Not much is known about Rolfe’s early life except that he was born around 1585 and was probably the son of a small landholder in Norfolk. In June 1609, Rolfe and his wife sailed for North America aboard the Sea Venture, as part of a new charter organized by the Virginia Company. The ship was caught in a hurricane in the Caribbean and wrecked on one of the Bermuda islands. The group finally arrived in Virginia, near the Jamestown settlement, in May 1610, and Rolfe’s wife died soon after their arrival.
Native Americans living in the region around Jamestown spoke the Algonquin language, and were organized into a network of different tribes led by Chief Powhatan. One of the chief’s daughters was Matoaka, who as a child was nicknamed Pocahontas (“Little Mischief”). The English settlers at Jamestown had known of Pocahontas since 1607, when she was only around 10 years old. Captain John Smith later wrote that the young princess rescued him from death when Powhatan held him captive in December 1607.
In 1613, the English captured Pocahontas and held her for ransom.
While in captivity, she studied English, converted to Christianity and was baptized with the name Rebecca. John Rolfe is credited by Ralph Hamor, then Secretary of Virginia, with the experiment of planting the first tobacco seeds that 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 a triall of,” and they agreed that the new leaf had “smoked pleasant, sweete and strong. ” The remainder of the crop was shipped to England, where it compared favorably with “Spanish” leaf. 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.