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Summary Article: Rolfe, John (1585-1622) from The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia

First cultivator of marketable tobacco in Virginia.

John Rolfe was responsible for the development of a cash crop in the Virginia colony; he cross-pollinated tobacco plants to create a mild blend highly desired in Europe. Rolfe, his wife, and infant daughter traveled onboard the Sea Venture from England in 1609 and were stranded in Bermuda for almost a year with other settlers before being rescued by other ships of the Virginia Company—an event that inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Rolfe’s wife and child died en route, and he arrived in the Virginia colony in 1610 a widower. The colony, meant to make profits for the Virginia Company, desperately needed a staple crop, but the tobacco grown by the region’s Native Americans had a taste unfavorable in comparison to that grown by the Spanish in the Caribbean and Central America.

Between 1611 and 1612, Rolfe experimented with tobacco seeds smuggled from Spanish Surinam and developed a tobacco that, when tested in London, compared favorably with the Spanish product. In addition to being known for his work with tobacco, Rolfe also became famous as the husband of Pocahontas, whom he married in Spring 1614 after she had converted to the Church of England and taken the name Rebecca. Rolfe and Pocahontas visited England in 1616 as part of a promotional tour on behalf of the Virginia Company. Pocahontas contracted smallpox there and died, leaving Rolfe again a widower with a son, Thomas. After he returned to Virginia, Rolfe continued to plant tobacco. Virginia exported 20,000 pounds of it in 1617, and Rolfe was elected to the House of Burgesses, the colony’s representative assembly. Rolfe died in 1622 after marrying for a third time, but the cause of his death, perhaps a devastating Indian raid that year, remains unknown.

See also: Volume Two: Trade Policy.

References
  • Abrams, Ann Uhry. The Pilgrims and Pocahontas: Rival Myths of American Origin. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.
  • Bridenbaugh, Carl. Vexed and Troubled Englishmen 1590-1642. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Margaret Sankey
    Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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