 Haunting Post-Mortem Photographs From The 1800s: This Victorian-era mourning tradition is fascinating. Warning: Pictures of dead people ahead.

These 21 Victoria Era Post-Mortem Photographs Are Unsettling. How Was This a Thing?

People In The 1800s Did THIS With Dead Bodies

If you are searching for post mortem photography images, many have curated on Pbase, by Gregory Sullivan, and as part of the Thanatos Archives.

Featured Image Credit: Facebook via Buzzfeed.


Freedmans Village, researching African American Genealogy

African American Genealogy – Finding Your Roots

Editor’s Note: The following piece from our archives by the late Carolyn L. Barkley contains excellent resources and tips for researching African American Genealogy.

Over thirty years have passed since Alex Haley’s Roots captured the imagination of the nation and helped fuel an explosion of interest in genealogical research. During the intervening years, thousands of individuals have begun the journey to discover their past. As they have added to their knowledge, the genealogy “industry” has added exponentially to the richness of the resources available and to the technology that makes possible convenient access to those resources. The media has recognized the widespread interest in genealogy in general, but African American genealogy in particular. Shows such as the PBS series “History Detectives” have showcased the opportunities to learn more about our ancestors and their experiences. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, hosted a series of television programs showcasing genealogical research, and especially the use of genetics in genealogy, in uncovering the roots of celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock. His new book, In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past (Crown, 2009) documents this research while profiling celebrities like May Angelou, Whoopi Goldberg, Tina Turner, and Quincy Jones. Given the continually increasing wealth of resources available to researchers as well as the frequency with which new information is brought to our attention through the media,, now is an extraordinary time to begin researching African American roots.

The African American research process begins like any other:

  •  Gather together your family’s documents, letters, photographs and memories. Organize them using standard genealogical practices and forms. Books such as Val Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007) and George Morgan’s How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy (McGraw/Hill Osborne, 2004) will assist in this process.
  • As you organize your family archive, begin to verify the information in original sources such as births records, marriage licenses, death certificates, wills, deeds and military records. Books such as Elizabeth Petty Bentley’s County Courthouse Book (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., Spring 2009) and Christine Rose’s Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures (CR Publications, 2004) will help you determine where specific records are located. You will also want to check online resources such as Family Search, provided by the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter-day Saints to gain additional clues.

After verifying information gathered from your family and documenting the names, dates and geographical locations you’ve discovered, your next step is to research individuals in each census beginning with the 1930 federal census and moving backward in time, generation by generation. Continue reading…

Whaleback (Ledge) Lighthouse, Kittery, Maine, USA, about 1950.

Lighthouse and Life-Saving Service Records

Editor’s note: This formerly archived post by the late Carolyn L. Barkley explains the historic background of the United States lighthouse system, and how the interrelated management of the lighthouses and life-saving stations is crucial to utilizing records to find your relatives. If your ancestor was a lighthouse keeper or a member of a life-saving station crew, these records are essential to your research. If you have an ancestor who may have been lost at sea, or who may have been a sea captain whose vessel foundered on the rocks in a gale, records exist which may contain detailed specifics of their experiences or the circumstances of their deaths.

The United States Lighthouse Establishment

In 1789 the ninth act passed by the new United States Congress required that the twelve lighthouses, under individual state control during the colonial period, be ceded to the new federal government. The United States Lighthouse Establishment was created to oversee “aids to navigation” and was placed under the aegis of the Treasury Department.

At first, Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, reviewed contracts and appointed keepers, but in 1792 he turned over that responsibility to the Commissioner of the Revenue, where it remained until Albert Gallatin, a close confidant of Thomas Jefferson, became the fourth Secretary of the Treasury in 1801. Following Gallatin’s two terms in office, the responsibility for the Lighthouse Establishment reverted to the Commissioner of the Revenue until 1820, when Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, assumed the responsibility. Local-level administration fell to the various collectors of customs.

By 1822 there were seventy lighthouses. Succeeding years saw a quantum leap to 256 lighthouses by 1842, in addition to thirty light vessels. Throughout the mid-1800s, the Army Corps of Engineers played an increasing role in choosing sites for lighthouses as well as in their design and construction. The quality of service deteriorated, however, to such an extent that by 1851 Congress was forced to investigate conditions at the nation’s many navigational aid facilities. This work resulted in the establishment of a United States Lighthouse Board that operated between 1852 and 1910.  By 1896 lighthouse keepers had become civil service employees and by 1910, there were 11,713 aids to navigation (lighthouses, light ships, buoys, etc.) throughout the country. During that year, Congress abolished the cumbersome Board and authorized the establishment of the Bureau of Lighthouses under the Department of Commerce. The Bureau remained in existence until 1939, when its responsibilities were transferred to the United States Coast Guard. Continue reading…