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 wife 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 Rolfe’s wife 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.
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 she was only around 10 years old. Captain John Smith later wrote that the young princess rescued him from death when Powhatan held him captive in December 1607. 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, 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.