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Thursday, February 23, 2012

John Rolfe: Virginia's First Gentleman

To Have and To Hold features a fictional version of John Rolfe, the man best known for making tobacco a viable commercial crop in the Colonies and for marrying the Indian Princess, Pocahontas. We meet him on page one as he comes to visit his friend, the protagonist, Ralph Percy, and counsels him to take a wife. The book opens in 1621, merely a year before Rolfe’s death. It is impossible to say how accurately Mary Johnston portrays Rolfe’s personality, but I enjoyed her characterization of him, and it prompted me to do some investigating and learn more about the actual man. Rolfe’s life was marred by tragedy, and if he bore it as well as the pen and ink version did, he was an admirable individual.

John Rolfe was born in 1585 in Norfolk, England. His first wife accompanied him on his original trip to Virginia. Their voyage was marred by a shipwreck, stranding them in Bermuda for some time. There, Rolfe’s first child, a daughter, was born, but she died in infancy. The shipwrecked travelers set sail again and reached Virginia in 1610, but Rolfe’s wife also died not long after they landed in the New World.

After arriving in Virginia, Rolfe began experimenting with tobacco crops and eventually was able to produce a tobacco that could turn a profit. According to Virtual Jamestown, “Rolfe's role in the introduction of tobacco as a cash crop insured his standing within the colony.”

In 1613, English settlers had been captured by the Indians, so some of the Jamestown settlers kidnapped Pocahontas, the Indian chief Powhatan’s daughter. Their intention was to trade the princess for their own people, but this never happened. Instead, Pocahontas acclimated herself to the Colonial lifestyle completely, even converting to Christianity and taking the name of Rebecca. It was the transformed princess that John Rolfe met and apparently fell in love with, for by most accounts, it was indeed a love match. He sought permission from the governor to marry her, and the language of his request shows thoughtfulness and understanding of the gravity of the situation. It also reveals his affection for her, as shown in the following excerpt:

It is Pocahontas to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled, and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth that I (could not) unwind myself thereout.

The governor gave his permission, and the two married in 1614, but by 1616, Pocahontas was dead. John Rolfe was a widower for the second time, but he did have a son with Pocahontas, Thomas.

Rolfe left his infant son, Thomas, to be raised in England, and he returned again to Virginia. There he married for the third time to a Jane Pearce. His tobacco farming continued successfully. In 1622, John Rolfe died. One third of the colonists were killed during the Indian uprising of 1622, and many historians assume he was killed, but there is no evidence to support this. The loss of John Rolfe at such a young age was a tragedy. His marriage to Pocahontas stabilized race relations between the English colonists and Native Americans for several years, and his financial contribution through his advancement of tobacco farming helped make the English settlement permanent. It is no exaggeration to say that Rolfe’s entrepreneurial spirit helped paved the way “ towards the creation of the future United States.” (National Park Service, Historic Jamestown)

The John Rolfe in To Have and to Hold is a consummate gentleman, faithful friend, and fearless fighter. No mention is made of his wife Jane Pearce, who he was certainly married to by the time frame the book deals with, but several references are made to his dead Princess, and Pocahontas’ brother is Rolfe’s sometime companion in the novel. Johnston does a good job incorporating him as a secondary character and adding some historical relevance to her story without manipulating or changing the facts to suit her purpose. Many authors add an obligatory historical figure in an effort to lend credence to their work, but it is a cheap trick when it feels superfluous. Rolfe fits into the story realistically, enriching the work and intriguing the reader to find out more about him. I cannot think of a better recommendation to give an author of historical fiction--if the work prompts the reader to research the subject matter on their own after the last page is finished, then it is a job well done.


To Have and to Hold by Mary Johnston
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