ROLLE, Denys (?1725-97), of Stevenstone, Devon
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Family and Education
b. ?1725, 4th s. of John Rolle, M.P., of Stevenstone, by Isabelle Charlotte, da. of Sir William Walter, 2nd Bt. of Sarsden, Oxon., and bro. of John Rolle Walter. educ. New Coll. Oxf. 19 Jan. 1742, aged 16. m. Anne, da. of Arthur Chichester of Hall, Devon, 3s. 3da. suc. bro. 30 Nov. 1779.
In 1761 Rolle contested Barnstaple and topped the poll. He appears in the list of those voting against the peace preliminaries, 9 and 10 Dec. 1762, printed in the History of the Late Minority, and in Bute’s list, but not in those drawn up for Newcastle. He voted in Opposition on general warrants, February 1764, and was listed by Newcastle as a ‘sure friend’, 10 May 1764.
In May 1764 he obtained a grant of 20,000 acres at St. Mark’s in East Florida with directions to settle 200 white persons in 10 years; and on 10 June, accompanied by 14 settlers, embarked for America. His work there, much rather than Barnstaple or national politics, henceforth engaged his attention. He landed at Charlestown on 12 Aug., and went to St. Augustine in East Florida; but ‘the rainy season at the Equinox commencing, and all inquiries concerning St. Mark’s furnishing no knowledge’1 (no one as yet had done the journey of ‘240 miles through a country inhabited by Indians’), he felt he could not risk the lives of his settlers on such an undertaking. Instead he decided on an area nearer St. Augustine, on St. John’s river. The governor, James Grant, declared he would ‘make a strong representation to the Board of Trade against him for altering his intention’, but, forced to admit that Rolle’s grant enabled him to ‘set down in any part of the province’, agreed to his going to Picola fort about 25 miles west of St. Augustine. The place proving unsatisfactory, he and his settlers continued to another about 25 miles above Picola—‘by this means a path was struck out from St. Augustine to the most valuable lands on St. John’s river.’ They were now in the heart of Indian country, ‘seated at between 30 and 40 miles from the protection of Government’. ‘As soon as I heard of the Indians being in the neighbourhood’, he wrote, ‘I waited on some of the chiefs, and obtained their permission to remain in the place I set down on.’ He promised them a conference on land settlement with the governor, agreed to limit his plantation till that took place, and declared that if they would ‘permit the Great King’s people to settle, they would find him always friendly, and endeavouring to be of service to them; but if it was not consented to at that conference ... he would burn up his huts and go away with all his people’. ‘I supposed humanity—I found it’, and he had the ‘warriors or head-men’ to dine at his table, the others he sent provisions to, while they ‘often hunted for him at his request, sometimes brought him presents of venison, honey, bear-skins, sieves’. He was anxious to encourage trade by barter; spent much time teaching English and the method of weights and measures, and ‘instilling the highest notions of the English power from the conquests of the late war, of their justice and generosity from the late peace ... He found [the Indians] his friends when intoxicated with liquor, as well as when sober; he found a respect in both situations, which must proceed from the heart.’ They called him ‘the Squire’, a name so ‘perfectly known through the Indian nation that my own person would have a safe conduct throughout their country unattended, unarmed. My conversation by signs alone, under that name, would convey me everywhere.’
He had, however, difficulty in retaining settlers at such a distance from the nearest fort, and claimed that they were enticed away or abducted, but he could get no satisfaction from Governor Grant, with whom his relations were increasingly acrimonious. He claimed that Grant obstructed his attempts to fix the boundaries of his property, did nothing to arrange the necessary conference with the Indians, whom he stirred up by gifts of rum, and refused ‘to encourage settlements ... at a place where Indians were likely to come over the river on account of its narrowness’. Consequently Rolle felt his position to be very uncertain, and feared he might be prosecuted ‘for settling on the King’s land without leave’. His request for additional grants of land was refused by the governor. Without land to offer, Rolle believed that the peopling of the colony with whites would be impossible, and feared it would be overrun by negroes, brought in by planters from other parts of America. ‘Under such difficulties’, he wrote to Grant, 9 Oct. 1765, he ‘could not but withdraw and hasten to England’.
Whatever may be the consequence I leave the settlers and plantation I made with white people at a great expense, an unexpected good crop of rice, corn, pulse and cotton, fit for gathering in, and all necessaries of life in the increase, the earnest of a future prosperity, the Indian friendship cemented, from which nothing but the sinister motives of others and the withdrawing your Excellency’s protection can now incline to recede.
He apparently left for England in October 1765, and on his arrival there, in a very long and detailed petition to the Board of Trade, ‘praying such relief as ... shall seem meet’, he wrote:
Though your petitioner has shown the greatest desire of settling, with the most beneficial views to the province, the establishing a town of artificers in the heart of the province, provision for the education of children, and the cultivation of Christianity free from enthusiasm; the civilization of Indians, the fidelity of slaves, preserved on principle; a library of agriculture, botany, gardening, mechanics, and of such learning as appear more peculiarly adapted to the American planter; and above all, the strengthening this frontier province of East Florida against any enemy at a future time by well stocking it with white inhabitants. To such a settler who vainly imagines such things, forms such projects, but who was certainly at the expense of this undertaking, not disagreeable perhaps, to the views of Government at home, the face of the executive part of Government on the colony was set against.
In England Rolle recruited more colonists, and on 1 Sept. 1766 wrote: ‘I have chartered a ship, and am now going over with about fifty more settlers to visit my plantation, to give the necessary directions for its progress.’ He was less successful in his petitions for additional land grants which were dismissed by the Privy Council. But Lord Shelburne wrote to Governor Grant, 11 Dec. 1766: ‘I must recommend to you in a very particular manner so bold and useful a colonist as Denys Rolle, Esq.’ Grant replied on 27 June 1767: ‘Denys Rolle Esquire, who is here for the second time, is as much undetermined as when he first arrived in September 1764—an acre of land had not then been disposed of, and yet he could not fix though the province was open to his choice.’ Grant favoured development of plantations by negro labour and added:
Mr. Rolle labours hard with his own hands, but he has nobody to assist him, in a penurious way he trifles away a great deal of money, and has nothing to show for it; he is impatient of advice, and thinks every man his enemy who differs in opinion with him, ’tis therefore impossible to put him or keep him right, and if he goes on as he has done he will undoubtedly ruin himself without being of the least use to the province, where he has more disputes, differences, quarrels and grievances than all the other inhabitants.
Rolle returned to England in January 1768, and again complained to the Board of Trade about his treatment in Florida. In reply, Grant wrote to Lord Hillsborough, 13 Aug. 1768:
Mr. Rolle has met with no unnecessary difficulties or improper obstructions in locating his land, but on the contrary every facility which was in my power to give him, for I had heard and seen enough of Mr. Rolle at London to wish most anxiously to get him off my hands as soon as possible, after his arrival here ...
The delay of location therefore, my Lord, can only be imputed to Mr. Rolle’s suspicious and litigious disposition, for an unhappy jealousy in his temper is the source of all his grievances, which exist nowhere but in his imagination.2
In 1768 Rolle was re-elected for Barnstaple, together with John Clevland, who wrote to Thomas Pelham:3 ‘I have taken place of my fellow Member [presumably at the head of the poll] who seemed very sensible of my assistance in bringing him into Parliament.’ When present, Rolle voted with the Opposition, but apparently never spoke in the House. He was defeated at the general election of 1774. According to his son, John Rolle, a court candidate was ‘sent down to oppose him, and in consequence of the great influence of the Crown against him he lost his election’.4 But in August 1774 John Clevland had written to Pelham: ‘My brother Member gives himself no trouble and don’t keep up his interest.’5
In a petition of 10 Sept. 1783 Rolle asked for a grant in the Bahamas in compensation for his losses in Florida of property worth ‘on the very lowest estimation £28,488’.6 He claimed to have ‘experienced the greatest distresses of both body and mind of any gentleman who ever engaged in undertakings of this kind’. He was apparently the only Member during this period with practical experience of settlement. On 24 Oct. 1783 he asked Lord Stormont to arrange the removal of his cattle to the Bahamas, and he was still there in May 1797.7
He died in June 1797.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Mary M. Drummond
- 1. All quotations unless otherwise stated are from The Humble Petition of Denys Rolle (1765), and his Extract from an Account of East Florida.
- 2. CO5/548/243, 337-8; CO5/549/265.
- 3. Add. 33088, f. 217.
- 4. Almon, xvii. 520.
- 5. Add. 33090, f. 105.
- 6. APC Col. vi. 609-12.
- 7. Rolle to Pitt 4 May 1797, Chatham mss.