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History of Tobacco: Analysis of the Role of the First American Colony in Jamestown

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Tobacco was the first crop grown for money in North America. In 1612 John Rolfe and the settlers of the first American colony in Jamestown, Virginia grew tobacco as a cash crop. It was their main source of money. Other cash crops were corn, cotton, wheat, sugar, and soya beans. Tobacco helped pay for the American Revolution against England. Ralph Hamor, Secretary of Virginia, reported that Rolfe planted the first tobacco seeds that he obtained from somewhere in the Caribbean. He crossed the Caribbean breed with the indigenous tobacco to produce a plant well adapted to the local soil. Rolfe’s first crop that was shipped to London compared favorably with the Spanish product. The colony prospered and called for women to come to Jamestown and marry the settlers. It became a boomtown and people come in droves to America. While tobacco brought the colonists prosperity, it had a dark side from the beginning. It required a great deal of labor and so created the conditions in which slavery would later flourish.

Rolfe was one of many settlers sent by the Virginia Company of London, charged with finding ways to make the New World profitable, and in this assignment Rolfe was wildly successful: The native Virginia variety of tobacco, Nicotiana rustica, had been deemed too bitter for English customers’ tastes, but in about 1612 Rolfe imported and began cultivating Caribbean tobacco, Nicotiana Tabacum. Ever since, tobacco has been the region’s dominant crop.

Prices for tobacco began to drop because every person had their own farms in their backyards where they could’ve planted their own set of tobacco. Although military discipline almost certainly helped motivate the Jamestown settlers to work, tobacco is what eventually saved the colony. In 1612 an Englishman named John Rolfe introduced a mild strain of tobacco that was perfect for smoking. Suddenly the plant was in demand and could make huge profits, and this provided motivation for settlers to work. Unfortunately, the high profit margin encouraged many to grow tobacco for sale rather than plant food to feed the colony. One farmer could grow about one or two thousand plants, which made about five hundred pounds of tobacco. This brought a profit of between £25 and £200 per year (farmers in England earned about £3 profit per year). The promise of huge profits led to a flood of tobacco in the market.

By 1629, the bottom dropped out of the tobacco market because of overproduction. The early years of tobacco production were challenging because labor was scarce in Jamestown, and tobacco was a very labor-intensive crop. Many people planted the crop by using sticks to make a small hole in the ground and placing seeds down the hole. Many settlers lived along rivers and streams so the harvested crop could be transported easily.

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Eventually, many planters recognized the need for an alternative source of labor for the crop in order to maximize profits. One solution for a desperately needed labor force was indentured servitude. Indentured servants usually received passage to the New World in exchange for four or five years of service, although this was later extended to seven years. At the end of service, servants were supposed to receive their freedom and a gift-usually clothes and tools and sometimes a small section of land. The “owners” of indentured servants did receive some benefits-specifically something called a headright (fifty acres of land for each “head” or servant bought) as well as cheap labor. Indentured servants could typically travel to Jamestown for less than £12 per servant. Those who needed laborers usually attempted to get English servants first, but the system was also extended to include the Irish, a group viewed as less civilized than the English and more like the “savage” American Indians.

Common characteristics of indentured servants can be seen by viewing the population’s statistics. More men than women came to the New World as indentured servants. Women were outnumbered four to one and made up only 20 percent of the servant population. Women were not allowed to marry while a servant, so many became pregnant out of wedlock. Some pregnant women escaped servitude while others had to add two years to their term of service. There was almost no incentive to keep indentured servants well fed or healthy, so many servants were mistreated. Some owners bought and sold indentured servants even though this was illegal, and some servants complained of being treated as slaves. As the need for labor increased, many planters began to shift from working indentured servants to owning slaves.

Slavery was introduced into Jamestown in 1619, when about twenty Africans were brought to Virginia, along with about ninety Englishwomen. According to the ship log, Africans were sold as “indentured servants” for food. The women on the ship were purchased with 120 pounds of tobacco and most quickly became settlers’ wives. Although the word “slave” was not used yet to refer to Africans, evidence shows that they were not allowed their freedom after a term of service as the European indentured servants were. Therefore, many historians consider these twenty Africans to be the first slaves in what later became the United States. Since there was no incentive to keep indentured servants well fed or healthy, the number of Europeans who would agree to the terms dropped significantly. Some owners bought and sold indentured servants, and some servants complained of being treated as slaves. Planters turned from servants to African slaves because fewer indentured servants would sign on to work for a full contract. Many indentured servants tried to escape before their term of service expired.

By the year 1618, Virginia produced 20,000 pounds of tobacco. Nine years later they produced over 500,000 pounds of it, and then two more years after they produced over 1,500,000 pounds of it. Each Virginian got 50 acres for themselves whose passage they paid. Rolfe was a very smart guy, the reason I said this is because even though he promised them freedom dues after working over 5 to 7 years, deep down inside he knew that only 1 out of 10 of those slaves would outlive the contract. They were all forbidden to get married. Even though tobacco is what really had put Virginia on the map.

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History of Tobacco: Analysis of the Role of the First American Colony in Jamestown. (2022, July 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 1, 2023, from
“History of Tobacco: Analysis of the Role of the First American Colony in Jamestown.” Edubirdie, 14 Jul. 2022,
History of Tobacco: Analysis of the Role of the First American Colony in Jamestown. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 1 Apr. 2023].
History of Tobacco: Analysis of the Role of the First American Colony in Jamestown [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jul 14 [cited 2023 Apr 1]. Available from:
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