GREENWICH, N.Y. — Jamestown, Virginia was the first successful English colony in what would become the United States of America. However, like other colonies before and after it, Jamestown nearly did not survive save for the introduction of one agricultural crop: tobacco. Read on to find out how this cash crop turned Jamestown from despair to the path of making Virginia the wealthiest and most populous of the thirteen colonies.
The settlement of Jamestown was founded in May of 1607 on an island about 60 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The settlement was the business venture of a group of London entrepreneurs called the Virginia Company. The group received a charter from King James I to establish a permanent English settlement in the Chesapeake region a year earlier. The 104 settlers that arrived in 1607 had instructions from the Company to build an English settlement, find gold, and seek a water route to the Pacific Ocean.1
However, from the start the colony faced troubles. Disease and lack of food were constant enemies. Much to the dismay of the Virginia Company there was no gold to be found in the area, so new ways were needed for the colony to make money. Attempts were made at enterprises like glassmaking, silk production, lumber, sassafras, pitch & tar making, and soap ashes, but these were not financially successful.2
Within days of landing the English were attacked by the Powhatan Native Americans that inhabited the area setting the tone for the relationship between the English and Powhatan, which would teeter between friendly and hostile for decades. Captain John Smith, who became president of the colony in 1608, was able to effectively open trade with the Powhatan for a time in which the English would trade glass, copper, and iron items in exchange for food, but it did not last.3
In 1609 problems came to a head for Jamestown. Relations with the Powhatan had deteriorated due to a drought that was affecting the area. The Powhatan thought the English were demanding too much food in their trade when they had little to spare. Later in the year they laid siege to Jamestown. Captain Smith was forced to return to England in the fall due to injuries sustained from a mysterious gunpowder explosion. This affected leadership within the colony and relations with the Powhatan. Also, a fleet of resupply ships that were expected to come that year were shipwrecked near Bermuda and only one of the ships made it containing few supplies.4
With little supplies and food, the winter of 1609-1610 became known as the “Starving Time.” Trapped in the fort due to the Powhatan siege, settlers were forced to eat anything they could find including snakes, rodents, horses, dogs, shoe leather and, sadly, one another. Recent archaeological work has proved evidence of survival cannibalism occuring during this time. Of the 300 settlers that were at Jamestown in the fall of 1609, only 60 would survive the winter. The survivors elected to abandon the settlement and return to England, however within days of that decision a ship carrying the new colonial governor arrived who ordered Jamestown be revived.5
It was into these dire conditions that John Rolfe entered Jamestown in the spring of 1610. Rolfe was a passenger on one of the resupply ships that was supposed to arrive a year earlier, but was shipwrecked in Bermuda for 10 months. After arriving, Rolfe observed that the Powhatan grew tobacco and used it in their daily life and customs. Wondering if the plant could be of use to the colony, he began experimenting with planting tobacco.6
Tobacco was a growing market in Europe at the time. While Native Americans had been growing and smoking tobacco for millennia, Europeans became introduced to the crop only after Christopher Columbus’ expedition in the 1492. The Spanish controlled nearly all tobacco trade. As more of it became available, Europeans were using it for recreation and hailing what was thought at the time to be its medicinal benefits. (This story takes place centuries before the negative health effects of smoking and tobacco use were widely known.) Not everyone was keen on the new product though, as Jamestown’s namesake, King James I, described smoking tobacco as, “A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.”7
Rolfe’s experiment proved a great success in 1612 after a good crop was produced in the colony, and its money-making potential realized. What made his tobacco different was the variety he used. The Powhatan and other Native American groups grew a tobacco species native to North America called Nicotiana Rustica. However, this species often had a bitter taste when smoked. Rolfe acquired seeds (it is unclear how or where) and began growing a more desirable species found in Central and South America called Nicotiana Tabacum, which provided a sweeter taste and was preferred in Europe.8 After a trial period, the crop was well received in the colony and in England. Secretary of Virginia Ralph Hamor praised Rolfe’s efforts at the time writing, “I may not forget the gentleman, worthie of much commendations, which first tooke the pains to make triall thereof, his name Mr. John Rolfe, Anno Domini 1612, partly for the love he hath a long time borne unto it, and partly to raise commodity to the adventurers… “9
Rolfe provided further security to the colony during this time by marrying the famous Powhatan Pocahontas in 1614. Their union established peace for several years between the English and the Powhatan allowing the colony to improve. In 1616 the couple went to England where sadly Pocahontas died of pneumonia or possibly tuberculosis. A brokenhearted Rolfe returned to Jamestown the following year where he again took up efforts to improve the quality and quantity of tobacco in the colony.10
Jamestown had finally found a commodity that could earn it and the mother country a profit, and tobacco farming increasingly became the main industry of the colony and region. In fact, it grew too fast as reports in 1617 found the colony in disrepair because most people were trying to grow tobacco and not enough people were taking care of the other important functions of the colony. Governmental regulations were put in place on growing tobacco which helped stabilize things in Jamestown.
In 1615-1616 2,300 pounds of Virginia-grown tobacco was sent to England. In 1617 the amount exported grew to 20,000 pounds, and by 1630 England was receiving 500,000 pounds of the crop annually. In the mid-1600s the Virginia tobacco industry produced over one million pounds of product a year and it was deemed of equal quality with the Spanish-grown tobacco.11
Jamestown continued to go through its ups and downs through the remainder of the 17th and into the 18th centuries, but the introduction of tobacco was a key moment that helped the colony survive financial ruin and prevent further human loss. It also marked the beginning of other facets of colonial and early American society in that area. The labor-intensive task that growing tobacco was called for a greater workforce that was first filled by indentured servants, and later slaves establishing slavery and the plantation style of agriculture the region would employ. The lucrative industry that tobacco became made Virginia prosperous. By the time of the American Revolution Virginia was the richest and most populous of the thirteen colonies which made them a key player in Colonial and early American politics. Tobacco would remain the most lucrative agricultural crop for the U.S. throughout the Colonial period and into the early part of the nation’s history.
1 “History of Jamestown,” Historic Jamestowne, accessed July 21, 2022, https://historicjamestowne.org/history/history-of-jamestown/.
2 “John Rolfe,” National Park Service- Historic Jamestowne, February 26, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/john-rolfe.htm.
3 History of Jamestown,” Historic Jamestowne, accessed July 21, 2022, https://historicjamestowne.org/history/history-of-jamestown/.
5 “The Starving Time,” Historic Jamestowne, accessed July 21, 2022, https://historicjamestowne.org/history/history-of-jamestown/the-starving-time/.
6 “John Rolfe,” National Park Service- Historic Jamestowne, February 26, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/john-rolfe.htm.
7 Lee Pelham Cotton, “Tobacco: The Early History of a New World Crop,” last modified February 26, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/tobacco-the-early-history-of-a-new-world-crop.htm.
8 “Tobacco Seed,” Historic Jamestowne, accessed July 21, 2022, https://historicjamestowne.org/collections/artifacts/tobacco-seed/.
9 John Rolfe,” National Park Service- Historic Jamestowne, February 26, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/john-rolfe.htm.
11 Lee Pelham Cotton, “Tobacco: The Early History of a New World Crop,” last modified February 26, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/tobacco-the-early-history-of-a-new-world-crop.htm.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.