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A fictional 1850s painting of John Rolfe and Pocahontas

John Rolfe (c. 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.

No one knows what John Rolfe looked like: all portraits of him were made well after his death, and no descriptions of his appearance are extant. 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".[1]



Rolfe was born in Heacham, Norfolk, England as the son of John Rolfe and Dorothea Mason, and was baptized on May 6, 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 favorable 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 at Jamestown, 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. [2]

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 May 14, 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.

The Third Supply fleet left England in May of 1609 destined for Jamestown with seven large ships, towing two smaller pinnaces. In the southern Atlantic Ocean, they encountered a three-day-long storm, thought to have been a severe hurricane. The ships of the fleet became separated. The new Sea Venture, whose caulking had not cured, was taking on water faster than it could be bailed. The Admiral of the Company, Sir George Somers, took the helm and the ship was deliberately driven onto the reefs of 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 was Rolfe's 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 of the supplies from the Third Supply had arrived (the same hurricane which caught the Sea Venture had also badly affected the rest of the fleet), and 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 in June 10, 1610 that the abandonment of Jamestown was avoided and the colony was able to survive. After finally settling in, although his first wife and child had died, 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 honor 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. [3] The appeal of Orinoco tobacco was in its nicotine, and the conviviality of its use in social situations. [4]

Soon, Rolfe and others were exporting substantial quantities of the new cash crop, and 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 on the James River about 30 miles (48 km) upstream from the Jamestown Settlement, and across the river from Sir Thomas Dale's progressive development at Henricus.


In 1614 Rolfe married Pocahontas, daughter of the local Native American leader Powhatan. Powhatan gave the newlyweds property just across the James River from Jamestown. Pocahontas and John Rolfe never lived on the land, which spanned thousands of acres. Today that location is known as Smith's Fort Plantation, and is located in Surry County. Smith's Fort was a secondary Fort to Jamestown, begun in 1609 by John Smith, but abandoned in 1610. The 20'x40' house that now stands at Smith's Fort dates to 1763 and is completely original throughout. It is not known who occupied the first house there prior to that time.

On what would be called a "public relations trip" for the Virginia Company in modern terminology, Pocahontas and Rolfe traveled to England in 1616 with their baby son, where the young woman was widely received as visiting royalty. However, just as they were preparing to return to Virginia, she became ill and died. Their young son Thomas Rolfe survived, and stayed in England while his father returned to the colony.

Late life, death, heritage

In 1619, Rolfe married Jane Pierce. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1620. Elizabeth died in 1635 at the age of 15.

John Rolfe, who had been living in or near Bermuda Hundred, died suddenly in 1622, an illness.[citation needed]

Thomas Rolfe, the son of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, after being educated in England returned to Virginia and married Jane Poythress, daughter of Lieut. William Poythress of Jamestown. They had one child, Jane, who married Robert Bolling in 1675. She died in 1676 leaving one son, John, born the same year.

Heritage and legacy

  • The strain of tobacco cultivated by John 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 which were built 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 John 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 John Rolfe.
  • John Rolfe wrote in 1619 of the incidental introduction of African servants to Virginia from a passing ship, recording that "there came in a Dutch man-of-war that sold us twenty negars" on August 31st of that year.[5][6]

In popular culture

  • Rolfe appears in the 2005 film The New World, in which he is played by Christian Bale. In the Disney animated film Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, he was voiced by Billy Zane.
  • In S.M. Stirling's novel Conquistador, a fictional descendant and namesake of Rolfe (descended from a (fictional) son of Thomas Rolfe, who in reality fathered only a daughter) founds a country called "New Virginia" after opening a door between dimensions to a world where Europeans never discovered North America.
  • Rolfe was portrayed by Robert Clarke in the 1953 low-budget film Captain John Smith and Pocahontas.


  1. ^ Press release: What did John Rolfe look like?
  2. ^ A Brief History of Jamestown, Virginia
  3. ^ A Brief History of Jamestown, Virginia
  4. ^ Chesapeake Bay Journal: Even stripped of Hollywood hype, Pocahontas remains a legend - September 2000
  5. ^ Lutz, Francis Earle (1957). The Prince George-Hopewell Story. Richmond: Area Historical Committee, (Richmond: William Byrd Press), p. 21
  6. ^ Kennedy, Randall (2002). Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. New York: Pantheon. ISBN 978-0-375-42172-3

External links

Simple English

John Rolfe (c. 1585 – 1622) was one of the early English settlers of North America. He is known for the first successful making of tobacco as an export crop in the Colony of Virginia. He is also known as the husband of Pocahontas, daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Confederacy.

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