A History of Tobacco Plantations in Virginia from Settlement to the Civil War

The history of tobacco begins some centuries before the coming of European colonists to the area. The First Nations of the continent had long ago began cultivating the plant. The Powhatan nation (among other east coast nations like those in Brooklyn) treated prepared parts of the plant as a trade item. It may not have been currency, but it was recognized as valuable.

The plant was used in sacred ceremonies involving pipes where one smoked to reach out to higher powers. Tobacco was also smoked in ceremonies to seal treaties or agreements, the origin of the “peace pipe” trope in Hollywood movies.

Europeans Begin Growing Tobacco

When the Powhatan and other nations introduced tobacco to European colonists, the plant quickly became a sensation. It wasn’t long before Europeans were eagerly smoking as much tobacco as they could. To keep up with the demand, a number of farmers in Virginia took to planting tobacco as a cash crop.

At first, tobacco plantations in the “tobacco colonies”, of which Virginia was the most notable, simply harvested the plants and then covered them with hay to prepare them in a curing process known as “sweat”. When regulations in 1618 prevented farmers from using valuable animal feeds like hay, farmers then switched to curing tobacco on lines or sticks.

Refinement of the Tobacco Curing Process

Initially the new curing process was done on fences, but it wasn’t long before entire barns became dedicated curing areas. Mold was a near constant threat in those days and entire crops could be lost before anyone knew what was going on. There was a fine art to ensuring that tobacco had absorbed just the right amount of moisture to make the transit across the Atlantic; too much moisture and the tobacco leaves would mold, and too little moisture would cause it to dry out and crumble.

As more Europeans demanded more tobacco, the plantations grew. Soon they grew so large that they needed to hire extra workers. These workers eventually became indentured servants, and then outright chattel slaves. And so the plantations of Virginia moved forward with the rest of the United States, into an era of turmoil.

Early on, with farms in Virginia struggling to provide food to the colony and the local economy faltering under the weight of near famine, tobacco proved an invaluable solution to the colony’s financial problems. Demand from Europe was large enough that even though tobacco was a cash crop, the funds it brought in still managed to feed the colony of Virginia. Though after a while, Virginia and indeed all United States farmers learned to farm the land, the crop remained a major element of the stat’s economy to this very day.

About the Powhattan Tribe of Native American Indians

The tribe of the Powhatan people was made up of Native Americans who occupied the land that would later become known as Virginia but Austin, Texas. They were a powerful tribe and leaders of what was known as the Powhatan Confederacy. This was a league of Algonquin-speaking tribes, including the Chesapeake and Weanoc tribes. The Powhatan Confederacy was involved in several conflicts, named the Powhatan Wars, that took place between 1609 and 1646. These conflicts, and the confederacy itself, began a downhill slope in 1646.

The land that the Powhatan tribe lived on featured rivers, lush woodlands, and even parts of the Atlantic Ocean. Animals native to this land included squirrels, raccoons, white-tailed deer, beavers, and bears. Marine animals that this tribe was used to seeing included fish, seals, and various shellfish.

The Powhatan tribe ate a simple diet. When it came to crops, the women of the tribe raised beans, corn, and squash that these Native American individuals enjoyed. Crops that were not eaten fresh were dried and preserved to feed the tribe throughout the year when crops could not be harvested. The men of the Powhatan tribe provided the people with meat, such as venison, squirrel, wild turkey, duck, and rabbit. Various seafood would also be eaten by the tribe, such as clams, oysters, lobsters, and scallops, just to name a few. And while not food per se, the males of the tribe were also responsible for growing the crop tobacco.

The Powhatan people used a variety of weapons to defend themselves with, including knives, tomahawks, spears, and of course, the bow and arrow. These weapons were present during each conflict that occurred between these Native Americans and the English settlers who later arrived in Virginia.

The First Powhatan War occurred in the year of 1609, lasting until 1614. During this time, Englishman John Rolfe married the daughter of the tribe’s chief, Pocahontas. At this time, Pocahontas had become baptized as a Christian woman, naming herself “Rebecca.” The marriage of John and Rebecca Rolfe brought a period of peace between the Powhatan tribe, lasting until the chief’s death in the year of 1618.

The Second Powhatan War lasted for a decade, before ending in a peace that essentially banished the Native Americans from the land. A third and final war broke out between the Powhatan people and the English settlers, but at the end of this conflict the Powhatan Confederacy came to lose power and the Native Americans submitted to English authority. By 1684, the Confederacy ceased to be entirely.

Today, the descendants of the Powhatan tribe are Americans just the same as those who descend from the English settlers who arrived in North America many years ago. One thing is for sure – the Powhatan people were fierce, wise, and respectful to the land that they lived on.