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 his own use. He also had a desire to find some profitable commodity that could be sold in England and thus promote the success and prosperity of the settlers and the London Company. Driven by these two motives John Rolfe became the first colonist to successfully grow tobacco, the plant that was to wield such a tremendous influence on the history of Virginia.
“Nicotiana rustica”, the native tobacco of North America, was found to be inferior to that grown in the Spanish Colonies. Botanists state that “Nicotiana rustica” had a much greater nicotine content and sprouted or branched more than that cultivated today. William Strachey, one of the first colonists, gave the following description of the native plant grown in 1616:
It is not of the best kynd, it is but poore and weake, and of a byting tast, it growes not fully a yard above the ground, bearing a little yellowe flower, like to hennebane, the leaves are short and thick, somewhat round at the upper end….
In 1611 Rolfe decided to experiment with seed of the mild Spanish variety. He persuaded a shipmaster to bring him some tobacco seed from the Island of Trinidad and Caracas, Venezuela; and by June, 1612, tobacco from the imported seeds was being cultivated at Jamestown. On July 20, 1613, a Captain Robert Adams landed the “Elizabeth” in England with a sample of Rolfe’s first experimental crop. In England, this first shipment was described as excellent in quality, but it was still inferior to Spanish tobacco. In 1616 Rolfe modestly asserted, “no doubt but after a little more triall and expense in the curing thereof, it will compare with the best in the West Indies.” The success of Rolfe’s experiment was soon apparent. In 1617, 20,000 pounds of tobacco were exported from Virginia, and in the following year the amount doubled.
Tobacco did not become the chief staple owing merely to the successful attempts by Rolfe to produce a satisfactory smoking leaf. As has been noted, there was a ready market for tobacco in England before the settlers landed at Jamestown. A second important cause was the fact that tobacco was indigenous to the soil and climate of Virginia. Tobacco also had a greater advantage Over All Other Staples in That It Could Be Produced in Larger Quantities Per Acre. This Was Important Considering the Labor Required To Clear the Trees and Prepare One Acre for Cultivation. It Was Soon Discovered That the Amount of Tobacco Produced by One Man’s Labor Was Worth About Six Times the Amount of Wheat That One Man Could Grow and Harvest. Moreover, Tobacco Could Be Shipped More Economically Than Any Other Crop; Thus the Monetary Return Upon a Cargo Was Greater Than for Any Other Crop That Could Be Produced in the Colony.
One Other Factor Must Not Be Overlooked. One of the Basic Aims of the English Colonial Policy Was the Development Of Colonial Resources, Which Would at the Same Time Create a Colonial Market for English Manufactures in the Colonies. Tobacco Proved To Be Virginia’s Most Valuable Staple, and With Everyone Feverishly Growing the Plant, the Colony Became an Important Colonial Market. Virginia Purchased English Goods Delivered in English Ships With Her Tobacco, England Marketed Much of the Tobacco In Europe and Received Specie Or Goods That Could Be Sold Elsewhere. This Created a Market for English Manufactures, the English Merchant Fleet Profited From the Carrying Trade and There Was No Drain of Specie From England.