Was Tobacco In Colonial Virginia Different From What We Grow Today?

The ancient planters struggled to survive when they first arrived in Virginia, but they knew what they were getting into. They came for a variety of reasons, but they had to work together in order to make their new homework to its full potential. One of the biggest contributing factors to the long-term success of this early colony was tobacco–an important cash crop everywhere, but especially to the colonists.

They needed the influx of capital it provided, but as their need for resources grew, so too did their conflicts with the Native Americans who lived in the area. They needed land more than anything else to continue growing their tobacco, which led to conflict, social strife, and war.

Whether or not the tobacco tasted familiar to the settlers depended on where the seeds were found. The first tobacco the settlers found belonged to the Native Americans who lived there, and was called “nicotiana rustica.” To them, it would’ve tasted darker and more bitter than what they were accustomed to growing. Eventually, John Rolfe managed to procure Spanish seeds called “nicotiana tabacum.” These seeds helped the settlers grow a plant that tasted dark yet mild compared to the former.

It should be noted that the dominant means of “consumption” was called “snuff.” The ground tobacco leaves would be sniffed or inhaled. It was quite unlike the cigarettes today and probably wasn’t as offensive.

These latter seeds would become the standard for tobacco farming over the next century, but of course, the way we grow and breed plants has evolved quite a bit over time. Tobacco cultivation became so important to the economy of new colonies that the General Assembly mandated a number of regulations by 1619. Tobacco had to undergo inspection, and could only be stored in specific types of warehouses and transported in port towns. This process helped expand other settlements in Norfolk, Richmond, and Alexandria. Anyone one who failed to do this would face criminal charges and be in need of a criminal defense lawyer.

It was a brutal cycle. The cash crop was directly used to pay for the indentured servants or slaves who would inevitably be responsible for cultivating the land where the next batch would be planted. Many of the crops would be shipped back to England in return for new slaves, servants, and an influx of cash.