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Document Number: AJ-079
Author: Rolfe, John, 1585-1622
Title: Letter of John Rolfe, 1614
Source: Tyler, Lyon Gardiner (editor). Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907). Pages 237-244.
Pages/Illustrations: 10 / 0
Citable URL: www.americanjourneys.org/aj-079/

Author Note:

John Rolfe (1585 - 1622) was a member of a group of settlers who journeyed to Jamestown in 1609. Rolfe’s infant daughter died on the journey to Virginia. His wife died shortly after arriving at the colony. Rolfe served as recorder for the colony from 1614 to 1619. He married Princess Pocahontas, the daughter of the Native American chief Powhatan, in 1614, and they had one son, Thomas Rolfe. In 1616, John Rolfe returned to England with his wife Pocahontas. Rolfe returned to Jamestown after Pocahontas’ death on March 21, 1617. Rolfe became a landowner and married Jane Peirce before his death in 1622.

Jamestown Settlement, 1607-1625

In 1606, the London Company received a royal charter from King James I to organize an expedition and establish colonies in North America. The Plymouth Company would establish the short-lived colony in Maine (see AJ-042). The Virginia Company set up England’s first permanent colony in Jamestown, Virginia. Their primary goal was profit; investors hoped settlers would find valuable natural resources, such as lumber, herbs, pitch, and even gold, to send back to England. However, the English government also wanted to resist the Spanish colonization of North America (see AJ-077 for the report of a Spaniard on the Jamestown colony.) One hundred and four men and boys came ashore in May 1607-no women arrived until the following year. Over the next three years almost eight hundred settlers would arrive to colonize the Virginia coasts-six hundred of them arriving in 1609. Unfortunately, Jamestown was not an ideal spot for a colony. The low marshy land was not healthy, and clean water could be difficult to find. Attacks by the Powhatan Indians began shortly after the English colonists built their first fort at the Jamestown site. Fighting between the English and Indians continued, despite the settlers’ reliance on the Indians for corn during the difficult winters. In addition, many of the settlers were hardly qualified to farm and survive in this difficult setting. During the first years, mortality was very high through disease, starvation, and accident.

Captain John Smith was elected president in September 1608 (see AJ-074 and AJ-075). By enforcing strict discipline and requiring all settlers to farm, he increased the food supply. However, a serious injury in 1609 forced his return to England. One of the original settlers, George Percy (see AJ-073), was president of the Virginia’s council during the winter of 1609 and 1610, called the “starving time” when only sixty settlers survived. In June 1610, they decided to abandon the town, but the arrival of the new governor, Lord De La Ware (see AJ-076) and his supply ships brought the colonists back to the fort. In 1612, the settlers began to grow tobacco on their plantations-over time, this successful crop transformed the colony into a successful venture. John Rolfe is credited with first planting a marketable tobacco in Virginia. In 1619, the same year Africans were brought into the colony as slaves, the first representative assembly in North America was set up-the Virginia Assembly. In 1624, the Virginia Company dissolved and Virginia became a royal colony under the governance of the English Crown.

Document Note

John Rolfe wrote the letter to Sir Thomas Dale, the deputy governor of the colony, asking Dale to approve of his marriage to Princess Pocahontas. Rolfe attempted to explain why he, a devout Christian, desired to marry Pocahontas. He believed that his marriage was good for the colony and that he would be able to further the spread of Christian ideals through his role in Pocahontas’ conversion. Rolfe also conveyed that he and Pocahontas loved each other and that their union would not compromise his standing in the colony, or the Church. The letter was first published in Ralph Hamor’s tract A True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia and the Successe of the Affaires There Till the 18 of June, 1614 (London, 1615). The document shown here is from Tyler, Lyon Gardiner (editor), Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907).

Other Internet and Reference Sources

The Jamestown Rediscovery archaeology project website at “http://www.apva.org/jr.html contains historical summaries, a timeline, biographies, and description of the archaeological findings made at Jamestown. Their biography of Pocahontas is at http://www.apva.org/history/pocahont.html.

At the Virtual Jamestown website, you can find other first-hand accounts of the Jamestown settlement (see http://www.iath.virginia.edu/vcdh/jamestown/fhaccounts_date.html.

The Public Broadcasting Station website on the history of Africans in America presents a narrative of the early years of Virginia’s history and explores the settlers’ difficult relationship with the Native Americans and the introduction of black slavery at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/title.html.

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