John Ratcliffe (governor)

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John Ratcliffe (1549 – December 1609) was captain of the Discovery, one of three ships that sailed from England on 19 December 1606 to Virginia to found a colony, arriving 26 April 1607. He later became the second president of the colony which later became Jamestown. He was killed by the Pamunkey Native Americans when he was going to trade with them in 1609.


Ratcliffe was born in Lancashire. Many people say he used the alias John Sicklemore, but this was never confirmed. He served as a seaman before going to Virginia, and he may be the Captain Ratcliffe taken prisoner with Sir Henry Cray and Captain Pigott at Mulheim in 1605.

Virginia colony[edit]

Ratcliffe commanded the Discovery and became a councillor of the Jamestown Colony. The Discovery was the smallest of all three ships; it had a crew of only 21 men. He became president of the colony upon the deposition of Edward Maria Wingfield on 10 September 1607. Ratcliffe fell out of favour with many colonists after enlisting men to build a governor's house. Many colonists also disagreed with how he handled trade with the natives and how he performed during the food shortages during the summer of 1608. Ratcliffe was removed in July 1608 and 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 Percy's ancestors.[1]

Ratcliffe worked with explorer John Smith to remove Edward Wingfield from the presidency because he was hiding food for himself that the colony needed. Ratcliffe was elected president and asked Smith to organise 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 left office (either by resignation or deposition) in July 1608, two months before the end of his term. At that point, Ratcliffe had lost the faith of the colonists, who accused him of hoarding rations (recent discoveries say that he was hoarding the rations for his sick children). The colonists were also enraged that as they were sick and dying, Ratcliffe ordered they build a capitol in the woods. The colonists dubbed the project "Ratcliffe's Palace." Ratcliffe accompanied Christopher Newport when he sailed from Virginia in 1608. In May 1609, he commanded the Diamond, one of the ships in the Third Supply fleet of Sir Thomas Gates.[1]


In December 1609, Ratcliffe and 14 fellow colonists were invited to a gathering with the tribe of Powhatan Indians. The Powhatans promised the starving colonists would be given corn, but it was a trap. The colonists were ambushed. Ratcliffe suffered a particularly gruesome fate: he was tied to a stake in front of a fire. Women removed the skin from his entire body with mussel shells and tossed the pieces into the flame as he watched. They skinned his face last and finally burned him at the stake. This story 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]

In Disney's Pocahontas (1995), Ratcliffe was portrayed as a greedy and ruthlessly ambitious man, and the film's main antagonist. His character believes that the Powhatan tribe is very barbaric in nature and have hidden gold near the outskirts of Virginia, and he wants to battle the Native Americans for them, despite the fact that there was never any gold in Virginia and that the tribe has their own type of society. Here, he was voiced by David Ogden Stiers. In this adaptation, he is accompanied by the pug Percy (this name derived from the English colonist George Percy) and by his servant Wiggins. He also appeared in the direct-to-video sequel Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998), 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. He is finally exposed for his incompetence and treachery and is imprisoned by King James.


  1. ^ a b 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