Most widely known for his marriage to Pocahontas, daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, John Rolfe was also the first to successfully cultivate tobacco as an export crop in the Virginia Colony and was one of the first early English settlers in North America.
John Rolfe was born in Norfolk, England in May of 1585, during an era when Spain held a monopoly on the profitable tobacco trade. Spanish colonies in the New World were located in southern climates found to be more ideal for growing tobacco than English settlements such as Jamestown. With increased demand for tobacco, trade between the two nations of England and Spain became quickly unbalanced. While not much is known about John Rolfe’s childhood, as a businessman he was savvy enough to seize the opportunity to challenge Spain’s monopoly on tobacco by obtaining seeds that would more likely survive a less temperate climate. He took them with him aboard the Virginia Company’s Third Supply fleet to the colonies, the Sea Venture, traveling across the Atlantic to Jamestown along with his wife, Sarah Hacker.
The Third Supply fleet was the largest relief fleet dispatched to carry hundreds of new settlers and supplies to the New World. Accompanied by six other large ships, they encountered severe, hurricane-like storms, which separated the fleet. Rolfe was shipwrecked in Bermuda before finding his way to Jamestown, but unfortunately his wife and infant child did not survive the journey.
Rolfe threw himself into developing and cultivating tobacco in North America. He was able to produce tobacco much different from native Virginia tobacco, which did not appeal to the market in England or the settlers in Virginia. He began exporting a sweeter tobacco beginning in 1612, transforming the Virginia Colony into a successful economic venture. After sending his first harvest of four barrels of tobacco to England in March 1614, Rolfe soon began exporting much larger quantities of the new cash crop. New plantations quickly grew along the James River, where shipments could be exported along the river wharfs. Rolfe’s strain of tobacco became the mainstay of farming plantations for many generations to come. Almost 400 years later, tobacco remains a prominent component of Virginia’s economy.
In 1613, Pocahontas, daughter of the Powhatan tribe chief, was converted to Christianity and renamed Rebecca. Intrigued by the Powhatan daughter, Rolfe struggled with the moral dilemma of marrying a ‘heathen’, finally writing a lengthy letter to the governor requesting permission to marry her. Permission was granted, and the newlyweds settled into Rolfe’s plantation, Varina Farms, across the James River. Their marriage helped to create peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan tribes, allowing commerce and trade not only with Powhatan tribes but also with their surrounding allies.
In 1616, John Rolfe and Pocahontas, then known as Rebecca, travelled to England where they were received and treated almost like royalty. In March 1617, though, Rebecca fell ill and died. Rolfe returned to Virginia, where he continued live on his plantation and remarried. He later died in 1622 after his plantation was destroyed in a Native American massacre. It is unknown whether Rolfe died because of the attack or because of illness.