The Growth of the Tobacco Trade

Virginia’s economic future did not lie with gold. There was too little gold found. 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 1620s only one Virginia crop was drawing a fair market price in England: tobacco.

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

John Rolfe thought Virginia might be an outstanding site for tobacco growth. Early attempts to sell Virginia tobacco had fallen short of expectations, as smokers felt 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 began to shape the society and development of the colony. Growing 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 it could be used again. This created a huge drive for new farmland. Settlers grew tobacco in the streets of Jamestown. The crop even covered cemeteries.

New settlers were needed as tobacco cultivation was labor intensive. Indentured servants became the major source of labor. In return for free passage to Virginia, a laborer worked for 4 to 5 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.

The colony began to expand. It was soon challenged by a Native American confederacy named after Powhatan.

Source: The Growth of the Tobacco Trade
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