Tobacco and the Atlantic World - panel four of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network exhibit

Panel four of the Chesapeake Bay Exhibit explaining Tobacco's importance in the Atlantic World

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.

-early tobacco label

 
Sidney King Painting of English settlers harvesting tobacco
Artist Sydney King's painting depicts a 17th-century tobacco harvest.

NPS image

 

Although settlers harvested raw materials such as timber and attempted industries such as glassblowing and potash production, the colony was hard pressed to generate a profit. The Virginia Company of London, which had organized and financed colonization, was pleased when colonist John Rolfe’s experimental tobacco station proved a success.

By 1614, colonist Ralph Hamor would report, “…I doubt not [we] will make and return such Tobacco this year, that even England shall acknowledge the goodness thereof.”

 
Settlers rolling barrels (Hogs Heads) onto ships
Artist Sydney King depicts settlers loading hogsheads of tobacco aboard a ship bound for England.

NPS image

Bringing great profit at first to the colony, “the golden weed” thrived in Virginia’s rich soil. Early planters relied on the waterways for easy transportation of their crop across the Atlantic.

 
English gentleman smoking a pipe
vintage illustration of a gentleman using a clay pipe to smoke tobacco

Bringing great profit at first to the colony, “the golden weed” thrived in Virginia’s rich soil. Early planters relied on the waterways for easy transportation of their crop across the Atlantic.

 
Image depicting the arrival of the first Africans to English North America
Artist Sydney King depicts the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia.

Tobacco was a labor-intensive crop. In 1619, John Rolfe reported to Sir Edwin Sandys that a Dutch ship had arrived at Point Comfort, bringing “20 and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Merchant bought for victual… at the best and easiest rate they could.” Although European indentured servants augmented the workforce, by 1700, the institution of slavery was firmly established in Virginia.

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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