Rolfe’s tobacco crop launched a country

In June 1609, while voyaging from England to the Virginia colony, John Rolfe found himself on an unplanned, fateful layover in an island paradise.

A four-day storm (the same one that is said to have inspired Shakespeare's "The Tempest") scattered and destroyed ships, and Rolfe, his wife Sarah, and several other passengers were stranded in Bermuda.

During the next year, while the 100-or-so castaways built two new ships to finish the trip to Jamestown, Sarah gave birth to the Rolfes' daughter, Bermuda. Neither Sarah or her infant daughter – said to be the first English child born in Bermuda – survived for long afterwards, however. A few years after landing in Jamestown in May 1610, Rolfe named his plantation Bermuda Hundred for his daughter.

Some historians believe that during his Bermuda experience, Rolfe found tobacco seeds. But regardless of whether he obtained seeds there, he soon began experimenting in earnest with the blending and cultivating of various strains of tobacco.

Within a few years, Rolfe had created a new variety of tobacco that became immensely popular when it was shipped to England, providing the proverbial shot in the arm to a Virginia economy that was practically in its death throes.

Rolfe's success with the "green gold" transformed the struggling colony into a prosperous commercial center, established the basis for a thriving agricultural economy, and provided the economic incentive Europeans needed for expanded investment and settlement in Virginia.

For its role in saving the colony and shaping the future development of the New World, the success of John Rolfe's tobacco crop ranks No. 1 on the Henrico Citizen's list of the most significant events in Henrico's 400-year history.

Green gold
Agricultural Specialist Lindsay Gray of Henricus Historical Park, who has cultivated tobacco for 12 years at Henricus and Meadow Farm Museum, can appreciate the challenges Rolfe faced as he developed the new strain (a practice known as "sporting").

Tobacco does not grow easily from seeds, says Gray, speculating that Rolfe probably worked with "sets" of plants – similar to small tomato plants – as he conducted what he called his "trialls." Once he coaxed the plants through the difficult nursery phase, Rolfe still had to fend off insect pests such as the flea beetle.

A pipe smoker, Rolfe determined that native strains of tobacco grown by the Powhatan Indians were too harsh and would never catch on in Europe. Obtaining seeds from strains of Trinidad, Orinoco and perhaps Spanish tobacco, Rolfe most likely planted native and imported sets side by side – "near enough to interpollinate," says Gray.

Although there is no record that Rolfe ever lived at Henricus, it was likely the site of one of the "field stations" where he conducted his tests, says Gray. Through his "trialls," Rolfe perfected a fragrant blend that was not only milder and sweeter than the native tobacco, but also well-suited to Virginia growing conditions.

At a 2004 brown bag lecture about Henricus, Dr. Dennis A.J. Morey described the impetus for what Rolfe did next.

“The Virginia Company,” said Morey, “kept urging the settlers, ‘Don’t send the ships back empty. Send us something we can sell!’"

So Rolfe shipped part of his crop back to England in 1614 -- and soon had a hit on his hands.

In short order, tobacco became the primary crop and export at Henricus. Although considered inferior to fine Spanish tobacco, the mellow Virginia strain pleased palates not only in England, but also among the Dutch and the French.

As Louis Manarin tells it in The History of Henrico County, "By 1619, 'Virginia went tobacco mad.'

“This was a breakthrough,” said Morey, “because Rolfe established a commercial justification for the settlement. Till then it was strictly a military presence.”

Pocahontas and Varina Farms
Having married the Indian princess Pocahontas in 1614 (visit http://www.HenricoCitizen.com to read a July 2011 article), Rolfe now lived at his farm just across the James River from Henricus.

Because he thought his combination resembled a variety from Barinas, Spain, Rolfe named his tobacco – and his farm – Varina. At Varina Farms, Pocahontas probably worked alongside her husband in the tobacco fields at some point; in 1615, she gave birth to the couple's son, Thomas.

Two years later, during a family trip to England, Pocahontas contracted pneumonia (or perhaps tuberculosis) and died. Rolfe returned home to Virginia, leaving Thomas in England to get an education. He never saw his son again; but at the age of 20, Thomas Rolfe moved back to Virginia and claimed his parents' land.

Continuing to farm tobacco at his Bermuda Hundred plantation, John Rolfe remarried and had a daughter. In 1622, the same year that an Indian massacre wiped out Henricus, Rolfe died. It is not known whether he died in the massacre, but there are indications that he was ill, and he had made out his will the previous year.

From bust to boom
In May 2000, as part of an effort to promote John Rolfe's and Henricus' role in the development of the tobacco industry, Philip Morris USA (now Altria) lent 500 of its employees to the effort to establish Henricus Historical Park's first pathways and exhibit areas.

Today, with the help of additional financial support from Altria, the John Rolfe Farm exhibit includes the tobacco barn and fields where Lindsay Gray and other interpreters use 17th-century tools and methods to demonstrate the fashion in which Rolfe would have tended his crop.

A relative unknown in his own time, John Rolfe likely died unaware of his role in creating the New World's first cash crop and would no doubt be amazed that his tobacco blend has been venerated to such status.

But while Rolfe's crop failed to provide the get-rich-quick scenario that Virginia Company investors may have been seeking, says Gray, it was plentiful – and plenty lucrative.

"This wasn't quick wealth, but it was steady," says Gray, noting that even then, indulging in tobacco tended to become a habit.

And at a price of one to three shillings, it was an inexpensive indulgence as well. "Once they became accustomed to tobacco," says Gray, "they were not likely to give it up."

In contrast to the preceding decade, when commercial interest in the colony had dwindled (along with the population) to next to nothing, the spike in tobacco production of the 1620s produced a corresponding spike in migration.

The wave of new settlers, who scattered their farms up and down the rivers of Virginia's tidewater region, launched a population boom that even the massacre failed to decimate, and yanked the colony back from the brink of economic bust.

Quite simply, as Gray sums up, "Tobacco was Virginia's economic savior."
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The Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond will present “Soil” at 7:30 p.m. in Alice Jepson Theatre. “Soil” is a dance theater trio that explores crisis in three Southeast Asian cultures through the personal narratives of Cambodian classical dancer Chey Chankethya, Thai traditional and contemporary dancer Waewdao Sirisook, and Vietnamese-American contemporary dancer Nguyen Nguyen. Conceived by Michael Sakamoto and developed in collaboration with the performers, “Soil” includes dance and incidental music by Japanese koto and guitar duo Reiko Imanishi and Shinichi Isohata. Tickets are $40. Stay after the performance for a post-show discussion with the performers. For details, call 289-8980 or visit http://www.modlin.richmond.edu. Full text

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