Tobacco in Colonial Virginia


Tobacco was colonial Virginia‘s most successful cash crop. The tobacco that the first English settlers encountered in Virginia—the Virginia Indians’ Nicotiana rustica—tasted dark and bitter to the English palate; it was John Rolfe who in 1612 obtained Spanish seeds, or Nicotiana tabacum, from the Orinoco River valley—seeds that, when planted in the relatively rich bottomland of the James River, produced a milder, yet still dark leaf that soon became the European standard. Over the next 160 years, tobacco production spread from the Tidewater area to the Blue Ridge Mountains, especially dominating the agriculture of the Chesapeake region. Beginning in 1619 the General Assembly put in place requirements for the inspection of tobacco and mandated the creation of port towns and warehouses. This system assisted in the development of major settlements at Norfolk, Alexandria, and Richmond. Tobacco formed the basis of the colony’s economy: it was used to purchase the indentured servants and slaves to cultivate it, to pay local taxes and tithes, and to buy manufactured goods from England. Promissory notes payable in tobacco were even used as currency, with the cost of almost every commodity, from servants to wives, given in pounds of tobacco. Large planters usually shipped their tobacco directly to England, where consignment agents sold it in exchange for a cut of the profits, while smaller planters worked with local agents who bought their tobacco and supplied them with manufactured goods. In the mid-seventeenth century, overproduction and shipping disruptions related to a series of British wars caused the price of tobacco to fluctuate wildly. Prices stabilized again in the 1740s and 1750s, but the financial standings of small and large planters alike deteriorated throughout the 1760s and into the 1770s. By the advent of the American Revolution (1775–1783), some planters had switched to growing food crops, particularly wheat; many more began to farm these crops to support the war effort. In the first year of fighting, tobacco production in Virginia dropped to less than 25 percent of its annual prewar output.

Introduction of Tobacco to Virginia

Tobacco Pipe

In 1611 Rolfe, known as “an ardent smoker,” decided to experiment with cultivating tobacco in Jamestown. The plant had first been brought to England in 1565, perhaps from Florida by Sir John Hawkins, and by the 1610s there was a ready market in Britain for tobacco—especially Spanish tobacco from the West Indies. Rolfe obtained from a shipmaster some seeds from Trinidad and Caracas, Venezuela, and by July 1612 was growing Spanish tobacco, or Nicotiana tabacum—presumably at Jamestown, although the exact site of Rolfe’s crop is unknown. The Virginia Indians also grew and smoked tobacco, so Rolfe could have bought seeds from them, but the native Nicotiana rustica, described by William Strachey as being “poore and weake, and of a byting tast,” did not appeal to English smokers. Moreover, relations between the Indians and the English were unstable at best.

Captain Robert Adams of the Elizabeth delivered samples of Rolfe’s tobacco to England on July 20, 1613. Although Rolfe’s early tobacco was considered by the English to be “excellent in quality,” it still was not comparable to the Spanish product. Nevertheless, Rolfe believed that “no doubt but after a little more tryall and expense in the curing thereof, it will compare with the best in the West Indies.” He was proved correct in 1617, when 20,000 pounds of Virginia tobacco were shipped to England, and in 1618, when that amount doubled.

Tobacco Tamper

Rolfe’s successful tobacco experiments inspired others to begin planting available land in Jamestown and in the settlements along the James River. General planting began first at West and Shirley Hundreds and moved east to Point Comfort along a 140-mile stretch of the river. In 1622, despite the Indian uprising that killed about 350 colonists and destroyed several plantations, the settlers’ crop yielded 60,000 pounds. Later in the 1620s, the English took over cleared Indian land and spread tobacco cultivation even farther by using the headright system, in which planters paid to transport people across the Atlantic in exchange for fifty acres of land. The Accomac peninsula was put under cultivation by 1629, when a total of 2,000 acres of tobacco was being grown there.

Around the same time, the wasteful practice of growing three or four crops of tobacco on the same field began to deplete the soil in and around Jamestown. The General Assembly passed a law in 1632 to reduce the number of tobacco plants that each settler could grow to 1,500, and thus the settlers began to seek virgin ground where they could grow even more tobacco on each field. By 1635, tobacco planting had moved away from Jamestown as settlers migrated to lands on the south side of the York River, and by 1648 the planters had received permission from Governor Sir William Berkeley to move north of the York River into the area that had become known as Northumberland.

Virginia Counties 1691—1700

Settlers continued to move westward, away from exhausted Tidewater lands—reaching the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers by 1650, moving into Lancaster County, and then, by 1653, into what is now King William County. In 1689 the York River region produced the greatest amount of tobacco, followed by the Rappahannock River area, the Upper James region, and the Accomac peninsula. According to the historian Melvin Herndon, tobacco planting moved north of the fall line into the Piedmont region by 1720, and a decade later, it had been established in Spotsylvania and Goochland counties as well.

Between 1750 and 1755 tobacco cultivation seems to have been centered in the Upper James River region, the York River region, and the Rappahannock River region, with each area exporting about 83,000 hogsheads (barrels filled with dried, pressed tobacco leaf) during this period, while the Lower James River shipped only about 10,000 hogsheads. In 1759, Elias and William Edmonds settled near what is now Warrenton in Fauquier County and began growing a popular brand of the crop that came to be known as Edmonium tobacco. Within ten years the county of Albemarle, including what are now Amherst and Nelson counties, as well as Cumberland, Culpeper, and Augusta counties, was producing great quantities of the Edmonium brand.

Creation of the Tobacco Industry in Virginia

Relatively cheap labor, a growing population of middling planters, the increasing worldwide demand for tobacco, and a system of regulation designed to maintain the quality of the product all contributed to the creation of a tobacco industry in Virginia, especially in the Piedmont area.

Snuff Box

When Virginians first began exporting tobacco, they relied on building personal relationships with English merchants to whom they sold their wares. This allowed planters to receive payment immediately instead of waiting for the tobacco to be sold in Europe. But as tobacco prices fell in the 1680s and 1690s and the market became less stable, it was more economical for planters to ship at their own risk to England, where a commission agent would, for a fee of 2.5 percent, store the tobacco, pay all duties and fees, sell it, and use the profits as his client directed. By 1730 approximately 40 percent of Chesapeake tobacco was being shipped by the consignment system.

Tobacco Auction in Liverpool

Merchants sent agents, or factors, to Virginia to liaise with the planters from whom they purchased tobacco. Factors operated from the small port towns on the Chesapeake Bay and the major rivers and opened stores, where they sold manufactured goods from Great Britain on credit. They also sent agents to buy tobacco directly from middling to small planters who could not afford the costs of consignment. The store system was dominated by enterprising young Scotsmen who had access to cheaper, faster shipping routes and whose operating costs were lower than those of their English counterparts. As a result, Scotland took over a large portion of the tobacco trade from London. In 1720, Scotland, Bristol, and Liverpool transported about 40 percent of the Chesapeake’s tobacco.

Because goods were bought with promissory notes that represented a certain amount of tobacco, quality control was vital to the industry’s success. This issue had concerned Virginia’s politicians since 1619, when the first inspection law was passed. The law ordered all low-quality tobacco brought to the Jamestown inspection site to be burned. The General Assembly amended the law in 1623 to allow for selected men in each settlement to condemn such tobacco. A 1630 law disallowed accepting inferior tobacco in payment of debts; anyone who did so lost his right to plant tobacco and could only recover it by petitioning the General Assembly. In 1633 five sites for the inspection of tobacco were named: Cheskiack, Denbigh, James City, Shirley Hundred Island, and Southampton River in Elizabeth City. By the end of that year two more sites had been chosen at Warrosquyoake and between Weyanoke and the falls of the James, but no warehouses were built there. An act of 1639 added 213 inspectors to be appointed, 3 in each district.

Tobacco Wrapper

In 1641, all of the various acts for tobacco inspection were repealed. Only the section of the 1630 act that had required the settlement commanders to choose two or three tobacco inspectors remained on the books. Tobacco cultivation spread west and north into frontier areas, where the planters paid less attention to the quality of the leaf. They used mostly outpost merchants to sell their tobacco to Scottish merchants, who then resold the tobacco in northern Europe, where such tobacco was palatable.

In 1680, to accelerate growth, the General Assembly passed the first act to create port towns and warehouses, where imported goods and those intended for export would be stored. Warehouses already existed at some of the proposed sites, which spread across twenty counties: Accomac at Calvert’s Neck, Charles City at Flowerdew Hundred, Elizabeth City at Hampton, Essex at Hobb’s Hole, Gloucester at Tindall’s Point, Henrico at Varina, James City at James City, Isle of Wight at Pates Field on the Pagan River, Lancaster on the Corotoman River, Middlesex on Urbanna Creek, Nansemond at Dues Point, New Kent at the Brick House, Norfolk on the Elizabeth River at the mouth of the Eastern River, Northampton on Kings Creek, Northumberland at Chickacony, Rappahannock at Hobb’s Hole, Stafford at Pease Point at the mouth of Deep Creek, Surry at Smith’s Fort, Warwick at the mouth of Deep Creek, Westmoreland at Nomini, and York at Ship Honors Store.

Alexander Spotswood

In 1713, the assembly passed an act that required owners of warehouses within a mile of public landings to maintain those warehouses. In areas where there were no such warehouses, the county courts were authorized to have them built. For owners of sites designated for new warehouses who refused to erect the buildings, the county could appraise the land and then build the warehouse with public moneys, with the proviso that when the warehouse ceased to be used, the land would revert to the original owner. Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood and the assembly hoped that by standardizing tobacco inspection and rooting out all inferior grades, the price of tobacco would rise. (Spotswood also hoped that appointing politicians as inspectors would increase his power in Virginia.) In fact, prices rose for a time after passage of the act, although the 1713 legislation may not have been responsible. A further act of 1720 stipulated that all warehouses not convenient to the public landings should be discontinued. Thereafter, warehouses were built where necessary and others were abandoned. Inspection warehouses, however, were not authorized above the fall line until after the Revolution.

Tobacco Production and Inspection

The General Assembly passed the next significant inspection act in 1730 at the instigation of Governor Sir William Gooch. Incorporating the 1713 act, Gooch’s 1730 act recognized that Virginia tobacco of inferior quality was still reaching England. Because of resistance from planters large and small, it was debated for nearly a decade before it passed. The law mandated a system of two inspectors at each warehouse to make sure that only the higher-quality leaves were packed into hogsheads (the size of which was regulated by the 1730 law). If a dispute arose between those inspectors, a third could be summoned to settle the matter. This ended the practice of shipping bulk tobacco. Heavy penalties kept the inspectors from allowing the shipment of defective tobacco, entering the tobacco business themselves, or accepting rewards. Under the new law, burgesses and sheriffs were not eligible to serve as inspectors—limiting the governor’s ability to use inspectorships as patronage positions. Tobacco used to pay public or private debts had to be inspected under the same rule. The inspectors opened the hogsheads and checked two samples for any defective tobacco, which was to be burned in the warehouse kiln. If the owner refused to have his tobacco inspected, the entire hogshead was to be burned. Tobacco notes were issued to the owners of hogsheads that successfully passed the inspection—these notes were used as legal currency until the French and Indian War (1754–1763), when Virginia began printing money.

The law was unpopular, especially with small-volume planters, who had to pay to move all of their hogsheads to warehouses. In an election called in 1735, the year after the House of Burgesses renewed the act, 45 percent of the incumbent burgesses—many of whom supported the law—were defeated. Nevertheless, the 1730 inspection law lasted until October 1775, when it expired; it was reinstated a year later.

As a result of the tobacco trade and the warehouse inspection system, towns grew up at Norfolk, Urbanna, and Yorktown by the early years of the eighteenth century. By midcentury, Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, and Richmond had also grown into important port towns. Only Norfolk, however, contained more than a few hundred citizens, and in 1736 it received a self-governing borough charter with its own common council, mayor, and aldermen. By the mid-1770s Norfolk, with a population of about 6,000, had become Virginia’s busiest port and largest city.

Types of Tobacco

Eighteenth-Century Tobacco Advertisement

Two major types of tobacco constituted the bulk of the crop grown in Virginia from about 1650 to the 1730s: sweet-scented and Orinoco. The milder, sweet-scented tobacco was unique to Virginia and traces back to about 1650, when Edward Digges planted seeds of the Orinoco variety of tobacco on Digges Neck, a tract of land he had acquired on the York River. There the soil was sandy and poor, but the leaf was what the Old World had been waiting for: light-colored, aromatic, and mild. ED or E. Dees tobacco, as it was known (for Digges’s initials on the hogsheads), demonstrated that the differences in soil quality were as important to the product as the differences in tobacco varieties. Soon every Virginian was trying to produce this sweet-scented tobacco.

Sweet-scented tobacco was considered by the English to be the best in the world, but the stronger Orinoco found a market in continental Europe. Ultimately, Orinoco became more popular even with English smokers—in 1735, a London merchant wrote to John Carter that tobacconists there had found “among the common Tobacco … some as good as the most celebrated crops.” Thus the tobacconists were using better grades of Orinoco instead of sweet-scented and their customers were still buying the product. By the end of the eighteenth century, Orinoco tobacco dominated the market.

Cultivation and Labor

No matter the variety or where it was planted, tobacco was a notoriously labor-intensive crop. Start-up costs were high as well. To avoid the time-consuming process of cutting trees and clearing land, planters used the Indian method of cultivation: they girded trees to kill them, burned the underbrush, and then planted tobacco and other crops among the stumps and under dead trees.

Drying Tobacco at Colonial Williamsburg

The steps by which tobacco is cultivated from seed to market have changed little, because most of the work does not lend itself to mechanization. Seeds were planted in beds, usually a few weeks after Christmas, and tended through the early spring, at which time the seedlings were transplanted to “hills” in the field (each hill was home to a single tobacco plant). Weeding the hills, topping off the plants to cause the lower leaves to spread, “suckering” (removing shoots sprouting at the junction of the leaves and the stalks), and picking off tobacco worms and other pests were and remain hot, sticky tasks requiring manual labor. When the time was right, the leaves were harvested (usually each leaf is cut off by hand), attached to stakes, hung in the tobacco barn, and cured by one of several processes, each of which require close attention. Finally, the planter and his workers “prized” the cured tobacco, sorting it by hand, pressing it into bundles, and packing it into barrels or shipping crates to be exported to England.

Available labor, rather than the quantity of available land, generally determined how much tobacco could be planted. During the colonial period, an adult male worker could tend from 6,000 to 10,000 hills per year, while a child between the ages of twelve and sixteen could tend about 3,000 (the number of hills per acre depended on the richness of the soil, but usually ranged from 4,000 to 5,000). As planters moved north and west they acquired far more land than they could plant with tobacco, and faced the situation of a limited number of laborers to tend the crop.

Cartouche on Fry-Jefferson Map

As the cultivation of the so-called sot-weed spread, the demand for workers increased as well. In Virginia, this labor demand was satisfied at first by indentured servants, who worked for a fixed number of years to pay their passage and then became free. Indentured servants were plentiful during the middle decades of the seventeenth century, when crop failures in England and Wales prompted many to leave for the New World. But as economic and political conditions in the mother country improved, this source of workers began to dry up and was replaced with slave labor. By 1700, African slaves, bound for life, outnumbered white indentured servants. That same year, the amount of tobacco being shipped from Virginia to England reached 22 million pounds.

Although the market price of tobacco fluctuated, it remained sufficiently high relative to the cost of the labor required for cultivation to justify the acquisition of indentured servants or the purchase of slaves. It has been estimated, based on incomplete records, that between 80,000 and 100,000 Africans arrived in Virginia between 1698 and 1774, with the greatest numbers arriving in the 1730s and 1740s. While the successful planters bought slaves, poorer planters had to rely on themselves and their families for labor.

Production and Prices

Silk-making Efforts in Colonial Virginia

As more Virginians turned to tobacco planting as their main source of income, overproduction drove down the crop’s value. Governor Sir William Berkeley, during his second term in office (1660–1677), attempted to diversify Virginia’s economy. (Earlier efforts to introduce and popularize the cultivation of other potential exports, such as silk, had failed.) Without the Crown’s full support, however, and the support of the House of Burgesses, Berkeley’s efforts failed and tobacco prices continued to fall. At the same time, the First and Second Anglo-Dutch Wars also interfered with the tobacco trade (the Crown had placed restrictions on trading with the Dutch), and prices sank even lower. In 1682, a group of frustrated planters in Gloucester, Middlesex, and New Kent counties cut down tobacco seedlings at several hundred plantations in an attempt to raise prices. The plant-cutting riots were put down, and afterward prices rose briefly, but in 1688 a bumper crop of about 18 million pounds of tobacco was produced in Virginia—the highest yield ever—causing prices to fall to a penny a pound.

The end of King William’s War (1688–1697), which had temporarily disrupted British shipping, resulted in an increase in tobacco prices to twenty shillings per hundredweight. Prices remained stable until the outbreak of Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713), which, in addition to another huge tobacco crop, caused prices to drop so much that several thousand hogsheads shipped on consignment in 1704 returned no profits at all. In 1705, prices fell to one-quarter of a penny per pound. These factors, however, failed to convince planters to cut production, and in 1709 an all-time high of 29 million pounds of tobacco was produced. The plant continued to fetch a low price until the inspection act was passed in 1730. A year later the price of tobacco increased to twelve shillings and six pence per hundredweight, even though production rose to 34 million pounds.

Prices remained stable and even increased steadily during the 1740s and 1750s, but by early in the 1760s fluctuations in the British economy had caused the large planters to have trouble meeting their obligations. (The small planters continued to do fairly well.) As the decade went on, the situation changed so that most Virginians, including members of the gentry, were in dire financial straits. Because colonists traded primarily on credit, most Americans were in debt to British merchants. When English banks collapsed in 1772, those merchants pressured Virginia planters to settle their accounts. The historian T. H. Breen contends that this credit crisis of 1772 probably did as much to bring about the American Revolution as the regulation acts of Parliament.

Payment for Military Recruits

After war broke out in 1775, the General Assembly voted to cease sending tobacco to Britain. Many planters switched to growing food crops, especially wheat, to support troops. In the first year of the war, tobacco production dropped from 55 million pounds to 14.5 million. According to the historian Melvin Herndon, the total crop output for the entire period of the war, 1776–1782, was no larger than the total yield of one year of pre-Revolutionary production.

July 1612
By this date, John Rolfe is growing the Spanish tobacco Nicotiana tabacum, either at a farm at Jamestown or at Bermuda Hundred.
July 20, 1613
Captain Robert Adams of the Elizabeth delivers samples of John Rolfe's tobacco to England.
Twenty thousand pounds of John Rolfe's tobacco arrives in England.
Approximately 40,000 pounds of John Rolfe's tobacco arrives in England, twice the amount shipped the year before.
The General Assembly passes the first tobacco inspection law, which orders all low-quality tobacco brought to the Jamestown inspection site to be burned.
The General Assembly amends its 1619 tobacco inspection law to allow for select men in each Virginia settlement to condemn low-quality tobacco.
In an attempt to prevent overproduction, the General Assembly reduces the number of tobacco plants a single settler can grow to 1,500.
The General Assembly chooses five tobacco inspection sites: Cheskiack, Denbigh, James City, Shirley Hundred Island, and Southampton River in Elizabeth City.
Edward Digges plants Orinoco tobacco seeds in the sandy soil of the York River. The light-colored, aromatic leaf, known as "sweet-scented" tobacco, soon becomes the most popular tobacco in London.
Discourse and View of Virginia, which puts forth Governor Sir William Berkeley's prescriptions for improving the English colony, is published in London. Berkeley describes tobacco as a "vicious ruinous plant" and calls for a diversification of the economy.
Autumn 1664
Edward Digges and other men representing Virginia's planters testify before the Privy Council about depressed tobacco prices, and Digges recommends that Charles II take steps to reduce tobacco production in the colonies and encourage production of silk, flax, naval stores, and potash.
The General Assembly passes an act that creates port towns as places for tobacco inspection warehouses (called rolling-houses).
A group of frustrated planters in Gloucester, Middlesex, and New Kent counties cuts down tobacco seedlings at several hundred plantations in an attempt to raise the price of tobacco.
A bumper crop of Virginia tobacco—measuring more than 18 million pounds, the largest crop produced in a single year to date—causes prices to fall to a penny a pound.
A shipment of several thousand hogsheads of tobacco is sent to England and yields no return, an effect of the overproduction of Virginia tobacco.
May 1730
The General Assembly passes An Act for amending the Staple of Tobacco; and for preventing Frauds in his Majesty's Customs, outlining a controversial plan for the inspection of tobacco before it goes to market.
A severe drought devastates Virginia agriculture, resulting in a reduced harvest of corn and tobacco.
Planters turn to growing food crops, especially wheat, in support of the Revolutionary War effort. Tobacco production drops from 55 million pounds to 14.5 million pounds.
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APA Citation:
Salmon, Emily. Tobacco in Colonial Virginia. (2021, February 05). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/tobacco-in-colonial-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Salmon, Emily. "Tobacco in Colonial Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (05 Feb. 2021). Web. 04 Mar. 2021
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