Tobacco: The Early History of a New World Crop

TOBACCO: The Early History of a New World Crop

Hail thou inspiring plant! Thou balm of life,
Well might thy worth engage two nations' strife;
Exhaustless fountain of Britannia's wealth;
Thou friend of wisdom and thou source of health.
-from an early tobacco label

Tobacco, that outlandish weed
It spends the brain, and spoiles the seede
It dulls the spirite, it dims the sight
It robs a woman of her right.

-Dr. William Vaughn, 1617

As these two verses show, tobacco use has long been a controversial subject, considered by turns a vice, a panacea, an economic salvation and a foolish and dangerous habit. However, it was perceived, by the end of the seventeenth century tobacco had become the economic staple of Virginia, easily making her the wealthiest of the 13 colonies by the time of the American Revolution.

The Old World encountered tobacco at the dawn of the European Age of Exploration. On the morning of October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus set foot on a small island in the Bahamas. Believing himself to be off the coast of Asia, the Admiral dressed in his best to meet the local inhabitants. The Arawaks offered him some dried leaves as a token of friendship. Those leaves were tobacco. A few days later, a party from Columbus' ship docked off the coast of Cuba and witnessed local peoples there smoking tobacco through Y-shaped tubes which they inserted in their noses, inhaling smoke until they lost consciousness.

By 1558, Frere Andre Thevet, who had traveled in Brazil, published a description of tobacco which was included in Thomas Hacket's The New Found World a decade later:

There is another secret herb . . . which they [the natives of Brazil] most commonly bear about them, for that they esteem it marvellous profitable for many things. . . . The Christians that do now inhabit there are become very desirous of this herb. . . .

Early on, the medicinal properties of tobacco were of great interest to Europe. Over a dozen books published around the middle of the sixteenth century mention tobacco as a cure for everything from pains in the joints to epilepsy to plague. As one counsel had it, "Anything that harms a man inwardly from his girdle upward might be removed by a moderate use of the herb."

In 1560, Jean Nicot, a French ambassador, learned about the curative properties of tobacco when he was on assignment in Portugal. When he returned to France, he used the New World herb to cure the migraine headaches of Catherine de Medicis. The French became enthusiastic about tobacco, calling it the herbe a tous les maux, the plant against evil, pains and other bad things. By 1565, the plant was known as nicotaine, the basis of its genus name today.

By this time, Europeans were discovering recreational uses of tobacco as well as its medicinal ones. As the opening speech of Moliere's Don Juan explains:

. . . there is nothing like tobacco. It's the passion of the virtuous man and whoever lives without tobacco isn't worthy of living. Not only does it purge the human brain, but it also instructs the soul in virtue and one learns from it how to be a virtuous man. Haven't you noticed how well one treats another after taking it. . . tobacco inspires feelings, honor and virtue in all those who take it.

Although it is likely that both Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum, the two major species of tobacco, were grown as curiosities in the gardens of English botanists and apothecaries, smoking the herb for recreation was virtually unknown until mid-sixteenth century. The general English population was most likely first introduced to tobacco by Sir John Hawkins, who displayed it with the riches he accrued from a voyage to Florida in 1565.

Probably the most famous Englishman associated with the introduction of tobacco is Sir Walter Ralegh. Settlers rescued from his Roanoke Island expedition in 1586 had picked up the habit of tobacco smoking (or "drinking" as it came to be called). Hariot remarks in his account of 1588 that:

We ourselves during the time we were there used to suck it after their [the Native Americans'] manner, as also since our return, and have found many rare and wonderful experiments of the virtues thereof, of which the relation would require a volume of itself: the use of it by so many of late, men and women of great calling as else, and some learned Physicians also, is sufficient witness.

In addition to sponsoring this expedition, Sir Walter also is credited with the introduction of pipe smoking in court circles, where it was at first perceived as a strange and even alarming habit. Tradition tells the tale of Sir Walter's own servant coming upon his master with a smoking pipe, thinking he was on fire and drenching him with a bucket of water. Another legend depicts Ralegh introducing the habit of tobacco-drinking to his sovereign Elizabeth I.

Smoking quickly became the rage among the young court dandies, who loitered around in St. Paul's practicing smoke tricks with such evocative names as the "Gulpe," the "Retention" and the "Cuban Ebolition."

There were those, however, who were convinced that the use of tobacco was both unhealthful and aesthetically distasteful. In a 1602 pamphlet Worke for Chimney-sweepers, the anonymous author commands:

But hence thou Pagan Idol: tawny weed.
Come not within our Fairie Coasts to feed,
Our wit-worn gallants, with the scent of thee,
Sent for the Devil and his Company.

Other authors were less reluctant to expose their identities. In 1604, King James I of England published his pamphlet A Counterblaste to Tobacco, in which he describes smoking 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.

Part of James' disaffection for tobacco may be attributed to his personal dislike of Sir Walter Ralegh. Another factor was the Spanish monopoly over the production and distribution of the plant, which was worth its weight in silver at the end of the sixteenth century. James I solved the former problem by beheading his enemy; his financial difficulty was at an end a decade after the publication of his pamphlet. An English source had been found for tobacco.

In 1606, two years after the publication of Counterblaste, the King granted a charter to the Virginia Company of London. In addition to claiming land for England and bringing the faith of the Church of England to the native peoples, the Virginia Company was also enjoined both by the crown and its members to make a tidy profit by whatever means it found expedient.

After the settlers landed on Jamestown Island in the spring of 1607, they quickly began searching for ways to make a fortune both for themselves and the Company. The gold and jewels they had hoped to find were nonexistent. Harvesting raw materials like fish, lumber and furs was difficult. Industries such as glassblowing, pitch and tar production, silk cultivation and mining required skilled labor and too much start-up time.

Within a few years of the founding of Virginia, both the settlers and the Company were beginning to give up hope of a profit. Fortunately for all concerned, help was on the way. In the spring of 1610, the young John Rolfe arrived at Jamestown, a member of the party which had been delayed by shipwreck on the Bermuda Islands.

This new settler observed the Powhatan Indians growing N. rustica. An English pamphlet of the time reported that:

The people in the South parts of Virginia esteeme it [tobacco] exceedingly . . . ; they say that God in the creation did first make a woman, then a man, thirdly great maize, or Indian wheat, and fourthly, Tobacco.

Rolfe, however, was not impressed with the quality of N. rustica, which his contemporary William Strachey characterized as "poore and weake, and of a byting tast. . .," inferior in quality to the fine Spanish weed N. tabacum. Perhaps, however, the crop of the Powhatans gave Rolfe the idea of trying to grow N. tabacum in Virginia soil for himself.

How Rolfe came by fine Trinadad tobacco seed is not known, but he was growing it experimentally by 1612 in Virginia. Rolfe's agricultural attempt was an unqualified success. By 1614, Ralph Hamor, a secretary of the Colony, reported:

. . . Tobacco, whose goodnesse mine own experience and triall induces me to be such, that no country under the Sunne, may, or doth affoord more pleasant, sweet and strong Tobacco, then I have tasted. . . . I doubt not, [we] will make and returne such Tobacco this yeere, that even England shall acknowledge the goodnesse thereof.

Although Sir Thomas Dale, deputy-governor of Virginia, initially limited tobacco cultivation in the fear that the settlers would neglect basic survival needs in their eagerness to finally get rich, 2,300 pounds of tobacco were exported to the Mother Country in 1615-16. True, this was a paltry amount compared with the over 50,000 pounds imported from Spain in the same period, but it was a start. In 1616, Rolfe visited England with his new wife Pocohontas and presented James I with a pamphlet in which the Virginian modestly revealed tobacco as "the principall commoditie the colony for the present yieldeth."

Little did Rolfe guess how important his tobacco crop would become to the economic survival of Virginia. Initially, the settlers went overboard, with predictable results. A description of Jamestown in 1617 paints a bleak picture:

"but five or six houses, the church downe, the palizado's broken, the bridge in pieces, the well of fresh water spoiled; the storehouse used for the church. . . , [and] the colony dispersed about, planting tobacco."

Conditions eventually stabilized, thanks to tight governmental controls. Virginia economy flourished. By 1630, the annual import of Virginia tobacco in England was not less than half a million pounds. By 1640, London was receiving nearly a million and a half pounds a year. Virginia tobacco was acknowledged as equal, if not superior, in quality to the Spanish weed. Soon English tobacconists were extolling the virtues of Virginia tobacco with labels bearing such verses as:

Life is a smoke! -- If this be true,
Tobacco will thy Life renew;
Then fear not Death, nor killing care
Whilst we have best Virginia here.

Tobacco was and is a controversial crop. For Virginians at the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, James I's "noxious weed" would ensure economic survival of the colony by becoming the Golden Weed of Virginia.


Berkeley, Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley, editors. The Reverend John Clayton: The Parson with a Scientific Mind. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1965.

Breen, T. H. Tobacco Culture. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Dickson, Sarah Augusta. Panacea or Precious Bane: Tobacco in Sixteenth Century Literature. New York: New York Public Library, 1954.

Herndon, Melvin. Tobacco in Colonial Virginia: "The Sovereign Remedy." Williamsburg, Virginia: Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration Corporation, 1957.

James I. A Counterblaste to Tobacco. London: R. B., 1604; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1969.

Kulikoff, Allan. Tobacco and Slaves. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Mackinzie, Compton. Sublime Tobacco. Gloucester, England: Allan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1957; reprint, 1984.

Middleton, Arthur. Tobacco Coast. Newport News, Virginia: Mariners' Museum, 1953.

Ray, Oakley. Drugs, Society and Human Behavior. Saint Louis, Missouri: The C. V. Mosby Company, 1978.

Robert, Joseph C. The Story of Tobacco in America. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1949.

Virginia: Four Personal Narratives. New York: Arno Press, 1972.

Lee Pelham Cotton
Park Ranger
Colonial National Historical Park
February 1998

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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