John Ratcliffe (governor)

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John Ratcliffe (died in December 1609) was captain of the Discovery, one of three ships that sailed from England on December 19, 1606, to Virginia, to found a colony, arriving May 13, 1607. He later became the second president of the colony which later became Jamestown. He was killed by the Powhatan Indians when he was going to trade with them.


Not much is known about John Ratcliffe's early life. Many people say he used the alias John Sicklemore, but this was never confirmed. He served as a seaman before coming to Virginia, and he may be the Captain Ratcliffe taken prisoner With Sir Henry Cray and Captain Pigott at MulHeim in 1605.

John Ratcliffe commanded the Discovery and became a councilor of the Jamestown Colony. The discovery was the smallest of all three ships. It only had a crew of 21 men. He became president of the colony upon the deposition of Edward Maria Wingfield on September 10, 1607. Ratcliffe was a wise and insightful president but he fell out of favor with many colonist after enlisting men to build a governor's house. Many colonist also disagreed with how he handled trade with the natives and how he performed during the food shortages during the summer of 1608. Ratcliffe his himself was removed in July 1608, and was succeeded by Matthew Scrivener. During the administration of George Percy, Ratcliffe was sent in October, 1609 to build a fort at Old Point Comfort, which was named "Algenourne Fort" after one of president Percy's ancestors. [1]

Ratcliffe was elected president and asked John Smith to organize work details and expeditions to trade with Native Americans. By January 1608, only 40 colonists were alive and Ratcliffe and the Council planned to return to England on the Discovery. Ratcliffe's overgenerous trading provoked Smith to complain that they would soon run out of items to trade.

Ratcliffe accompanied Christopher Newport when he sailed from Virginia in 1608. He commanded the Diamond, one of the ships in the fleet of Sir Thomas Gates.[1]

In December 1609, he traveled off with his 14 fellow men to trade with the Native Americans for food. It is said that he was led into an ambush and killed, along with 14 of his men, at Werowocomoco on the York River.[1]

There is documented evidence in Beaufort County, North Carolina of a John Ratcliff owning hundreds of acres of land which are documented to be given out only to the colonists. The colonists from Roanoke and Jamestown were the only English-Europeans in North Carolina in the 17th century. It is believed that every man from Roanoke was killed by the Indians leaving only the colonists from Jamestown to take ownership over the land.

Although John Ratcliffe was a very popular name during Jamestown's first years, there were only two that arrived. The John Ratcliffe that was not suspected to have been killed can be traced back to the northern Virginia area. This John Ratcliffe that was supposed to have been killed by the Native Americans is the most likely grantee of this land. It is possible that there was some other man by this name who claimed the North Carolina land who was not on the ship records at Jamestown, however, it is not probable.

Documented history by an eyewitness[edit]

The story of Captain Ratcliffe was documented in an eyewitness account that is included in The Jamestown Adventure: Accounts of the Virginia Colony, 1605-1614 (Real Voices, Real History), edited by Ed Southern.

...when the sly old King espied a fitting time, cut them all off, only surprised Captain Ratcliffe alive, who he caused to be bound unto a tree naked with a fire before, and by women his flesh was scraped from his bones with mussel shells, and, before his face, thrown into the fire, and so for want of circumspection miserably perished.

In popular culture[edit]

Ratcliffe was portrayed in Disney's Pocahontas as Governor Ratcliffe, a greedy and ruthlessly ambitious man who was the main antagonist. His character believes that the Powhatan Indians are very barbaric in nature and have hidden gold near the outskirts of Virginia, and he wants to battle the Indians for them, despite the fact that there was never any gold in Virginia and that the Indians have their own type of society. Here, he was voiced by David Ogden Stiers. In this adaptation, he is accompanied by the dog Percy (this name derived from George Percy) and by his servant Wiggins. He also appeared in the straight-to-video sequel Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, where he plans to dupe King James I into allowing him into sending a large navy armada to initiate a genocide against Powhatans by attempting to sabotage the diplomatic meetings between Pocahontas and the king. In reality, Ratcliffe was a dedicated countryman and captain and without his efforts Jamestown wouldn't have been successful. He stressed the importance of trade and peace with the natives, not ruthlessness and barbarity. This is just one of multiple historical inaccuracies in the film.


  1. ^ a b c Tyler, Lyon Gardiner, ed. (1915). Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography, Vol. I, pp. 33–34. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company.


Government offices
Preceded by
Edward Maria Wingfield
Colonial Governor of Virginia
Succeeded by
Matthew Scrivener