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Tobacco - the weed and the process of raising it as a cash crop

Fifty acres was about the minimum size for a tobacco plantation at the time. Each plantation needed to be "self-sufficient" to a large extent, and was generally separated from other plantations be barriers of rivers, woods, and swamps. In addition to tobacco, each plantation had to raise enough corn to feed those who lived there. They also had a garden where they raised vegetables and herbs for a variety of medicinal purposes. A few pigs and cows were also common. They ran loose in the woods, with the fields and gardens fenced to keep the animals out. This way, also, they did not have to raise additional feed for the animals. The animals fed off the land not in crops. Fences were made in such a way as to be movable. Tobacco used up the nutrients in the land quickly. As soon as new land was cleared of woods, the fencing could be moved to the new fields.

Tobacco took a lot of time and energy to grow. In fact, almost everyone might help with the tobacco crop, especially on a small plantation. Plantation owners who could afford help would bring indentured servants from England. Most servants coming to Maryland, especially men, were brought to help with the long, hard task of growing tobacco. The growing season started in February or March when the tiny tobacco seeds were planted in a small patch of ground called a seed bed. As the seeds began to grow, they would have to be watched very carefully. If it got too cold at night, the plants might die, so they had to be covered with pine branches to protect them. While the plants grew in seed beds, the fields were prepared. After the field was cleared, planters piled up the soil into small hills with a hoe. When the tobacco plants were large enough, they were transplanted into these hills. The plants would take the rest of the summer to grow.

As the tobacco grew in the fields, it would have to be checked quite often. Weeds that grew around the plants had to be pulled and sometimes plants might have to be watered if there was little rain. Most importantly, farmers had to make sure that tobacco worms did not eat their tobacco plants. These worms fed on the leaves of the tobacco as it grew. The only way that farmers found to get rid of the worms was to go through the fields and pick them off the leaves, one at a time. With hundreds or even thousands of tobacco plants to check, this would take a great deal of time. If it was not done, the worms might eat all of the leaves, leaving the farmer with no money. A servant (or child!) was expected to pick off every worm. If he missed a single one, the planter might make him bite off its head. The servant (or child) would surely try harder after that! Plants had to be watched all summer in the hot Chesapeake sun until they were ready to be harvested.

Late summer or fall was harvest time for the tobacco crop. The entire stalk of each tobacco plant was cut at the bottom and allowed to wilt in the fields for a few hours. Then, a hole was cut in each stalk so that it could be threaded onto a long stick, called a tobacco stake. Perhaps as many as six or eight stalks could be put on each stack. These stakes were then hung in tobacco barns to dry for six to ten weeks. Once they were dry, the plants were taken down and the leaves were stripped from the stalks. Planters made sure to do this on a rainy day so the leaves were not so dry that they would crumble and break. The leaves were bundled into "hands." A hand was a bunch of ten to twenty leaves wrapped together. These hands were packed into very large casks called hogsheads and readied for shipping. These hogsheads could hold between 300 and 500 pounds of tobacco, depending on how well they were packed.

Once the crop was grown and harvested, the only thing left to do was to trade it to England. Most plantations were located next to rivers or other waterways. These waterways were the easiest way to travel and to transport goods in the 17th century. Large ships coming from England anchored in the river and sent small boats to plantations up and down the coast. These boats delivered the goods that the plantation owners had ordered from England and picked up hogsheads of tobacco to be carried back to London. Planters would simply roll the hogsheads to the water's edge and onto the boats. Almost all of the goods that colonists bought with their tobacco were made in England and delivered on these ships.

Things made of metal, glass, and pottery, and finished pieces of furniture would be imported from England. Most people in the colonies did not have the skill to make all of these goods. Even if they did know how to make these items, they did not want to take the time. Tobacco was a very difficult crop to grow and took a great deal of time and energy, as we have seen. Tradesmen who came to Maryland usually discovered that they could make more money raising tobacco than practicing their trade. They often found that they would not have time to do both, so they gave up their trade and grew tobacco, instead.

The ships from England only came to Maryland once each year. They arrived in the fall as the tobacco crop was being harvested and stayed through the winter to finish all of their trading. In the spring, they sailed back to England with a load of tobacco. That meant that colonists in Maryland often had just one chance each year to get supplies from England. News of the rest of the world, or from family and friends back in England came on these ships, too. It also meant that anything that a planter ordered in the spring before the ships sailed for England might not be delivered unit the next fall. There were some merchants, or shopkeepers, who might have supplies for sale if a family was in need of something, but planters would probably pay a very high price for these items. More likely the family would simply do without until the fall.

Since tobacco was only harvested from the fields once a year, colonists could only pay for goods at that time. The rest of the year they had to work on credit. Credit means buy now, pay later, and is similar to our modern-day credit cards. A farmer would buy the things that he needed and then promise to pay for them when his tobacco crop was harvested for the year. He might even sign something called a promissory note to prove that he would pay his debt. If there was a drought or the tobacco crop was ruined one year, the farmer could have a very difficult time paying all the people that he owed. Colonists were quite often in court trying to get the tobacco that they were owed by their neighbors.

Raising tobacco was a very labor intensive process. However, in the early colonial days of Maryland, it was such a lucrative cash crop that each plantation devoted maximum effort to raising the weed, and used the cash to buy all finished goods from England in exchange for the tobacco crop. Tobacco became a medium of exchange during the year from one crop to the next. Merchants kept accounts in "pounds of tobacco." Courts assessed taxes and fines in the same way. Government officials were paid in this manner, as well.

On both small farms and large plantations, tobacco was the money crop, even though corn, wheat, garden vegetables, fruit and livestock were raised to family. All planters followed a three-crop rotation system: on new lands they planted tobacco, to be succeeded by corn, then wheat. Farmers shipped tobacco to England under the consignment system. Hogsheads were sent from Port Tobacco, the inspection and tax collection port, to a merchant in England. He picked up the tobacco, paid the duty, sold it and received a commission for this service. According to the planter's instruction, he could purchase goods not available in Charles County. (From Source 2).

Because tobacco was the staple of the county and currency was scarce, the actual leaf became the medium of exchange. Taxes were payable in cured leaf, merchants and churches took their fees in cured leaf. By the middle of the 17th century, many planters were eager to rely solely on tobacco, thus, the Maryland Assembly ordered all growers to plant at least tow acres of corn. (From Source 2).

In 1750, tobacco production had soared and most went directly to the mother country. The Navigation Acts required that all tobacco be landed first in England. Seeing the royal coffers overflowing, the colonists became increasingly restless over what they saw as restraints on free commerce, thus these tobacco laws were among the seeds of revolution. British blockades during the Revolution stopped most of the tobacco trade. Cargoes that left port were captured by British warships, and on land, British troops destroyed thousands of hogsheads. The war and lack of trade paralyzed the tobacco economy. (From Source 2).

Background (the following paragraphs are quoted from the source noted as 1. below)

The first white men to visit the Indian villages in Charles County, Maryland, found them growing a weed they called "Apooke." To the Indians it was almost sacred; it was used by them as a peace offering to the Great Spirit. To the white men it was already well known and was becoming widely used throughout Europe as a way of conveying social conformity and pleasure. This "weed" was the only crop the early colonists found suitable for export and they were soon growing it to the exclusion of food and feed crops. It soon even became legal tender for the payment of debts and the purchase of supplies.

For the first three hundred years it became the principal source of income for Charles County. It continually spread its evil influence over the land and dominated the destiny of the county. Tobacco demands an immense amount of hand labor for its production. The indentured labor that became free and took up small farms of their own as soon as their indenture period was up, did not satisfy this need. Therefore, slave labor was introduced into Charles County to satisfy the heretofore insatisfyable demands of tobacco culture.

The tobacco grown by the Indians was "Nicotiana Rustica." It produced a small rough leaf of poor aroma and flavor. It was soon replaced by a more desirable variety, "Nicotiana Tabacum," which was grown by the natives of the West Indies. This is the same species of tobacco that was being grown in Charles County in 1971. Improvements by selection have produced the varieties that make up the modern Maryland tobacco. Their differences are mainly in growth habits and the color of the leaf rather than the flavor or aroma of the leaf.

The early colonists were soon faced with the same problems that were to plague Charles County for all time: An economy based on a single crop that soon would be have a price depressing surplus. In 1618 tobacco brought fifty five cents a pound, by 1639 the price had fallen to six cents a pound. By 1666 the problem had become so acute that the General Assembly attempted to bring about a "Cessation of growing tobacco." However, by this time tobacco had gotten such a strangle-hold on the planters that the Assembly was unsuccessful. There were many laws passed from time to time to regulate the production of tobacco and its marketing. The size of the hogsheads (the containers, barrels, in which all tobacco production was shipped) were established, as well as laws to prevent the sale of ground leaves and second crops. Duties on export were also established. Government operated warehouses, and the employment of government inspectors to regulate the crop were put into operation. The planters still raised a surplus.

The marine deposit soils of Charles County were ideally suited for tobacco production. They consisted of fine to coarse sandy loams. They produce a dried leaf that is of an extra-ordinary light, dry, chaffy, and of a rather weak aroma, and has an excellent burning quality.

Tobacco is extremely hard on soil. To replace the worn out soil, more and more land had to be cleared while the wornout soil was abandoned. By the mid eighteenth century, half the area of Charles County had been cleared of forest.

The economy of the county was to a large degree tied up in slave labor. Thus, with the freeing of the slaves the planters of Charles County faced ruin. Tobacco had ruined the land, slavery had ruined the people and now the very basis of land tenure was being taken away, much of the land of Charles County was abandoned to return to forest.


1. An Ecological History of Charles County, Maryland, by Calvert R. Posey, Sr., Author; Judith L. Posey, Editor, 1971, published by The Times-Crescent, Inc.
2. Charles County's Old Line Days, Maryland's 350th Anniversary, Smallwood State Park, May 12-13th, 1984. Program. Copy made at the Charles County Public Library, July 2001.
3. When Maryland began… the Colonial History of St. Mary's County, written by Sandy Shoemaker, illustrations by Mary Lou Troutman, 2000,
4. Historic St. Mary's City, A Museum of Living History and Archaeology at the Site of Maryland's First Capital. Personal conversations with museum personnel.