March 22, 1622
Virginia colonist, tobacco planter
" . . . as pleasant, sweet, and strong . . . as any under the sunne."
John Rolfe is perhaps best known today as the Jamestown colonist who married Pocahontas (see entry), the Powhatan "princess," in order to seal an alliance between English settlers and the Powhatan tribe. Yet Rolfe had an even greater impact on Virginia. In 1612, two years after he arrived in the colony, he perfected a strain of tobacco for export to England. (Tobacco is a broad-leaf plant that is grown in warm climates. In the seventeenth century it was harvested, dried, and shredded for use in smoking in pipes. Native Americans had long been using tobacco in this manner. Today tobacco is also rolled in small, thin pieces of paper to make cigarettes.) Soon tobacco became a staple Virginia product as well as the first profitable crop to be grown on the mainland of North America. Rolfe's success resulted in a booming export business and laid the foundation for the trading policies of the British Crown (monarchy) in America. His experiments with tobacco crops also brought about profound economic and social changes that affected both the Virginia colonists and their Powhatan neighbors.
Perfects tobacco strain
John Rolfe was born in May 1585, in Norfolk, England, the son of John and Dorothea (Mason) Rolfe. He had a twin brother, Eustacius, who died in childhood. Little is known about Rolfe's life in England, except that he married in 1608. The following year he and his wife sailed for Virginia, and during the voyage their ship wrecked in the Bermuda islands in the West Indies. While in the Bermudas, Rolfe's wife gave birth to a daughter who died in infancy. Tragically, Rolfe's wife died shortly after the couple arrived in Virginia, in 1610. Not long after his arrival Rolfe realized that the colony was in trouble. The problems had begun at the outset, when the Virginia Company, led by John Smith (see entry) and others, first came ashore in 1607. Most members of the group were English gentlemen who sought quick wealth in Virginia. Moreover, they were all single—no women came with the earliest colonists—and they were unaccustomed to working for a living. Within a year, poor planning and lack of discipline led to the deaths of 67 of the original 105 settlers. The high mortality (death) rate continued (400 out of 500 men were dead by 1609), which meant further instability in the colony.
Upon his arrival, Rolfe was intent on finding a crop that would assure economic security and profit. He decided to try cultivating tobacco because he believed that it could be exported to England, but first he had to grow it. He first experimented with a type of plant then being grown by Native Americans. Most Englishmen found the tobacco to be too harsh when smoked, however, so Rolfe imported seeds from the West Indies. Finally he developed a tobacco leaf that was "as pleasant, sweet, and strong . . . as any under the sunne." Rolfe's new strain thrived in Virginia soil and the colonists set about planting their crop. They exported the tobacco to eager buyers in England, becoming the first Europeans to produce a marketable crop on the mainland of North America. The English king, James I, initially threatened to outlaw tobacco, calling it a "stinking weed." Yet demand was strong and the market flourished. Eventually tobacco sales yielded so much tax money for England that James relented and came to rely on the income.
Trade brings change
With trade booming and tobacco fetching high prices, prosperous Chesapeake farmers planted primarily tobacco and imported (brought from another country) all other necessities except food and timber. Exporting (sending to another country) tobacco became so profitable that colonists even planted it in the streets of Jamestown. Dependence on a single crop resulted in a plantation economy that continued throughout the colonial period. It also changed the labor situation in Virginia. Even before the tobacco boom the Virginia Company had sent over indentured servants. (Indentured servants were laborers who usually worked four to seven years in exchange for free passage to Virginia and room and board. At the end of their service they often received a small plot of land.) Thriving trade brought about an increased need for labor. Since cultivating tobacco also required huge tracts of tillable soil, the colonists expanded outward into small settlements along the James River. As they encroached (to advance beyond the usual or proper limits) farther onto the land of the Powhatan tribe, the growing English population put additional pressure on the Native Americans.
The tobacco industry in Virginia
John Rolfe developed a strain of tobacco that thrived in Virginia soil. The Jamestown colony exported the tobacco to England, and trade was soon booming. Because tobacco fetched a high price, Chesapeake growers planted primarily tobacco and imported all other necessities except food and timber. In 1616 the colony exported 2,300 pounds of tobacco to England. Three years later the total had risen to 20,000 pounds, and by 1626 Virginia was shipping 260,000 pounds abroad. But the boom ended in 1629. During the 1630s the price of tobacco fell from sixteen to five pennies per pound. Yet by 1700 planters were exporting 38 million pounds of tobacco. During the eighteenth century, tobacco exports fluctuated between 25 million and 160 million pounds. Although exporting the crop remained profitable, it would never again command the exorbitant prices of the first quarter of the seventeenth century. To maintain their profits, planters needed to grow and export more tobacco, but the crop depleted the soil. Therefore Chesapeake planters found their yield declined after only three or four years. That problem resulted in planters either moving inland—thus taking more Native American land—or switching to planting wheat.
Because of his economic success, Rolfe was a prominent colonist when he met Pocahontas in 1612. She was a young daughter of Powhatan (see entry), principal chief of the Powhatans, who headed an alliance of more than thirty tribes in the region. (Powhatan took the name of his tribe to signify his power.) Powhatan welcomed the Jamestown colonists in 1607 and maintained friendly relations with them. He and Pocahontas had even saved the Englishmen from starvation during their first winter in Virginia by providing them with food. In 1608, two years before Rolfe's arrival at Jamestown, twelve-year-old Pocahontas had supposedly saved Smith from being executed by Powhatan, who had realized that the colonists were not interested in maintaining peace with the Native Americans. The following year Smith returned to England and Pocahontas never visited the colony again. In the meantime, Powhatan had decided to prohibit trade between the Powhatans and the settlers. He also began conducting guerilla warfare (a form of unplanned, or unconventional, warfare that involves surprise attacks) and taking Englishmen hostage.
In early 1612 Samuel Argall, who had taken over Smith's position in Jamestown, learned that Pocahontas was living with the neighboring Patawamake tribe. Since the colonists were still suffering from Powhatan's trading sanctions (prohibiting trade), Argall decided to take Pocahontas captive in order to force Powhatan to release English hostages. Coaxing her on board his ship, he sailed off with her to Jamestown. The Englishmen announced that they were holding Pocahontas, yet their negotiations with the Powhatans did not go well. Powhatan was willing to turn over the English hostages, but he would not give up weapons and tools that he claimed were stolen from him. Shortly thereafter the Powhatans attacked the colonists. Argall and acting Jamestown governor Thomas Dale brought Pocahontas to help conduct negotiations. She refused to meet with her father's representatives, choosing instead to remain with the English. According to a letter by Dale quoted in Purchas his Pilgrimes, Pocahontas claimed that "if her father had loved her, he would not value her lesse then old Swords, Peeces [guns], or Axes: wherefore shee should still dwell with the English men, who loved her."
At this point Rolfe entered the picture. He had met Pocahontas while she was in the care of the Reverend Alexander Whitaker at Henrico, a new community near Jamestown. Whitaker presided at Pocahontas's baptism when she took the name "Rebecca" as a sign of her conversion to Christianity. Carefully considering the situation, Rolfe decided he would marry Pocahontas for political reasons. In a letter to Dale he outlined his plan, which he said was "for the good of the Plantacon, the honor of or Countrye, for the glorye of God, for myne owne salvacon." After receiving the blessing of both Powhatan and Dale, Pocahontas and Rolfe were married at Jamestown in April 1614. Thus began the "Peace of Pocahontas," a long period of friendship between the English and Powhatan tribes.
Returns to England
In 1615 Pocahontas bore Rolfe a son named Thomas. At the invitation of the Virginia Company, which was grateful for renewed trade relations with the Powhatans, the Rolfes went to England in 1616. Although English society was at first reluctant to accept Rolfe's marriage to a Native American, Pocahontas was soon the talk of the town. She was admitted into the presence of Queen Anne and later received by King James I. Rolfe did not share in the honor, however, partly because the king was upset with Rolfe for marrying a foreign princess without his permission. James also did not approve of Rolfe's association with tobacco.
By 1617 Pocahontas's health had begun to fail. Rolfe took her to the village of Brentford outside London, then arranged to leave for Virginia in mid-March. Pocahontas was critically ill, however, and she died within days. Rolfe returned to Virginia, where he was married for a third time, to Jane Pierce. In 1622 the Powhatans launched a full-fledged massacre of the English, killing about a quarter of the Jamestown population. Rolfe died in the fighting.
For further research
Stephen, Leslie, and Sidney Lee, eds. The Dictionary of National Biography. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1917, pp. 157–58.