Spotlight: Tobacco in Colonial Virginia

Published:December 4, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

We just published our entry on tobacco in colonial Virginia. It notes that Virginia Indians were smoking the weed long before the English arrived but that the Indian variety, Nicotiana rustica, tasted dark and bitter to the English palate. It was John Rolfe who in 1612 obtained milder-tasting Spanish seeds, or Nicotiana tabacum, and planted them in the James River valley, thereby and forever changing Virginia history. The Europeans loved the stuff—well, everybody except King James, who penned A Counter-Blaste to Tobacco in 1604, which, I’ll grant you, was pre-Jamestown, but still. He found no “more base, and yet hurtfull corruption in a Countrey, then is the vile use (or other abuse) of taking Tobacco …”

Except—and while this caveat did not make it into that original 1604 edition, it would apply later—when tobacco becomes hugely profitable, completely transforming a nearly dead, money-pit of a colony in far-off America.

Then it was fine!

Our entry tells the story of that transformation, how over the next century and a half tobacco spread across Virginia, dominating the agriculture of the Chesapeake and preoccupying politicians, who were always looking for ways to control, regulate, and profit. That tobacco was so work-intensive helped fuel the need for indentured servants and then, later, enslaved Africans. That it so quickly wore out the land also forced Europeans to constantly seek new places to plant, pushing them farther west and into the land of Virginia Indians.

Eventually Virginia farmers switched away from tobacco, and the entry helps to explain why, just as it runs through various types of tobacco and how it was cultivated. So take a look, and while you’re there, appreciate the many great images, maps, and objects, sampled above and made possible through our partnerships with institutions like the Library of Virginia, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and Preservation Virginia.

IMAGES: Hand-colored engraving of a flowering tobacco plant, by Copland and Sanson, from A Treatise on the Culture of the Tobacco Plant by Jonathan Carver, 1779 (Library of Virginia); advertisement for auction of Virginia tobacco in Liverpool, 1780 (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation); seventeenth-century wrapper for Virginia tobacco sold by William Gribble of Barnstaple, England (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)