John Rolfe was born in Norfolk, England, and was baptized on May 6, 1585. A political and business leader of Colonial America, John Rolfe is well-known as the husband of Pocahontas, the daughter of the chief of the Powhatan confederation of tribes. Rolfe is most remembered for successfully cultivating tobacco as an export of Virginia, cementing the colony’s economic stability. We would not have smokeless tobacco or cigarettes, nor would we have non-tobacco chew products, if not for Rolfe’s work.
Throughout the late 1500s, the tobacco trade centered almost entirely in Spain, which held a veritable monopoly on the lucrative crop. The reason for this was prime real estate. Spain established colonies in the New World that were in southern climates, offering a more optimal environment for tobacco growth than the colder, less forgiving English colonies.
Rolfe saw a great opportunity to compete against the lone Spanish tobacco monopoly. He obtained seeds for a popular strain of tobacco grown in Trinidad and South America and traveled to Jamestown, Virginia, aboard a chartered vessel organized by the Virginia Company. Unfortunately, the Sea Venture, the ship carrying Rolfe and his wife among its 150 passengers (plus one dog), was caught in a hurricane, forcing the ship onto the reefs of the Bermuda islands.
The crew and the passengers created a small settlement where they lived for ten months while they built two ships to continue their voyage to Virginia. Not everyone survived the ordeal. Among the dead were Rolfe’s wife and infant daughter, both of whom were buried in Bermuda.
The newly constructed ships set sail and finally arrived in the Virginian colony in May of 1610. Jamestown was an absolute mess by the time Rolfe and his fellow castaways arrived. Only 60 settlers remained alive in town, and after settling and receiving relief, Rolfe began his work with tobacco.
The Growth of the Cash Crop
The Spanish colonies certainly had the warmer climates on their side, but the main problem with tobacco from Virginia was that it just wasn’t good. English settlers didn’t like the stuff, nor did the English market.
Rolfe’s goal was to introduce the sweeter, more pleasant strains he had obtained from Trinidad, and in 1611, Rolfe successfully cultivated Nicotiana tabacum plants in North America. Virginia began exporting the plant in 1612, helping the floundering colony with a sustainable, profitable product.
Rolfe named this new strain Orinoco tobacco, and its appeal came from its nicotine content. Tobacco quickly became a cash crop and a mainstay of farming plantations for centuries. Even now, the tobacco used in cigarettes, chew, and mint snuff is the same that was originally cultivated by John Rolfe.
Rolfe’s true legacy is his contribution to Colonial America’s trade. The economic growth, the formation of plantations and cash crops, paved the way for America’s growth and eventual independence.