Transportation of Tobacco To Market

In the early days of the colony the small ocean-going merchant vessel was the only method of transportation essential to marketing the tobacco crop. Such a small ship was able to anchor at many of the plantation wharves and load its cargo of tobacco. Next to fertility, the proximity to navigable water was the most important factor in influencing the planter in the selection of a tract of land. However, later expansion of the tobacco industry into the interior and the increase in the size of all ocean-going ships made some mode of transportation within the colony a necessity. When the ships could not get directly up to the wharf or enter shallow creeks on which many of the plantations were located, small boats called flats or shallops were used to transport the hogsheads to the anchored vessels. In 1633 the General Assembly provided that all tobacco had to be brought to one of the five warehouses–to be erected in specified localities–to be stored until sold. The planters objected immediately and petitioned the House of Burgesses to allow ships to come into every county, “where they will find at every man’s house a store convenient enough for theire ladinge, we beinge all seated by the Riverside.” The planters also complained that they had “… noe other means to export but by Boatinge.”

Carrying the tobacco for long distances in the shallop involved a risk, as well as an additional expense. By rolling the hogsheads directly on board a ship anchored at his own wharf or only a few miles away the planter eliminated the danger involved in transporting his tobacco in an untrustworthy, heavily laden shallop, and he also saved the increase in freight charges for delivery to the ships by the seamen. Freight rates were the same from his wharf to England as they were from any other point in the colony.

In 1697 Henry Hartwell remarked, “they [the merchants] are at the charge of carting this tobacco … [collected from the planter,] to convenient Landinge; or if it lyes not far from these landings, they must trust to the Seamen for their careful rolling it on board of their sloops and shallops….” A second common mode of transportation, according to Philip A. Bruce, was “not to draw the cask over the ground by means of horses or oxen, like an enormous clod crusher, the custom of a later period, but to propel it by the application of a steady force from behind.” In 1724 Hugh Jones wrote, “The tobacco is rolled, drawn by horses, or carted to convenient Rolling Houses, whence it is conveyed on board the ships in flats or sloops.” Thus it appears that by 1700 the Tidewater planters had adopted three methods of transporting their tobacco to market or to points of exportation: by rolling the hogshead, by cart, and by boat.

By the middle of the eighteenth century planters in the Piedmont were rolling their tobacco to the distant Tidewater markets, whereas the Tidewater planter usually hauled his tobacco by wagon. Rolling tobacco more than 100 miles was not out of the ordinary. The ingenious upland planters placed some extra hickory hoops around the hogshead, attached two hickory limbs for shafts, by driving pegs into the headings, and hitched a horse or oxen to it. This method worked quite well except that the tobacco was frequently damaged by the mud, water, or sand. To prevent this, the hogshead was raised off the ground by a device called a felly. This device consisted of segments of wood fitted together to form a circle resembling the rim of a cartwheel; these segments were fitted around the circumference of the hogshead. The hogsheads used for rolling in this manner were constructed much more substantially than those wagoned or transported by boat.

For the river trade the Piedmont planter once again relied upon his ingenuity. Around 1740 a rather unique water carrier was perfected by the Reverend Robert Rose, then living in Albemarle County. Two canoes fifty or sixty feet long were lashed together with cords and eight or nine hogsheads of tobacco were rolled on their gunwales crossways for the trip to Richmond. This came to be known as the “Rose method.” For the return trip the canoes were separated and two men with poles could travel twice the distance in a day as four good oarsmen could propel a boat capable of carrying the same burden. Before 1795 boats coming down the James River from the back country landed at Westham, located just above the falls, and the tobacco was then carried into Richmond by wagon. There is the story of one planter who forgot to land his canoes at Westham. It seems that he left his plantation on the upper James with a load of tobacco and a jug full of whiskey. By the time he reached Westham the planter had consumed too much of the whiskey, and forgot to land at Westham. He rode his canoes, tobacco and all, over the Falls. Shortly thereafter he was fished from the waters downstream, wet and frightened, but sober.

By 1800, owing to the fact that both the planters and buyers had become more concerned about the quality of tobacco, rolling tobacco in hogsheads began to decline sharply, although fifty years later a rare roller might still be seen on his way to market. The rivers and canals provided the most typical means of transportation. Wagons were used primarily as feeders to and from inland waters. The Potomac, Rappahannock, and York rivers were valuable colonial arteries, but played a less significant role after the Piedmont became the major producing area. The James and the Roanoke superseded them as the major arteries of transportation in the nineteenth century.

The “Rose method” of water transportation, the lashing of two canoes together, had practically disappeared on the upland waters by 1800, being replaced by a small open flat-bottomed boat called the bateau, which carried a load of from five to eight hogsheads. Two planters, N. C. Dawson and A. Rucker, both of Amherst County, patented a bateau, in the early 1800’s, which was a great improvement over the earlier ones. This bateau was from forty-eight to fifty-four feet long, but very narrow in proportion to its length. It was claimed that with a crew of three men these new “James River Bateaux” could make the round trip from Lynchburg to Richmond in ten days. They floated down the stream with ease, but worked their way back upstream with poles. Shortly before the turn of the eighteenth century canals had been constructed around the falls from Westham to Richmond, and the upland boats were able to load and unload their cargoes at the wharves in Richmond. In 1810 it was estimated that about one-fourth of the entire Virginia tobacco crop came down the James River and through the Westham Canal into Richmond.

There were land and water routes in the Roanoke Valley that led to Petersburg. Tobacco was taken all the way to Petersburg by wagon, or carried by boat from the upper Roanoke and its tributaries to the falls at Weldon, North Carolina, and from there to Petersburg by wagon. Owing to the tobacco trade coming down the Roanoke, Clarksville became a small market town. In the Farmville area many of the planters sent their tobacco down the Appomattox River to Petersburg, rather than overland by wagon. Soon after 1800 the Upper Canal Company built a canal that connected Petersburg with the navigable waters of the Appomattox River. Virginia’s waterways served her transportation problem well until they were superseded by the railroads in the ante-bellum days.

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

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