Old Tobacco Warehouse, built 1680 at Urbanna, Virginia

The Tobacco Plantation: From Jamestown To The Blue Ridge

Tobacco at Jamestown
Tobacco at Jamestown–1600’s
Courtesy of Sidney E. King

The cultivation of tobacco soon spread from John Rolfe’s garden to every available plot of ground within the fortified districts in Jamestown. By 1617 the value of tobacco was well known in every settlement or plantation in Virginia–Bermuda, Dale’s Gift, Henrico, Jamestown, Kecoughtan, and West and Shirley Hundreds–each under a commander. Governor Dale allowed its culture to be gradually extended until it absorbed the whole attention at West and Shirley Hundreds and Jamestown.

The first general planting in the colony began at West and Shirley Hundreds where twenty-five men, commanded by a Captain Madison, were employed solely in planting and curing tobacco. In 1616 the tobacco fever struck furiously in Jamestown. The following description indicates the impact of the “fever”: there were “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 all about, planting tobacco.” The “Noxious weed” was even growing in the streets and in the market place.

By 1622 plantations extended at intervals from Point Comfort as far as 140 miles up the James River, and the planters were so absorbed in the cultivation of tobacco that they gave the Indians firearms and employed them to do their hunting. This boldness was shortlived, for the Indian Massacre of 1622 tended to narrow the area under cultivation for that year. Even so, the planters were able to produce 60,000 pounds of tobacco.

Within a year after the massacre the settlers once again became very bold and extended cultivated areas even farther than before. Prior to the massacre, the planters had difficulty in clearing the ground of timber; afterwards, they took over the fields cleared by the Indians which were said to be among the best in the colony. Expansion was further facilitated by the “head-right” system, introduced in 1618, which gave fifty acres of land to any person who transported a settler to the colony.

Old Tobacco Warehouse, built 1680 at Urbanna, Virginia
Old Tobacco Warehouse, built 1680 at Urbanna, Virginia
Courtesy of Mrs. H. I. Worthington

For the first twenty years after the landing at Jamestown, the settlers restricted themselves to the valley of the James and to the Accomac Peninsula. For the next thirty years there was a gradual expansion to the north and west along the banks of the James, York, and the Rappahannock rivers and their tributaries. By 1650 the frontiersmen had reached the Potomac. From Jamestown, settlements gradually spread up and down both banks of the James and its tributaries, the Elizabeth, Nansemond, Appomattox, and the Chickahominy. Then came the settlements along the York and its tributaries, the Mattapony and the Pamunkey; and finally, along the banks of the Rappahannock and the Potomac. The expansion into the interior did not take place until the Tidewater area had become fairly well settled. The tidal creeks and rivers afforded a safe and convenient means of communication while the country was thickly forested and infested with unfriendly Indians. By settling on the peninsulas, formed by the tidal creeks and rivers, it was easier to protect the early settlements once the Indians had been driven out.

In 1629 there were from 4,000 to 5,000 English settlers, confined almost exclusively to the James River valley and to the Accomac Peninsula, where they cultivated about 2,000 acres of tobacco. By 1635 tobacco had almost disappeared in the immediate vicinity of Jamestown, as many of the planters moved to new land along the south bank of the York River. At this time there were settlements in the following eight counties: Henrico, located on both sides of the James River, between Arrahattock and Shirley Hundred; Charles City, also located on both sides of the James from Shirley Hundred Island to Weyanoke; James City, on both sides of the James from Chippoakes to Lawnes Creek, and from the Chickahominy River on the north side to a point nearly opposite the mouth of Lawnes Creek; Warrasquoke (Isle of Wight), contained the area from the southern limit of James City to the Warrasquoke River; Warwick and Elizabeth City, the rest of the remaining settlements on the James River; Charles River (York), all of the plantations on the south bank of the York River; and finally Accomac. The plantations were still more thickly grouped in James City than in any other county.

By the late 1630’s, attempts to reduce the amount of tobacco grown in the colony, by limiting the number of plants each person could plant, had caused many planters to leave their plantations in search of virgin soil in which more tobacco per plant could be grown. They frequently built temporary dwellings, as they expected to move on as soon as the land under cultivation showed signs of exhaustion. In 1648 planters in large numbers sought permission from Governor Berkeley and the Council to move across the York River, to take up the virgin and unclaimed land.

Spreading north the frontiersmen had reached the Rappahannock and the Potomac by 1650, and settlers began moving into Lancaster County. In 1653 the first settlers established themselves in what is now King William County. Just before the end of the seventeenth century the tobacco industry had expanded into the lowlands all along the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers below the Fall Line. In 1689 the York River area produced the largest quantity of tobacco, the Rappahannock River area was second, the Upper James third, and the Accomac Peninsula last. While the production of tobacco continued to expand north and west, it made little headway in the sandy counties of Princess Anne and Norfolk.

All during the seventeenth century expansion tended to extend in a northerly direction within the Tidewater region, but in the eighteenth century the movement was to the west in search of virgin soil. Planters began moving beyond the Fall Line soon after the turn of the century. Robert Carter of Nomini Hall patented over 900 acres of land above the Falls in 1707. It is generally agreed that the commercial production of tobacco began to expand beyond the Fall Line about 1720. In 1723 a traveler, who had just visited above the Falls, mentioned seeing many fields of tobacco. In the following year Robert Carter had hundreds of additional acres surveyed, in what is now Prince William County, as he extended his holdings above the Fall Line. The tobacco industry seems to have been fairly well established as far west as Spotsylvania, Hanover, and Goochland counties as early as 1730.

The mild species of tobacco which Rolfe imported from the West Indies
The mild species of tobacco which Rolfe imported from the West Indies.
Picture Courtesy of George Arents, and Virginia State Library

In the year 1740 Elias and William Edmunds were among the first settlers in Fauquier County. They settled near what is now Warrenton and began producing tobacco of excellent quality, which soon came to be known as “Edmonium Tobacco.” Ten years later large quantities were being produced in Albemarle (including present Nelson and Amherst counties), Cumberland, Augusta, and Culpeper counties. During the six-year period 1750-1755, tobacco production appears to have been centered equally in three areas: the Upper James River district, the York River district, and the Rappahannock River district. Each of the three districts exported about 83,000 hogsheads of tobacco, while the Lower James River district exported only about 10,000.

Just prior to the American Revolution the tobacco industry began to expand rapidly south of the James River, especially to the south and west of Petersburg. One observer declared in 1769 that the Petersburg warehouses contained more tobacco than all the rest of the warehouses on the James or the York River. It was estimated that 20,000 hogsheads were being produced annually in that region alone. A considerable amount of tobacco was also being grown in the lower region of the Valley of Virginia.

As the tobacco industry continued to expand into Piedmont Virginia, there was a gradual decline in the Tidewater area. The increase in population naturally caused a continual expansion of the tobacco industry from its meager beginnings at Jamestown, but this was not the major cause. The primary cause was the wasteful cultivation methods practiced by the planters. To obtain the greatest yield from his land the planter raised three or four consecutive crops of tobacco in one field, then moved on to virgin fields. This practice was begun on a relatively large scale as early as 1632 when a planting restriction of 1,500 plants per person was enacted, causing many planters to leave their estates in search of better land in an effort to increase the quality of their tobacco. As cheap virgin soil became scarce, planters left their lands in Tidewater to take up fresh acreage in the Piedmont, or they stayed at home and grew grain, some corn but mostly wheat.

We can only generalize as to when and how extensive this substitution of wheat for tobacco may have been. There are those who believe that a permanent shift away from tobacco began as early as 1720 on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, while others state that it did not start until about ten years later. As early as 1759 all of the best lands in Virginia were reported to have been taken, and by the time of the Revolution the supply was said to have been completely exhausted. In 1771 there were rumors that at least one hundred of the principal Virginia planters had given up the tobacco culture entirely and converted their plantations to something more profitable. However, it is generally agreed that tobacco was not abandoned extensively in Tidewater before the Revolution.

The first appreciable decline came during the Revolution and this trend continued until the tobacco was almost completely abandoned in Tidewater in the nineteenth century. The rise in demand for foodstuffs during the war caused planters to shift from tobacco in increasing numbers. Many of them only reduced their tobacco crop at first, but later abandoned it completely. After the Revolution wheat was substituted for tobacco quite extensively, but owing to the expansion into the Piedmont, Virginia’s post-war tobacco production soon equalled that of the prewar years. Tobacco was still grown in Tidewater Virginia and some beyond the western boundary of the Piedmont, but by this time Tidewater had ceased to be the “tobacco country” of previous years.

The harsh species of tobacco which Rolfe found the Indians cultivating
The harsh species of tobacco which Rolfe found the Indians cultivating.
Picture Courtesy of George Arents, and Virginia State Library

The production of tobacco continued to increase in the Piedmont and decrease in Tidewater, and Piedmont Virginia became more firmly established as Virginia’s tobacco belt. This change was due partly to the fact that the virgin and fertile soils of the West kept tobacco prices so low that it could not be profitably produced on the manured worn out soils in the East. Tidewater was becoming full of old tobacco fields covered with young pine trees and the industry became concentrated largely in middle and southern Virginia. By 1800 Piedmont Virginia had definitely become the major tobacco producing area.

Expansion and new developments over a period of years brought about a fantastic increase in tobacco production. When its production was confined to the Tidewater area, Virginia produced about 40,000,000 pounds annually; by 1800 this amount had doubled. Virginia remained the leading producer of tobacco in the United States until the War Between the States, when she was replaced by Kentucky, owing to the devastating effects of the war in the Old Dominion.

In the South the nature of the crop usually determines the number of acres that one person can cultivate successfully. Only a small number of acres of tobacco can be cultivated properly owing to its high value of yield per acre and the careful supervision required. The production of tobacco per acre does not appear to have changed very much in the long period from about 1650 to 1800, when 1,000 pounds per acre was considered a good yield. However, the amount that one man could produce increased during this period as the planters became more experienced and the plow and other implements came to be used more extensively. It has been estimated that in 1624 one man could properly cultivate and harvest only about one-half of an acre of tobacco, or about 400 pounds. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the average product of one man was from 1,500 to 2,000 pounds or in terms of acreage, from one and a half to two acres, plus six or seven barrels of corn. Around 1775 one man produced from 2,000 to 2,500 pounds of tobacco besides provisions. Thus it appears that during most of the Colonial period one man could cultivate one and a half to two acres of tobacco, plus provisions; but by the end of this period he had increased the productiveness of his own labor.

Herndon, Melvin. Tobacco in Colonial Virginia. Williamsburg, Virginia. 1957.

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