The True Story Of John Rolfe And Pocahontas

Published July 20, 2018
Updated March 26, 2024

Discover why the true story of John Rolfe and Pocahontas was "too complicated and violent for a youthful audience."

John Rolfe

Virginia Historical SocietyA 19th century depiction of John Rolfe and Pocahontas by James William Glass Jr.

Some years after his arrival in Jamestown, John Rolfe began to struggle with a question of the heart. He’d fallen in love a “heathen” held captive at the colony. What to do? In the end, Rolfe decided to marry the woman, Pocahontas — thus forever cementing their relationship into history.

But their “love story” was more complicated than it may seem. Indeed, there’s a reason why Disney decided to focus on Pocahontas’s rescue of John Smith, instead of her marriage to John Rolfe, in their eponymous film. In some tellings, Pocahontas and John Rolfe’s relationship was based on violence and greed — not love.

So who was John Rolfe? How did he cross paths with Pocahontas and what were the true circumstances of their meeting? Here’s everything you need to know about the man who became Pocahontas’s husband.

A Tumultuous Crossing To The New World

John Rolfe was born around 1585 in Norfolk, England, but much of his early life has been lost to time. He reappeared in the historical record in June 1609, when he and his wife, Sarah Hacker, boarded a ship called the Sea Venture. They set sail for the New World as part of a larger convoy.

Rolfe and his wife were part of a mission to revive Jamestown — the first permanent English colony in the New World — which had struggled to prosper since its foundation in 1607. But they almost didn’t survive the crossing. On July 24, their convoy sailed into a hurricane which broke up the fleet, and marooned the Sea Venture‘s 150 passengers and crew in Bermuda.

Map Of Bermuda

The Mariners’ MuseumA map of Bermuda from 1640.

“For [four] and twenty [hours] the [storm] in a [restless] tumult, had [blown] so exceedingly, as we could not apprehend in our imaginations any possibility of greater violence, yet did [we] still [find] it, not [only] more terrible, but more constant, fury added to fury, and one [storm] urging a second more [outrageous than] the former,” passenger William Strachey, the future secretary of the colony, wrote according to Encyclopedia Virginia.

The shipwreck turned out to be serendipitous. While Rolfe and the other survivors of the Sea Venture thrived thanks to Bermuda’s supply of birds, fish, turtles, and wild hogs, the ships that made it to Virginia fared much worse. Encyclopedia Virginia writes that they the struggled to survive the so-called the “Starving Time,” during which some 70 percent of people perished.

That said, Rolfe suffered a personal tragedy while marooned on the island. His wife, Sarah, gave birth to a baby girl who they named Bermuda — but the infant sadly did not survive long. Shortly afterward, Sarah died too.

By the spring of 1610, the survivors of the Sea Venture were ready to complete their voyage to Virginia. They’d constructed two ships — the Patience and the Deliverance — from island cedar and what they could salvage from their original vessel. After sailing for 10 days, they charged up the James River and came upon the colony of Jamestown in May.

As a member of the Jamestown colony, John Rolfe distinguished himself through his experiments with tobacco. The National Park Service reports that he’s credited as the first colonist to plant tobacco seeds. Rolfe had obtained them somewhere in the Caribbean, and his friends approvingly noted that the crop “smoked pleasant, [sweet], and strong.”

Growing Tobacco In Jamestown

Public DomainA 19th-century depiction of Jamestown farmers growing tobacco circa 1615.

But Rolfe is not remembered only for cultivating tobacco. He’s remembered for his marriage to Pocahontas, a Powhatan Native American.

John Rolfe And Pocahontas: A Love Affair?

The colonists’ relationship with the Powhatans predated Rolfe’s arrival by several years. In 1607, shortly after Jamestown was established, colonist John Smith was captured by the tribe. He was paraded from town to town, and then brought before the tribe’s leader, Chief Powhatan.

Smith later claimed that he was thrown down before the chief and nearly bludgeoned to death, but saved at the last minute by an unlikely ally: Powhatan’s 11-year-old daughter, Pocahontas. In fact, Smith might not have been danger at all — he might have confused a tribal adoption ritual for an execution — but Smith’s encounter with the Powhatan marked the beginning of the tribe’s relationship with the Jamestown colonists.

Pocahontas Saving John Smith

Library of CongressJohn Smith’s encounter with Pocahontas is famous, if misunderstood.

By the time John Rolfe arrived in 1610, however, the colonists’ relationship with the Powhatan’s had soured. And in 1613, Captain Samuel Argall hatched a plot to kidnap the chief’s daughter in order to hold her for ransom.

Pocahontas, then around 17 years old and already married, was kidnapped and brought to Jamestown. Some sources claim that she was raped while in captivity and impregnated. (This is the story that Pocahontas told her sister, Mattachanna, according to the National Park Service). Other sources, however, paint a more idyllic picture of Pocahontas peacefully learning English, converting to Christianity, and taking on the name “Rebecca.”

During this time, Pocahontas also crossed paths with John Rolfe. Rolfe soon developed an ardent desire to marry her, which he expressed in a long letter to Governor Thomas Dale in 1614.

“[It is to Pocahontas] to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have a long time been so entangled,” Rolfe wrote,” and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth, that I was even [a-wearied] to unwind myself thereout.”

But did Rolfe want to marry Pocahontas for love? The National Park Service reports that he may have been motivated to marry her in order to help his tobacco crops. By marrying Pocahontas, Rolfe could get the help of indigenous priests who oversaw the growing of tobacco. And Rolfe himself promised Governor Dale in his letter that he was not driven to marry Pocahontas by “the unbridled desire of carnal affection: but for the good of this plantation, for the honor of our country, for the glory of God.”

John Rolfe Marrying Pocahontas

Wellcome ImagesJohn Rolfe married Pocahontas in 1614, though his motivations are debatable.

Pocahontas and John Rolfe were married on April 5, 1614. However, whether she or her father truly consented to the marriage is difficult to discern. With Pocahontas as a captive, they may not have had the freedom to decline.

In any case, Rolfe and Pocahontas’s wedding would usher in an age of peace between the colonists and the Powhatans. But their union would prove to be tragically short-lived.

Pocahontas’s Mysterious Death In England

Shortly after marrying John Rolfe, Pocahontas gave birth to a son, Thomas. And in 1616, the Virginia Company of London — which had financed the establishment of Jamestown — paid for the young family to travel to England. The company believed that Pocahontas would serve as an example of the colony’s “success.” Sadly, Pocahontas would never return home.

At first, the trip went well. John Rolfe and Pocahontas (known as “Lady Rebecca Rolfe”) spent months touring the country. Pocahontas was presented at the court of King James I, and attended a masque where she and Rolfe sat near the king and his wife, Queen Anne.

Pocahontas In England

Public DomainA 1616 engraving of Pocahontas, who traveled in England as “Lady Rebecca Rolfe.”

But as they prepared to return to Virginia seven months later, tragedy struck. Pocahontas fell ill in March 1617, shortly after dining with Rolfe and Samuel Argall, the man who had orchestrated her kidnapping. She swiftly succumbed to her sickness and died at the age of 21.

Pocahontas was buried in Gravesend, England on March 21, 1617. But what had killed her?

To date, her cause of death is unknown (as is the exact location of her burial). Though some claim that Pocahontas died because she was susceptible to European diseases — which she wasn’t exposed to in North America — others believe that she was poisoned because of how quickly she fell ill and died. The truth, sadly, will probably never be known.

In any case, John Rolfe found himself a widower for the second time after Pocahontas’s death in 1617. He left their son, Thomas, with a guardian in England and opted to return alone to Virginia.

John Rolfe’s Final Years In The New World

Upon his return, Rolfe dedicated himself to the growth of Virginia. He became a councilor and a member of the House of Burgesses, and continued to cultivate the growth of tobacco. According to Historic Jamestown, the exportation of Virginia tobacco to England swiftly ramped up. In 1617, exports totalled 20,000 pounds. The next year, tobacco exports doubled.

Rolfe also married for the third time, this time to a woman named Jane Pierce (sometimes spelled Pearce), the daughter of Captain William Pierce.

But though Rolfe’s personal and professional life were thriving, the mood in the New World was quickly darkening. The peace established between indigenous people and colonists by John Rolfe and Pocahontas’s marriage had started to break down, especially after the death of Pocahontas’s father in 1618. And many indigenous tribes took issue with the colonists’ unceasing demand for land, which they needed to grow Rolfe’s tobacco plants.

In 1622, the Algonquian tribe — led by Chief Powhatan’s successor, Opechankeno — launched a devastating assault on the colonists. They killed between 350 to 400 people, or 25 percent of the population.

1622 Massacre

Public DomainThe 1622 massacre killed a full quarter of the colonists.

John Rolfe died that year, but it’s unknown if he died during this so-called Indian massacre of 1622 or from other causes.

However, this massacre and other elements of John Rolfe and Pocahontas’s relationship likely explains why Mike Gabriel, director of the 1995 Disney film Pocahontas left Rolfe out of his story entirely.

Gabriel remarked that: “The story of Pocahontas and Rolfe was too complicated and violent for a youthful audience.”

Indeed, Pocahontas may have not lived much of a Disney life at all. She may have been kidnapped, imprisoned, and raped, then compelled to marry a colonist more interested in tobacco plants than her. She may have been forced to go to England, where she was paraded before curious crowds and possibly murdered on the eve of her return home.

But the truth of her story is difficult to know. Pocahontas left no written record of her own. Likewise, John Rolfe’s motivations in marrying Pocahontas have been lost to time. Did he marry for love — or out of an acute business sense and “for the good of this plantation”?

Only John Rolfe and Pocahontas know for sure.

After this look at John Rolfe, the husband of Pocahontas, discover the horrors of the Native American genocide. Then, see some of the most stunning Edward Curtis photos of Native Americans.

All That's Interesting
A New York-based publisher established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science to share stories that illuminate our world.
Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.