Did Early Jamestown Settlements Struggle With Addiction?

Most of us realize that the first settlers of historic Jamestown were forced to endure an endless list of hardships before they really got their footing. These included lack of water and food, famine, conflict with Native Americans, sickness, and long winters. Together, these factors contributed to many of the settlers perishing very early on — and considering the first group was comprised only just over 100 men, that was a big problem.

Another issue was the lack of economy. They needed a profitable commodity to trade amongst themselves and with the natives, and it took them a few years before they found one: tobacco. Once settlers were incentivized to grow (they had been given “free” land that belonged to the Natives). But tobacco is addictive. What makes addiction more likely? Factors like adverse living, depression, etc. And we know the Jamestown settlers had that in spades.

So was there any evidence to suggest they struggled with addiction?

Oddly enough, it’s rarely discussed. Oddly enough, King James didn’t have much respect for tobacco or smokers — he is documented as having believed it was a revolting habit — but he allowed settlers to grow and sell it anyway. After all, the New World was ripe for the taking. But in order to take it, settlers had to first survive long enough to build a beachhead that future travelers could use to get their own footing. 

In the years following, settlers arrived by the boatload. Most were indentured servants who were forced to work off a debt. Survival was the least of their problems! Almost all of these settlers grew tobacco to work off their debt and make a living. It’s almost inconceivable to make the case that none of these poor, depressed folk smoked. They almost certainly took their fair share of the crop that kept them alive and, eventually, helped them prosper.