John Rolfe stepped into history in May 1609 when he boarded the Sea Venture, bound for Virginia. The Virginia Company, founded by investors, had financed and sponsored the English colony founded at Jamestown in May 1607. The Company expected the colonist to start industrial enterprises in Virginia that would return profits to the Company. The colonists in Virginia tried a number of different enterprises: silkmaking, glassmaking, lumber, sassafras, pitch and tar, and soap ashes, with no financial success. It was John Rolfe's experiments with tobacco that developed the first profitable export.
The Spaniards found the natives in the West Indies using the tobacco plant. They took seed to Europe where its use soon spread to other countries around the Mediterranean Sea. Sir Walter Raleigh is often credited with the introduction of tobacco to England. While in reality he may not have been responsible for its introduction, he did play an important role in the spread of tobacco use among the English. Spain and Portugal monopolized the European tobacco trade; England imported tobacco from Spain. The English colonists did not like the type of tobacco the Virginia Indians grew. They preferred the fragrant sort that Spanish colonists were producing in the Caribbean, which they were selling in large quantities and at high prices to London merchants.
The Sea Venture was the flagship of a nine-ship convoy of 500 new settlers. By July the ships had reached the West Indies, where a hurricane struck them. The Sea Venture ran aground on a reef off the Bermudas, but the entire company of 150 safely reached shore in the ship's boats. The colonists found Bermuda to be a hospitable place with sufficient food. In the following months, they built two smaller ships from cedar trees and salvage. By May 1610 the two ships, aptly named the Patience and the Deliverance, were ready. The ships reached the Chesapeake Bay after ten days sailing. While on Bermuda, John Rolfe's wife had given birth to a daughter who was christened Bermuda, but the child died there. Rolfe's wife also died, probably soon after they reached Virginia.
John Rolfe is credited by Ralph Hamor, then Secretary of Virginia, with the experiment of planting the first tobacco seeds that he obtained from somewhere in the Caribbean, possibly from Trinidad. "I may not forget the gentleman, worthie of much commendations, which first tooke the pains to make triall thereof, his name Mr. John Rolfe, Anno Domini 1612, partly for the love he hath a long time borne unto it, and partly to raise commodity to the adventurers... " Rolfe gave some tobacco from his crop to friends "to make a triall of," and they agreed that the new leaf had "smoked pleasant, sweete and strong." The remainder of the crop was shipped to England, where it compared favorably with "Spanish" leaf.
At the same time Rolfe experimented with tobacco, other events transpired that profoundly affected the colony. Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, was kidnapped and brought to Jamestown to be traded for English prisoners and weapons that Powhatan held. The exchange never took place and Pocahontas was taken to the settlement at Henrico, where she learned English, converted to Christianity, was baptized, and was christened Rebecca. It was about this time that she presumably came to the attention of John Rolfe. Rolfe was a pious man who agonized for many weeks over the decision to marry a heathen. He composed a long, laborious letter to Governor Dale asking for permission to marry Pocahontas. The letter reflected Rolfe's dilemma. The tone suggests it was intended mainly for official records, but at some points Rolfe bared his true feelings. "It is Pocahontas," he wrote, "to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled, and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth that I (could not) unwind myself thereout." The wedding took place in the spring of 1614. It resulted in peace with the Indians long enough for the settlers to develop and expand their colony and plant themselves permanently in the new land.
In 1616, Rolfe took his wife and infant son Thomas to England. Pocahontas died at Gravesend seven months later, just before returning to Virginia. A sad John Rolfe left his young son in the care of a guardian in England and returned to his adopted home. Upon his return to Virginia, he assumed more prominence in the colony. He became a councilor and sat as a member of the House of Burgesses. He married again to Jane Pearce, daughter of a colonist. He continued his efforts to improve the quality and quantity of Virginia tobacco. In 1617, tobacco exports to England totaled 20,000 pounds. The next year shipments more than doubled. Twelve years later, one and a half million pounds were exported. The first great American enterprise had been established.
John Rolfe died sometime in 1622. Although a third of the colony was killed in the Indian uprising of that year, it is not known how Rolfe died. In a life that held much personal tragedy, Rolfe gave the colony its economic base. His contributions allowed the English settlements to become permanent, thus solidifying the English presence in America and making possible the first steps toward the creation of the future United States.
Carrier, Lyman. Agriculture in Virginia 1607-1688.
Barbour, Phillip L. Pocahontas and Her World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970.
Billings, Warren M. The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century.
The Jamestown Foundation. The Story of John Rolfe.
Mapp, Jr., Alf J. The Virginia Experiment.
Research Library of Colonial America. Virginia, Four Personal Narratives.