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.