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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Section of Lauderdale Drive to be closed April 26 for drainage improvements


The westbound lanes of Lauderdale Drive will be closed between John Rolfe Parkway and Cambridge Drive on Wednesday, April 26 for drainage improvements.

The lanes are expected to be closed from approximately 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Motorists will be detoured from westbound Lauderdale onto John Rolfe, Gayton Road and Cambridge before being directed back onto Lauderdale. > Read more.

Henrico Police to host prescription drug take-back event April 29


The Henrico County Division of Police and the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration will participate in the nationwide Prescription Drug Take Back Program Saturday, April 29. The event will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Henrico County Training Center, 7701 East Parham Road, next to the Public Safety Building.

The program is free and anonymous. Unused or expired pills, patches and liquid prescriptions (in their sealed original container) will be accepted. Needles and sharp items will not be accepted. No questions will be asked. > Read more.

Henrico home sales rose in March

Parts of the greater Richmond real estate market experienced an increase in the number of homes sold during the month of March, according to Long & Foster.

The number of homes sold increased in much of the Richmond region in March compared to year-ago levels. In Henrico County, the number of homes rose by 16 percent. Median sale prices varied in the Richmond region in March when compared to the same month last year. In both Hanover and Henrico counties, the median sale price rose by 10 percent. > Read more.

Henrico house fire contained quickly


APR. 24, 9:15 A.M. – A house fire in Henrico's West End Sunday caused minor damage but resulted in no injuries. At about noon Sunday, Henrico Emergency Communications Officers received phone calls of smoke coming from a home in the 1700 block of Shewalt Circle, just one block off Hungary Road. > Read more.

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The Jenkins Foundation has granted The McShin Foundation $25,000 for residential recovery services to serve those with a Substance Use Disorder. The Jenkins Foundation is focused on equitable access to health care services, as well as programs that help reduce risky behaviors and promote safe and healthy environments. The McShin Foundation was founded in 2004 and is Virginia's leading non-profit, full-service Recovery Community Organization (RCO), committed to serving individuals and families in their fight against Substance Use Disorders. > Read more.
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YMCA event will focus on teen mental health


The YMCA, in partnership with the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation and PartnerMD, will host a free event May 2 to help parents learn how to deal with teen mental health issues. “When the Band-Aid Doesn’t Fix It: A Mom’s Perspective on Raising a Child Who Struggles” will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Shady Grove Family YMCA,11255 Nuckols Road. The event will focus on education, awareness, and understanding the issues facing teens today. > Read more.

Villa’s Flagler Housing wins national NAEH award


St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.

Flagler completed its transition from an on-campus shelter to the community-based model of rapid rehousing in 2013, and it was one of the nation's first rapid re-housing service providers to be certified by NAEH. > Read more.
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Restaurant Watch


Find out how your favorite dining establishments fared during their most recent inspections by the Virginia Department of Health. > Read more.

 

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The Henrico Pops Chorus will present their spring concert “The Magic of Broadway” at 7:30 p.m. at the Henrico Theatre in Highland Springs. The Magic of Broadway offers a medley of Broadway musicals that display a little bit of magic including the legendary “Pippin,” “Camelot” and “Brigadoon” and the magical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Mary Poppins” and “My Fair Lady.” Admission is free. For details, call 501‐5859 or visit http://www.henrico.us/rec. Full text

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