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Britain in the New World

2d. The Growth of the Tobacco Trade

Smoking Club
Among 18th-century Europeans, tobacco smoking indicated a high social class. In this 1793 etching by James Gillray, wealthy men are seen indulging in tobacco at what was known as a "smoking club."

Virginia's economic future did not lie with gold. There was too little gold to be found there. Looking for new ways to make its investments pay dividends, the Virginia Company of London began encouraging multiple ventures by 1618.

Jamestown settlers experimented with glassblowing, vineyard cultivation, and even silkworm farming. Despite efforts to diversify Virginia's economy, by the end of the 1620s only one Virginia crop was drawing a fair market price in England: tobacco.

Drinking Smoke

Tobacco was introduced to Europe by the Spanish, who had learned to smoke it from Native Americans. Despite some early criticism of "drinking smoke," tobacco became popular among the middle classes in England. Much of the tobacco smoked in England was grown in the West Indies.


There is an herb called uppowoc, which sows itself. In the West Indies it has several names, according to the different places where it grows and is used, but the Spaniards generally call it tobacco. Its leaves are dried, made into powder, and then smoked by being sucked through clay pipes into the stomach and head. The fumes purge superfluous phlegm and gross humors from the body by opening all the pores and passages. Thus its use not only preserves the body, but if there are any obstructions it breaks them up. By this means the natives keep in excellent health, without many of the grievous diseases which often afflict us in England.

– Thomas Hariot, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588)



Smoking is a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.

– James I of England, A Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604)


John Rolfe
Known among his peers as "an ardent smoker," John Rolfe introduced the tobacco plant to the Virginia colony. This plant became the cornerstone of the Virginia economy.

John Rolfe thought that Virginia might be an outstanding site for tobacco growth. Early attempts to sell Virginian tobacco had fallen short of expectations. Smokers felt that the tobacco of the Caribbean was much less harsh than Virginian tobacco.

Rolfe reacted to consumer demand by importing seed from the West Indies and cultivating the plant in the Jamestown colony. Those tobacco seeds became the seeds of a huge economic empire.

By 1630, over a million and a half pounds of tobacco were being exported from Jamestown every year.

The tobacco economy rapidly began to shape the society and development of the colony. Growing tobacco takes its toil on the soil. Because tobacco drained the soil of its nutrients, only about three successful growing seasons could occur on a plot of land. Then the land had to lie fallow for three years before the soil could be used again. This created a huge drive for new farmland.

Indentured slave poster
Tobacco cultivation was demanding work. Signs such as this one were posted in England to round up more workers (indentured servants).

Settlers grew tobacco in the streets of Jamestown. The yellow-leafed crop even covered cemeteries. Because tobacco cultivation is labor intensive, more settlers were needed.

Indentured Servants

Indentured servants became the first means to meet this need for labor. In return for free passage to Virginia, a laborer worked for four to five years in the fields before being granted freedom. The Crown rewarded planters with 50 acres of land for every inhabitant they brought to the New World.

Naturally, the colony began to expand. That expansion was soon challenged by the Native American confederacy formed and named after Powhatan.

Virginia Statute for Runaway Slaves

"Whereas there are divers loytering runaways in the collony who very often absent themselves from their masters service, And sometimes in two or three monthes cannot be found, whereby their said masters are at great charge in finding them, And many time s even to the loss of their year's labour before they be had, Be it therefore enacted and confirmed that all runaways that shall absent themselves from their said masters service shall be lyable to make satisfaction by service at the end of their tymes by indenture double the tyme of service soe neglected, And in some cases more if the comissioners for the place appointed shall find it requisite and convenient. And if such runaways shall be found to transgresse the second time or oftener (if it shall be duely proved against them) that then they shall be branded in the cheek with the letter R. and passe vnder the statute of incorrigible rogues."

– Statute passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses, from William Waller Hening's The Statutes at Large, Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature (March, 1642)

On the Web
The Culture of Smoke
Tobacco was a craze among men who wanted to be fashionable. There were even clubs devoted to smoking tobacco.
Dry Drunk: The Culture of Tobacco in 17th- and 18th-Century Europe
From the Center for Humanities at the New York Public Library, this detailed history of the cultural effects of tobacco in 17th- and 18th-century Europe presents an extensive collection of historic prints and works of art. The collection includes examinations of topics such as "Travel and Discovery" and "Herbals and Health," and also branches off into less commonly explored areas such as "Questions of Gender" and "The Cure for Sneezing." Great writing, top-notch illustrations, and fascinating topics make this unique website one not to be missed.
Economic Aspects of Tobacco during the Colonial Period 1612-1776
Once the colonists realized the potential wealth they could gain from harvesting tobacco, they planted it everywhere open land could be found. Tobacco was key to the economy and was even used as currency when gold and silver became scarce. This article looks at the role tobacco played in shaping the economy and the government of the Chesapeake region. Although not the prettiest site out there, it's unique in its depth and perspective and definitely worth checking out.
Monardes on Tobacco
By the 1570s, tobacco use was all the rage in Spain. It was believed not only to be a source of pleasure, but also a wonderous plant with medicinal properties. Though it's common knowledge today that the effects of smoking are detrimental and can be life threatening, attitudes of 16th-century health practitioners were much different. This document presents the views of a physician of the time who described the beneficial uses of the plant by natives of the New World. It was published in 1577 under the title Joyfull Newes our of the Newe Founde Worlde.
Prince George's County Tricentennial
Prince George's County in Maryland was established in 1696. It transformed rapidly (within 10 to 20 years) from open frontier to a settled community filled with many farms and families. And what was growing in the fields? Tobacco, of course. This page commemorates 300 years of Prince George's history and includes an excellent description of tobacco cultivation in these early colonial times.
Virtual Jamestown: Indentured Servitude
The growth of tobacco as a cash crop led to prosperity — but prosperity came with a heavy cost. The demand for tobacco quickly fueled the demand for a cheap labor force. Virtual Jamestown presents this page of 17th-century statutes related to indentured servants. The documents address such topics as the "First recorded case of master-servant dispute" and "Laws clearly defining the differences between servant and slave."
The European Tobacco Trade from the 15th to the 17th Centuries
Sir Francis Drake was responsible for bringing not only the potato to England, but also tobacco. According to this website, tobacco was ironically accepted as a wondrous plant with health benefits, while the potato was shunned due to fear that it was poisonous. An interesting commentary on the tobacco trade during the 15th through 17th centuries, this essay is a quick, but informative, read.
The Plantation System and Indentured Servitude
Though the foundations of slavery in the South were laid by the first Virginia legislature, the first plantation system was developed without black slaves. This website, an educational series compiled by the Annenburg Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, addresses the institution of indentured servitude — the answer to Jamestown's labor shortage. An insightful look at this system of bondage, the article delves into the reasoning behind the system and the horrible conditions and consequences it actually created.
According to Huron Indian myth, the tobacco plant was a gift of the Great Spirit.
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How can the weight of smoke be measured? Queen Elizabeth challenged Sir Walter Raleigh with this riddle. Read this brief account in "The life of Sir Walter Raleigh," written in 1854.
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