Chronicles of America 

John Rolfe and Tobacco

Those ships that brought colonists were in every instance expected to return to England laden with the commodities of Virginia. At first cargoes of precious ores were looked for. These failing, the Company must take from Virginia what lay at hand and what might be suited to English needs. In 1610 the Company issued a paper of instructions upon this subject of Virginia commodities. The daughter was expected to send to the mother country sassafras root, bay berries, puccoon, sarsaparilla, walnut, chestnut, and chinquapin oil, wine, silk grass, beaver cod, beaver and otter skins, clapboard of oak and walnut, tar, pitch, turpentine, and powdered sturgeon.

It might seem that Virginia was headed to become a land of fishers, of foresters, and vine dressers, perhaps even, when the gold should be at last discovered, of miners. At home, the colonizing merchants and statesmen looked for some such thing. In return for what she laded into ships, Virginia was to receive English-made goods, and to an especial degree woolen goods, "a very liberall utterance of our English cloths into a maine country described to be bigger than all Europe." There was to be direct trade, country kind for country kind, and no specie to be taken out of England. The promoters at home doubtless conceived a hardy and simple trans-Atlantic folk of their own kindred, planters for their own needs, steady consumers of the plainer sort of English wares, steady gatherers, in return, of necessaries for which England otherwise must trade after a costly fashion with lands which were not always friendly. A simple, sturdy, laborious Virginia, white men and Indians. If this was their dream, reality was soon to modify it.

A new commodity of unsuspected commercial value began now to be grown in garden-plots along the James -- the "weed" par excellence, tobacco. That John Rolfe who had been shipwrecked on the Sea Adventure was now a planter in Virginia. His child Bermuda had died in infancy, and his wife soon after their coming to Jamestown. Rolfe remained, a young man, a good citizen, and a Christian. And he loved tobacco. On that trivial fact hinges an important chapter in the economic history of America. In 1612 Rolfe planted tobacco in his own garden, experimented with its culture, and prophesied that the Virginian weed would rank with the best Spanish. It was now a shorter plant, smaller-leafed and smaller-flowered, but time and skilful gardening would improve it.

England had known tobacco for thirty years, owing its introduction to Raleigh. At first merely amused by the New World rarity, England was now by general use turning a luxury into a necessity. More and more she received through Dutch and Spanish ships tobacco from the Indies. Among the English adventurers to Virginia some already knew the uses of the weed; others soon learned from the Indians. Tobacco was perhaps not indigenous to Virginia, but had probably come through southern tribes who in turn had gained it from those who knew it in its tropic habitat. Now, however, tobacco was grown by all Virginia Indians, and was regarded as the Great Spirit's best gift. In the final happy hunting-ground, kings, werowances, and priests enjoyed it forever. When, in the time after the first landing, the Indians brought gifts to the adventurers as to beings from a superior sphere, they offered tobacco as well as comestibles like deer-meat and mulberries. Later, in England and in Virginia, there was some suggestion that it might be cultivated among other commodities. But the Company, not to be diverted from the path to profits, demanded from Virginia necessities and not new-fangled luxuries. Nevertheless, a little tobacco was sent over to England, and then a little more, and then a larger quantity. In less than five years it had become a main export; and from that time to this profoundly has it affected the life of Virginia and, indeed, of the United States.


A title used for chiefs in the Powhatan Indian Tribe.

This then is the wide and general event with which John Rolfe is connected. But there is also a narrower, personal happening that has pleased all these centuries. Indian difficulties yet abounded, but Dale, administrator as well as man of Mars, wound his way skillfully through them all. Powhatan brooded to one side, over there at Werowocomoco. Captain Samuel Argall was again in Virginia, having brought over sixty-two colonists in his ship, the Treasurer. A bold and restless man, explorer no less than mariner, he again went trading up the Potomac, and visited upon its banks the village of Japazaws, kinsman of Powhatan. Here he found no less a personage than Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas. An idea came into Argall's active and somewhat unscrupulous brain. He bribed Japazaws with a mighty gleaming copper kettle, and by that chief's connivance took Pocahontas from the village above the Potomac. He brought her captive in his boat down the Chesapeake to the mouth of the James and so up the river to Jamestown, here to be held hostage for an Indian peace. This was in 1613.

Pocahontas stayed by the James, in the rude settlers' town, which may have seemed to the Indian girl stately and wonderful enough. Here Rolfe made her acquaintance, here they talked together, and here, after some scruples on his part as to "heathennesse," they were married. He writes of "her desire to be taught and instructed in the knowledge of God; her capableness of understanding; her aptnesse and willingnesse to recieve anie good impression, and also the spiritual, besides her owne incitements stirring me up hereunto." First she was baptized, receiving the name Rebecca, and then she was married to Rolfe in the flower-decked church at Jamestown. Powhatan was not there, but he sent young chiefs, her brothers, in his place. Rolfe had lands and cabins thereupon up the river near Henricus. He called this place Varina, the best Spanish tobacco being Varinas. Here he and Pocahontas dwelled together "civilly and lovingly." When two years had passed the couple went with their infant son upon a visit to England. There court and town and country flocked to see the Indian "princess." After a time she and Rolfe would go back to Virginia. But at Gravesend, before their ship sailed, she was stricken with smallpox and died, making "a religious and godly end," and there at Gravesend she is buried. Her son, Thomas Rolfe, who was brought up in England, returned at last to Virginia and lived out his life there with his wife and children. Today no small host of Americans have for ancestress the daughter of Powhatan. In England-in-America the immediate effect of the marriage was really to procure an Indian peace outlasting Pocahontas's brief life.

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