The Tobacco Industry

The economy during the Colonial times did not work out well because of gold, but it worked out because of tobacco.  Everyone seemed to smoke tobacco and it was even sometimes called “drinking smoke” and many people thought that it was not something good to do, but the people learned to smoke from the Native Americans.


Uppowoc was an herb that was found in the West Indies and it was taken, and the leaves were dried and then it was made into powder that the Native Americans would then smoke in a pipe.

John Rolfe and Virginia

John Rolfe thought that the best thing for Virginia was to get into tobacco growth.  In earlier times, the tobacco did not sell as well as they had hoped that it would because the smokers felt that the tobacco from other countries was not as hard on their body as the Virginian tobacco was.

Rolfe decided to import the seeds from West Indies and then cultivate these tobacco plants as part of the Jamestown colony.  The seeds ended up creating an economy that was strong and exciting.


By the year 1630, there were more than a million pounds of tobacco that were being exported from Jamestown each and every year.  The tobacco industry began to shape the society of the colonies.

Problems with Growing Tobacco

The problems with growing tobacco is that tobacco seeds would take all of the nutrients from the soil and from the land and so when a farmer would grow tobacco, it would only be able to be grown around three different seasons before they could not use that land anymore.  The land would then have to sit barren for three years before they could use it again.

This growing problem caused there to be hardships for small time farmers because they could not afford to use all of their land for tobacco.

Many of the settlers would grow tobacco on the treats and in cemeteries because growing tobacco made so much money.

Need of Labor

The tobacco industry was so strong that there became a need for more labor.  Farmers could only do so much to keep up with the tobacco industry and so they begin to hire other people such as indentured servants.

Indentured servants would agree to do labor in order to become free citizens of Virginia.  They would agree to work for five to seven years and then would get their freedom.  Not only did the indentured servants get freedom, they would also be given 50 acres of their own land after they were free.

Slave Labor

Another thing that became popular was slave labor.  The farmers, especially large farmers, needed to have laborers and so they would buy slaves, most of them from Africa.  The slaves were not treated well and many of them would try to run away.

It was against the law for people to keep runaway slaves and if someone was caught holding or hiding a runaway slave then they would be tried.  Not only this, the slaves that ran away, if they were found, would be beaten and sometimes even killed.

Use of Tobacco

Tobacco was considered one of the most successful cash crops and it took over the agriculture of the colonies.  The General Assembly even had to put laws on tobacco growth because people would charge more money for their tobacco when things were not going as well.

Not only was tobacco smoked, but people would also use tobacco to pay off their loans or their promissory notes.  Tobacco was even used as money for some people.

Tobacco Cultivation

Between 1750 and 1755, tobacco cultivation was so strong that most areas that were exporting tobacco would have over 80,000 hogsheads filled.  A hogshead was a barrel that was filled with pressed tobacco leaves.

Many people that exported tobacco exported it to England.  People would form relationships with different merchants and would want to sell their tobacco to them.  The problem was that in the 1680’s and the 1690’s, tobacco prices fell and the market was not as strong as it was and so people began to charge a fee of 2.5% to those that would buy the tobacco.

Facts About the 1800s Colonia Tobacco Industry:

  • If low quality tobacco was brought to be sold, the government made a law to burn down the crop.
  • In 1630, the government made a law that tobacco could not be used as payment.
  • In 1680, the General Assembly passed laws that there could be warehouses that would allow people to store their tobacco that would be exported.
  • Small business farmers were upset because they had to pay to move their hogsheads to warehouses and this hurt their business since they did not export as much as the large farmers did.
  • There were two types of tobacco products that were grown, the sweet-scented tobacco and light-colored tobacco.

What Did You Learn?

Was the tobacco industry important?
Tobacco was like gold for the colonies and it was what caused the economy to be strong.

What was tobacco used for?
Tobacco was used to smoke, to pay for debts and as money.

What was a hogshead?
A hogshead was a barrel of dried tobacco leaves.

What did the General Assembly do that made people store their tobacco in warehouses?
The General Assembly passed a law that tobacco was to be stored in warehouses.

Why did storing tobacco in warehouses hurt some of the small-town farmers?
Storing the tobacco in warehouses was bad for small farmers because everyone had to pay to move their tobacco to warehouses and small-town farmers did not make nearly as much money as big farmers.