John Rolfe

John Rolfe


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John Rolfe (1585-1622) was an early settler of North America known for being the first person to cultivate tobacco in Virginia and for marrying Pocahontas. Rolfe arrived in Jamestown in 1610 with 150 other settlers as part of a new charter organized by the Virginia Company. He began experimenting with growing tobacco, eventually using seeds grown in the West Indies to develop Virginia’s first profitable export. In 1614, Rolfe married the daughter of a local Native American chieftain, Pocahontas. His new bride knew English well; she had been taken captive by previous English settlers and converted to Christianity. The couple sailed to England with their infant son Thomas in 1616. Seven months later, Pocahontas died as they prepared to travel home. Rolfe returned to Virginia, remarried and served a prominent role in the economic and political life of the colony until his death in 1622.

John Rolfe’s Early Life

Not much is known about Rolfe’s early life except that he was born around 1585 and was probably the son of a small landholder in Norfolk, England. In June 1609, Rolfe and his first wife, Sarah Hacker, sailed for North America aboard the Sea Venture as part of a new charter organized by the Virginia Company. The ship was caught in a hurricane in the Caribbean and wrecked on one of the Bermuda islands. The group finally arrived in Virginia, near the Jamestown settlement, in May 1610, and Sarah died soon after their arrival.

Before 1611, Rolfe began cultivating tobacco seeds grown in the West Indies; he probably obtained them from Trinidad or some other Caribbean location. When the new tobacco was sent to England, it proved immensely popular, helping to break the Spanish monopoly on tobacco and create a stable economy for Virginia. By 1617, the colony was exporting 20,000 pounds of tobacco annually; that figure doubled the following year.

John Rolfe’s Marriage to Pocahontas

The Native Americans living in the region around Jamestown spoke the Algonquin language and were organized into a network of different tribes led by Chief Powhatan. One of the chief’s daughters was Matoaka, who as a child was nicknamed Pocahontas (“Little Mischief”). The English settlers at Jamestown had known of Pocahontas since 1607, when Captain John Smith was held captive by her father, Powhatan. Smith later wrote that the young princess rescued him from death when she was around 11 years old. In 1613, the English captured Pocahontas and held her for ransom. While in captivity, she studied English, converted to Christianity and was baptized with the name Rebecca.

Rolfe obtained permission from Powhatan as well as the military governor of Virginia, Sir Thomas Dale, to marry Pocahontas. Their marriage on April 5, 1614, would ensure a shaky peace between the English settlers and local Native Americans for the next eight years. The couple had one son, Thomas Rolfe, born in 1615. The following year, the Virginia Company sponsored a trip for the family to England, where they were welcomed enthusiastically and had a formal audience with King James I. Pocahontas (or the Lady Rebecca, as she was known) was seen as a shining example of a Native American who had been “civilized” and successfully adapted to English ways.

Death of Pocahontas and Aftermath

Tragically, Pocahontas became ill during preparations for the voyage back to Virginia, probably from unfamiliar diseases that didn’t exist in America. She died in March 1617 in an inn in the town of Gravesend and was buried there. Young Thomas also took ill but later recovered. He stayed in England with Rolfe’s brother and didn’t return to America until many years later. Rolfe would never see his son again; he sailed back to Virginia and later remarried Joan Peirce (or Pearce), the daughter of one of the other colonists. In 1621, Rolfe was appointed to Virginia’s Council of State, as part of a reorganized colonial government.

With the death of Powhatan in 1618, the unstable peace between the English and Native Americans dissolved. The Algonquian tribes became increasingly angry over the colonists’ insatiable need for land, largely due to their desire to cultivate tobacco. In March 1622, the Algonquians (under Powhatan’s successor, Opechankeno) made a major assault on the English colony, killing some 350 to 400 residents, or a full one-quarter of the population. John Rolfe died that same year, although it is not known whether he was killed in the massacre or died under other circumstances.


John Rolfe

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.


John Rolfe

John Rolfe (l. 1585-1622 CE) was an English merchant and colonist of Jamestown best known as the husband of Pocahontas (l. c. 1596-1617 CE). He is also known, however, for his successful cultivation of tobacco in Virginia which established the crop as the most lucrative export of the early English colonies of North America.

Tobacco had proven itself a profitable trade commodity for the Spanish who had colonized South and Central America and the West Indies throughout the 16th century CE. The English hoped they would have the same kind of success with their colony at Jamestown, but the settlement struggled for three years just to survive until Rolfe arrived in 1610 CE with tobacco seeds he believed would do well in the marshy soil of Virginia. Rolfe produced his first crop by 1611 CE, not only saving the colony but establishing a cash crop that would form the basis for the colonial American economy.

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He married Pocahontas in 1614 CE, a union which forged a peace between the colonists and the Native Americans of the Powhatan Confederacy. The couple had one son and traveled to England on a public relations tour to encourage further investment in Jamestown in 1616 CE. Pocahontas, who had converted to Christianity and taken the name Rebecca by this time, fell ill and died in 1617 CE. Rolfe left his son in the care of his brother and returned to Jamestown where he married his third wife, Jane Pierce, in 1619 CE.

The peace established by his marriage to Pocahontas steadily unraveled as more colonists arrived from England and more land was taken for settlements and tobacco plantations. In 1622 CE, the Second Powhatan War broke out in which over 300 colonists were killed. Rolfe died this same year, but his cause of death is unknown as is his place of burial.

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This is the generally accepted version of Rolfe's life but it has been challenged by the Native American Mattaponi oral history which maintains that Pocahontas was raped after she was kidnapped in 1613 CE, became pregnant, that Rolfe only married her to conceal the rape from her father, and that she was murdered (poisoned) aboard the ship in England. These two very different accounts of Rolfe and his relationship with Pocahontas continue to be debated.

Spain, Tobacco, & English Colonization

Both versions agree, however, that Rolfe was the "father of tobacco" in the Virginia colonies. There were two types of tobacco that grew naturally in the Americas, Nicotiana rustica (growing mainly in the north) and Nicotiana tabacum (appearing primarily in the south). Christopher Columbus (l. 1451-1506 CE) claimed the West Indies and parts of South America for Spain following his initial expedition of 1492 CE, and other Spanish expeditionary forces followed, colonizing South and Central America and modern-day Florida throughout the 16th century CE. Columbus had been offered tobacco as a welcome gift by the natives of the West Indies upon his arrival and initiated its commercial cultivation, establishing the system of the encomienda which, basically, enslaved the indigenous population as a labor force.

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Nicotiana tabacum was a most profitable export which made Spanish landowners in the Americas and merchants back in Spain wealthy as it quickly found a market and was in high demand. The English wanted to replicate this success and so established the Roanoke Colony in North America in 1585 CE. The first attempt failed and the second, established in 1587 CE, disappeared by 1590 CE. Sir Walter Raleigh (l. c. 1552-1618 CE), who had overseen the expeditions, introduced Nicotiana rustica to England c. 1585 CE and, although it did find a market, it was not as popular as the Spanish product. Tobacco users found Raleigh’s product bitter and difficult to smoke as compared with the smoother and better-tasting Spanish tobacco. The Spanish understood the value of their product and carefully guarded their blend, declaring the death penalty for any Spaniard who shared tobacco seeds or crop with non-Spaniards.

Jamestown & Bermuda

John Rolfe was born the same year Raleigh brought tobacco to the English court. He was the son of John and Dorothea (nee Mason) Rolfe, and his father was, possibly, a merchant. Little is known of Rolfe’s early life except that, by 1609 CE, he was married to Sarah Hacker. He must have had connections with the Virginia Company of London – the coalition of businessmen and investors who had financed the establishment of Jamestown Colony of Virginia – because he was included among the prestigious passengers of the Sea Venture in 1609 CE, a supply ship to Jamestown which also carried its new governor, Sir Thomas Gates (l. c. 1585-1622 CE), the writer William Strachey (l. 1572-1621 CE), and the new chaplain for the settlement, the Anglican priest Richard Buck who was assisted by the then-unknown Stephen Hopkins (l. 1581-1644 CE), later of Mayflower and Plymouth Colony fame.

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Jamestown was founded in 1607 CE by an expedition made up largely of aristocrats and unskilled lower-class laborers all (or most) of whom were under the impression that North America was a land teeming with gold one only had to pick up off the ground. This delusion had been encouraged by reports of the Spanish conquests which emphasized the wealth of the New World. Consequently, Jamestown was hardly the great success investors had hoped for because the colonists either had no experience in working the land or were disheartened once they realized there were no heaps of gold waiting for them to gather and devoted their efforts to just trying to survive.

The settlers were disciplined and organized by Captain John Smith (l. 1580-1631 CE), a member of the first expedition, but he returned to England in the fall of 1609 CE when he was injured in an accident. Without his leadership, which had also established good relations with Chief Wahunsenacah (l. c. 1547-c. 1618 CE, also known as Chief Powhatan) of the Powhatan Confederacy of the region, the colony declined. The winter of 1609-1610 CE came to be known as the Starving Time during which people were forced to eat rats, dogs, horses, and finally corpses just to survive.

The Starving Time was not only caused by the inability of the colonists to raise a substantial crop in the marshlands of Virginia but by the failure of supplies to reach the colony in 1609 CE. The Sea Venture was caught in a storm in July 1609 CE and driven onto the reefs off Bermuda (an event that inspired Shakespeare's play The Tempest). Rolfe and the others spent the next few months on the otherwise uninhabited islands while they built two ships to take them on to Jamestown. During this time, Rolfe’s wife Sarah and their infant daughter, Bermuda, both died. Finally, in May 1610 CE, the ships were ready and sailed to Jamestown.

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Rolfe & Tobacco

When they arrived, they found the colony in complete disarray. Sir Thomas Gates declared the colony a failure and ordered the survivors to pack up and prepare to return to England. As they were making their way downriver, however, they were met by another ship carrying the nobleman Thomas West, Lord De La Warr (l. 1577-1622 CE) who ordered them about. De La Warr took control of the colony, delegating responsibilities to Gates, and initiated a new policy with the Powhatans which resulted in the First Powhatan War (1610-1614 CE). Rolfe, meanwhile, settled himself on a tract of land and, at first, tried cultivating the native Nicotiana rustica. William Strachey criticized this product as "poor and weak and of a biting taste", and Rolfe had little success with it (Goodman, 134). He had arrived, however, with hybrid Nicotiana tabacum seeds from Trinidad which he experimented with. Scholar Jordan Goodman comments:

From whom Rolfe acquired his seeds is unknown though there was contact between Virginia and Trinidad through English merchants and seamen…Any of the considerable number of English and Dutch traders plying around Trinidad and the Orinoco delta and landing in Virginia could have conveyed the seeds to Rolfe. (135)

It is equally possible the seeds were acquired on Bermuda which had been claimed for Spain by the explorer Juan de Bermúdez (d. 1570 CE) in 1505 CE but never colonized. Spanish ships tended to avoid the islands because they were considered haunted by demons and devils, but it is possible N. tabacum was growing wildly there or that some Spanish ship had left plants there. However he got his hands on the seeds, he perfected their cultivation and had his first crop by 1611 CE.

He named his blend Orinoco (possibly in honor of Sir Walter Raleigh who had explored that region) and exported his first product in 1612 CE by 1614 CE, he was a wealthy man with a large plantation stretching along the James River across from the settlement of Henricus established by Sir Thomas Dale (l. c. 1560-1619 CE) in 1611 CE.

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Marriage to Pocahontas

Lord De La Warr had fallen ill in 1611 CE and installed Sir Samuel Argall (l. c. 1580-1626 CE) with full authority. Argall continued De La Warr’s policies with the Powhatans, and hostilities continued. The Powhatans had taken a number of colonists prisoner and Argall found no means of retrieving them until he learned that the daughter of Chief Wahunsenacah, Pocahontas, was living (possibly with her husband who was later killed) in a nearby village and took her prisoner, holding her for ransom in Henricus. Wahunsenacah returned the captive colonists and expected the release of his daughter but Argall claimed the chief had not fully satisfied the terms of the deal and kept her.

During her time in Henricus, Pocahontas was converted to Christianity, learned English, and came into contact with Rolfe who regularly visited the settlement. The two were attracted to each other and Rolfe wrote to then-governor Dale asking for permission to marry her. The couple were married by Richard Buck in April 1614 CE and their union ended the First Powhatan War and established peace. In January of 1615 CE, their son Thomas Rolfe (l. 1615 - c. 1680 CE) was born and the couple seems to have lived happily on Rolfe’s plantation.

The peace with the Powhatans brought stability which enabled the unencumbered proliferation of tobacco plantations. Goodman notes how "Virginia’s economy exploded into a boom and wherever tobacco could be planted, it was" (135). The secret to Rolfe’s success was the particular blend of his Orinoco tobacco which had a sweet taste whether chewed or smoked and drew easily in a pipe for a much smoother smoking experience than offered by other tobacco.

Journey to England

The Virginia Company, finally seeing a handsome return for its investors, wanted to encourage even more. The company had won support for its charter in 1607 CE by claiming that the salvation of Native American souls was one of its primary goals and now, in Pocahontas, they had a shining example of their success. Rolfe and his family were invited to England in 1616 CE for what amounted to a promotional tour for Jamestown.

The Rolfe party arrived in England in June 1616 CE in the company of the Native American sage (and Pocahontas' brother-in-law) Tomocomo, sent by Chief Wahunsenacah to observe and report back to him on the English in their own country, as well as others from her tribe. The ship was captained by Argall, the same man who had kidnapped Pocahontas years before. The group was escorted to London where Pocahontas was presented as an 'Indian Princess' and was accompanied by Lord De La Warr and his wife to various court functions.

King James I of England (r. 1603-1625 CE) was repulsed by tobacco use and had even written a tract condemning it (A Counterblaste to Tobacco) but could not ban it as the crop was far too profitable. A formal meeting between Rolfe and the king was therefore discouraged since, "Rolfe, as the father of Virginia’s growing tobacco trade, personified one of the king’s vexations: the pipe smoking indulged in by more and more of his subjects" (Price, 177). The party did eventually meet the king (though not formally presented) as well as Queen Anne and other dignitaries.

They also met with Captain John Smith who, according to Smith’s reports, had been saved by Pocahontas when he was taken captive by the Powhatans years before. Smith relates how, in England, Rolfe brought him to Pocahontas who had been told by the colonists in Jamestown that Smith was dead. Upon finding him alive, Smith writes, she said how it was further proof of the lies of the English. Rolfe does not report on this meeting but other accounts corroborate Smith's that it did not seem to have gone well.

Pocahontas is said to have wanted to remain in England, but Rolfe’s business interests were back in Virginia, and he had to return. In March 1617 CE, the party boarded Argall’s ship, the George, for their return, but Pocahontas was feeling unwell. Scholar David A. Price writes:

Rolfe apparently assumed his wife’s affliction was nothing more serious than the sputtering that came and went among so many residents of the polluted city [of London]. By the time the ship was approaching the town of Gravesend, he could see how wrong he had been. Pocahontas was dying. Argall anchored his ship at the town and Pocahontas was taken ashore. (182)

She died soon after and her funeral was held on 21 March 1617 CE. Price notes that "it is generally believed her condition was a pulmonary infection such as pneumonia or tuberculosis" (182). Their son Thomas appeared to be suffering from the same and so Rolfe left him in the care of an official at Gravesend until his brother, Henry, could claim the boy. He then reboarded the ship and sailed back to Virginia he would never see his son again.

Conclusion

The peace established by Rolfe’s marriage to Pocahontas still held and Argall reported that Chief Wahunsenacah, while lamenting his daughter’s death, was relieved her son still lived and so kept the peace in his honor. Tomocomo had made his report to the Powhatan chief and the elders, denouncing the English and warning they were not to be trusted. According to a report by Thomas Dale, Tomocomo’s claims were disproved by a company of colonists in front of Chief Powhatan, and he was shamed into retracting his statements. In light of the events which followed, however, this report is suspect.

It is more likely that Tomocomo’s charges against the English were taken seriously as tensions began to grow between the colonists and natives of the region. Rolfe continued his life at his plantation and married Jane Pierce, daughter of the militia’s captain William Pierce, in 1619 CE they had one daughter, Elizabeth. Wahunsenacah died c. 1618 CE, but had already been succeeded by his brother Opchanacanough (l. 1554-1646 CE) who recognized that Tomocomo’s words had greater weight than those of the immigrants whose promises and treaties were never kept.

In 1622 CE, Opchanacanough launched a concerted attack referred to by colonial English writers as the Indian Massacre of 1622 CE, killing over 300 settlers and destroying the colony of Henricus. Rolfe’s plantation was directly across from this colony and so it is assumed that he was killed in the massacre, but there is no actual proof of this. Rolfe’s plantation survived the attack, and his wife and daughter were still living in the 1630s CE, Elizabeth dying in 1635 CE, possibly in childbirth.

In this version of Rolfe's life, he is an honorable man, but the Mattaponi oral history paints a very different picture of an opportunist who learned the secrets of tobacco cultivation from the Powhatan chief, married Pocahontas out of necessity, and poisoned his wife to prevent her from informing her father of what she had learned in England. Tomocomo, in this version, tells the Powhatans what Pocahontas did not live long enough to relate. This is another side to the long-accepted version of Rolfe's life written by the victors and is marginalized owing to its challenge to the "official" narrative.

Rolfe is honored in the State of Virginia today through a number of roads and places named after him but, most likely, few who travel these roads know who he was, what he did, or that his tobacco – John Rolfe Blend – is still sold in the present day. He is now best known, at least among a certain demographic, as the husband of Pocahontas (whose image would later appear on cigarette packs and in tobacco advertising) encouraged by an animated straight-to-video Disney sequel to their popular Pocahontas, more than for his contribution to the economy and expansion of Colonial America.

In his time, however, Rolfe was the best-known citizen of the Jamestown Colony, respected by the merchants of London and tobacco aficionados far beyond for his very popular, addictive, and profitable crop. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tobacco use results in the deaths of 480,000 people per year in the United States, and yet Rolfe’s product continues to be used worldwide and still informs the economy of the State of Virginia as well as that of the United States overall.


Smith's Fort Plantation

The fifth restoration undertaken by The Garden Club of Virginia involved a site with associations to several prominent figures from early colonial history: Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Old Dominion's first tobacco entrepreneur, John Rolfe. Smith's Fort Plantation occupied a site on the south side of the James River, in what is now Surry County, near Gray's Creek. There, Smith and a party of settlers had built a fort as a refuge should Jamestown be attacked by Indians or Spanish forces, the two great concerns of his day. Later, the land itself was given by Chief Powhatan to John Rolfe upon Rolfe's marriage to his daughter Pocahontas.

The couple's son, Thomas Rolfe, inherited the land, and sometime later in the seventeenth century, another owner, Thomas Warren built a house on the property. The house that now occupies the site, first called the John Rolfe House but now known as the Rolfe-Warren House, probably dates to the mid-eighteenth century, when it served as the home of the Jacob Faulcon family. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) acquired the property in 1933 through the generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and set about restoring the building. The year following, the APVA approached The Garden Club of Virginia and asked the organization to provide a seventeenth-century landscaping plan for the property. Despite the financial constraints felt during this period of the Great Depression, the Club accepted the challenge.

The Garden Clubs landscape architect, Arthur A. Shurcliff undertook this project in 1934, initially supervising archeological excavations of the site, which revealed foundations for numerous buildings (including the fort site) and paths. Limited funds meant Shurcliff had to trim his original plans, which had included a design to reconstitute the original drive into the house site from the Jamestown Road. Rail fences defined the property boundaries and a picket fence surrounded the house and rear garden area. Along with native trees left in place, the architect used evergreen, crape-myrtles, boxwood, and holly at various points, and a Garden Club suggestion about fig trees helped to mark the former location of the kitchen garden and orchard.

In 1956, Alden Hopkins, Shurcliff's successor, produced for the Garden Club another study of the site, suggesting new plantings of tulip and red cedar trees, and a resetting of boxwood. The revisions were undertaken by the APVA, and then twenty years later Ralph Griswold offered additional suggestions for enhancing the site.

Note:
The images presented here record various stages of the property's landscape restoration. Since additional work has been supported by The Garden Club of Virginia at many properties, these images do not necessarily represent the current-day experience. Also, accession numbers reflect the year in which an image was received by the Virginia Historical Society, not the year in which it was taken.

(Click on image to
see larger version
)

Description

Walkway and front entrance to the Rolfe-Warren House.

Slide, Rolfe Warren House, Smith's Fort Plantation, Surry, Va.
Museum Collection
Accession number: 1997.31.5.A

In the original restoration plans, a picket fence surrounded the house, with outbuildings at the rear corners.

Slide, Gardens, Rolfe Warren House, Smith's Fort Plantation, Surry, Va.
Museum Collection
Accession number: 1997.31.5.I

Rear, or garden, entrance with boxwood planted during the second project, ca. 1956.

Slide, Gardens, Rolfe Warren House, Smith's Fort Plantation, Surry, Va.
Museum Collection
Accession number: 1997.31.5.C

A modern vista from the southwest showing the lawn and entranceway.

Slide, Gardens, Rolfe Warren House, Smith's Fort Plantation, Surry, Va.
Museum Collection
Accession number: 1997.31.5.K

Partial view of the rear garden looking toward the well (not part of the original restoration).

Slide, Gardens, Rolfe Warren House, Smith's Fort Plantation, Surry, Va.
Museum Collection
Accession number: 1997.31.5.E

This image of the well reveals some of the plantings added in the 1950s and later.

Slide, Gardens, Rolfe Warren House, Smith's Fort Plantation, Surry, Va.
Museum Collection
Accession number: 1997.31.5.G

Arthur Shurcliff's summary of findings from excavations undertaken in the summer and fall of 1934.

Drawing, Rolfe Warren House, Smith's Fort Plantation, Surry, Va.
Manuscript Collection
Call number: Mss3 G1673 a

Detail of excavations at the Smith's Fort Plantation site in fall 1934.

Drawing, Rolfe Warren House, Smith's Fort Plantation, Surry, Va.
Manuscript Collection
Call number: Mss3 G1673 a

Initial proposed layout of the Smith's Fort site by Arthur Shurcliff, as detailed in his letter of June 12, 1934.

Drawing, Rolfe Warren House, Smith's Fort Plantation, Surry, Va.
Manuscripts Collection
Call number: Mss3 G1673 a

Letter from Arthur Shurcliff to Mrs. Katherine Boggs, president of The Garden Club of Virginia, June 12, 1934, laying out his initial proposals for a garden restoration (prior to the excavations).

Letter, Rolfe Warren House, Smith's Fort Plantation, Surry, Va.
Manuscript Collection
Call number: Mss3 G1673 a Section 2
Multiple Page Document: Page 1 | Page 2

Letter of Shurcliff to Boggs, October 29, 1934, detailing nearing $30 spent on excavation work.

Document, Rolfe Warren House, Smith's Fort Plantation, Surry, Va.
Manuscript Collection
Call number: Mss3 G1673 a Section 2

Letter of Shurcliff to Boggs, February 15, 1935, reviewing the project and determining completion.

Letter, Rolfe Warren House, Smith's Fort Plantation, Surry, Va.
Manuscript Collection
Call number: Mss3 G1673 a Section 2

Letter of Shurcliff to Boggs, February 15, 1935, commenting on suggestions on the planting plan by members of The Garden Club of Virginia.

Letter, Rolfe Warren House, Smith's Fort Plantation, Surry, Va.
Manuscript Collection
Call number: Mss3 G1673 a Section 2

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John Rolfe (bef. 1585 - abt. 1622)

NOTE: A 1990 article questions the claim that the John Rolfe baptized May 1585 was the same as the emigrant to Virginia. See the g2g thread attached to this profile for discussion.

John Rolfe came over in the famous "Sea Venture" in 1610 which was blown ashore at the Bermudas [2] the passengers survived 10 months there, during which time Rolfe's wife gave birth to a baby girl, christened Bermudas 11 Feb 1610. Both the baby and his wife died shortly thereafter. [3] [4]

He became a planter and 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." [5] [4]

Rolfe was probably instrumental in importing tobacco seed from Trinidad in 1610 and 1611. He crossed the imported breed with indigenous tobacco to produce a plant well adapted to the local soil and reportedly of pleasant taste. When the English cargo vessel Elizabeth sailed from Virginia on June 28, 1613, it presumably carried Rolfe's first crop for export. In April of the following year, John Rolfe married Pocahontas in the Jamestown's Church. [4] He was killed when the natives massacred the colonists in 1622 but was survived by his and Pocahontas's son, Thomas Rolfe. [6]

Rolfe replaced Ralph Hamor as Secretary in 1614 (thus becoming a member of the Council) and held the post until 1619. [7]

In 1614 he married Pocahontas, a daughter of the American Indian Chief Powhatan.

"John Rolfe was a very religious man who agonized for many weeks over the decision to marry Pocahontas after she had been converted to Christianity, "for the good of the plantation, the honor of our country, for the Glory of God, for mine own salvation. " "Pocahontas was baptized christened Rebecca, and later married Rolfe on April 5, 1614." "A general peace and a spirit of good will between the English and the Indians resulted from this marriage. "John Thompson (William John) the eldest son of Rev. William Thompson, born circa 1650, married Elizabeth the widow of John Salway the plantation called "Smith's Fort" on which Thomas Warren, father of Alice Mariott had build "ye fiftyfoot brick house". This property formerly belonged to the Indian King, Powhatan who gave it to John Rolfe when he married Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan. [8]

Pocahontas gave birth to a son, Thomas Rolfe, 30 January 1615.

In 1616, John took Rebecca/Pocahontas and their son Thomas to England, where she died the following year. Thomas remained in England to be raised by relatives.

After Pocahontas' death, John returned to Virginia and married Jane Peirce 1619. [9]


Tracing Pocahontas Descendants

The marriage between Pocahontas and John Rolfe worked to form a unity among the English settlers and Native American indians during the course of their matrimony. In 1616 John Rolfe and Pocahontas traveled to England and stayed for 10 months. While living in England, Pocahontas birthed her first son, Thomas Rolfe. In March 1617 they set sail to return to Virginia, but as the ship was heading down the river Thames, Pocahontas (then renamed Rebecca Rolfe) fell sick. She was taken ashore in Gravesend, England, where she died. Her son Thomas also fell ill, but recovered and continued living in England with family members. She was buried there on 21 March 1617 in Saint George’s Church cemetery.

Photo: statue of Pocahontas in Saint George’s Church, Gravesend, Kent, England. Source: Wikipedia.

Pocahontas and Rolfe had one child, Thomas Rolfe, who was born in 1615 before his parents left for England. Through this son, Pocahontas has many living descendants.

Two of Pocahontas’s descendants have become First Lady of the United States, both First Lady Edith Wilson and First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Did you know?

Pocahontas was known by many different names during her lifetime. She was a Powhatan Native American and it was common for Powhatan Indians to have several names. Pocahontas’s other Powhatan names included Matoaka and Amonute. When Pocahontas was captured during Anglo-Indian hostilities she was taken back to England. There she learned English and converted to Christianity to fit her new English community. She was then used as a model for the rest of English settlers, showcasing the success in turning Indians into civilized settlers. She also changed her name to Rebecca upon her new way of life.

The Pocahontas genealogy highlights a rich history. This unique family line ties together a violent relationship between the American settlers and the Native Americans. The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe brought a period of peace between the two conflicting groups.

Do you know if you are related to Pocahontas?

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About Captain John Rolfe, Ancient Planter

John Rolfe, son of John Rolfe and Dorothea Mason, was born in 1585 in England and died in 1622 in Jamestown Settlement, Virginia. Married (1) Sarah Hacker, died in Bermuda (2) Pocahontas, died in England (3) Jane Pierce, who survived him. One child with each wife.View any additional children with suspicion until proven.

  • Bermuda Rolfe, born on Bermuda in 1612 and died soon after. She and her mother are buried together on Bermuda
  • Thomas Pepsironemeh Rolfe, born in 1615 in Virginia, raised in England, and returned to Virginia as a young man.

Child with Jane Pearce (or Pierce):

Below is a timeline for the life of John Rolfe

1585 – He was born this year in Norfolk, England. At the time, Spain held a virtual monopoly on the lucrative tobacco trade within Europe. Most Spanish colonies in the New World were located in southern climates more favorable to tobacco growth than the English settlements.

1607 - Jamestown had been established by an initial group of settlers in this year.

1608 – After two return trips with supplies by Christopher Newport arrived in this year, another relief fleet was dispatched in 1609, carrying new settlers and supplies across the Atlantic. This "Third Supply" fleet was broken apart by a severe hurricane.

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.

1614 – He married Pocahontas, daughter of the local Native American leader Chief Powhatan. Chief Powhatan gave the newlyweds property that included a small brick house just across the James River from Jamestown which was used as a home or cottage by Pocahontas and John Rolfe when they were first married.

1615 - Birth of son Thomas in Virginia

1616 – He and his wife 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.

1622 – He died this year, but it is unknown in what manner. He may have been killed by the Powhatan Confederacy during the Indian Massacre of 1622, or at another time during that year of warfare between the colonists and the tribes.

Links to additional material:

He was the 1st gentleman to plant tobacco in Virginia & was respected by the colonists. He was the 1st Secretary & Recorder General of Virginia & a member of the Council.

SPOUSES Sarah Hacker (m. 1608�, her death in Bermuda) Pocahontas (m. 1614�, her death off Gravesend, Kent, where she is buried) Jane Pierce (m. 1619�, Rolfe's death)

CHILDREN Bermuda Rolfe (b and d 1610 in Bermuda) Thomas Rolfe Elizabeth Rolfe (1620�)

John Rolfe 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.

Rolfe was born in Heacham, Norfolk, England, as the son of John Rolfe and Dorothea Mason, and was baptised on 6 May 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 favourable 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 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.

A project of the proprietary Virginia Company of London, Jamestown had been established by an initial group of settlers on 14 May 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, Sarah Hacker.

The Third Supply fleet left England in May 1609 destined for Jamestown with seven large ships, towing two smaller pinnaces. In the southern region of the North Atlantic, 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 were Rolfe's wife and his 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 supplies from the Third Supply had arrived because the same hurricane that caught the Sea Venture badly affected the rest of the fleet. 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 on 10 June 1610 that the abandonment of Jamestown was avoided and the colony survived. After finally settling in𠅊lthough his first wife, the English-born Sarah Hacker and their child had died prior to his journey to Virginia—Rolfe began his long-delayed work with tobacco.

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 was 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 honour 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. The appeal of Orinoco tobacco was in its nicotine, and the conviviality of its use in social situations.

In 1612, Rolfe established Varina Farms, a plantation along the James River about 30 miles (50 km) upstream from Jamestown, and across the river from Sir Thomas Dale's progressive development at Henricus. The first harvest of four barrels of tobacco leaf was exported from Virginia to England in March 1614, and soon, Rolfe and others were exporting vast quantities of the new cash crop. New plantations began growing along the James River, where export shipments could use wharfs along the river.

Rolfe married Pocahontas, daughter of the local Native American leader Powhatan, on 5 April 1614. A year earlier, Alexander Whitaker had converted Pocahontas to Christianity and renamed her "Rebecca" when she had her baptism. Richard Buck officiated their wedding. Powhatan gave the newlyweds property just across the James River from Jamestown. They never lived on the land, which spanned thousands of acres, and instead lived for two years on Rolfe's plantation, Varina Farms, across the James River from the new community of Henricus.

Their marriage created a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan's tribes for several years in 1615, Ralph Hamor wrote that "Since the wedding we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powhatan but also with his subjects round about us." Their son Thomas was born on 30 January 1615.

John and Rebecca Rolfe travelled to England on the Treasurer, commanded by Samuel Argall, in 1615 with their young son. They arrived at the port of Plymouth on 12 June and Rebecca was widely received as visiting royalty, but settled in Brentford. However, as they were preparing to return to Virginia in March 1617, Rebecca became ill and died. Her body was interred in St George's Church, Gravesend. Their two-year-old son Thomas survived, but was adopted by Sir Lewis Stukley and later by John's brother, Henry Rolfe. John and Tomocomo returned to Virginia.

In 1619, Rolfe married Jane Pierce, daughter of the English colonist Captain William Pierce. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1620, who married John Milner of Nansemond, Virginia, and died in 1635. Rolfe died in 1622 and his widow Jane married Englishman Captain Roger Smith three years later. He was the son of John Smith (no relation to Captain John Smith) and Thomasine Manning.

The land given by Powhatan (now known as Smith's Fort Plantation, located in Surry County) was willed to Rolfe's son with Pocahontas, Thomas, who in 1640 sold at least a portion of it to Thomas Warren. Smith's Fort was a secondary Fort to Jamestown, begun in 1609 by John Smith. Thomas, who had grown up in England, married Jane Poythress. Her English parents were Francis Poythress and Alice Payton. They had one child, Jane, who married Robert Bolling in 1675 and had a son, John, in 1676. She died later that same year.

Birth: May 6, 1585 Heacham Kings Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Norfolk, England Death: Mar. 20, 1622 Jamestown James City County Virginia, USA

Colonial Figure. He was an English businessman and expert at cultivation of tobacco, he arrived at the colonial settlement of Jamestown Virgina in 1610. In 1614 he married the Indian princess Pocahontas. They returned to Englan where she died in 1616. Rolfe returned to Virgina where he was killed in the Jamestown Indian massacre of 1622. The location of his remains are unknown. (bio by: Erik Lander)

Burial: Body lost or destroyed Plot: Kippax Plantation GPS (lat/lon): 37.38167, -77.33583

Maintained by: Find A Grave Originally Created by: Erik Lander Record added: Jun 11, 2006 Find A Grave Memorial# 14575730

Varina Farms, also known as Varina Plantation or Varina Farms Plantation or "Varina on the James", is a plantation established by John Rolfe on the James River about 40 miles upstream from the first settlement at Jamestown in the Virginia Colony, and across the river from Sir Thomas Dale's 1611 settlement at Henricus. Rolfe, John (1585-1622), English colonist of Jamestown, Virginia, who was married to Pocahontas, the younger daughter of the Native American chief Powhatan. Rolfe was born in Norfolk, England. In 1609 he sailed to America with the expedition led by English navigator Sir George Somers. He reached Virginia in 1610 and became a planter. Rolfe cultivated the strain of tobacco that became Virginia's staple crop-exports of tobacco to England provided economic stability for the colony. In 1614 Rolfe, a widower, married Pocahontas. Their marriage brought a time of peace between the colonists and Native Americans that lasted for eight years. In 1616 the couple, with their infant son, went to England. Pocahontas received a royal reception, but she became ill and died the following year. Rolfe returned to Virginia, where in 1621 he became a member of the colony's first Council of State. He was killed in the massacre of 1622.

"Rolfe, John," Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) 97 Encyclopedia. (c) 1993-1996 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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Thomas Rolfe

The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe in 1614 changed the demographics of Virginia residents. Their only child, Thomas Rolfe, was the first descendent in a line that now spans over seven generations. Thomas was the culmination of years of contact between the Powhatan Indians and the English. His choices between his English heritage and Powhatan heritage affected all his future descendants.

Thomas was born in Virginia in 1615, the first recorded birth of a child born to a Virginia Indian princess and an English gentleman. The child was presumably named after the Governor, Sir Thomas Dale. His mother, Pocahontas, had converted to Christianity in 1614 and taken the name Rebecca before she married John Rolfe. The English saw her as a perfect example of what Christianizing efforts produced. John Rolfe introduced a sweet tasting tobacco to the struggling colony, which allowed Virginia to prosper in later years. However, Thomas and his parents did not stay long in Virginia.

The Virginia Company wanted to attract new colonists, and more investment money to Virginia. Their plans to do so entailed escorting Pocahontas, a Christian Indian, to England and present her and Thomas at court. The Virginia Company wanted everyone to know how well their efforts worked in the new colony, hoping that support for the Virginia colony would increase. In 1616, Rebecca (Pocahontas), John, and Thomas traveled to England, accompanied by nearly a dozen other Powhatan Indians. Once they arrived, they traveled to many places and visited with distinguished men and women. They met such notables as King James, Queen Anne, Sir Walter Raleigh, and the Rolfe family. The Virginia Company considered this time well spent. They continued to raise money and attract new settlers.

The time in a foreign land was hard on Rebecca, Thomas, and the other Virginia natives. After seven months, they began their departure from England to return to Virginia. In March 1617, aboard the ship that was to sail them home, Rebecca and Thomas fell ill. Rebecca died before they could leave their departure point in Gravesend, where she was buried. John continued his voyage to Virginia, but realized that his son's health was fragile. John decided to leave young Thomas in England with Sir Lewis Stuckley until John's younger brother, Henry, could take over care. John intended for Thomas to stay in England until he regained enough strength to return to Virginia. This was an especially important turning point in Thomas' life. He would not return to Virginia until 1635 at the age of 20, and he would never again see his father.

In 1622, John Rolfe died unexpectedly in Virginia. The explanation for his death is not fully known, although it may have been through sickness. Another prominent figure that died in these years of Thomas' absence was his grandfather, Powhatan. He was the chief of the Powhatan Indians and died of seemingly natural causes in 1618. At one point during Powhatan's sickness, it was rumored among the Indians that Thomas would be the heir to the Powhatan domain. Upon Powhatan's death, however, it was clear that this was not the case. Opechancanough, Thomas' uncle, took over in Powhatan's place. When Thomas returned to Virginia in 1635, he found that his grandfather did not forget him. Through John and Rebecca Rolfe, Powhatan left Thomas thousands of acres on the James River, some of which is directly across the James River from Jamestown Island. He was also left the plantation where he was born, Varina. John Rolfe had secured this land for Thomas by taking out a royal patent before his death in 1622. Shortly after Thomas returned to Virginia, Thomas married Jane Poythress. The date of the marriage is not known, but with land and a wife, Thomas Rolfe was established. Now, he looked to find his Powhatan relatives and establish family connections.

In 1641, Thomas petitioned the Governor for permission to meet with his mother's people. The petition was accepted and Thomas met his uncle, Opechancanough. Unfortunately, there are no recordings of their meeting. Thomas evidently made the choice between his Powhatan and English heritages in 1646 when he became a lieutenant in the English military. The General Assembly in the colony granted Thomas the land called Fort James in return for his service. Thomas was now part of the English policy to dismantle and control the land of his Powhatan ancestors.

Around 1650, Thomas and Jane had their only child, Jane. Jane went on to marry Colonel Robert Bolling in 1675. The couple had one son, John. John Bolling was the third in line of descendants from Rebecca and John Rolfe, and from Bolling came seven children. John sparked off the trend of having more than one child, each successive generation doing the same.

Where does this leave Thomas? There are but a few documents that trace his life past the time of 1646, and records regarding his death are lacking. However, it seems that he became a man of wealth, as can be seen through land patents and deeds. The last reference made to him is in a deed from 1698 by John Bolling. John inherited Fort James through his mother, Jane, and transferred the land to William Brown in this deed. Thomas' name was mentioned in the document as deceased, and it is the last known reference to him.

Although Thomas Rolfe's heritage was Powhatan and English, he lived as an Englishman. When Thomas cemented that by becoming a lieutenant for the colony, he decided the manner in which thousands of his descendants would live for years to come.


BIBLIOGRAPHY
Brown, Stuart E., Lorraine F. Myers, and Eileen M. Chappel. Pocahontas' Descendants. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1994.

Bruce, Philip. Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 1. New York: Kraus Reprinting Corporation, 1968.

Hening, William Waller. Hening's Statutes At Large. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Mossiker, Frances. Pocahontas, The Life and the Legend. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Robertson, Wyndham. Pocahontas And Her Descendants. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1982.

Stanard, William. Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 21. New York: Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1968.

Tyler, Lyon G. Tyler's Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Volume 4. New York: Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1967.

Woodward, Grace Steele. Pocahontas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.

Research Library of Colonial America. Virginia, Four Personal Narratives.


Watch the video: It Aint Easy Being Me by London Cabbie John Rolfe


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