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.
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."
The threat of bad weather didn’t keep visitors away from Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden July 10 for the facility’s weekly Flowers After 5 event (which pairs music and food with a chance to stroll the garden) and its monthly Fidos After 5 (which allows dog owners to bring their pets with them to enjoy the evening). > Read more.
Thanks in part to a $10,000 gift from the Western Henrico Rotary Club, another bright pink Jeep modified to travel extremely rough terrain has been delivered to Midwives For Haiti so that more pregnant women in the quake-ravaged country will have access to prenatal care and a greater chance of surviving childbirth.
The funds were raised at the annual casino night held in February, club president Adam Cherry said. The Rotary Club also helped purchase the Virginia-based charity’s first pink jeep three years ago. > Read more.
Canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts soon will have a new access point to the Chickahominy River. VDOT, the James River Association and Henrico County Parks and Recreation are teaming up to establish a new site in Eastern Henrico.
The James River Association negotiated the deal with VDOT to procure official access to the area located just east of I-295 on North Airport Road in Sandston. The site includes a park-and-ride commuter lot bordering the Chickahominy River and has been an unofficial launch site used by paddlers for years. > Read more.
An eclectic array of events are taking place this weekend throughout the county. In the West End, we have the Richmond Wedding Expo, the Under the Stars Family Film Series and Henrico Theatre Company’s production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” In the eastern part of the county, we have a blood drive at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center, Gallmeyer Farm’s annual Sweet Corn Festival and an origami workshop at Fairfield Library. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
Charlottesville's Bella’s Restaurant recently opened a location in Short Pump Village, at 11408 West Broad Street. The restaurant is owned by Valeria Biesnti, a native of Rome who arrived in the U.S. at age 21 and later became a U.S. citizen. With her restaurants, Bisenti has sought to create an ambiance that welcomes diners in a casual setting, like her favorites from her hometown. > Read more.
A Henrico native will appear on the third episode of the Travel Channel's new grilling competition series “American Grilled.”
The episode, filmed in Charlottesville, will premier July 16 at 9 p.m. and feature Glen Allen-native Rex Holmes, a patent lawyer who operates http://SavoryReviews.com a blo,g centered around tasty recipes and BBQ.
The show features hardcore grilling enthusiasts from across the country going head-to-head for a chance to compete for a $10,000 cash prize and bragging rights when they are crowned the ultimate “grill master.” > Read more.
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