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John Rolfe


John Rolfe was born in 1585 in Heachum, England. In 1609 he sailed from England with his family bound for the new world. Unfortunately his ship Sea Venture was blown aground in a storm on the voyage to Virginia and was wrecked near the Bermuda Islands. While waiting there for the survivors to build ships to carry them onward, Rolfe's first wife gave birth to a daughter, who was christened Bermuda. Sadly the baby soon died. After nine months the survivors completed their voyage to Virginia, but shortly after arriving, Rolfe's wife also died.


John Rolfe next appears because of his noticing that tobacco, although of a poor variety, seemed to thrive in Virginia. Getting a sea captain to obtain for him some seeds of popular West Indies tobacco, in 1613 he successfully raised his first small planting thereof and shipped four barrels to England in 1614.

Of his success in this, it has been written that "no man among the early English colonists of Virginia -- not even Captain John Smith -- ultimately contributed more to making the plantation a going concern or was so influential in giving direction to its destiny".

About this same time a Capt Samuel Argall took Powhatan's daughter prisoner and brought her as a hostage to Jamestown. Pocahontas, whose Indian name was Matoaka, was famous for saving the life of Captain John Smith more than five years earlier at which time she had become familiar with the English. Now she was eighteen or nineteen years old. After some eight months during which time Pocahontas had been instructed in the Christian religion and christened as Rebecca, John Rolfe requested of the governor permission to marry the captive princess.  

 Permission being granted by both the governor and Powhatan, they were married in the church at Jamestown on April 5, 1614. The marriage ushered in a period of improved relations between Powhatan's tribes and the small colony, and the couple was blessed with a son named Thomas.

In May 1616 the Rolfes sailed for England aboard Treasurer. Also traveling to England at this time was the first commercial quantity of Virginia tobacco. Upon arrival Pocahontas made a most favorable impression on the English, whom she charmed.  

Pocahontas was presented at court where her demeanor and status as a princess were recognized. Unfortunately, less than a year after her arrival in England and just as the family was to embark for a return to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill and died on March 21, 1617, at Gravesend, where she was buried. John Rolfe then left his young son Thomas with a relative and sailed on back to Virginia.


After his return, John Rolfe continued to serve with increasing responsibilities -- first as secretary and recorder of the colony, and then in 1619 as a member of the council. He participated in the first legislative grand assembly. In 1621 he was married again, this time to Jane Pierce of Jamestown.  He died in the Good Friday Indian massacre in 1622.

He is remembered for his marriage which helped for a number of years to improve relations with the Indians and for his initiative in starting Virginia's first commercial product, tobacco, without which it is hard to see how Virginia could have provided a trade of value to England.  

John Rolfe's son, Thomas Rolfe, returned to Virginia at age 21, was given permission to meet his close relation, the Indian chief Opechancanough, and took up life in the colony. By 1656 he had been named to command one of the forts that marked the colony's frontier.


 Information drawn from:
Jamestown 1544‑1699, by Carl Bridenbaugh;
Colonial Virginia, by Richard L. Morton; University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1960