Americans might be forgiven for thinking that John Rolfe is a fictional character. His name is associated with some of the more legendary stories in colonial history, including the events that served as a basis for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the legends about Pocahontas, and the raising of tobacco.
As with so many of the first colonists, information about Rolfe’s early years is sketchy. He was born in Norfolk County on the east-central coast of England and was married around 1608. In 1609 he set off with his wife for the colony at Jamestown on the ship commanded by Christopher Newport. Late in September, the ship was wrecked in the Bermudas and the voyagers were stranded on an island there.
His wife soon gave birth to their daughter, who died shortly thereafter. The shipwrecked survivors constructed two small boats and sailed for Virginia, arriving at Jamestown in May, 1610. Shakespeare based his final play, The Tempest, on an account of the shipwreck.
Once settled at Jamestown, Rolfe was attracted to the tobacco that the Indians grew and smoked. Some Englishmen had tried smoking it, but most people found it harsh and unpleasant. Around 1612 Rolfe began experimenting with new ways of cultivating and curing tobacco, and before long the tobacco crop became the basis of the Virginia colony’s economy.
Rolfe’s wife had died shortly after arriving in Virginia. In 1613, the English settlers took Pocahontas—the daughter of the great chief Powhatan—hostage in revenge for the Indians holding several colonists as prisoners. Rolfe and Pocahontas fell in love. She converted to Christianity, adopted the name Rebecca, and married him. This led to a period of peace between the colonists and the Indians.
Rolfe took Pocahontas to England in 1616 where she was treated as a celebrity. However, while preparing to return to Virginia, she became ill with smallpox and died in 1617. She had one son, Thomas, who was educated in England, and who went to Virginia and continued the family line that many later Virginians were proud to claim.
Rolfe himself returned to Virginia in 1617, where he prospered in the tobacco trade. He also married for a third time. He served as secretary and recorder of the colony until 1619, and in 1621 he was appointed to the Council of State.
In 1622, Rolfe was killed in the Indian attack led by Powhatan’s brother and successor, Opechancanough. Ironically, the success of the tobacco crops had ensured the permanence of the English colony. The need for more land drove the growers to expand deeper and deeper into Indian lands, and this in turn led the natives to their desperate revolt.