Marking the Death of John Rolfe – America’s First Entrepreneur
Tuesday, March 22nd, 2022, is the 400th anniversary of John Rolfe’s death. In his honor, my friend, Christine Dean, a retired College Lecturer, and fellow Pocahontas research enthusiast is planting a new mulberry tree at the Heacham Manor Hotel. Rolfe is my 12th great-grandfather. He 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. Heacham is ripe with history about my 12th great-grandfather John Rolfe 1585), and his Indian bride Pocahontas, daughter of Jamestown’s Virginia Native American Tribal Leader, Chief Powhatan.
Christine Dean has been researching her native Village of Heacham in Norfolk, England for nearly 30 years and has avidly saved, and helped share globally old films, books, documents, newly created posters, and models in many museums in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Bermuda. She and I have been among the over 50 volunteer researchers since 1925.
As he boarded the ship, “Sea Venture”, bound for Virginia in May 1609, John Rolfe entered history. Investors in the Virginia Company financed and sponsored the English colony founded at Jamestown in May 1607. Initially, the Company expected the colonists to begin industrial enterprises that would generate profits for them. However, until Rolfe’s introduction of tobacco as a cash crop around 1613, none of the colonists’ efforts to establish profitable enterprises were successful. Now suddenly, with Pocahontas present, John Rolfe succeeded in growing a crop Europeans would buy. The tobacco culture required very different techniques from European crops, and women were the agriculturalists in Chesapeake Algonquian society, so Pocahontas was the one who understood both the crop and the environment. Tobacco transformed Virginia from a money drain to economic success as smoking went from a pastime for the elite few in Europe to something everyone could afford. Tobacco cultivation required large amounts of land and labor and stimulated the rapid growth of the Virginia colony. Settlers moved onto the lands occupied by the Powhatan Indians, and increasing numbers of indentured servants came to Virginia.
The union of John Rolfe and Pocahontas in 1614 also changed the course of international history and united England, America’s Jamestown, Virginia Colony, and the Powhatan natives. Rolfe and Pocahontas’s fame established them as peacemakers. Their treaties with Pocahontas’ Father Chief Powhatan in 1614 brought 38 years of peace to the colony.
The Native American traveled to England in 1616 with her husband John Rolfe. Rolfe and Pocahontas spent 10 months in England and during that time Pocahontas collected seeds from mulberry trees around the UK and planted some in Heacham. Although, recent tests have proved inconclusive to establish the truth of a legend claiming that Pocahontas planted a mulberry tree in Heacham. There are also stories that King James I used to gift mulberry seeds to his many guests. Since Pocahontas is known to have met the English Royal court, perhaps she was given some of his prized mulberry seeds. It is said that before she died in Gravesend, Kent, in 1617 while visiting her husband’s family home in Heacham, she planted a mulberry tree in the area. The estimated 400-year-old mulberry tree still thrives at Heacham Manor.
About 1619, Rolfe married Jane Pierce, daughter of English colonist Captain William Pierce, who also had survived the shipwreck of the Sea Venture along with John in 1609. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1620. John Rolfe died in 1622 at his Varina Farms Plantation or “Varina on the James”, about 40 miles upstream from the first settlement at Jamestown in the Virginia Colony. The 37-year-old was a farmer. As with Pocahontas, it is not known how John Rolfe died. His death, however, roughly coincided with the attack on the colonists by the Powhatan Indians (March 22, 1622), as well as the destruction of his plantation at Bermuda Hundred. According to some, Rolfe was killed in the attack. Despite this, there is no factual documentation to support this theory and others believe he died from another cause. For example, while ill, Rolfe wrote his will. It is dated March 10, 1621.
Still, in the 21st century, several archival discoveries require preservation in Heritage Museums in England and America. Pocahontas descendant Rappahannock Chief Anne Nelson Richardson’s award-winning “Pocahontas Peace Projects’ have produced a series of films, lectures, and conferences.
Thanks to John Rolfe’s tobacco entrepreneurship, today, advances in tobacco “pharming” in Kentucky, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Thailand are delivering new medicines to fight COVID, tropical, and other deadly diseases. On January 7, 2022, the tobacco giant British American Tobacco announced the launch of a plant-based biotechnology company called KBio in the United Kingdom. It offers a new generation of biotech solutions with a demonstrated ability to create drug candidates at a fraction of the time and cost of current platforms. The company is focused on developing novel product candidates in two core areas: 1) Antibody therapies for areas of high unmet need; and 2) Pandemic preparedness and response for future pandemics using its plant-based production system to create antibodies and vaccines in shorter timeframes than industry norms.