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John Rolfe

John Rolfe
An 1850s painting of John Rolfe and Pocahontas
Born 1585
Heacham, Norfolk, England
Died 1622
Varina Farms, Virginia
Occupation agriculturalist and colonist
Known for first successful cultivation of tobacco as an export crop in the Colony of Virginia
Religion Christianity
Spouse(s) Sarah Hacker (m. 1608–1610, her death)
Pocahontas (m. 1614–1617, her death)
Jane Pierce (m. 1619–1622, Rolfe's death)
Children Bermuda Rolfe (1609–1610)
Thomas Rolfe (1615–1680)
Elizabeth Rolfe (1620–1635)
Parent(s) John Rolfe, Sr. (father)
Dorothea Mason (mother)

John Rolfe (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.


  • Biography 1
    • Sailing with Third Supply to Virginia 1.1
    • Orinoco tobacco: a cash crop 1.2
    • Pocahontas 1.3
    • Late life, death, heritage 1.4
  • Heritage and legacy 2
  • In popular culture 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • External links 6


Rolfe was born in Heacham, Norfolk, England as the son of John Rolfe and Dorothea Mason, and was baptised on 6 May 1585. At the time, Spain held a virtual monopoly on the lucrative tobacco trade. Most Spanish colonies in the New World were located in southern climates more favourable to tobacco growth than the English settlements, notably Jamestown. As the consumption of tobacco had 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 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.[1]

Sailing with Third Supply to Virginia

A project of the proprietary Virginia Company of London, Jamestown had been established by an initial group of settlers on 14 May 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, carrying Rolfe and his wife, Sarah Hacker.

The Third Supply fleet left England in May 1609 destined for Jamestown with seven large ships, towing two smaller 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, and they 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 his infant daughter, Bermuda Rolfe.

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 supplies from the Third Supply had arrived because the same hurricane that caught the Sea Venture badly affected the rest of the fleet. 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 De La Warr on 10 June 1610 that the abandonment of Jamestown was avoided and the colony survived. After finally settling in—although his first wife, the English-born Sarah Hacker and their child had died prior to his journey to Virginia—Rolfe began his long-delayed work with tobacco.

Orinoco tobacco: a cash crop

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 Spanish 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 in honour 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.[2] The appeal of Orinoco tobacco was in its nicotine, and the conviviality of its use in social situations.[3]

His first harvest of four barrels of tobacco leaf was exported from Virginia to England in March 1614,[4] and soon, Rolfe and others were exporting vast quantities of the new cash crop. 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 along the James River about 30 miles (50 km) upstream from Jamestown, and across the river from Sir Thomas Dale's progressive development at Henricus.


Rolfe (right, standing behind Pocahontas) as portrayed in The Baptism of Pocahontas, 1840, by John Gadsby Chapman

Rolfe married Pocahontas, daughter of the local Native American leader Powhatan on 5 April 1614.[5] A year earlier, Alexander Whitaker had converted Pocahontas to Christianity and renamed her "Rebecca" when she had her baptism. Rolfe agonised over the potential moral repercussions of marrying a "heathen," and wrote a long letter to the governor requesting permission to wed her.

Richard Buck officiated their wedding. Powhatan gave the newlyweds property just across the James River from Jamestown. They never lived on the land, which spanned thousands of acres, and instead lived for two years on Rolfe's plantation, Varina Farms, across the James River from the new community of Henricus. Their son Thomas was born on 30 January 1615.

Their marriage created a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan's tribes for several years; in 1615, Ralph Hamor wrote that "Since the wedding we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powhatan but also with his subjects round about us."[45]

The land gifted by Powhatan (now known as Smith's Fort Plantation, located in Surry County) was willed to Rolfe's son Thomas, who in 1640 sold at least a portion of it to Thomas Warren.[6] Smith's Fort was a secondary Fort to Jamestown, begun in 1609 by John Smith.

John and Rebecca Rolfe travelled to England on the Treasurer, commanded by Lewis Stukley and later by John's brother, Henry Rolfe. John and Tomocomo returned to Virginia.

Late life, death, heritage

In 1619, Rolfe married Jane Pierce, daughter of English colonist Captain William Pierce and Jane Eeles. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1620, who married John Milner of Nansemond, Virginia and died in 1635.

Rolfe died in 1622 after his plantation was destroyed in a Native American attack. It remains unclear whether Rolfe died in the massacre or whether he died as a result of illness.[7]

His widow Jane married Englishman Captain Roger Smith three years later. He was the son of John Smith (no relation to Captain John Smith) and Thomasine Manning.

Rolfe's son with Pocahontas, Thomas, who grew up in England, married Elizabeth Washington in September 1632 at St James's Church in Clerkenwell and they had a daughter Anne in 1633. Elizabeth died shortly after Anne's birth. Thomas returned to Virginia two years later, where he married Jane Poythress.[8][9] Her English parents were Francis Poythress and Alice Payton.[10] Thomas and his second wife had one child, Jane, who married Robert Bolling in 1675 and had a son, John, in 1676. She died later that same year.

Heritage and legacy

  • The strain of tobacco cultivated by 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 on Richmond's Tobacco Row, attest to its popularity. Even almost 400 years later, tobacco figures prominently in Virginia's economy.
  • 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.
  • John Rolfe Drive, in the town of Smithfield in Isle of Wight County, Virginia, connects Battery Park Road with Magruder Road, and is named for Rolfe.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • Rolfe, Iowa, in Pocahontas County, Iowa is named for Rolfe.
  • Rolfe wrote in 1619 of the incidental introduction of African slaves to Virginia from a passing ship, recording that "there came in a Dutch man-of-war that sold us twenty negars" on 31 August of that year.[11][12]
  • In 1961, the Jamestown Foundation of the Commonwealth of Virginia (now the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation) offered a $500 award for "the best historical information" on Rolfe's "appearance and mannerisms".[13]

In popular culture

See also


  1. ^ A Brief History of Jamestown, Virginia
  2. ^ A Brief History of Jamestown, Virginia
  3. ^ Chesapeake Bay Journal: Even stripped of Hollywood hype, Pocahontas remains a legend – September 2000
  4. ^ Love and Hate in Jamestown David Price, 2007, p. 186.
  5. ^ Winkler, Wayne (2005). Walking Toward The Sunset: The Melungeons Of Appalachia. Mercer University Press. p. 42.  
  6. ^ [2] Smith's Fort Plantation
  7. ^ "John Rolfe (1585–1622)",, retrieved 19 February 2011
  8. ^ Snow, Megan (May 2003). "Thomas Rolfe". Historic Jamestowne.  
  9. ^ Pecquet du Bellet, Louise (1907). "Bolling Family". Some prominent Virginia families. Lynchburg, VA: J.P. Bell Co. p. 304. Retrieved 31 August 2011. 
  10. ^ "The Descendants of Pocahontas: An Unclosed Case", by Elizabeth Vann Moore and Richard Slatten, Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, XXIII, no.3, pp.3–16, cited by John Frederick Dorman, Adventurers of Purse and Person, 4th ed., Vol. 3, p.26, fn23-24. Moore and Slatten traced the suggestion that his wife was a Poythress back to a comment by W. G. Stanard in "Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents", Virginia Historical Magazine(I, 1894, 446–447): "His wife is said to have been a Miss Poythress (if so, doubtless a daughter of Francis Poythress." According to Moore and Slatten, Stanard cited as evidence handwritten notes on the flyleaf of a copy of A Complete Collection of All the Laws of Virginia Now in Force Carefully Copied from the Assembled Records (London, 168[?], now in the Library of Virginia. Moore and Slatten state: "Interestingly, Thomas Rolfe here is recorded as married to a 'Miss Payers'. We recall that in John Rolfe's will the name of his third wife is spelt Pyers (Peirce) and that it was John who married a "Jane". Here again a Bolling descendant confused the son with his father. Not recognizing the name 'Payers' as another variant of Peirce, someone searched the records for a name beginning with 'P' and having a 'y' in the first syllable. Francis Poythress lived in adjacent Charles City County and his name ended in s! Stanard wrote, 'His wife is said to have been a Miss Poythress (if so, doubtless a daughter of Francis Poythress).' (VMHB I, 446) Wyndham Robertson, a Bolling descendant, wrote in Pocahontas Alias Mataoke and Her Descendants (Richmond, 1887), 'I adopt "Jane Poythress" (not "Poyers") whom he is stated in the Bolling Memoirs to have married in England.' He added in justification of his charming adoption of an ancestress, ' such name as "Poyers" is anywhere known ... the family of Poythress was already settled in Virginia.' ... The result has been the acceptance of a non-existent personage, 'Jane Poythress', in the Bibles of Virginia genealogy, as the bona fide ancestress of many illustrious Virginians. Who the wife (or wives) of Thomas Rolfe may have been remains an unanswered question."
  11. ^ Lutz, Francis Earle (1957). The Prince George-Hopewell Story. Richmond: Area Historical Committee (Richmond: William Byrd Press), p. 21
  12. ^ Kennedy, Randall (2002). Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. New York: Pantheon. ISBN 978-0-375-42172-3
  13. ^ Press release: What did John Rolfe look like?

External links

  • "John Rolfe's Letter to Sir Thomas Dale", 1614. (Rolfe explains his reasons for marrying Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas.)
  • Living History Associates Ltd. Rolfe Portrayed by Dick Cheatham
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