John Rolfe played a pivotal role in the early development of the American colonies. His success as a farmer had significant financial impact, and his marriage to Pocahontas solidified shaky relations with local Indians for several years. While Rolfe was not a famous figure of his time, his life and work helped shape the future of the American colonies in many ways.
Rolfe was born in the spring of 1585 in Heacham, Norfolk, England. He enjoyed a typical childhood and grew into adulthood in England. During this period, most tobacco consumed in England came from Spain. With New World colonies producing the majority of tobacco, the trade balance between England and Spain significantly favored the Spanish. Rolfe was among a number of English businessmen who saw the benefits of growing tobacco near the new English colony of Jamestown.
Voyage to Jamestown
Rolfe managed to obtain seeds from a popular strain of tobacco to take with him to the colony at Jamestown. The source of the seeds is unknown as the Spanish had imposed a death penalty on anyone selling seeds to a non-Spaniard. However, Rolfe planned his move to Jamestown while in possession of the seeds and with a plan to begin growing the crop in the English colony.
Rolfe booked passage for himself and his wife with the Virginia Company of London aboard the Sea Venture. Part of the planned third supply voyage to Jamestown, the Sea Venture was part of a larger fleet bound to the colony with additional settlers and supplies. The ship with Rolfe and his wife aboard departed England in May 1609, bound for Jamestown.
During the crossing, the fleet became separated after experiencing a large storm that lasted for several days. The Sea Venture began taking on water and Sir George Somers, Admiral of the Virginia Company, deliberately drove the ship onto reefs off the coast of Bermuda to prevent it from sinking. The survivors aboard the Sea Venture spent approximately ten months in Bermuda and built two smaller ships hoping to continue their voyage to Jamestown. Unfortunately, not all survived the time in Bermuda, including Rolfe’s wife and infant daughter.
In May 1610, the two smaller ships set sail for Jamestown, leaving a few settlers behind to maintain England’s claim to Bermuda. Rolfe was aboard one of these ships and continued his voyage to Jamestown. When the ships arrived at Jamestown, they found the colony decimated and the remaining settlers in poor condition. Between the arrival of the ships carrying the survivors from the Sea Venture and an additional relief fleet from England, the colony survived.
Success with Tobacco
While tobacco native to Virginia had been exported to England in the past, it was not a popular product. English consumers preferred sweeter strains from further south, all of which was imported by Spain. Rolfe hoped to change this by growing a tobacco strain from Trinidad in Virginia. With the seeds he brought with him, Rolfe successfully cultivated a sweeter strain of tobacco in Virginia. This strain, which he named Orinoco, became a popular product in England and helped make the Virginia Company profitable.
Following Rolfe’s success, he and other farmers quickly began exporting significant amounts back to England. As a result, numerous plantations sprang up along the banks of the James River where wharfs made it easy to load ships with tobacco. Rolfe himself continued to grow tobacco on his own plantation, Varina Farms, across the river from Henricus.
While Rolfe continued to work with his crops, Pocahontas was being held captive across the river at Henricus. She was treated well and was provided opportunities to improve her English and learn about Christianity. During this time, she and Rolfe met. He later asked for and received permission to marry her. On April 5, 1614, Rolfe wed Pocahontas in a Christian ceremony and the newlyweds lived at Varina Farms for two years where their son was born.
Following their marriage, the Virginia Company began laying plans to take Pocahontas to London to visit. One of the goals of the company was the conversion of Indians to Christianity and her conversion and subsequent marriage to Rolfe was considered a success story. In 1616, the Rolfes took their infant son and spent several months in London. During this time, they spent time with Rolfe’s family in addition to attending numerous social events where Pocahontas was received like visiting royalty.
Unfortunately, when the Rolfe family began their journey home to Virginia, Pocahontas became deathly ill. She did not survive her illness and was buried in England. Their son, Thomas, survived and remained in England while John Rolfe returned to his plantation in Virginia.
Return to Virginia
Rolfe returned to Virginia and continued his work with tobacco exports. After returning to his plantation, he later married Jane Pierce and the couple had a daughter named Elizabeth. In 1622, Rolfe died following an Indian attack on his plantation. It is uncertain whether he was killed by Indians or died from illness after the attack.
Rolfe’s heritage and legacy was considerable. Many prominent figures in American history trace their genealogy back to John Rolfe. Thanks to his marriage to Pocahontas and their son, several “first families” of Virginia have roots descending from Rolfe and Pocahontas. Centuries later, Rolfe’s influence is still seen in Virginia in the numerous roads, cities, and schools named after him.
Perhaps even more important, his success with tobacco generated a cash crop that made the Virginia Company and the Jamestown settlement profitable. In fact, his strain of tobacco became a mainstay of the Virginia economy for generations. Even today, tobacco is a significant part of Virginia agriculture. His marriage to Pocahontas calmed relations between the local Indians and the colonists for several years, giving the settlers time to establish a stronger presence in Virginia. While the peace did not last, it was critical for the long-term survival and success of the colony.
Rolfe’s influence on the developing colonies was significant. Through his life and work, he developed a financial foundation serving the colony for generations to come. Through his marriage to Pocahontas, he helped establish a period of peace critical to the development of the growing colony. While overshadowed by the legend of Pocahontas, Rolfe had an even greater influence on Virginia, which has lasted for centuries.