John Rolfe (1585-1622) was an English colonist who settled in Jamestown, Va., and pioneered in the cultivation of tobacco.
John Rolfe was born in the spring of 1585, the descendant of an old Norfolk family. His emigration to Virginia in 1609 was interrupted by a shipwreck on the newly discovered island of Bermuda. A child born to Rolfe's wife died while they were stranded in Bermuda. After almost a year the couple landed in Jamestown, Va.; the colony was in desperate condition. Apart from the danger of disease, which claimed Rolfe's wife shortly after their arrival, the province had no staple product, and there were constant threats of attack by the indigenous population.
Conceptions regarding colonization had proceeded no further in Rolfe's time than to think of plantations as trading ventures, places where quick returns might be won from a minimal investment. Finding neither precious metals nor other resources that could be exploited easily, the sponsors of Jamestown experienced continuing expense coupled with disappointment. The colony's settlers found the Native Americans growing and using tobacco, but its commercial possibilities seemed limited because the leaf tasted bitter.
Rolfe started to experiment with the cultivation of tobacco. In 1612 he planted seeds of tobacco plants that had been found originally in the West Indies and Venezuela and that offered a milder smoke. He also developed new methods of curing the leaf, thereby further enhancing its flavor and facilitating its shipment to England. Rolfe's experiments were very successful, and his first shipments to London in 1614 were the foundation of the staple production that underlay the southern economy before 1800.
Given the importance of Rolfe's contribution in the cultivation of tobacco, it is unfortunate that his fame is largely associated with his marriage in 1614 to Pocahontas, daughter of the chief Powhatan. Although Rolfe's marriage to Pocahontas grew out of mutual love, contemporaries also observed that it initiated an eight-year period of relative peace. A triumphant tour of England by Pocahontas and her entourage in 1616, during which she was received as a visiting princess, ended sadly in her death from consumption.
Rolfe's last years were busy and fruitful. He served as secretary of Virginia and as a member of the council, writing important letters describing the problems of Virginia. He was killed during the massacre of March 22, 1622, which was said to be perpetrated by the Native Americans. He left a third wife and daughter, as well as his son by Pocahontas, Thomas Rolfe.
In the absence of a biography, the best sources of information on Rolfe and the beginnings of Virginia are Richard L. Morton, Colonial Virginia (2 vols., 1960); Grace Steele Woodward, Pocahontas (1969); and Philip L. Barbour, Pocahontas and Her World (1970). Materials by contemporaries are in Lyon G. Tyler, ed., Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625 (1907). A short, authoritative account of Virginia's tobacco economy is G. Melvin Herndon, Tobacco in Colonial Virginia (1957).