John Rolfe (c. May 6, 1585 - 1622) was one of the early English settlers of North America. He is credited with the first successful cultivation of tobacco as an export crop in the Colony of Virginia and is known as the husband of Pocahontas, daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Confederacy.
Rolfe was baptized on May 6, 1585 in Norfolk, England, as the son of John Rolfe, Sr. and Dorothea Mason. As the consumption of tobacco increased in the New World, the balance of trade between England and Spain began to be seriously affected. After Rolfe reached adulthood, he became a businessman who saw the opportunity to undercut Spanish imports by growing tobacco in England's new colony in Virginia. He boarded the Third Supply fleet from England in May 1609 destined for Jamestown, Virginia, with seven large ships. In May 1610, the two newly constructed ships set sail from Bermuda after a large storm. On arrival at Jamestown, they found the Virginia Colony almost destroyed by famine and disease during what became known as the Starving Time. The arrival of another relief fleet commanded by Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, on June 10, 1610 allowed the colony to survive. After finally setting in, Rolfe began his long-delayed work with tobacco. In 1611, he commercially cultivated a sweeter strain of tobacco plants in North America. Export of this sweeter tobacco in 1612 helped turn the colony into a profitable venture. His first harvest of four barrels of tobacco leaf was exported to England in March 1614.
In order to grow tobacco, the Virginia Company needed field laborers. Immigration jumped in 1618, when the company introduced the headright system, offering 50 acres of land to "adventurers" who would pay their own or anothers' transportation from England. Many of those who arrived in Virginia, however, came as indentured servants, who were mainly from the lower classes of English society, and therefore had little to lose by leaving for a new world. The first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia abroad a Dutch merchant ship in 1619. After a few years, most of them received land and freedom. It would be several decades before the English colonists began the systematic use of enslaved Africans as laborers.
Rolfe died in 1622 after his plantation was destroyed in a Native American attack. It remains unclear whether Rolfe died in the massacre or whether he died as a result of illness.
Rolfe married first to Sarah Hacker in 1608. She died after the birth of her child, Bermuda.
- Bermuda Rolfe (1609-1610) - infant.
Rolfe married second to Pocahontas on April 5, 1614. She was the daughter of the local Native American chief Powhatan. The couple held property just across the James River from Jamestown. They lived on Rolfe's plantation. Their marriage created a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan's tribes for several years. Pocahontas became ill and died in March 1617 while the couple prepared to return from a trip to England.
Rolfe married third to Jane Pierce.
- Elizabeth Rolfe - m. John Milner