About Me
Terms of Use

Maternal Generation I: Elizabeth Hill married William Pinley

Uncle Henry Spelman & Pocahontas

Thomas Spelman’s

Famous Brother,

Henry Spelman

Henry Spelman packed a lot of living into the mere fourteen years of life after his arrival in Virginia. In the process, he may have done more to ensure Virginia’s survival than any other one individual. He was survived by his brother Francis Spelman of Truro, Cornwall, England, and Thomas Spelman of Kecoughtan, Virginia, (p. 17, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Virginia Historical Society, Volume 23, January 1915) who married Hannah Boyle Hill shortly after Henry’s death. Henry Spelman, the flamboyant brother of Hannah’s second husband, first arrived in Virginia aboard The Unity in October of 1609, at the age of 14. By his own account, he came to Virginia voluntarily, “Beinge in displeasuer of my frendes, and desirous to see other cuntryes”. Only two weeks after his arrival, he was sold by Captain John Smith to the Powhatan in exchange for a village. After sometime, Powhatan gave permission for Henry to visit Jamestown, but he eventually chose to return when Powhatan sent for him because of hunger among the English, and at the urging of another child, Thomas Savage who had been given to Powhatan by Captain Newport earlier. One other European child lived with the Powhatan, he was only referred to as Dutchman Samuel in writings. (Relations of Virginia, Spelman). John Smith published that Spelman and the Savage child were not sold, but were left as apprentices to learn the language of the Natives, the natives sending young boys to Jamestown in exchange. (Smith, )

About three weeks after returning to the Powhatan village, the chief used Henry to lure sixteen Englishmen under Captain Ratcliffe into their village for promised trade. A dispute developed between the traders, Ratliffe and all his men were murdered except one escapee and one held hostage.

According to Spelman, who never mentioned Pocahantas in his book, after seeing Powhatan’s deceit and the cruel massacre, Spelman, Thomas Savage, and the Dutch boy Samuel chose to escape with the king of the Potomac. Savage made an excuse to go back and he revealed their escape to Powhatan. The Powhatan overtook them and killed Dutch Samuel with an ax, Spelman fled. Spelman published, “I shifted for my self and gott to the Patomeckes cuntry, with this Kinge Patomecke I lived a year and more.” (Relations, Spelman)

According to John Smith’s General History "Pocahontas the King's daughter saved a boy called Henry Spelman, that lived many years after, by her means, amongst the Patawomekes" [Potomacs]. Spelman’s first hand account never mentioned Pocahontas by name in his writings, whether by simple omission or refusal to name accomplices. By mentioning no assistance in his escape from the Powhatan and arrival at the Potomacs village, his escapades reflect only his own skills and courage. Smith was not present, but heard the story either from the one survivor from Ratcliffe’s mission, or Pocahontas herself, who often visited Smith at Jamestown. It is known that around 1610, Pocahontas married a Potomac native, and went to live there with her husband during the same frame as Henry’s year long stay with King Patomecke.

Lacking factual records, history has convoluted the tales of Pocahantas. Not until 1624 did John Smith write the famous story of his own rescue by the princess, although he ignored the event completely in his four previous books about Jamestown. His tale bears some likeness to the Spelman event, as well as a similar story written about a Spanish settlement. Native historians liken Smith’s ceremony to an adoption or medicine ritual. Some believe that Smith sometimes merged details from various events into his own experience to manipulate his own reputation and legend.

Smith historian, Thomas Fuller noted in 1662, that some of Smith’s tales were "laid at such a distance that they are cheaper credited than confuted."
(Warner, Captain John Smith, Charles Dudley Warner )

“And the subsequent insertion [in 1624] of the name of Pocahontas...adds new and strong presumptions to the belief that Smith invented what is known as the Pocahontas legend.”

According to Henry Spelman’s book, after the slaying of his friend Samuel, a Dutchman, and witnessing the torture and execution of an English officer, John Ratcliffe, Spelman escaped the Powhatan.

“Aided in his escape by Pocahontas, if we are to believe John Smith, Spelman took refuge among the somewhat autonomous Potomacs, ignoring Powhatan's orders to return.”
(Captive Selves, Captivating Others: Strong, page 63)

As he listed no complaints, he was apparently treated well by the Potomacs, until discovered there in 1611 by Ship Captain Samuel Argall. Argall inquired about a European boy named Harry, and King Patomecke sent Henry out to bring the captain to him. Captain Argall paid a ransom of copper to the King, and Henry was allowed to leave with Argall.

Captain Argall transported Henry back to safety in England by late 1611. While still in London, Henry followed family tradition and wrote a book about his adventures, Relation of Virginia, which was not published until 1892.


“To give sum satisfaction to my frends and contentment unto others, which wish well to this viage, and are desirus to heare ye fashions of that cuntrye: I have set doune as well as I can, what I observed in ye time I was amonge them.”

Spelman's own book, Relation of Virginia is prized by historians for its descriptions of Native culture, the color and detail it adds to Jamestown history, although they deem some exploits exaggerated. Written at the age of eighteen, the grammar and spelling in the original manuscript do not reflect the fine education provided other branches of the Spelman family.

Except for writing the manuscript of Relations, little is known about the estimated two years Henry spent in England. One letter written by Sir Henry Spelman indicates his nephew was working with Lord Delaware and Captain Argall in London. While in England, Henry also gave information to Samuel Purchas who interviewed colonists who returned to England as a basis for his own writing about the colony.

By the spring of 1612, his uncle was making great effort to return him to Virginia, inferring in letters that Henry had been employed by Argall while in London, and was anxious to return to Virginia. He chided his son for lack of attention to the task, adding that “cousin Henry should not be left behind”. In May of 1612, Sir Henry writes that Henry is leaving for Virginia with Lord Delaware, but that John should consult Mr. Hackluite in the matter, “so as to avoid any blame from the Baron”. Later, he cancels a request that John should buy two suits of underwear, indicating that Henry’s mother “is going to fit him out”. Sir Henry’s letters repudiate the belief that young Henry was a runaway, at least in 1612 his family packed his bags and expedited his trip. A link to Kingsbury's transcription of these letters from Sir Henry Spelman is provided here, as found in the Library of Virginia. Use the back button to return to this page.

The amazing letters relate the remarkable and redundant efforts by Sir Henry to secure his nephew’s quick exodus from London back to Virginia. At this time, young Henry would have been about sixteen years old, but already the survivor of harrowing experiences and near starvation in Virginia. Sir Henry seems determined to get him out England, writing a total of seven letters to that end within two months. Motives for his enthusiasm are suspicious, perhaps involving titles, money, inheritance or pride. After living among the “savages” in Virginia for over a year, Henry may have acquired personal habits not welcomed by the upper class family, and some sources indicate (without reference) that he was disinherited by the family.

By April of 1612, Henry’s uncle was impatiently trying to arrange his return to Virginia. His uncle’s efforts to arrange Henry’s exodus from London appear superfluous. By this time, Henry’s knowledge of geography, native languages and behavior would have made him an obvious asset to any expedition. Sir Henry expressed surprise about Argall’s request for Henry’s services instead of pride or Sir Henry indicates no reverence, or even awareness of Virginia’s dire need for young Henry’s skills.

It is not clear when Henry returned to Virginia, but since Sir Henry’s last extant letter on this subject was dated to May 9, 1612, and speaks of clothing selected, departure appeared imminent. Captain Argall was back in Virginia before 1613, and Sir Henry’s letters indicate probability that Henry returned with him.

Soon after returning to Virginia, the devious Captain Argall kidnapped Pocahontas. Argall found his way back to the Potomac tribe and learned that she was visiting friends away from the main village. He then bribed a Potomac prince and his wife to coax her to come for an honorary tour of the ship. Once on board the ship, Argall held her as a hostage and allowed the others to leave. The prince and his wife were paid a copper kettle for their betrayal.

History gives all the credit for this infamous scheme to Captain Argall, but he needed an interpreter, a guide, someone trusted by the Potomac to roam their lands. Someone needed to negotiate the prince’s betrayal with cultural sensitivity. In all Virginia there was not a man who better met those requirements than Henry Spelman, whose services Argall had specifically requested before leaving London. It is apt to assume that Henry Spelman was the facilitator of Argall’s entire scheme.

Once back in Jamestown, Argall sent a message to Powhatan that he would release Pocahontas in exchange for some English prisoners, all their English weapons, and food for the colony. Powhatan sent the required food, and released the prisoners, each holding a broken English weapon. When prodded, the King of the Powhatan said he had no more English weapons, and asked that they treat his daughter kindly, making no other attempt to ransom her. Powhatan had many children, Governor Dale had attempted to marry another of his daughters (although he had a wife) but was refused. After a while, her father failing to rescue her, Pocahontas appeared to bond with her captors, and she received instruction in Christianity.

Eventually, Governor Dale took Pocahontas with 150 soldiers into the Powhatan village, and demanded her full ransom. Battle ensued, and Pocahontas was finally allowed to go ashore to her father where she told him she loved John Rolfe and wanted to marry him. Powhatan gave consent, but the cavalier Rolfe took another year to decide he should indeed marry her on April 5, 1614. Rolfe’s letter to Governor Dale explaining the marriage is found at the Virtual Jamestown site. Their marriage led to eight years of tense peace in Virginia, sometimes referred to as "The Peace of Pocahontas".

In 1616, Governor Dale took Pocahontas, John Rolfe, and about ten other Natives aboard the Captain Argall’s The Treasurer (Jefferson Papers) to England on somewhat of a publicity tour. Pocahontas was well received, but after seven months they set sail for Virginia in March of 1617, on board The George, again captained by Samuel Argall. The Treasurer, Argall’s ship of favor was unavailable, and may have been off pirating when the departure plans changed suddenly after Argall was appointed to be the new Governor of Virginia. (

Journeying down the Thames River toward the open sea, Pocahontas became ill. Pocahontas died near the mouth of the Thames, and was carried off the ship at Gravesend and buried there before the ship continued on to Virginia. Supposedly to insure that his son would have a proper upbringing in England, John Rolfe sent Pocahontas's son, Thomas, to be raised by relatives. Thomas Rolfe eventually returned to Virginia, where he inherited land from his father and his mother's family.

Thomas Spelman, age 19, our Hannah’s future second husband and Henry’s younger brother, was on board The George in 1616 or 1617, perhaps with Pocahontas, and it is likely that Henry Spelman was on board as well, as he was Argall's employee. Sir Henry Spelman’s 1612 letter stated “Argall has requested Henry as an aide or companion.” Argall ransomed Henry from the Potomac. 

Captain Argall’s tenure in command of Virginia was not well received, often accused of building his own fortune at the expense of the colony. In 1619, Argall was warned in advance that a new governor, George Yeardley, was being shipped over with a warrant for his arrest. To avoid prosecution for piracy and misuse of Company funds, Argall quickly fled Virginia.

Spelman did not bond with the new Governor Yeardley, and was called to the 1619 House of Burgesses for his lack of respect toward Yeardley. (

In 1619, after being accused of making a disparaging remark to Powhatan about Virginia’s new Governor Yardley, Henry was punished by loss of his rank, and a seven year indentured servant contract as an interpreter for the colony. With Henry's ability to slip back and forth between cultures, his penalty was more insult than injury.

It is not known where he was immediately after his conviction, but Sir Henry received a letter from his nephew Henry Spelman written November 22, 1619 from Toulon, France in which Henry gave his uncle a description of French life. Spelman appears to have slipped easily between the converging cultures, carrying messages and gifts to the Natives, negotiating to buy corn and furs, and ironing out differences that arose. Argall’s ship, The Treasurer was involved in piracy and plunder, and the rising slave trade.

It is unclear if he went to Toulon, France before or after his indenture, but he was soon back in Virginia. Need breeds forgiveness, and by the time of the 1622/3 Massacre, Captain Spelman’s rank had been restored.

According to Smith, Captain Henry Spelman was in the wilderness at the time of the massacre, and was told of the massacre by Native friends, and then allowed to return to Elizabeth City. “Being in a small Barke called The Elizabeth, under the command of Captaine Spilman, at Cekacawone [Chickacoan, later Northumberland County], a Salvage stole aboard them, and told them of the Massacre” After hearing the news, his friendly Natives “contented his desire in trade”, before Spelman “returned to Elizabeths City”.

Smith records that two Virginians were killed on the day of the Massacre ”At Captaine Henry Spilmans house - 2” (Smith, p. 291) They were John Basingthwayte and Walter Shawe (ROVC, III), probable servants.

A year after 1622 massacre, Captain Spelman commanded an expedition of 26 men aboard The Tyger, to negotiate for grain with a far tribe thought to be friendly, but arrived just after an expedition led by Captain Isaac Maddison had killed 40 Natives of the Anacostia tribe after they refused trade. Somewhere along the Potomac, near the mouth of the Anacostia Creek, Spelman conferred with the Natives, but pointed out an informant who had warned him to be wary. The informant was swiftly beheaded in front of Spelman. In spite of that omen, Spelman and 21 of his men went ashore the next morning for trade, but were soon attacked. Natives in swift canoes later overtook the five men he left on the boat, until one of Spelman’s men lit an ordinance. The boom terrified the Natives, and they jumped into the river and swam to shore. The boat weighed anchor, heard a loud commotion, the Natives threw a human head, presumed by all to be Spelman’s, over the bank into the river. The five survivors on the boat quickly sailed away.

All the colonists on shore were killed except Henry Fleet who was held hostage by the Anacostia until ransomed four years later. Fleet lived to be a powerful fur trader with connections on Kent Island to William Claiborne, the Clobery Company and the new colony in Maryland.

In the fray that followed in April of 1623, Henry Spelman, at the age of 28, was beheaded within the perimeter of what would become the American capital, the District of Columbia.

Henry Spelman’s land grant is listed in the Extracts of All the Titles and Estates of Land (Records of the Virginia Company Vol. 4, pages 553-558), sent home by Sir Francis Wyatt, May, 1625, but does not appear as a landowner in the published secondary sources of today.

No land grant survives for Henry Spelman. Arriving in 1609, he should have qualified for Ancient Planter status, but his absences from the colony may have been held against him. His land may have been taken along with his captain’s rank when he became an indentured servant after the dispute with Yeardley in 1619. But, it is known that two men were killed “At Captain Spelman’s House”, ( ROVC, Kingsbury, III, p. 565) and that reference alone indicates that his rank and property were restored before the massacre. Placement on the Corporation lists of 1626 and the Hooker grant indicate Spelman’s land could have been near the Territory of Great Weyanoake. A 1637 Hooker land grant references “Speilman’s place” as a boundary. That would appear to place Spelman’s land on the south bank of the James River, near the confluence of the James River and the Chesapeake Bay.

Many pages of Land Book I are missing, and Henry Spelman’s grant was probably once there, along with Edward Hill’s . Both had original land grants, but each died about a year after the Massacre. Thomas Spelman was made guardian for Elizabeth Hill’s inheritance from her father, there is no record of Thomas Spelman receiving Henry Spelman’s land as inheritance. Those in power may have blocked that because of Henry’s indenture at the time of his death. Thomas Spelman may have gone to England to protest his failure to inherit Henry’s estate.

In the chaos that followed the massacre, no land grant survives for Ancient Planter, Henry Spelman. Though found on Wyatt’s 1625 list, his original land grant was removed from Land Book I. He didn’t make the List of the Living and the Dead (though there is a Henry, listed as “Living” whose last name is not readable under “More at Elizabeth City). He perished before the comprehensive 1624/5 Virginia Muster. The enigmatic Henry Spelman died without issue in April, 1623.

The significance of Henry Spelman’s life is also reflected by the number of colonists who wrote letters home to England about Henry Spelman’s death. Those letters form a moving tribute to the huge role he played in the Virginia colony, and their extreme sense of loss at his death. When the Natives turned on Spelman with such cruelty, many lost their last hope for survival. Our Edward Hill mentioned the loss in his letter cited here, but a search quickly yielded extant letters about Spelman’s death by Peter Arundell, Richard Frethorne, and George Sandys as well.

It is incredible that he maintained working relationships with the various tribes as long as he did with the often desperate, inept, greedy, and corrupt Virginia Company failing to back the deals he brokered.

Apparently, Henry was somewhat of an honest man. When numerous accusations were hurled at him in the House of Burgesses in 1619, he denied all charges except the one statement which constituted treason to the Burgesses. He confessed to Governor Yardley's face that he had told the Powhatan chief “there would come a Governor greater then this that now is in place”, and signed the confession as well, relieving the Burgesses from the necessity of providing a second witness to the treason charge. Yeardley and others present certainly would have executed him, except for the fact that the colony could not have endured without him.

Upon conviction, the Burgesses recorded, “This sentence being read to Spelman he, as one that had in him more of the Savage than of the Christian, muttered certain words to himself neither showing any remorse for his offenses, nor yet any thankfulness to the Assembly for their so favorable censure...”.

In 1617, John Smith, who sold the child Henry to the Powhatan in exchange for a village, wrote a prophetic tribute in his General Historie six years before Henry Spelman’s death.

"Here, as at many other times, we are beholden to Capt. Henry Spilman, an interpreter, a gentleman that lived long time in this country, and sometimes a prisoner among the Salvages, and done much good service though but badly rewarded."

History has overlooked the essence of Henry Spelman. Although occasionally referred to in a Pocahontas recant, his contributions are scattered phrases buried in the larger story of the survivors. The knighted Spelmans, authors, lawyers, antiquarians, spent no words on their haphazard cousin. Genealogists glance but soon progress in search of their own heritage, as Henry died tragically without issue. Even his land grant disappeared from the Land Book, sold to someone’s profit. His own book was laid aside and not published until nearly 300 years after his death, and then demeaned for the grammar.

Henry Spelman, Gentleman, Captain, adventurer, interpreter, diplomat, explorer, author, trapper, pioneer, businessman, black sheep, sailor, aristocrat, spy, woodsman, hostage, runaway, kidnapper, pirate, guide, convicted criminal, politician, mariner, big brother and “family reject”, enigma, died without issue on April 3, 1623 at the age of 28. 

Henry Spelman packed a lot of living into the mere fourteen years after his arrival in Virginia. In the process, he may have done more to ensure Virginia’s survival than any other one individual. He was survived by his brother Francis Spelman of Truro, Cornwall, England, and  Thomas Spelman of Kecoughtan, Virginia, who married Hannah Boyle Hill shortly after Henry’s death.