Introduction of Tobacco Farming in North America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Tobacco, already gaining popularity in Europe, was introduced as a commercial crop in Jamestown, Virginia. The New World plant’s cultivation corresponded with the rise of tobacco culture in Europe, provided America with a fundamental economic underpinning by which plantation owners gained immense fortunes, and aided in the destruction and displacement of Native Americans.

Summary of Event

Tobacco was first introduced into Europe from North America before its establishment as a crop in Virginia. Native Americans consumed wild tobacco, which was plentiful in the Americas, rather than cultivating tobacco fields. The growing European desire for the New World plant, or “weede,” as it was initially referred to, literally saved the lives of the struggling British colonists and provided a means for their colonies to grow and prosper. While tobacco was widespread during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it was not until the second half of the seventeenth century that the price of tobacco fell drastically and tobacco became truly popular. The addictive desire for tobacco in Europe and eventually the rest of the world brought about enormous social, physical, and economic change. [kw]Introduction of Tobacco Farming in North America (1612) [kw]America, Introduction of Tobacco Farming in North (1612) [kw]North America, Introduction of Tobacco Farming in (1612) [kw]Farming in North America, Introduction of Tobacco (1612) [kw]Tobacco Farming in North America, Introduction of (1612) Agriculture;1612: Introduction of Tobacco Farming in North America[0600] Trade and commerce;1612: Introduction of Tobacco Farming in North America[0600] Economics;1612: Introduction of Tobacco Farming in North America[0600] Health and medicine;1612: Introduction of Tobacco Farming in North America[0600] American Colonies;1612: Introduction of Tobacco Farming in North America[0600] Tobacco;North America Agriculture;tobacco farming North America;tobacco farming

It is difficult to imagine Europeans’ initial response when they first viewed pipe smoking or snuff inhalation. They simply had no referential context whatsoever by which to understand the practice, so it is hardly any wonder such phrases as “drinking smoke” or “drinking fog,” were invented for lack of better terms. Native Americans Native Americans;tobacco and viewed tobacco as a medicine and used it also within social frameworks to bring people together in peace and camaraderie. With electrifying speed, Europeans, and soon after the rest of the world, borrowed American cultural and social practices surrounding the use of tobacco.

Tobacco, which gained an early reputation as a medicinal panacea, was introduced to France in 1556, Portugal in 1558, Spain in 1559, and finally to England in 1565. The explorer Christopher Columbus is actually credited with bringing tobacco to Europe at the end of the 1400’, but it did not become popular until the middle of the sixteenth century, when diplomats like France’s Jean Nicot, Nicot, Jean for whom nicotine is named, began to use it as a curative. In France, where tobacco could only be purchased with a prescription, Queen Catherine de Médicis Catherine de Médicis was so favorably impressed when it reportedly cured her headaches that she decreed that it be called Herba Regina, the “queen’s herb.”

After tobacco use moved beyond the medical arena, a culture of smoking, initially based on Native American social practices, sprung up in Europe. Pipes were ritually passed around from person to person in communal camaraderie by Native Americans to pledge an oath or ratify a treaty. This practice inspired the phrase “peace pipe.” When Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico (1519), the natives offered him tobacco as “a pledge of peace and good will.” Similarly, in early seventeenth century Europe, tobacco was “drunk” from a communal pipe that was handed from man to man around the table. In time, tobacco etiquette demanded that people of both genders cultivate the proper manner of smoking, which included a delicate hand.

Both genders and all ages smoked, including children, and, while smoking was the English nicotine delivery method of choice during the Stuart and Cromwellian eras, like many other imported French court manners, inhaling snuff gained in popularity after the Restoration of Charles II. Among aristocrats, it was common to have a different, enormously expensive snuff box for every day of the week.

In addition to the tobacco culture—smoking, snuff taking, and their accompanying mannerisms and accoutrements—tobacco also had a physical influence on seventeenth century bodies. Its ability to diminish the appetite led it to be used often in place of food. As a result, a reduction in the intake of meat, milk, and cheese accompanied Europeans’ consumption of tobacco and allowed workers to work longer hours. Tobacco also played a role in major military conflicts, permitting soldiers to fight longer by increasing energy while keeping their bodies relaxed. In fact, seventeenth century European soldiers carried pipes in their caps, and tobacco constituted part of their daily rations.

The famous pipe smoker Sir Walter Ralegh Ralegh, Sir Walter is credited with popularizing tobacco in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603). In 1587, Ralegh established a settlement on Roanoke Island in Virginia. After its failure, he attempted to colonize Guiana, rumored to be the mythical El Dorado, but instead of gold, he returned to England with tobacco.

The first successful commercial tobacco crop was cultivated in Virginia in 1612 by Englishman John Rolfe, Rolfe, John secretary and recorder of the fledgling Jamestown Colony Jamestown . Rolfe, who is also well known for marrying the Powhatan princess Pocahontas Pocahontas in 1614, obtained tobacco seeds in the Caribbean and planted them in Virginia Virginia;tobacco growing in lieu of the more bitter native tobacco. This act literally saved the starving colonists. Two years later, he sent to England 4 hogsheads (252 dry gallons) of tobacco, weighing about 2,600 pounds (1,180 kilograms). The colony exploded with the growing and selling of tobacco. In the Chesapeake region of Virginia, tobacco was used as a medium of exchange by some Native Americans: It became a form of currency for the colonists as well, with everything bought and sold with tobacco.

Concern about his subjects’ health had led the English king James I James I (king of England);tobacco and to issue A Counterblaste to Tobacco Counterblaste to Tobacco, A (James I) (1604), condemning tobacco as a “heathenish” poison. However, the tobacco market continued to expand, and, by 1617, Virginia had shipped around 10 tons (9,100 kilograms) of tobacco to England. The European demand for tobacco grew at a bewildering rate. In 1603, England had imported a total of only 25,000 pounds (11,300 kilograms) of the plant, but by 1640, tobacco had risen to first place among London’s imports. In 1700, the nation imported almost at 38 million pounds (17 million kilograms) and in 1771, over 100 million pounds (45 million kilograms). Colonization;tobacco and


The introduction of tobacco crops as a commercial crop in seventeenth century North America had far-reaching social, physical, and economic significance. Its cultivation spurred the developing tobacco culture in Europe and throughout the world. Tobacco joined sugar and other plantation crops to form the heart of the colonial American economy, binding the colonies to developing world markets and providing an ever-greater impetus to import slaves to work the plantations. Historians agree that tobacco made more fortunes than all the silver in North and South America.

Although mild when compared with today’s hard narcotics, nicotine’s advance into Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries marked a major step in the development of global, imperialist capitalism. Tobacco, as an ever-increasing commodity, ensured the ongoing development of Virginia and provided an economic incentive for further expansion and settlement of the New World.

Furthermore, tobacco greatly influenced the displacement of Native Americans. Since it is a crop that is exhausting to the soil, virgin land must be cultivated continuously to keep up production. Thus, more and more land was needed to fulfil the rapidly expanding worldwide desire for tobacco. In order to meet the need for new territory, settlers took advantage of the Native Americans: By trading for mere pots and pans, the Indians lost control of their lands. The European and colonial craving for tobacco therefore played a major role in imperial acquisition and colonial expansion.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gately, Iain. Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization. New York: Grove Press, 2003. Traces the history of tobacco from pre-Columbian America through the litigation of the 1990’. Fascinating account of tobacco in literature, film, and society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodman, Jordan. Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence. New York: Routledge, 1994. A far-reaching analysis of the culture and business of tobacco. Explores the chemical addictive nature of tobacco, details the introduction of tobacco to Europe, and examines the role of government and the enormous economic impact worldwide. Provides a forty-page bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Middleton, Arthur Pierce. Tobacco Coast: A Maritime History of the Chesapeake Bay in the Colonial Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984. Scholarly history of tobacco’s role in the Chesapeake Bay economy. Discusses how the early colonists thrived on the cultivation of tobacco and the plant’s increasing importance as the area’s primary economic mainstay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants. Translated by David Jacobson. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992. Although this book deals primarily with coffee, tea, and alcohol, it contains a highly informative section on the history of tobacco and its cultural and economic impact.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Charles I; Charles II (of England); Oliver Cromwell; James I; Pocahontas; Powhatan; John Smith. Tobacco;North America Agriculture;tobacco farming North America;tobacco farming

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