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The Sovereign Remedy

Tobacco was probably first brought to the shores of England from Florida by Sir John Hawkins in 1565. Englishmen were growing it by the 1570’s, and after the return of the daring Sir Francis Drake to England with a large quantity of tobacco captured in the West Indies in 1586, the use of tobacco in England was increased substantially. By 1604 its consumption had become so extensive as to lead to the publication of King James’ “Counter Blast”, condemning the use of tobacco; nevertheless, six years later the amount brought into Great Britain was valued at £60,000. Some of the colonists were probably acquainted with tobacco before they landed at Jamestown and found the Indians cultivating and using it under the name of uppowoc or apooke. However, it was not until 1612 that its cultivation began among the English settlers, even in small patches. Previously their attention had been centered entirely on products that could be used for food. Captain John Smith wrote that none of the native crops were planted at first, not even tobacco. The story of tobacco in Virginia begins with the ingenious John Rolfe. He was one of the many Englishmen who had come to enjoy the fragrant aroma and taste of the imported Spanish tobacco; and upon his arrival at Jamestown in May, 1610, Rolfe found that tobacco could be obtained only by buying it from the Indians, or by cultivating it. There seems to have been no spontaneous growth then as now. Owing to the frequent unfriendly atmosphere between the colonists and the Indians, Rolfe probably decided to grow a small patch for...

The Tobacco Plantation: From Jamestown To The Blue Ridge

The cultivation of tobacco soon spread from John Rolfe’s garden to every available plot of ground within the fortified districts in Jamestown. By 1617 the value of tobacco was well known in every settlement or plantation in Virginia–Bermuda, Dale’s Gift, Henrico, Jamestown, Kecoughtan, and West and Shirley Hundreds–each under a commander. Governor Dale allowed its culture to be gradually extended until it absorbed the whole attention at West and Shirley Hundreds and Jamestown. The first general planting in the colony began at West and Shirley Hundreds where twenty-five men, commanded by a Captain Madison, were employed solely in planting and curing tobacco. In 1616 the tobacco fever struck furiously in Jamestown. The following description indicates the impact of the “fever”: there were “but five or six houses, the church downe, the palizado’s broken, the bridge in pieces, the well of fresh water spoiled; the storehouse used for the church…, [and] the colony dispersed all about, planting tobacco.” The “Noxious weed” was even growing in the streets and in the market place. By 1622 plantations extended at intervals from Point Comfort as far as 140 miles up the James River, and the planters were so absorbed in the cultivation of tobacco that they gave the Indians firearms and employed them to do their hunting. This boldness was shortlived, for the Indian Massacre of 1622 tended to narrow the area under cultivation for that year. Even so, the planters were able to produce 60,000 pounds of tobacco. Within a year after the massacre the settlers once again became very bold and extended cultivated areas even farther than before. Prior to the...

Management Of The Tobacco Crop

Cultivation practices during the early years at Jamestown appear to have been a combination of those used by the Indians and those of the farmers in England; modifications and new techniques were developed as the settlers became experienced planters. The early Jamestown settlers followed the Indian custom of planting the tobacco seed in hills as they did corn, although some probably followed the practice as described by Stevens and Liebault’s “Maison Rustique” or “The Country Farm”, published in London in 1606: For to sow it, you must make a hole in the earth with your finger and that as deep as your finger is long, then you must cast into the same hole ten or twelve seeds of the said Nicotiana together, and fill up the hole again: for it is so small, as that if you should put in but four or five seeds the earth would choake it: and if the time be dry, you must water the place easily some five days after: And when the herb is grown out of the earth, inasmuch as every seed will have put up his sprout and stalk, and that the small thready roots are entangled the one within the other, you must with a great knife make a composs within the earth in the places about this plot where they grow and take up the earth and all together, and cast them into a bucket full of water, to the end that the earth may be separated, and the small and tender impes swim about the water; and so you shall sunder them one after another without breaking...

Varieties of Tobacco

A complete story on the origin of the early varieties of tobacco would be a very significant contribution, since very little is known about them. Most writers agree that the tobacco cultivated by the English settlers was not the same “Nicotiana rustica” grown by the Indians, but “Nicotiana tabacum”, the type found growing in South America and the West Indies. The difference between these two types was profound, both in taste and size. The plant native to Virginia was small, growing to a height of only two or three feet, whereas “Nicotiana tabacum” grew from six to nine feet tall. As to taste, George Arents remarked, “the same difference in taste exists between these two species, as between a crab apple and an Albemarle pippin.” All during the colonial period tobacco was classified into two main varieties, Oronoco and sweet-scented. Oronoco had a large porous pointed leaf and was strong in taste. Sweet-scented was milder, the leaf was rounder and the fibers were finer. We are also told that sweet-scented grew mostly in the lower parts of Virginia, along the York and James rivers, and later on the Rappahannock and on the southside of the Potomac. Oronoco was generally planted up the Chesapeake Bay area and in the back settlements on the strong land along all the rivers. Oronoco is thought to have originated in the vicinity of the Orinoco River valley in Venezuela. After being brought to a different environment and climate in Virginia, various varieties or strains of Oronoco were developed or came about naturally. In the late 1600’s a very fair and bright large Oronoco, Prior,...

Transportation of Tobacco To Market

In the early days of the colony the small ocean-going merchant vessel was the only method of transportation essential to marketing the tobacco crop. Such a small ship was able to anchor at many of the plantation wharves and load its cargo of tobacco. Next to fertility, the proximity to navigable water was the most important factor in influencing the planter in the selection of a tract of land. However, later expansion of the tobacco industry into the interior and the increase in the size of all ocean-going ships made some mode of transportation within the colony a necessity. When the ships could not get directly up to the wharf or enter shallow creeks on which many of the plantations were located, small boats called flats or shallops were used to transport the hogsheads to the anchored vessels. In 1633 the General Assembly provided that all tobacco had to be brought to one of the five warehouses–to be erected in specified localities–to be stored until sold. The planters objected immediately and petitioned the House of Burgesses to allow ships to come into every county, “where they will find at every man’s house a store convenient enough for theire ladinge, we beinge all seated by the Riverside.” The planters also complained that they had “… noe other means to export but by Boatinge.” Carrying the tobacco for long distances in the shallop involved a risk, as well as an additional expense. By rolling the hogsheads directly on board a ship anchored at his own wharf or only a few miles away the planter eliminated the danger involved in transporting his...

Origin And Development Of The Inspection System

Within a few years after Rolfe’s successful experiment in the cultivation of tobacco, it became necessary to inaugurate some means of improving the quality of the Virginia tobacco. Once it was discovered that tobacco could be successfully and profitably grown in Virginia, everyone wanted to grow it. Blacksmiths, carpenters, shipwrights, and even the minister frequently grew a patch of tobacco. Owing to inexperience in farming of any kind, plus the fact that the commercial production of tobacco was new even to most of the experienced farmers, much of the tobacco produced was of a very low quality. For centuries many planters seem to have placed quantity above quality in growing tobacco. Anyone could grow tobacco in certain quantities, but only a few could produce tobacco of superior quality. The first general inspection law in Virginia was passed in 1619 and provided that all tobacco offered for exchange at the magazine, the general storehouse in Jamestown, found to be very “mean” in quality by the magazine custodian was to be burnt. The magazine was abolished in 1620 and in 1623 this law was amended to provide for the appointment of sworn men in each settlement to condemn all bad tobacco. In 1630 an act was passed prohibiting the sale or acceptance of inferior tobacco in payment of debts. The commander of each plantation or settlement was authorized to appoint two or three experienced and competent men to help him inspect all tobacco, offered in payment of debts, which had been found “mean” by the creditor. If the inspectors declared the tobacco mean, the inferior tobacco was burned and the delinquent...

Tobacco Warehouses 1730-1800

In most instances the warehouses were private property, but they were always subject to the control of the legislature. Regulations regarding the location, erection, maintenance and operation as official places of inspection were set forth by special legislation. Owners of the land sites selected were ordered to build the warehouses and rent them to the inspectors. If the land owner refused to build, then the court could order the warehouse built at public expense. Just how many warehouses were built at public expense is difficult to determine, probably only a few, if any, were built in this manner. The rent which the proprietor received usually depended upon the number of hogsheads inspected at his warehouse, though the rates were regulated by the General Assembly. In 1712 the proprietors received twelve pence for the first day or the first three months and six pence every month thereafter per hogshead. In 1755 the owners received eight pence per hogshead. During the Revolution the rate was raised to four shillings, but was lowered to one shilling six pence after the cessation of hostilities. At the beginning of the nineteenth century rent per hogshead, including a year’s storage, was twenty-five cents. To keep pace with the movement of the tobacco industry, new warehouses were built and others discontinued from time to time. And by observing the warehouse movement it is possible to grasp a general picture of the decline of the tobacco industry in Tidewater Virginia. The expansion of the industry into Piedmont is more difficult to follow during this period owing to the fact that inspection houses were not permitted above the...

Sale Of The Tobacco Leaf

Under the original plan of colonization the Virginia settlers were to pool their goods at the magazine, the general storehouse in Jamestown. All of the products produced by the settlers, and all goods imported into the colony were to be first brought to the magazine. In 1620 the London Company made plans to abolish the magazine and open the trade to the public. The colony was then forced to rely on peripatetic merchant ships which came irregularly. These casual traders dealt directly with the planters, going about from plantation to plantation collecting their cargo. These merchants were without agents in the colonies, and they relied solely upon the chance of selling their goods as they passed the various plantation wharves. They usually sold their goods on credit, expecting to collect their dues in tobacco on the return trip the next year. Occasionally the crops were small, or they discovered that most of the tobacco had been sold or seized by other traders, and consequently they were forced to wait another year to collect from their debtors. The planter soon discovered that he was in an equally precarious situation, and largely at the mercy of the merchant, for if he failed to sell on the terms offered, another ship might not come his way until the following year. The planter’s bargaining power was also hampered by his ignorance of market conditions abroad. Such conditions encouraged the practices of engrossing and forestalling, by the merchants, to the point that much legislation was passed to prohibit such actions. Increasing competition by the Dutch traders gradually reduced the dependence of the planter on...

Tobacco Production, Trend Of Prices, And Exports

When tobacco was first planted in Jamestown, Spanish tobacco was selling for eighteen shillings per pound. Virginia tobacco was inferior in quality, but it was assessed in England at ten shillings per pound. On the basis of these high prices the Virginia Company of London agreed to allow the Virginia planters three shillings per pound, in trade at the magazine in Jamestown, for the best grades. Even though it seemed that the London Company was getting the lions share, these prices proved to be very profitable for the colonists and the infant tobacco industry increased very rapidly. During the period 1615-1622 tobacco exports increased from 2,300 to 60,000 pounds, and by 1630 the volume had risen to 1,500,000. Meanwhile prices had fallen as rapidly as production and exports had increased. In 1625 tobacco was selling for about two shillings per pound, but in 1630 merchants were reported to be buying it for less than one penny per pound. It was quite obvious that the fall in prices was due to overproduction. The English first attempted to alleviate the condition in 1619 through monopolistic control. Negotiations were conducted with the Virginia Company of London, Henry Somerscales, and Ditchfield in 1625. All were opposed by the colony, except that of the London Company, because the colonists thought that the various proposals would benefit the King and a small group of court favorites at the expense of the planters. The next move was made by the colony. In an attempt to restrict the production of tobacco, Governor Wyatt ordered that production be limited to 1,000 plants per person in each family in...

Tobacco in Colonial Virginia

The history of tobacco is the history of Jamestown and of Virginia. No one staple or resource ever played a more significant role in the history of any state or nation. The growth of the Virginia Colony, as it extended beyond the limits of Jamestown, was governed and hastened by the quest for additional virgin soil in which to grow this “golden weed.” For years the extension into the interior meant the expansion of tobacco production. Without tobacco the development of Virginia might have been retarded 200 years.

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