How Tobacco Helped the Colonization of America

America was a golden opportunity for the European Masters. However, England was falling behind in the in the race to occupy the newly discovered land. It was the dawn of the 17th century and England had not been able to make a viable claim in the new world. In 1606, King James established the London Company (Virginia Company of London) and the Plymouth Company (Virginia Company of London) to explore and harvest the possibilities offered by the virgin land. The companies were made up of merchant voyagers who were ambitious to get in on the tempting riches of North America.

Three ships of the London Company set out for America. Their instructions, as ordered by James, were clear: find a route to the South Seas, find gold and find the Lost Colony of Roanoke. The ships met with heavy winds. Stranded for 6 weeks, food reserves went scarce on board. Only 101 of the original 150 occupants of the ship survived and made landfall at Cape Henry in April, 1607. After being attacked at the bay by Native Americans, settlers moved north and selected the site of Jamestown Island as their settlement in May, 1607. It took less than a month to establish a settlement (a triangular fort) along a river called Powhatan’s River by the Indians. The river later came to be known as James River (named by the settlers, after the King).

Locations and climate seemed favourable at first. John Smith wrote, “Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitations”. Little did Smith know what was coming his way. The disease from the wetlands, the searing heat, severe winters, poor water supplies, starvation and confrontations with Indians were challenges Colonists had not prepared for.


Starving Time, Colonists Turned to Cannibalism

England was sending more and more Colonists who just added to the misery. They were lured to the new world with promises of land and wealth. This meant that many of them did not know anything about a day’s labor. They were inexperienced and did not know how to farm or hunt. The 49ers at least found gold. There was no gold or any other thing of value in Virginia, not yet. Many of the ships from England met with unfortunate circumstances and ended up either being wrecked or disease stricken. New Colonists meant more mouths to feed.


Then the worst period (Starving Time) began. The winter was river freezing and food supplies were scarce. Settlers turned to cannibalism, digging up graves of both English and Indian dead. Meanwhile, survivors of a hurricane, which had wrecked the ships en route from England, built two ships from the wreckage and resumed their journey. On reaching Jamestown, these survivors came upon only 60 Colonists who had made it through the Starving Time. 90% of the colony had been wiped out in winter. This was the darkest time for the Colonists. They decided to return to England. Jamestown was abandoned as survivors headed down the James River. Hardly a few miles down-river, they were met with another boat. Occupants of the other boat told the survivors of the New Governor of Virginia, Lord De La Warr who was en route with supplies and 150 new Colonists in three ships. Ordered to return and wait, the original inhabitants and survivors of the hurricane returned to Jamestown.

De La Warr brought new life to Jamestown. However, the settlement lacked purpose since nothing of value had been found yet. There were no valuable crops, any minerals and there was definitely no gold. In short, there was nothing to make the Colony economically workable. More and more Colonists kept on pouring in with no return on the London Company’s investment.

John Rolfe, the hero of our story and one of the survivors of the hurricane, began growing tobacco in Jamestown around 1612. The tobacco grown by the Indians (Nicotiana Rustica) was of a harsh quality. Rolfe’s understood this tobacco would never sell in the homeland. He obtained seeds of the tobacco grown in South America (Nicotinana Tabacum). Obtaining these seeds was not easy since it constituted a crime punishable by death under Spanish Law.

A great deal of help came from Pocahontas, a Tribal Chief’s daughter. She was held captive in Jamestown after several English were captured by Indians. She and Rolfe developed a relationship that later lead to their marriage in April of 1614. The spectacular success of Jamestown’s tobacco produce is attributed not only to Rolfes’ acquisition of the Spanish variety, but to his finding improved methods of growing and processing it. This success can also be attributed to Pocahontas who may have contributed her knowledge.


The Marriage of Rolfe and Rebecca (Pocahontas)

The union between Rolfe and Rebecca (Pocahontas’ name after conversion to Christianity) brought 8 years of peace with the Indians. This allowed the Colonists to devote themselves to growing the new cash crop. African slaves were imported and widely used in the Tobacco cultivations. The success of the crop can be measured by the fact that it served as the New World’s currency in the years that followed.



The first shipment of Virginia tobacco was sold in London in 1614. Historians refer to this event as the most significant event of the 17th century. James did not approve of this crop but he had no objections once the English treasury began growing with each transaction. Everyone liked tobacco’s taste and demanded it. All sales had to be made through London so the treasury was benefiting the most.


Tobacco Became the Rage

Tobacco became the craze. Farmers in Jamestown planted it in the very streets of the Colony. Laws had to be made to accommodate production of other crops. Tobacco crop was very exhaustive to the land. This paved way for the geographic expansion of Jamestown. There came a time when thousands of acres were being used to cultivate tobacco and there was a wild rush for land all the way to Chesapeake Bay. The entire area soon came to be known as the “Tobacco Coast”.

Jamestown Colony had not found Gold, not the Lost Colony or the route to the South Seas. But they had found something much more valuable, they had found tobacco. It allowed the Colony to survive and thrive. Jamestown blazed a trail for other Colonies to benefit from the gold crop. Tobacco can well be credited with a major contribution in the colonization of the New World.



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