Introduction of Tobacco to Virginia
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
1617 - Twenty thousand pounds of John Rolfe's tobacco arrives in England.
1618 - Approximately 40,000 pounds of John Rolfe's tobacco arrives in England, twice the amount shipped the year before.
1619 - The General Assembly passes the first tobacco inspection law, which orders all low-quality tobacco brought to the Jamestown inspection site to be burned.
1623 - The General Assembly amends its 1619 tobacco inspection law to allow for select men in each Virginia settlement to condemn low-quality tobacco.
1632 - In an attempt to prevent overproduction, the General Assembly reduces the number of tobacco plants a single settler can grow to 1,500.
1633 - The General Assembly chooses five tobacco inspection sites: Cheskiack, Denbigh, James City, Shirley Hundred Island, and Southampton River in Elizabeth City.
1650 - 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.
1663 - 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.
1680 - The General Assembly passes an act that creates port towns as places for tobacco inspection warehouses (called rolling-houses).
1682 - 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.
1688 - 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.
1704 - 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.
1755 - A severe drought devastates Virginia agriculture, resulting in a reduced harvest of corn and tobacco.
1776 - 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.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Salmon, E. J., & Salmon, J. Tobacco in Colonial Virginia. (2013, January 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Tobacco_in_Colonial_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Salmon, Emily Jones and John Salmon. "Tobacco in Colonial Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 29 Jan. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 29, 2013 | Last modified: January 29, 2013
Contributed by Emily Jones Salmon and John Salmon. Emily Jones Salmon is retired senior editor in the Education and Outreach Division of the Library of Virginia, co-editor of The Hornbook of Virginia History (3rd–5th editions: 1983, 1994, and 2010), and co-author with John S. Salmon of Franklin County, Virginia, 1786–1986: A Bicentennial History (1993). John Salmon is historian for Virginia Civil War Trails, and author of The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. He also helped author the National Park Service's Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail Feasibility Study and Environmental Assessment (2006).