Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; and gender and sexual orientation.
Touted as the largest and most magnificent exposition of all time, the New York World’s Fair opened at Flushing Meadows in April 1939. In the Court of States, one exhibition was strikingly different from the rest: the Virginia Room, “an island of quiet” amid the fair’s raucous and more sensational attractions. Leslie Cheek, Jr., designer of the Virginia Room, and his team of artists developed a plan for a spacious circular lounge with the visitor’s focus drawn to an ornamental fountain theatrically lit from above and below. The design offered tired fairgoers a place to sit, a chance to enjoy a complimentary glass of ice water served by a white-jacketed waiter, and an array of large photograph albums prepared by the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce.
Taken together, the Virginia Room albums can be thought of as a sprawling infomercial for the state, promoting it as a place not just of historic shrines and natural beauty, but as one of scientific, artistic, and intellectual sophistication and as a modern state of concrete highways, institutions of higher learning, world-class museums, and business-friendly public policies. When the World’s Fair closed, it was estimated that well over a million people had visited the Virginia Room and viewed its photograph collection. The photograph of Rolfe House, known today as Smith’s Fort, was included in the exhibit.
Thomas Rolfe (1615-1680?) was the son of Pocahontas and her English husband, John Rolfe. The marriage of his parents in 1614 was groundbreaking in the fledgling Virginia Colony. Pocahontas was an important figure in the early English settlement of Virginia as she was the daughter of Paramount Chief Powhatan and later acted as emissary for her people representing them both at Jamestown and in England. John Rolfe played an important role in colonial governance, but he is best known for introducing a sweet tasting tobacco to the struggling colony. The strain of tobacco proved to successful and allowed the English colony to prosper.
The birth of Thomas Rolfe in 1615 was no less important. He represented the culmination of years of negotiations and truce agreements between the English and the Powhatan Chiefdom. In 1616, John, Rebecca (as Pocahontas had been christened when she was baptised at Jamestown), and Thomas Rolfe, accompanied by a delegation of Virginia Indians, left for England on what could be considered a promotional tour. In England, they met with Queen Anne, Sir Walter Raleigh, and other notable people to raise money for the Virginia Company of London as well as to recruit potential new colonists. England proved to be a difficult place for the Virginia delegation and they soon began returning home. In 1617, Rebecca and Thomas Rolfe fell ill on the ship that was to return them to Virginia. Before the ship could depart, Rebecca died and was buried in nearby Gravesend. John Rolfe realized Thomas was too sick to make the dangerous Atlantic crossing and he was left in the care of the Rolfe family. Although the plan was for Thomas to be returned to his father, he would not make the crossing until 1635 when he was 20 years old. John Rolfe had died suddenly of indeterminate causes in 1622, but he had ensured his son would inherit thousands of acres of land and Varina plantation, where Thomas was born.
Shortly after arriving in 1635, Thomas Rolfe married Jane Poythress. In 1641, he met with his Powhatan relatives including his great uncle Opechancanough who became Paramount Chief in 1618 after the death of Powhatan, but nothing was recorded of this meeting. In 1646, Thomas Rolfe became a lieutenant in the English military and was given a land grant for his service. In 1650, his only daughter Jane Rolfe was born. Very little documentation of Thomas Rolfe exists after this time and his date of death is unknown.
Smith’s Fort Plantation is located across the James River from Jamestown. The plantation was named for the 1609 fort that John Smith attempted to build but was abandoned due to rot and a rat infestation. The land on which it sits had been given to John Rolfe as part of a dowry for his marriage to Pocahontas and was deeded to Thomas Rolfe. Archaeological surveys of the property have revealed that several structures have existed on the property. The current Smith’s Fort farmhouse was attributed to Rolfe in the 1930s and was referred to as Rolfe House for the World’s Fair, but with more research it has been learned that the house was originally known as the Warren House. It was built by Thomas Warren who had purchased the land from Thomas Rolfe in 1652. It is a classic example of colonial Virginia Georgian style architecture, with a symmetrical appearance and brick construction.
Citation: Photograph of Smith's Fort Farmhouse, Virginia New York World's Fair Commission, 1939. Prints & Photographs, Special Collections, Library of Virginia.
Social Studies: VS.1, VS.2, VS.3, USI.1, USI.3, USI.4, USI.5, VUS.1, VUS.2
Earth Science: ES.7, ES.11
Look at It: look at the photograph. Who do you think might have lived in this house? What features stand out to you?
STEM STAT: Fort Smith was unsuccessful in 1609, but eventually became habitable be the 1650s. What environmental changes took place along the banks of the lower James River in that time? What impact did colonization and plantation farming have on the landscape?
Think About It: Thomas Rolfe left Virginia as a baby and did return until he was 20 years old. He was English and a Virginia Indian. How might that have changed his perspective from those of other Englishmen? Why would he choose to become an Engishman over being a member of the Powhatan Chiefdom?
Social Media Spin: Create a social media post about Thomas Rolfe for an audience of your peers. What information would you include? Why?