The dried leaves of the tobacco plant became the major cash crop in colonial Virginia after John Rolfe brought the seeds of a South American variety, Nicotiana tabacum, to Virginia in 1612. Oronoco tobacco, named for the Venezuelan valley of its origins, became the widest grown variety of tobacco grown in Virginia. For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, Virginia's taxes were paid and penalties accessed by the courts in pounds of tobacco. Colonial government expenses were paid in tobacco. The Government-established Anglican Church clergy were, by law, paid 16,000 pounds of tobacco annually. The vestry, a local governing body responsible for overseeing the established church, estimated how many pounds of tobacco was necessary for their parish needs, and then required families in the church’s neighborhood, whether Anglican or not, to pay a certain amount of tobacco for every member of each household.1
Tobacco influenced both settlement patterns, and how Virginians managed their farms and plantations. Cultivation required access to a ready source of water, so settlement in Virginia followed the rivers and streams inland toward the mountains. Repeated planting depleted the soil of needed nutrients, so new ground was regularly broken to avoid crop failure. Towns grew up around the warehouses and shipping ports that the colonial government operated to facilitate the sale and shipping of tobacco to England.2
Tobacco cultivation is, and was, an extremely labor-intensive process. Insects were a constant nuisance, so planters needed human labor not only to plant and trim the tobacco, but also to manually remove and kill insects on every plant in a crop. Human capital was at first supplied by English or European indentured servants. Once the indenture contract expired, however, a Virginia servant was likely to use legally mandated indenture release money to purchase a small plot of land and begin cultivating tobacco themselves. All the training on cultivation of the crop was thus lost to the landowner, who had to procure another indentured servant and start the training process over. The landowners looked south to the British Caribbean sugar plantations and believed another source of labor could be a solution to their problem: the forced labor of enslaved Africans. The first enslaved people arrived in Jamestown in 1619 and quickly became the primary source of human labor for large tobacco plantations.3
Farmers transported tobacco to market using Virginia’s navigable rivers and streams. Tobacco, once dried, was packed into large round wooden casks, and floated downstream on specially-designed boats called bateaux. Small planters upstream would use bateaux to float their harvest down to colonial government run warehouses. Large planters would have their own ships built for transporting their crop downstream. The annual tobacco crop was gathered into government warehouses and ocean-going ships would then load their cargo for transport to England.4
Virginia Tobacco was in great demand in England. Middlemen, called factors, would receive shipments in London and sell their colonial clients’ crops and then send manufactured goods that the planter requested for purchase with the remaining proceeds of the crops. Sometimes these factors would advance payment based on the crops, putting the planters in debt to them. If the tobacco crop did not produce as much as anticipated, the planters had difficulty paying their debt to the factors.5
George Washington, like other planters, wanted a good relationship with his merchants in London, but was wary of being put into debt or done out of honest profit on his tobacco crop. In 1765, he wrote his representative, Robert Cary in London, on getting a poor return for his “Araonoko Tobo” crop: “Can it be otherwise than a little mortifying then to find, that we, who raise none but Sweetscented Tobacco, and endeavor I may venture to add, to be careful in the management of it, however we fail in the execution, & who by a close and fixed correspondence with you, contribute so largely to the dispatch of your Ships in this County should meet with such unprofitable returns? Surely I may answer No!”6 Washington, like other large plantation owners, was dependent on good tobacco crops to support his estate and position in society. However, as time went on, Washington experimented with different crops and diversified the output of his Mount Vernon plantation.
Laverne Y. Smith
1. Emily Jones Salmon and John Salmon, “Tobacco in Colonia Virginia,” Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities; Walter Hening, The Statutes at Large being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature in the year 1619, vol. II (New York, 1823), vol. II, p. 19-20, 48 ("March 1660/1, Act VI, Ordinarie keepers to give bond, enjoined tavern owners to pay 350 pounds of tobacco in cask for a license"; "March 1661/2, Act IX, Sundays are not to be profaned, fined Anglicans who neglected their church attendance 50 pounds of tobacco, payable to church officers.")
2. Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: the Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake 1680-1800 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 45ff.
3. James Cotton, “Tobacco: Colonial Cultivation Methods,” Historic Jamestowne, National Park Service.
4. John Fiske, Old Virginia and Her Neighbors, vol 2 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1897), 206-208; Bruce Terrell, “The James River Bateau: Tobacco Transport in Upland Virginia, 1745-1840,” ECU Research Report No. 7, The Program in Maritime History and Underwater Research 1992.
5. The Case of the Planters of Tobacco in Virginia as represented by Themselves; signed by the President of the Council, and Speakers of the House of Burgesses. To which is added a Vindication of the said representation (London, 1773); Bruce A. Ragsdale, "George Washington, the British Tobacco Trade, and Economic Opportunity in Prerevolutionary Virginia," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 97:2 (1989): 132-162.
6. George Washington to Robert Cary & Company, September 20, 1765, Founders Online, National Archives.
Breen, T. H. Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2010.
Kulikoff, Allan. Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.