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Sat, 05.04.1585

John Rolfe, Businessman, and Slave Owner born

Rolfe marrying Pocahontas

*The birth of John Rolfe is celebrated on this date in 1585. He was a white English slave owner, tobacco planter, and part of the American colonial First Family of Virginia.

John Rolfe was born in Heacham, Norfolk, England, the son of John Rolfe and Dorothea Mason, and was baptized on May 6, 1585. At that time, Spain held a virtual monopoly on the lucrative tobacco trade in the America’s. Most Spanish colonies in the New World were in southern climates more favorable to tobacco growth than the English settlements.

A project of the proprietary Virginia Company of London, Jamestown had been established by an initial group of settlers on May 14, 1607. This colony proved as troubled as earlier English settlements. Two return trips with supplies by Christopher Newport arrived in 1608, while another large relief fleet was dispatched in 1609, carrying hundreds of new settlers and supplies across the Atlantic. Heading the Third Supply fleet was the new flagship of the Virginia Company, the Sea Venture, carrying Rolfe and his wife, Sarah Hacker. As the consumption of tobacco had increased, the balance of trade between England and Spain began to be seriously affected. Rolfe was one of several businessmen who saw the opportunity to undercut Spanish imports by growing tobacco in England's new colony in Virginia.

Through his middle passage connections, he had obtained seeds to take with him from a special popular strain, then being grown in Trinidad, South America, even though Spain had declared a penalty of death to anyone selling such seeds to a non-Spaniard. On April 5, 1614, Rolfe married Pocahontas, daughter of the Native American leader Powhatan. A year earlier, Alexander Whitaker had converted Pocahontas to Christianity and renamed her "Rebecca" when she was baptized. Richard Buck officiated their wedding. Their marriage created a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan's tribes for several years; in 1615, Ralph Hamor wrote that "Since the wedding, we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powhatan but also with his subjects round about us." Their son, Thomas Rolfe, was born in January 1615. Powhatan gave the newlyweds property just across the James River from Jamestown. They never lived on the land, which spanned thousands of acres, and instead lived for two years on Rolfe's plantation, Varina Farms, across the James River from the new community of Henricus.

Slavery

Rolfe’s plantation used African slave labor mainly to cultivate tobacco. Here is his first-hand account of this practice:  “About the last of August [1619] came in a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars [this was the first introduction of Negro slavery into Virginia]: and Jealous King of Patawomeck, came to James town, to desire two ships to come trade-in his River, for a more plentiful years of Corne, had not been in a long time, yet very contagious, and by the treachery of one Poule, in a manner turned heathen, we were very jealous the Salvages would surprise us. The Governors have bounded four Corporations, which is the Companies, the University, the Governors and Gleabe land: Ensigned Wil. Spencer, and Thomas Barret a Sergeant, with some others of the ancient Planters being set free, were the first farmers that went forth; and have chosen places to their content: so that now knowing their own land, they strive who should exceed in building and planting.”  

John and Rebecca Rolfe traveled to England on the Treasurer in 1615 with their young son. They arrived at the port of Plymouth on June 12. Rebecca was widely received as visiting royalty but settled in Brentford. However, as they were preparing to return to Virginia in March 1617, Rebecca (Pocahontas) became ill and died. Her body was interred in St George's Church, Gravesend. Their two-year-old son Thomas survived and was adopted by Sir Lewis Stukley and later by John's brother, Henry Rolfe. John and Tomocomo returned to Virginia.

In 1619, Rolfe married Jane Pierce, daughter of the English colonist Captain William Pierce. They had a daughter, Elizabeth who married John Milner of Nansemond, Virginia, and died in 1635. John Rolfe died in the Indian massacre of 1622. His widow Jane married Englishman Captain Roger Smith three years later. The land given by Powhatan was willed to Thomas Rolfe, who in 1640 sold at least a portion of it to Thomas Warren.

Thomas Rolfe, who had grown up in England, returned to Virginia as an adult and married Jane Poythress. Poythress's English parents were Francis Poythress and Alice Payton. Thomas and Jane Rolfe had one child, Jane Rolfe, who married Robert Bolling and had a son, John Bolling, in 1676. Jane Rolfe died shortly after giving birth. John Bolling married Mary Kennon, daughter of Richard Kennon and Elizabeth Worsham of Conjurer's Neck. The couple had six surviving children, each of whom married and had surviving children. John Rolfe died in 1622.

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