Biography of John Rolfe, British Colonist Who Married Pocahontas

Marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, 1855
Painting depicting the marriage ceremony of British colonist John Rolfe (1585–1622) to Native American Pocahontas (1595–1617), the daughter of Chief Powhatan of the Algonquian tribe, in 1614. After a painting by Henry Brueckner, circa 1855.

 Kean Collection/Getty Images

John Rolfe (1585–1622) was a British colonist of the Americas. He was an important figure in Virginia politics and an entrepreneur who played a significant role in founding the Virginia tobacco trade. However, he is best known as the man who married Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan, head of the Powhatan confederacy of Algonquin tribes. 

Fast Facts: John Rolfe

  • Known For: British colonist who married Pocahontas 
  • Born: October 17, 1562 in Heacham, England 
  • Died: March 1622 in Henrico, Virginia 
  • Spouses' Names: Sarah Hacker (m. 1608–1610), Pocahontas (m. 1614–1617), Jane Pierce (m. 1619) 
  • Children's Names: Thomas Rolfe (son of Pocahontas), Elizabeth Rolfe (daughter of Jane Pierce)

Early Years 

Rolfe was born on Oct. 17, 1562 to a wealthy family in Heacham, England. His family owned Heacham manor and his father was a successful merchant in Lynn. 

Not much is known about Rolfe's education or life in England, but in July of 1609, he left for Virginia on the Sea-Venture, the flagship of several vessels carrying settlers and provisions and the first group of government officials to the new colony at Jamestown. 

Shipwrecked in Bermuda

Rolfe brought with him his first wife, Sarah Hacker. The Sea-Venture was wrecked in a storm on the Bermudas, but all the passengers survived and Rolfe and his wife stayed on Bermuda for eight months. There they had a daughter, who they named Bermuda, and—importantly for his future career—Rolfe may have obtained samples of West Indies tobacco.  

Rolfe lost both his first wife and daughter in Bermuda. Rolfe and the surviving shipwrecked passengers left Bermuda in 1610. When they arrived in May 1610, the Virginia colony had just suffered through the "starving time," a grim period in early American history. Over the winter of 1609–1610, the colonists were beset by plague and yellow fever, and sieges by the local inhabitants. An estimated three-quarters of the English colonists of Virginia died of starvation or starvation-related diseases that winter. 

Tobacco

Between 1610 and 1613, Rolfe experimented with the native tobacco at his home in Henricus and succeeded in producing a leaf that was more pleasing to the British palate. His version was named the Orinoco, and it was developed from the combination of a local version and seeds from Trinidad that he had brought with him from Spain or perhaps obtained in Bermuda. He is also credited with inventing a curing process to prevent rot during the long sea voyage to England, as well as the dampness of the English climate. 

By 1614, active exports of tobacco were being sent back to England, and Rolfe is often credited as the first person to suggest cultivating tobacco as a cash crop in the Americas, the major source of income for Virginia for centuries to follow.

Marrying Pocahontas 

Throughout this period, the Jamestown colony continued to suffer from an adversarial relationship with the Native American inhabitants, the Powhatan tribe. In 1613, Captain Samuel Argall kidnapped Powhatan's favorite daughter, Pocahontas, and eventually, she was brought to Henricus. There she received religious instruction from the settlement's minister, Rev. Alexander Whitaker, and converted to Christianity, taking the name Rebecca. She also met John Rolfe. 

Rolfe married her around April 5, 1614, after sending a letter to the governor of Virginia asking for permission to do so, "for the good of the Plantation, the honor of our Country, for the Glory of God, for my own salvation, and for the Converting to the true knowledge of Jesus Christ an unbelieving Creature, namely Pocahontas." 

A Temporary Peace

After Rolfe married Pocahontas, relationships between the British settlers and Pocahontas' tribe settled into a time of friendly commerce and trade. That freedom created opportunities to build up the colony as it had not seen before. 

Pocahontas had a son, Thomas Rolfe, born in 1615, and on April 21, 1616, Rolfe and his family joined an expedition back to Britain to publicize the Virginia colony. In England, Pocahontas as the "Lady Rebecca" was received enthusiastically: among other events, she attended "The Vision of Delight," a royal court masque written by Ben Jonson for King James I and his wife Queen Anne. 

Return to Virginia

In March of 1616, Rolfe and Pocahontas started for home, but she was ill and died aboard the ship before it left England. She was buried at Gravesend; their infant son, too ill to survive the voyage, was left behind to be raised by Rolfe's brother Henry. 

Before and after Rolfe returned to his estate in Henricus, he held several prominent positions in the Jamestown colony. He was named Secretary in 1614 and in 1617 held the office of Recorder General.  

Death and Legacy

In 1620, Rolfe married Jane Pierce, the daughter of Captain William Pierce, and they had a daughter named Elizabeth. In 1621, the Virginia colony began actively raising funds for the College of Henricus, a boarding school for young Native Americans to train them to become more English. 

Rolfe grew ill in 1621, and he wrote a will, which was drawn up in Jamestown on March 10th of 1621. The will was eventually probated in London on May 21, 1630, and that copy has survived. 

Rolfe died in 1622, a few weeks before the "Great Indian Massacre" of March 22, 1622, led by Pocahontas's uncle Opechancanough. Nearly 350 of the British colonists were killed, ending the uneasy peace which had been established, and nearly putting an end to Jamestown itself.

John Rolfe had a significant impact on the Jamestown colony in Virginia, in his marriage to Pocahontas which established an eight-year-long peace, and in the creation of a cash crop, tobacco, on which the fledgling colonies could use to survive economically. 

Sources