|For The Good of This Plantation|
The Story of
John Rolfe and the
Beginning of Virginia
By Elisabeth Wilson
In the midst of the rich legend that is Jamestown, the tumultuous beginning of Virginia and the initial conception of the United States stands an impassive figure. John Rolfe cemented Jamestown and his fellow colonists into the New World. He provided an economic base for Virginia and the future thirteen colonies. His marriage to the Indian princess Pocahontas and the birth of their son, Thomas, brought a temporary peace between the battling settlers and the Powhatan Indians. He stands in history as a figure of stability. Though he was a catalyst at the very center of Virginia’s unfolding history, he remains solemnly hidden in the shadows of the past. A man who embarked from England on the most glorious adventure of the age, who would encounter shipwrecks and hostile Indians, is generally remembered by history as a dull farmer and the man who married Pocahontas.
John Rolfe was born to John and Dorothea Mason Rolfe in 1585, and christened on May 6. His parents were members of the country gentry and resided in Heacham Hall in Norfolk, England. Though little is known about Rolfe’s youth, his puritanical upbringing would present itself in his ever-present solemnity.
In May of 1609, Rolfe and his wife (whose name is unknown to history) joined a fleet of nine ships and 500 settlers headed to the newly founded Virginia colony. The Rolfes sailed on the flagship, the Sea Adventure. In July, the Sea Adventure and her passengers encountered a hurricane and struck a reef, stranding the Rolfes and roughly 150 of their shipmates on the Islands of Bermuda for almost a year.
While stranded, Rolfe’s wife gave birth to a daughter named after the islands the couple unwillingly inhabited. However, little Bermuda did not survive to sail on to Virginia.
From the salvage of the Sea Adventure and the islands’ indigenous cedar trees, the settlers constructed two new ships, the Patience and the Deliverance. In these vessels the settlers once more embarked toward Virginia. Within ten days the Rolfes reached the wild settlement that would become their home. But Virginia was to be an adventure Rolfe would at first experience alone. Probably still weak following childbirth, Rolfe’s wife died shortly after they arrived in Virginia.
In 1612, the widower Rolfe introduced tobacco from Spanish South America and the Caribbean to the Virginia soil. The tobacco native to Virginia, and cultivated by the Virginia Indians, was unsuitable to the European palate. Rolfe’s experiments developed a sweeter, more desirable crop of tobacco. Thanks to Rolfe, the new Virginia tobacco would become a cheaper, if substandard, alternative to Spanish tobacco in Europe. Eventually, after 1616, Rolfe’s strain of tobacco would become Virginia’s cash crop and the basis of her economic strength.
The English settlers had spent a tumultuous six years in almost constant conflict with the Virginia Indians. In 1613, Chief Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, was kidnapped by the settlers and detained at Jamestown. The colonists used her as a bargaining chip for hostages and weapons held captive by Powhatan. Negotiations fell through; Pocahontas was moved to Henrico, where the settlers taught her English. Soon thereafter, she converted to Christianity, changing her name to Rebecca after her baptism.
John Rolfe, who served as one of the delegates sent to the Powhatan Indians in the initial attempts to trade Pocahontas for the colonial hostages, wrote a letter to Virginia’s governor, Sir Thomas Dale. In this long-winded, and essentially passionless letter, Rolfe states his hopes and intentions to marry, “…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. To whom my hartie and best thoughts are, and have a long time bin so intangled, and inthralled in so intricate a laborinth, that I was even awearied to unwinde my selfe thereout. But almighty God, who never faileth his, that truly invocate his holy name hath opened the gate, and led me by the hand that I might plainely see and discerne the safe paths wherin to treade.”
Despite the judgment he obviously feared such a marriage would invoke, and whether for the love briefly hinted at in his letter to Sir Thomas Dale, or the good of the colony so broadly expanded on, Rolfe married the newly baptized Pocahontas in the spring of 1614.
Apparently Powhatan approved of the union, which brought the warring struggles between the settlers and the Indians to a temporary close. A Jamestown contemporary, Ralph Hamor, wrote, “ever since [the marriage] we have had friendly commerce and trade, not onely with Powhatan himselfe, but also with his subjects round about us; so now I see no reason why the Collonie should not thrive a pace.”
In 1615, Pocahontas gave birth to a son named Thomas. In 1616, the Rolfes and young Thomas journeyed to England as promotional envoys, illustrating the life of prosperous harmony that could be achieved in Virginia. Ironically, Rolfe was more of an oddity to his native England after his years spent in the underdeveloped Virginia and his marriage to an Indian princess. King James I even alluded to Rolfe’s marriage as treasonous. However, Pocahontas did attend Twelfth Night celebrations presided over by King James and his queen. Even this visit into royal circles could not make the Rolfes appear less rough and awkward to English society. Accounts suggest Rolfe became increasingly reserved during his good-will visit to England, and Pocahontas’ health worsened.
The Rolfes began their voyage back to Virginia in March 1617. Pocahontas’ health had deteriorated to such a level that she had to be removed from the ship, the George, docked at Gravesend. It was there that she died on March 20.
Little Thomas was also ill, and Rolfe “found such feare and hazard of his health” that he chose to leave his son in England to be cared for by his brother, rather than subject the boy to the battering journey home. Rolfe later wrote that he planned for Thomas, “my childe much desyred…whose life greatly extinguisheth the sorrow of her [Pocahontas’] loss”, to come home to Virginia, “when it is of better strength to endure so hard a passage”. Thomas would only return to Virginia in 1635, thirteen years after his father’s death. The two would never meet again.
Back in Virginia John Rolfe grieved his wife’s “much lamented” death and turned to his tobacco farming and Virginia politics. In 1617, he was made a secretary to the colony, and throughout the rest of his life would serve on several other political councils.
In the last six years of his life, Rolfe married Joane Pierce, daughter of William Pierce. Together they had a daughter, Elizabeth.
John Rolfe died in 1622. In his will, composed in the same year, he mentioned feeling “sick and weak in body”. On March 22, 1622, Powhatan’s brother and successor, Opechancanough, led his tribe against the Virginia settlements, massacring one third of Virginia’s colonial population. Whether John Rolfe died at the hands of the Indians, his family by marriage, or of the illness hinted at in his will, is the final historical mystery of his life.
John Rolfe is obscured behind the greatness of the Virginia he helped to create. Out of his experimentations with tobacco grew Virginia’s economic success. His marriage to Pocahontas brought a transitory peace to the colony that allowed the English settlers to gain a stronger foothold in Virginia. His letters expose a solemn man, who rewrote and reworked his most tender thoughts until they became merely a duty, to Virginia, England, and God. Yet hidden among the overworked passages of his letters are real expressions of joy at his marriage to Pocahontas, sorrow for the loss of his wife, and longing for his son Thomas. Whether from duty or a subtle, hidden passion, John Rolfe, in his quiet way, brought prosperity to the new, tempestuous world that was Virginia.