John Rolfe stepped into history in May 1609 when he boarded the Sea Venture bound for Virginia. The Sea Venture was the flagship of a convoy of 500 new settlers including William Strachey, future Secretary for the colony. In July a massive hurricane scattered the fleet, and the Sea Venture ran aground just off the Bermudas. All of its 150 people safely reached shore and salvaged much of the ship’s supplies for what would be a 10-month stay. While on Bermuda, Rolfe’s wife gave birth to a daughter who was christened Bermuda, but the child died there. Rolfe’s wife also died. By the spring of 1610 the survivors had made two smaller ships from cedar trees and salvage from the shipwreck. The Patience and the Deliverance reached the Chesapeake Bay after 10 days sailing.
Rolfe and his fellow Sea Venture survivors found a colony struggling to return profits to its sponsors in the Virginia Company. The colonists had tried silk making, glassmaking, lumber, sassafras, pitch and tar, and soap ashes, with no financial success. Rolfe experimented with tobacco, which until that point had been controlled on European markets by the Spanish. Ralph Hamor, Secretary of Virginia, said Rolfe used tobacco seeds he obtained from somewhere in the Caribbean, possibly from Trinidad. “I may not forget the gentleman worthie of much commendations, which first tooke the pains to make triall thereof, his name Mr. John Rolfe, Anno Domini 1612, partly for the love he hath a long time borne unto it, and partly to raise commodity to the adventurers….” Rolfe gave some tobacco from his crop to friends “to make triall of,” and they agreed the new leaf “smoked pleasant, sweete and strong.” The remainder of the crop was shipped to England where it compared favorably with “Spanish” leaf.
In 1613 Pocahontas, “dearest daughter” of Chief Powhatan, was kidnapped and brought to Jamestown to be traded for English prisoners and weapons that Powhatan held. That exchange never took place. Pocahontas learned English and Christianity—and came to the attention of Rolfe, a pious man who agonized for many weeks over his wish to marry a “heathen.” He composed a long, laborious letter to Governor Dale asking for permission to marry Pocahontas. The letter reflected Rolfe’s dilemma: “It is Pocahontas to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled, and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth that I [could not] unwind myself thereout.” Pocahontas ultimately converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca, and the wedding took place in April 1614. It resulted in peace with the Indians long enough for the settlers to develop and expand their colony on the strength of their new cash crop, tobacco.
In 1616 Rolfe took his wife and infant son, Thomas, to England. The couple spent months in the highest circles of London society, but Pocahontas died at Gravesend, England, seven months later on their return to Virginia. Rolfe left his son in the care of a guardian in England and returned to his adopted home. In Virginia he became a councilor and sat as a member of the House of Burgesses. He married Jane Pierce, daughter of a colonist, and continued his efforts to improve the quality and quantity of Virginia tobacco. By 1617 tobacco exports to England totaled 20,000 pounds. The next year shipments more than doubled. Twelve years later, one and a half million pounds were exported. The first great American enterprise had been established. John Rolfe died sometime in 1622. Although a third of the colony was killed in the Indian uprising of that year, it is not known how Rolfe died.
In 2006 Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists working in a James Fort well discovered numerous seeds. Soil from the well was sent to an archaeobotantist, an expert in the identification of plant remains from archaeological contexts. Among the seeds identified were tobacco seeds, likely the same strain of tobacco that Rolfe had famously introduced to Virginia.