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The Tobacco Economy

Governor De La Warr's arrival in May 1611 helped to infuse some discipline into the aimless residents of Jamestown. More important to the long-range survival of the colony, however, was the development of a dependable economic base. Tobacco was not an unknown commodity in early 17th century Europe. Christopher Columbus noted the curious practice of smoking among the natives in Cuba and took leaves with him on the return trip of his first voyage. Over the next century, smoking gained in popularity and provided a profitable activity for Spanish ships, which distributed West Indian tobacco to a variety of European ports. Attitudes toward smoking differed sharply. James I of England, one of the most vocal critics of the practice, objected to the foul smell left by the smoke. On the other hand, some physicians prescribed smoking as a cure for a variety of illnesses. In 1612, John Rolfe of Jamestown imported West Indian tobacco seeds and began to cultivate a small crop for his own enjoyment. The plants thrived in the heat and humidity of the Virginia lowlands and soon brought about a reordering of the colony’s economy. Two fundamental changes occurred:

  • Tobacco cultivation changed Virginia from a series of small farms and communities located in a compact area into a sprawling colony composed of many large farms and plantations. Tobacco was not profitable when produced on a small scale; large tracts were needed. Eager farmers pursued prosperity by pushing westward up the James River, thereby encroaching on the lands of already sensitive Indians. Further, the plant's rapid depletion of soil nutrients made the search for new lands an unending quest. The financial rewards of tobacco production were so great that many traditional farmers joined the trend, which resulted in a dangerous drop in the colony’s food production.
  • The new tobacco economy created a crisis in the labor market. The need for field hands was so great that the settlers attempted to enslave the area’s natives, who were greatly averse to forced labor and took the first opportunity to escape into the surrounding forests. In 1618, the Virginia Company, desperate for workers, instituted the headright system, a plan to offer land as a recruitment ploy to attract laborers. The following year, a new element was added to the labor picture when a Dutch ship visited Jamestown and exchanged African slaves for a load of tobacco. Slavery grew slowly in the early and mid-1600s and many of the slaves of this era were treated as indentured servants. However, in the 1670s the numbers of European immigrants to the Chesapeake region declined sharply, an event that redefined the nature of slavery in America.