John Rolfe (1585-1622)

John Rolfe is best remembered for having introduced tobacco as a commercial crop to Virginia colonists. The production of this valuable commodity shaped the future development of the colony and provided an economic incentive for further expansion and settlement of the New World. Rolfe is also well-known because of his marriage to Pocahontas. This marriage brought a much-needed period of peace between the Indians and the colonists. The couple toured England in 1616 - 1617 and promoted the colony at Jamestown.

John Rolfe was the son of John Rolfe and Dorothea Mason. He was born in Norfolk, England and baptized on May 6, 1585. Little is known of John Rolfe's early life in England. He was married (possibly in 1608) and in 1609 he and his wife set sail for Virginia on board the Sea Adventure. Their ship was wrecked during a hurricane in the Bermudas and the couple remained stranded for several months along with over a hundred other settlers bound for Jamestown. While in Bermuda, Rolfe's wife delivered a daughter (February, 1610) who died shortly thereafter. Eventually the settlers constructed two small ships (the Patience and the Deliverance) and continued their journey to Virginia. In May, 1610 Rolfe and his wife finally reached Virginia but his wife died soon after their arrival.

John Rolfe began his experiments with planting tobacco in 1612. The native tobacco of Virginia was of little commercial interest to the Virginia Company as the tobacco was too harsh for European taste. Rolfe planted seeds from the West Indies and produced a crop which was more fragrant and sweet than native tobacco, yet was also well-suited to the growing conditions of the new colony. By 1617, the colonists produced enough tobacco to send their first shipment to England. Although the Virginia tobacco was deemed inferior to fine Spanish tobacco, it was plentiful and cheap. Sir Walter Raleigh promoted the use of tobacco (both as a medicine and as a recreational drug). Early tobacco prices ranged from one to three shillings, prompting a tobacco boom which lasted through the 1620's. John Rolfe's role in the introduction of tobacco as a cash crop insured his standing within the colony.

In 1613, the Indian princess Pocahontas (daughter of Powhatan, leader of the Powhatan federation) was kidnapped by the Jamestown settlers. The colonists wished to trade Pocahontas for Englishmen and weapons captured by the Indians. The exchange never occurred. Pocahontas learned English and converted to Christianity, taking the name of Rebecca.

John Rolfe presumably met Pocahontas after her conversion; he fell in love with the young Indian woman and decided to marry her. Rolfe's decision to marry Pocahontas was not made lightly. He asked permission of the governor (Sir Thomas Dale) in a letter which carefully outlined his desire for marriage. [See Rolfe letter] Rolfe also asked Powhatan for permission to marry his daughter, the Indian leader granted his permission and agreed to maintain a peace with the settlers. The couple married on April 5, 1614. The relationship between the colonists and the Indians remained peaceful for the next eight years (until Powhatan's death). During this period the colony expanded and Pocahontas gave birth to a son, Thomas.

In 1616, Rolfe and his family traveled to England to encourage support of the Virginia Company and the colony. While in England Rolfe sent King James a description of the colony at Jamestown (published as the True Relation of the State of Virginia). Rolfe also introduced his wife to the King. In March 1617, the couple boarded a ship to return to Virginia. Pocahontas, ill with pneumonia (or perhaps tuberculosis) had to be taken ashore at Gravesend. She died there on March 21, 1617 and was buried in a local churchyard. Rolfe returned home to Virginia, leaving his son in England to receive an education.

Upon his return to Virginia, Rolfe became more involved in the government of the colony. He served as secretary and recorder of the colony from 1614-1619 and in 1621 he was appointed to the Council of State. He also married again, this time to Jane Pierce, the daughter of colonist William Pierce. The couple had at least one child, a daughter Elizabeth born in 1618. Rolfe continued farming tobacco on his plantation Bermuda Hundred. Tobacco production increased dramatically during the 1620's, fostering a wave of migration to the colony.

John Rolfe died in 1622 after his plantation was destroyed in an Indian attack. It remains unclear whether Rolfe died in the Indian massacre or whether he died as a result of illness. He was survived by his wife and daughter and by one son, Thomas Rolfe.


Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975.

Tyler, Lyon G. The Cradle of the Republic. Richmond: Hermitage Press, Inc., 1907.

Brown, Alexander. The Genesis of the United States. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1890.

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