John Rolfe (c. 1585 – 1622) was one of the early English settlers of North America. He is credited with the first successful cultivation of tobacco as an export crop in the Colony of Virginia and is known as the husband of Pocahontas, daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Confederacy. The strain of tobacco cultivated by John Rolfe was the export cash crop that helped make the Virginia Colony profitable. It was the mainstay of the farming plantations for generations. Huge warehouses, such as those which were built on Richmond's Tobacco Row, attest to its popularity. Nearly 400 years later, tobacco figures prominently in Virginia's economy. Through Rolfe and Walter Raleigh, Europeans took a sacred plant and turned tobacco into to multi-billion dollar global addiction.
Rolfe's marriage to Pocahontas was also significant. The union helped to bridge the racial divide between European settlers and indigenous Americans in the area. It allowed for better relations between the two peoples and afforded the former the ability to establish and expand themselves in the new land. Sadly, the respectful attitude exhibited towards the indigenous population by such pioneer settlers as Rolfe did not survive. After the American Revolution and especially when the drive toward Manifest Destiny started westward, relationships deteriorated, with many native tribes being forced off their ancestral land, despite the official policy of the United States government that native lands should be purchased and not appropriated.
Rolfe was born in Heacham, Norfolk, England, as the son of John Rolfe and Dorothea Mason, and was baptized on May 6, 1585. He was a twin. At the time, Spain held a virtual monopoly on the lucrative tobacco trade. Spanish colonies in the New World were located in southern climates more favorable to tobacco growth than the English settlements, notably Jamestown. As the consumption of tobacco increased, the balance of trade between England and Spain began to be seriously affected. Rolfe was one of a number of businessmen who saw the opportunity to undercut Spanish imports by growing tobacco in England's new colony at Jamestown, in Virginia. Rolfe had somehow obtained seeds to take with him from a special popular strain then being grown in Trinidad and South America, even though Spain had declared a penalty of death to anyone selling such seeds to a non-Spaniard.
A project of the proprietary Virginia Company of London, Jamestown had been established by an initial group of settlers on May 14, 1607. This colony proved as troubled as earlier English settlements, and after two return trips with supplies by Christopher Newport arrived in 1608, another larger than ever relief fleet was dispatched in 1609, carrying hundreds of new settlers and supplies across the Atlantic. Heading the Third Supply fleet was the new flagship of the Virginia Company, the Sea Venture, on which Rolfe, his wife, and their small child embarked.
The Third Supply fleet left England in May of 1609, destined for Jamestown with seven large ships, towing two smaller pinnaces. In the southern Atlantic Ocean, they encountered a three day-long storm, thought to have been a severe hurricane. The ships of the fleet became separated. The new Sea Venture, whose caulking had not cured, was taking on water faster than it could be bailed. The Admiral of the Company, Sir George Somers, took the helm and the ship was deliberately driven onto the reefs of Bermuda to prevent its foundering. All aboard, 150 passengers and crew, and 1 dog, survived. Most remained for ten months in Bermuda, subsequently also known as The Somers Isles, while they built two small ships to continue the voyage to Jamestown. A number of passengers and crew, however, did not complete this journey. Some had died or been killed, lost at sea (the Sea Venture's long boat had been fitted with a sail, and several men sent to take word to Jamestown were never heard from again), or left behind to maintain England's claim to Bermuda. Because of this, although the Virginia Company's charter was not extended to Bermuda until 1612, the Colony at Bermuda dates its settlement from 1609. Among those left buried in Bermuda were Rolfe's wife and child.
In May 1610, the two newly-constructed ships set sail from Bermuda, with 142 castaways on board, including Rolfe, Admiral Somers, Stephen Hopkins and Sir Thomas Gates. On arrival at Jamestown, they found the Virginia Colony almost destroyed by famine and disease during what has become known as the Starving Time. Very few of the supplies from the Third Supply had arrived (the same hurricane which caught the Sea Venture had also badly affected the rest of the fleet), and only 60 settlers remained alive. It was only through the arrival of the two small ships from Bermuda, and the arrival of another relief fleet commanded by Lord Delaware, on June 10, 1610, that the abandonment of Jamestown was avoided and the colony was able to survive. After finally settling in, although his first wife and child had died, Rolfe began his long-delayed work with tobacco.
In competing with Spain for European markets, there was another problem beside the warmer climates the Spanish settlements enjoyed. The native tobacco from Virginia was not liked by the English settlers, nor did it appeal to the market in England. However, Rolfe wanted to introduce sweeter strains from Trinidad, using the hard-to-obtain seeds he brought with him. In 1611, Rolfe is credited with being the first to commercially cultivate Nicotiana tabacum tobacco plants in North America; export of this sweeter tobacco beginning in 1612, helped turn the Virginia Colony into a profitable venture. Rolfe named his Virginia-grown strain of the tobacco "Orinoco," possibly on honor of tobacco-popularizer Sir Walter Raleigh's expeditions in the 1580s up the Orinoco River in Guiana in search of the legendary City of Gold, El Dorado. The appeal of Orinoco tobacco was in its nicotine, and the conviviality of its use in social situations.
Soon, Rolfe and others were exporting substantial quantities of the new cash crop, and new plantations began growing along the James River, where export shipments could use wharfs along the river. In 1612, Rolfe established Varina Farms, a plantation on the James River about 30 miles upstream from the Jamestown Settlement, and across the river from Sir Thomas Dale's progressive development at Henricus.
In 1614, Rolfe married Pocahontas, daughter of the local Native American leader Chief Powhatan. Her father approved of his daughter's marriage to the Englishman. Chief Powhatan gave the newlyweds property that included a small brick house just across the James River from Jamestown, which was used as a home or cottage by Pocahontas and John Rolfe when they were first married. Today that location is known as Fort Smith, and is located in Surry County.
When suitable quarters were built, the estate at Varina Farms became the permanent home of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, and served as such for several years following their marriage. Varina Farms was the birthplace of their son, Thomas Rolfe. Rolfe's plantation at Varina Farms was named for a mild variety of tobacco from Spain which was similar to the strains Rolfe had successfully introduced.
On what would be called a "public relations trip" for the Virginia Company in modern terminology, Pocahontas and Rolfe traveled to England in 1616, with their baby son, where the young woman was widely received as visiting royalty. However, just as they were preparing to return to Virginia, she became ill and died. Their young son, Thomas Rolfe, survived, and stayed in England when his father returned to the colony minus his second wife and their young son.
In 1619, Rolfe married Jane Pierce. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1620. She died in 1635, at the age of 15.
John Rolfe died suddenly in 1622, but it is unknown in what manner. He may have been killed by the Powhatan Confederacy during the Indian Massacre of 1622, or at another time during that year of warfare between the colonists and the tribes. Alternatively, some nonfiction books assert that he died of an illness.
Thomas Rolfe, the son of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, later returned to Virginia, where he was accepted by both the Powhatans and the English settlers. He married an English settler, and through their children, many First Families of Virginia trace their roots to both an English and Native American heritage.
The strain of tobacco cultivated by John Rolfe was the export cash crop that helped make the Virginia Colony profitable. It was the mainstay of the farming plantations for generations. Huge warehouses such as those which were built on Richmond's Tobacco Row attest to its popularity. Even almost 400 years later, tobacco figures prominently in Virginia's economy.
Rolfe's marriage to Pocahontas was also significant. The union helped to bridge the racial divide between European settlers and indigenous Americans in the area. It allowed for better relations between the two peoples and afforded the former the ability to establish and expand themselves in the new land.
In eastern Virginia, State Route 31 is named the John Rolfe Highway. It links Williamsburg with Jamestown, the southern entrance to the Colonial Parkway, and via the Jamestown Ferry leads to the rich farming area of Surry County and Sussex County, ending in Wakefield, Virginia.
The abandoned corridor planned for State Route 288 in western Henrico County became a connector street, rather than a limited-access highway. It was named the John Rolfe Parkway.
John Rolfe Middle School, in Henrico County, Virginia, one of Virginia's eight original shires of 1634, is named for him. Varina magisterial district in Henrico County is named for Rolfe's Varina Farms plantation, where the tiny village was also the first county seat (from 1634 to 1752).
Rolfe, Iowa, in Pocahontas County, Iowa, is named for John Rolfe.
Rolfe appears in the 2005, film The New World, in which he is played by Christian Bale. In the cartoon, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World he was voiced by Billy Zane. In S.M. Stirling's novel Conquistador, a fictional descendant and namesake of Rolfe founds a country called "New Virginia" after opening a door between dimensions to a world where Europeans never discovered North America.
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