Economic Aspects of Tobacco During the Colonial Period
It was the "staple" of the Chesapeake
colonies in a broader sense than any other staple the world has
known. For, in the ancient province, all the processes of government
society and domestic life began and ended with tobacco...Thomas
In 1612 John Rolfe, an Englishman sent with the Virginia Company,
found that tobacco would grow well in Virginia and sell profitably
in England. This was wonderful news considering that many of
the Jamestown colonists had died or suffered miserably as their
farming efforts had been relatively unsuccessful. Throughout
Virginia and the greater Chesapeake, the potential cash value
of tobacco soon captivated the imaginations of the colonists.
They began to plant it in every available clearing, from fields
to the forts and streets of Jamestown, and eventually to much
of Tidewater Virginia. "Dominating the Virginia economy
after 1622, tobacco remained the staple of the Chesapeake colonies,
and its phenomenal rise is one of the most remarkable aspects
of our colonial history."
As gold and silver became scarce, and the use of wampum was
terminated because of its complications, the Chesapeake colonies
were able to rely on tobacco as a means of currency. Tobacco
was the safest and most stable currency that the Chesapeake colonies
had or could have, and it always had a value in exchange for
As economic subsidiaries of England, the Chesapeake Colonies
were bound by the mercantile system. This system enabled England
to receive raw goods from the colonies, turn them into finished
goods, and market them to the rest of the world.
In exchange for providing England with seemingly endless supplies
of natural resources, the colonies were forbidden any production
or trade outside of this arrangement. As the desire for tobacco
grew in England, and the need for supplies grew in the colonies,
the colonists were able to trade equally for goods from England
without having to worry about the scarcity of the product. Thus,
by necessity, it became the leading item of commerce with England.
In addition to being employed for purchasing goods, the tobacco
currency was also used to pay fines and taxes. For example, persons
encouraging Negro meetings were to be fined 1000 pounds of tobacco;
owners letting Negroes keep horses were fined 500 pounds tobacco;
if a person wanted to become married, he had to go to the rector
of his parish and pay the man so many pounds of tobacco; a man's
wealth was estimated in annual pounds of tobacco.
Tobacco also affected the government as all laws were made
more or less with reference to it: to protect it, and to maintain
its value in price, so that many of the civil and some of the
criminal processes, were affected by it.
Tobacco provided the colonial governments of Virginia and
Maryland with one of their principal sources of revenue. A duty
of two shillings, or about 20 cents, levied on each hogshead
of tobacco exported from those colonies yielded Virginia 3,000
pounds, or $4,541 in 1680, and 6,000, or $9,082, a year during
1758-1762. In Maryland the proceeds were steady at 2,500 pounds,
or $3,784, a year from 1700.
As the tobacco colonies' populations increased, so did their
production of tobacco. With the rise in production of the staple
crop, exports to England rose drastically. Imports of tobacco
into England increased from 60,000 pounds in 1622 to 500,000
pounds in 1628, and to 1,500,000 pounds in 1639. By the end of
the seventeenth century, England was importing more than 20,000,000
pounds of colonial tobacco per year.
Despite this growth in tobacco production, problems in price-stability
and quality existed. In 1660, when the English markets became
glutted with tobacco, prices fell so low that the colonists were
barely able to survive. In response to this, planters began mixing
other organic material, such as leaves and the sweepings from
their homes, in with the tobacco, as an attempt to make up
by quantity what they lost by low prices. The exporting of this
trash tobacco solved the colonists' immediate cash flow
problems, but accentuated the problems of overproduction and
deterioration of quality.
As the reputation of colonial tobacco declined, reducing European
demand for it, colonial authorities stepped in to take corrective
measures. During the next fifty years they came up with three
solutions. First, they reduced the amount of tobacco produced;
second, they regularized the trade by fixing the size of the
tobacco hogshead and prohibiting shipments of bulk tobacco; finally,
they improved quality by preventing the exportation of trash
tobacco. These solutions soon fell through because there
was no practical way to enforce the law. It was not until 1730,
when the Virginia Inspection Acts were passed, that tobacco trade
laws were fully enforced.
The memorable Inspection Acts revolutionized tobacco regulation
and became a permanent feature of trade until the War for Independence.
The Inspection Acts established public warehouses with official
inspectors and required planters to transport every hogshead
of tobacco in the colony to a warehouse for inspection. The inspectors
were empowered to break open each hogshead, remove and burn any
trash, and issue tobacco notes to the owner specifying the weight
and kind of tobacco.
After 1730, Marylanders became aware that the inspection system
gave Virginia a great advantage over Maryland by raising the
quality and reputation of its' tobacco. In 1747 the Maryland
assembly passed the Maryland Inspection Acts which remained a
permanent feature of the trade in Maryland.
The system worked like this: if the planter turned in his
tobacco "loose" or in bundles he received a receipt
known as a transfer note, which entitled the holder to
a certain number of pounds of tobacco drawn at random from the
total stock of transfer tobacco. Transfer tobacco was derived
from several sources. It often happened that after filling his
hogsheads, a planter had an insufficient quantity left over to
fill another. This excess was usually delivered to the warehouse,
where the planter would receive a transfer note to cover it.
The clergy, innkeepers, artisans, and others, whose main occupation
was something other than tobacco planting, often tended a small
patch in their spare time in order to meet the various country
and parish levies, and to make purchases in local stores. The
people carried their small quantities to the warehouse and received
transfer notes that could either be sold or tendered as payment
of debts, fees, and taxes.
There were two major kinds of tobacco present in the Chesapeake
colonies; Oronoco and Sweetscented. Each was distinguished by
its different thickness, texture, and shape of the leaf. The
Oronoco leaf was bulkier, coarser, and had a sharper look like
a fox's ear. The Sweetscented leaf was rounder and had finer
fibers. Oronoco, which was grown all around the Bay, was stronger
in flavor, while Sweetscented, which was grown on the banks of
the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac rivers, had a milder
taste. Sweetscented was considered the best in the world and
as a result it brought a better price than Oronoco. However,
Oronoco, which was thought to be too strong for the Englishmen,
was in great demand in the rest of Europe. For that reason Oronoco,
although inferior by English standards, came to have a much wider
market than the Sweetscented, and was usually more profitable
Although less strenuous than many other occupations, tobacco
production was not without its anxieties and dangers. The planter
always ran the risk of crop failure, loss from improper curing
and prizing. This detailed attention caused a laborer to cultivate
no more than 3 or 4 acres of plants. In addition, like other
agricultural products, tobacco was greatly affected by the weather.
A dry spell in the spring or fall delayed planting. On the other
hand, an extreme wet spell drowned the tobacco and ruined the
crop by causing the leaves to spot.
It neither supplied food to him nor fodder to his beasts;
it could not yield him roof-timber nor firewood. He had to shelter,
watch over, nurse it at every stage of growth and curing, for
never was there a more tender plant or one subject to a greater
variety of plagues, diseases, and disasters. The preparation
and sowing of a tobacco seed bed was a process as elaborate
as the making of pillow-lace; the weather, a fly, a dozen
various accidents, may have defeated a planters prospects of
a supply of plants. Not until the summer came, after a year of
growing the delicate tobacco and until seventeen months had elapsed,
were the planter's troubles over. Then at last he brought his
crop to market, had it sampled, and sold it for half the price
he expected to get for it.
Another increasing problem was that tobacco was extremely
exhausting to the soil. After three years of being harvested,
the tobacco had exhausted the soil of its nutrients, leaving
much of the land worn out and of no use to farmers. For example,
in Montgomery county, by 1783 much of the land had become a relatively
barren landscape thus forcing many people to move on in order
to have any opportunity of succeeding economically. In order
to solve the need for more land, many settlers bribed the Native
Americans into taking pots and pans and other various items that
the natives had never seen before. In exchange for these novelties,
the natives lost control of ancestral lands in and around the
Chesapeake region. As a result, the colonists were able to take
away the natives' land without much resistance.
In Maryland's slavery-dominated southern counties, "instead
of homes or barns,... settlers invested much of their money in
an institution that was an important element of the contemporary
landscape--slavery. Slaves served as the backbone of the tobacco
economy. Without them there would have been no one to till the
ground, plant the seeds, raise the plants, harvest, and cure
the tobacco. In some areas slave populations grew from 7% to
35% of the Chesapeake regions' population between 1690-1750.
For example, situated between the Patuxent and Potomac rivers,
(what is now Rock Creek Park in Northwest, Washington DC), had
a huge slave population.
Despite some opposition to slavery, by the time of the Revolution,
slavery was both politically and socially accepted. To compensate
for their inability to purchase land, many farmers became tenants
on the properties of larger land holders such as the prestigious
Hopkins, Dulaney, Ridgely, and Carroll families. For tobacco
planters, buying a slave often made sound economic sense, considering
how rapidly tobacco exhausted land. Instead of land, they bought
laborers whom they could move when their rented acreage became
infertile. So long as slave labor existed, a crop of tobacco
paid all advances.
Certainly the success of tobacco cultivation brought economic
prosperity to the Chesapeake colonies. Without tobacco, it can
be argued, the colonists might have been left to subsistence
farming and had little if any opportunity for economic growth
independent of England. That nearly anyone could grow "cash"
in his or her backyard, to pay off debts and taxes, implies the
high demand for tobacco as a means of stabilizing the economy.
From the point of view of the colonists, the negative legacies
of displacement of the natives, slavery, and land loss were more
than compensated for by the incredible economic growth experienced
by the enterprising white men. In fact, long term effects of
tobacco production were not a major concern of the white settlers
until after World War II.
Huron Indian myth has it that in ancient times,
when the land was barren and the people were starving, the Great
Spirit sent forth a woman to save humanity. As she traveled over
the world, everywhere her right hand touched the soil, there
grew potatoes. And everywhere her left hand touched the soil,
there grew corn. And when the world was rich and fertile, she
sat down and rested. When she arose, there grew tobacco...
Original Author Unknown - Economic Aspects of Tobacco during
the Colonial Period 1612-1776 ©1996 Gene
Borio, Tobacco BBS http://www.tobacco.org
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