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."
With a nod to Arbor Day, Citizen seeks photos, descriptions of significant Henrico trees
Citizen Staff Reports 04/28/2015
Do you have a favorite tree in Henrico?
Do you know of a tree with an interesting story?
Do you live near an especially large, old, or otherwise unusual tree – or do you pass by one that has always intrigued you?
Arbor Day 2015 (April 24) was last week, and though the Citizen has published stories about a few special trees over the years (see sidebar) we know that our readers can lead us to more. > Read more.
Henrico's most famous tree, known as the Surrender Tree, still stood for more than a century near the intersection of Osborne Turnpike and New Market Road -- until June 2012.
It was in the shade of that tree on April 3, 1865, that Richmond mayor Joseph Mayo met Major Atherton Stevens and troops from the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry and handed over a note surrendering the city to Federal troops. Evacuation had already begun. > Read more.
The Greater Richmond ARC's annual Ladybug Wine Tasting and Silent Auction on April 11 netted $75,165 to benefit its Infant and Child Development Services (ICDS) program.
About 350 guests sampled fine West Coast wines and craft beer from Midnight Brewery at Richmond Raceway Complex's Torque Club, along with food from local eateries. Carytown Cupcakes provided dessert. > Read more.
In the mood for some spring shopping? Eastern Henrico FISH will hold their semi-annual yard sale this weekend – funds raised assist at-risk families in Eastern Henrico County. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden will hold a spring plant sale which is among the largest in the region with more than 40 vendors selling plants ranging from well-known favorites to rare exotics. Put on your detective hat and find out “whodunnit” at the movie “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” and “The Case of the Dead Flamingo Dancer,” presented by the Henrico Theatre Company May 1-17. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
It’s that time of year – charity races are popping up everywhere! On Saturday, St. Joseph’s Villa will be the site of the sixth annual CASA Superhero Run and the fifth annual Richmond Free to Breathe Run/Walk will be held in Innsbrook. Also in Innsbrook, the 2015 Richmond Take Steps for Crohn’s and Colitis will take place on Sunday. If you’re more into relaxation than exercise, check out Wine for Cure’s Dogwood Wine Festival or the Troubadours Community Theatre Group’s production of “West Side Story” at the Henrico Theatre. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
There are several fun events this weekend taking place outside including the third annual Virginia Firefighter Games at Short Pump Town Center; Twin Hickory Park’s “April Showers: A Celebration of Spring” event; the Young Life Richmond West 5k in Innsbrook; and the Gold Festival on Broad which benefits Prevent Child Abuse Virginia. Fingers crossed for no rain! For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
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