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The Life of John Rolfe

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John Rolfe was among the first English settlers to settle in the colony of Virginia, the USA. He was the first settler to cultivate tobacco as a cash crop for export. His wife was Pocahontas, a daughter of a confederacy chief. He came from Norfolk England. His father was John Rolfe and his mother was Dorothea Mason. He got his baptism on May 6, 1985. During that time, Spain had a monopoly over the hugely profitable trade in tobacco (Foley, 1974). The colonies of Spain in the New World had a climate better suited for tobacco growing than the English colonies. It was John Rolfe who started cultivating tobacco in the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia. He had obtained unique seeds of a strain of tobacco that could grow there. Despite the fact that Spain had put a death penalty sentence on anyone who sold these seeds to a person, not of the Spanish origin. By doing this, he was able to undercut the Spanish in the tobacco trade.

Jamestown as colony came into being in May 1607 by a group of English settlers. This was a project of the Virginia Company of London. This was a troubled colony, like most of the other English colonies. Christopher Newport did two return trips, delivering supplies in 1608 (Bishop, 2009). In 1609, another relief fleet set forth for the colony, carrying a lot of settlers and supplies. Rolfe and his wife were aboard the Sea Venture which headed the Third Supply fleet and was the flagship of the Virginia Company.

In May 1609, the Third supply fleet sailed from England with its destination being Jamestown. There were seven large ships and two smaller ships. They encountered a three-day-long severe hurricane in the North Atlantic’s southern region (Marsh, 2002). The fleet became separated, and the Sea Venture was almost drowning as the water got into the ship faster than it could be removed. Sir George Somers, who was the company’s admiral, took control over the ship and deliberately drove it into the Bermuda reefs to prevent it from sinking.

All the people aboard the ship survived including a dog. Most of them remained in Bermuda for at least ten months as they built two ships to continue their journey to Jamestown. Bermuda also bears the name the Somers Isles. Some of the survivors did not make it to Jamestown after all because they died or lost their way at sea. Some people remained on the island to lay claim to Bermuda as an English colony. Although the charter of the Virginia Company did not cover Bermuda until the year 1612, the settlement of Bermuda dates back to 1609 (Northrup, 2003). Rolfe’s wife and his daughter remained buried with others in Bermuda.

The two ships which they constructed left Bermuda in May 1610 with 142 people on board, Rolfe was among them. When they arrived at Jamestown, it was a shock to find that the Virginia colony had almost been destroyed by disease and famine and that is was currently the starving time. Not much of the Third fleet’s supplies had arrived because the hurricane that hit the Sea Venture also badly affected the rest of the fleet. Only 60 of the original settlers had made it to Jamestown (Boyer, 2012). The arrival of the two ships from Bermuda and that of another relief fleet on June 10, 1610 saved the town of Jamestown from desertion and thus saved the colony. After Rolfe’s settling in the colony, he began his delayed work of cultivating tobacco. John was able to move on with his life even though his wife and child had died.

The English settlers did not like the native tobacco, cultivated in Virginia, and it also did not appeal to the English market back home. Another problem was that the climate in the Spanish settlements was warmer than that in Virginia, hence they had better tobacco. Rolfe’s plan was to introduce the sweeter strains of tobacco from Trinidad. He intended to do this with the Spanish seeds that he had carried with him. In 1611, people recognized Rolfe as the first person ever to cultivate commercially Nicotiana tabacum tobacco on the North American continent. This sweeter tobacco began to be exported in 1612, and it helped make the Virginia Colony a profitable venture. Rolfe named the strain of tobacco which he grew in Virginia as “Orinoco”, which might have been in honor of Sir Walter Raleigh’s, a tobacco popularizer, who set expeditions up to the Orinoco River in Guiana during the 1580s. Orionco tobacco’s appeal was its nicotine and the warmth of its usage in socializing (Foley, 1974). Within a short time, Rolfe and other settlers began exporting large amounts of tobacco and new plantations came up along the James River, where exporters used wharfs to transport shipments along the river. Rolfe started Varina Farms, which was a plantation 30 miles from Jamestown along the river.

Rolfe got married to Pocahontas on April 5, 1614. She was the daughter of Powhatan the local leader of the Native Americans. Reverend Richard Bucke of Wymondham, who was a longtime friend of Rolfe’s, officiated their wedding. Pocahontas got converted to Christianity by Reverend Alexander Whitaker, who gave her the name “Rebecca” upon her baptism. The newlyweds received property from Powhatan, situated across the River from Jamestown. The couple never lived on the land even though it was thousands of acres. The location nowadays goes by the name Smith’s Fort Plantation. This was a secondary fort, started by Smith Fort in 1609, but they later abandoned it in 1610 (Billings, 1975). In 1616, Rebecca and her husband Rolfe went to England on a “public relation trip”, organized by the Virginia Company aboard a ship called Treasurer together with their son. People received Rebecca as visiting royalty; however, during their preparations for the return to Virginia aboard a ship called George, Rebecca fell ill and died. Her burial was at St George’s Church in Gravesend. Thomas, their son, survived and chose to remain in England whilst his father returned to the colony.

Rolfe got married to Jane Pierce in 1619. She was the daughter of Captain William Pierce, an English colonist, and Jane Eeles. They gave birth to a daughter in 1620 and named her Elizabeth. Indians attacked Rolfe’s plantation in 1622, destroying it. He died soon after the attack. It is not clear whether he died in the attack or due to an illness. Jane, his widow, got married to Captain Roger Smith, an Englishman, three years later. Smith was the son of John Smith and Thomasine Manning.

Thomas, Rolfe’s son, who remained in England pursuing his education, got married to Elizabeth Washington at St James’s Church in Clerkenwell in September 1632 (Bishop, 2009). The couple had a daughter called Anne in 1633. Shortly after their daughter’s birth, Elizabeth died. Two years later, Thomas went back to Virginia where he got married to Jane Poythress. Francis Poythress and Alice Payton were Jane’s parents, both of who were English. Thomas and his wife got one child who they called Jane. She married Robert Bolling in 1675. She died in 1676, having left one son, John, born the same year.

Conclusion

Despite the fact that Rolfe made an enormous contribution to the commercial growth of tobacco, it is unfortunate that he got his fame largely because he married Pocahontas, who was a daughter of Chief Powhatan in 1614. Although Rolfe's marriage to Pocahontas was out of mutual love, historians also observed that it brought about an eight-year period of relative peace (Tormey, 2006). A successful tour of England in 1616 by Pocahontas and her entourage during which she got a warm reception as a visiting princess, ended sadly in her death from consumption.

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