Little is known of Rolfe’s parentage or early life. While historians and genealogists have generally maintained that he was baptized in Heacham, Norfolk County, England, on May 6, 1585, and was the son of John Rolfe and Dorothy (Dorothea) Mason Rolfe, this is unlikely to be true. John Rolfe (the father) died in 1595, and Dorothy Rolfe later married Robert Redmayn (Redmaine), but none of the various wills and papers associated with her, her second husband, or their daughter ever mention the Rolfes. The Heacham parish records also fail to mention Henry Rolfe, a Virginia Company of London investor who is known to be the brother of the John Rolfe who married Pocahontas. Records also suggest that the grandmother of John Rolfe and Pocahontas’s son, Thomas Rolfe, was alive in 1645, the year Dorothy Mason Rolfe Redmayn died.
Bermuda, Virginia, and Tobacco
In 1609, John Rolfe was among the passengers on the Sea Venture, one of nine ships sent to Virginia to resupply the colonists there. Caught in a storm, the ship wrecked off the islands of Bermuda, where Rolfe’s wife, whose name is unknown, soon delivered a daughter named Bermuda. With Captain Christopher Newport and William Strachey serving as witnesses, the girl was christened by the Reverend Richard Bucke on February 11, 1610, but she died soon after. Rolfe’s wife also died, either just before or after their arrival in Virginia on May 24, 1610.
The following year, Rolfe began to experiment with cultivating tobacco. Introduced to England perhaps as early as 1565, tobacco had found a ready market there by the 1610s, making it a tempting crop for Virginia farmers. Rolfe, who reportedly was a committed smoker himself, easily could have purchased the leafy plant from Virginia Indians, but Strachey described the native variety, Nicotiana rustica, as being “poore and weake, and of a byting tast.” This did not recommend it to English smokers, who preferred high-quality Spanish tobacco from the West Indies. As a result Rolfe looked south, obtaining from a shipmaster seeds from Trinidad and Caracas, Venezuela, so that by July 1612 he was growing the Spanish tobacco Nicotiana tabacum. The exact location of Rolfe’s crop is unknown but likely was at Jamestown. It’s possible, however, that he farmed his first tobacco at Bermuda Hundred, where he reportedly held property.
Captain Robert Adams of the Elizabeth delivered samples of Rolfe’s tobacco to England on July 20, 1613, and although considered to be of excellent quality, it was still not comparable to the Spanish product. Nevertheless, Rolfe believed that “no doubt but after a little more tryall and expense in the curing thereof, it will compare with the best in the West Indies.” He was proved correct in 1617, when 20,000 pounds of his tobacco arrived in England, and in 1618, when the amount delivered there doubled. Rolfe’s success in growing a profitable tobacco crop transformed the colony, leading directly to Virginia’s most successful cash crop and forming the basis of the colony’s economy.
Pocahontas and England
John Rolfe met Pocahontas sometime after April 1613, when she was taken prisoner and transported to Jamestown. Reputedly the favorite daughter of Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, Pocahontas was held for ransom, providing the English leverage in their ongoing war with the Algonquian-speaking Indian groups. In Jamestown she lived for a time in the household of the Reverend Richard Bucke, and, after indicating a desire to convert to Christianity, she studied with the Reverend Alexander Whitaker in Henricus.
Pocahontas eventually was baptized and christened Rebecca, and on or about April 5, 1614, she and Rolfe married, with the approval of Powhatan and Virginia deputy governor Sir Thomas Dale.
The marriage was a diplomatic coup for the English, helping to bring an end to the First Anglo-Powhatan War and suggesting, to the English at least, that Virginia Indians were ready to accept an English way of life. In an undated letter to Dale, Rolfe acknowledged that Pocahontas’s “education hath bin rude, her manners barbarous, her generation accursed,” and he worried about the Bible’s admonition against “marrying strange wives.” Still he explained that his intentions toward Pocahontas had not been influenced by “the unbridled desire of carnall affection: but for the good of this plantation, for the honour of our countrie, for the glory of God, for my owne salvation, and for the converting to the true knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, an unbeleeving creature, namely Pokahuntas.”
Sometime between 1614 and 1617, Rolfe and Pocahontas had a son, whom they named Thomas for the deputy governor. In 1616, Rolfe, Pocahontas, and, depending on his birth date, Thomas sailed to England with Dale and a group of Virginia Indians to raise money for the Virginia Company of London. Pocahontas was well received at Court, meeting King James I and the bishop of London, and, presumably, improving the colony’s image among discouraged company investors. While in England, Rolfe penned an encomium to Virginia, published in 1617, titled A True Relation of the state of Virginia Lefte by Sir Thomas Dale Knight in May Last 1616. In it, Rolfe discussed the various settlements in Virginia—at Jamestown, Henricus, and Bermuda Hundred—enumerated the farmers and workers at each site along with the livestock, and gave a picture of a colony likely to succeed despite its many setbacks and high death toll.
In March 1617, however, the company experienced another setback when, as Rolfe’s party began its return journey to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill and then died at Gravesend. Rolfe left the infant Thomas, who was also ill, with Sir Lewis Stukely, and returned alone to Virginia. Stukely was to entrust the baby to the child’s uncle Henry Rolfe until such time as Thomas recovered enough to undertake the arduous voyage to Virginia.
Return to Virginia
Prior to leaving for England, Rolfe had held public office in Virginia. In 1614, the same year he married Pocahontas, he assumed the offices of secretary and recorder general of the colony, and also became a member of the governor’s Council. Upon his return, he penned a letter to Virginia Company of London official Sir Edwin Sandys, dated June 8, 1617, justifying his decision to leave Thomas in England and requesting that Sandys “contynue your noble favor and furtherance even for my childe sake, being the lyving ashes of his deceased Mother.” In particular, Rolfe hoped for a continuation of the stipend that the company had allotted Pocahontas to be used for the support of their son. Apparently the answer came in the fact that John Rolfe received a patent for 400 acres near Hog Island on the south bank of the James River and with William Peirce (sometimes Pierce) and others an additional 1,700 acres near Mulberry Island on the north side of the James sometime thereafter. In the meantime, Rolfe left his positions as secretary and recorder general in 1619, perhaps because his term of office had expired. He remained on the Council until his death in 1622.
In addition to his work in government and tobacco farming, Rolfe continued to write, composing “A relation from Master John Rolfe, June 15, 1618” on the current status of the colony, which was published in Captain John Smith‘s 1624 edition of his Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles . The short portion that survives noted that relations with the Indians were still peaceful and that building and planting were going forward without hindrance. An addition to the document is dated 1619, after Sir George Yeardley had become deputy governor of the colony. In it Rolfe noted that he had been named to Yeardley’s governor’s Council and then listed a number of ships that had arrived in Virginia, how industrious the colonists were in raising tobacco and corn, how well the trade with the Patawomeck Indians was going, and that people were contributing to the establishment of the college at Henricus, among other topics. Rolfe concluded that if every officer of the company were to “live well in his Office, without oppressing any under their charge … then we may truly say in Virginia, we are the most happy people in the world.”
Rolfe is also responsible for the first mention of Africans in Virginia. In a letter to Sandys in January 1620, Rolfe noted that late in August 1619 the Dutch ship White Lion arrived at Point Comfort, at what is now Fort Monroe, with “20. and odd Negroes” on board. Four days later, the English ship Treasurer arrived with additional Africans, the lot having been captured from a Portuguese ship carrying slaves en route from Luanda, Angola, to the West Indies. (The Treasurer was partly owned by Samuel Argall and was the same ship on which Argall had transported Rolfe and Pocahontas to England.) Rolfe’s letter is the first extant mention of Africans in Virginia, although there may have been others in the colony before then.
Sometime in 1619 or 1620, Rolfe married for a third time, to Joane Peirce, daughter of William Peirce, with whom he had acquired the patent at Mulberry Island. John and Joane Rolfe became the parents of a daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1621. In his will, Rolfe left his estate to his wife and two children, Thomas and Elizabeth. No mention is made in the will of any land at Bermuda Hundred. He bequeathed to Thomas a parcel of land he had acquired by patent from the king’s Council for Virginia in the country of “Toppahannah between the two Creeks over againste James Citty,” and to his wife Joane Rolfe for the benefit of their daughter, Elizabeth, his share of the patent at Mulberry Island.
John Rolfe described himself as “of James Citty in Virginia Esquire beinge sick in body, but of perfecte minde and memory” when he dated and signed his will on March 10, 1622. He died, probably of natural causes, soon thereafter, although the wording of that passage could have been standard for a will. Word of Rolfe’s death had reached London by May 3, 1622. On that date a deposition concerning a voyage Rolfe was part of in 1618 mentioned Rolfe’s subsequent death. It could be mistakenly interpreted to indicate that Rolfe had died en route to England in the spring of 1622 if the events of the 1618 voyage are ignored. An undocumented supposition that he died in Opechancanough‘s attack on March 22, 1622, probably arose from the absence of Rolfe’s name on any Virginia documents or lists of inhabitants compiled after that date, especially of those who died in the uprising. Because Jamestown was not attacked, however, it is unlikely that he died in that event.
John Rolfe has been overshadowed by his wife Pocahontas. Nevertheless, he is still important for establishing Virginia’s main cash crop, the tobacco Nicotiana tabacum, for their marriage, which ended the First Anglo-Powhatan War, and for his writings about the colony that helped to promote settlement and investment and recorded one of the few accounts of Virginia in the 1610s.
- A True Relation of the state of Virginia Lefte by Sir Thomas Dale Knight in May Last 1616 (1617)
- “A relation from Master John Rolfe, June 15, 1618” (1624; in Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles by John Smith)