In today’s post, Omohundro Institute short-term fellow Melissa Morris (Columbia University), details how she used her time in Williamsburg and what she found out about the tobacco industry in early America.
by Melissa Morris
For the last two months I have researched my dissertation project about seventeenth-century tobacco cultivation and trade as an Omohundro Institute short-term fellow. How did this crop help the English, Dutch, and French establish colonies in the Americas? In the decades before (and even after) founding permanent settlements, these groups engaged in illicit trade, piracy, and short-lived settlement in South America and the Caribbean. Through these activities, they developed a knowledge and familiarity with tobacco, a crop that was central in their first permanent settlements. Tobacco, unlike sugar, rice, or cotton, is indigenous to the Americas. The species of tobacco that colonists grew in Virginia came from the Caribbean and South America.
Before coming to Williamsburg, I did archival research mostly in Europe. Working with imperial and diplomatic collections revealed connections among rival powers. I found a lot to confirm that the English, Dutch, and French owed a debt to the Spanish and to the indigenous peoples of the Greater Caribbean. In many ways, Virginia was a continuation of previous colonial efforts rather than a new beginning.
I arrived in Williamsburg expecting to work mostly with manuscripts and rare books held at Rockefeller Library and Swem Library’s Special Collections. A couple weeks in, however, I met with several curators at Colonial Williamsburg’s museum collections to learn more about the rich material culture that sprang up around tobacco in seventeenth-century Europe. Some of this, like a seventeenth century image of Henry VIII smoking “Oronoco tobacco,” a Virginia strain named after a South American river, confirmed that Virginian cultivators were growing and marketing their product with a Spanish example in mind.
Williamsburg also provided an opportunity to see tobacco cultivation in action. At Colonial Williamsburg’s Great Hopes plantation, I quizzed the (very knowledgeable) interpreters on every step of their cultivation practices. I bought tobacco seeds at CW’s garden shop and saw the sort of tobacco that is native to Virginia growing for the first time on a trip to Jamestown Settlement. Even as I retreated back to written descriptions of it, real tobacco followed me. Tucked inside a 1622 herbal held at Swem Library’s Special Collections, I found dozens of pressed plants, including one that is likely tobacco.
For historians who work on the colonial period, and especially the seventeenth century, much of the archival sources are in Europe. While this makes for great research trips, it means you do not always spend as much time as you should in the places you are actually writing about. Living for two months in the area where the first permanent English settlement was born and (eventually) throve led to new insights about my project. Actually being in Virginia allowed me to engage with archaeology. The archaeologists at Jamestown Rediscovery and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in Richmond explained to me what pipes and hoes reveal about cultivation.
Being here has helped me to better understand the context in which tobacco cultivation happened. While I still think that South America and the Caribbean were important influences on tobacco agriculture in Virginia, my two months in Williamsburg helped me to think more about the specificity of each new place Europeans colonized. In Virginia, plans for settlement conceived in London encountered reality. Tobacco monoculture was not what investors or James I had in mind for Virginia, but unlike sericulture, gold mining, or navigating a northwest passage, tobacco was possible. The first English cultivators there sought to imitate the Spanish tobacco that fetched such a high price at home, but they also smoked pipes like the Powhatan, and made innovations of their own, like curing tobacco by stringing it on lines. Virginia colonists operated in an Atlantic world, but they lived local lives.