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Colonial Settlement, 1600s-1763
Evolution of the Virginia Colony, 1610-1630
The Virginia Colonists Find a Staple Product: Tobacco, 1616-1618

One variety of tobacco was native to Virginia, but it was quite bitter and inferior to the variety grown in the West Indies. In 1612, John Rolf introduced the latter into Virginia; two years later he sent four hogsheads (about 2600 pounds) to England. This crop appeared to be the staple product the colonists had been searching for. King James I, concerned about the health of his subjects, opposed growing and selling tobacco. Even so, the market for tobacco in England continued to expand, and, by 1617, Virginia shipped around 20,000 pounds of tobacco to England. According to the excerpts below, how did planting tobacco affect Virginia? What did the colonists tend to neglect as they began to focus on growing tobacco?

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Captaine Nathaniel Powell, William Cantrill, Sergeant Boothe, and Edward Gurganey, 1616

Mr. George Yearly now invested Deputie Governour by Sir Thomas Dale, applied himselfe for the most part in planting Tobacco, as the most present commoditie they taine Yearley. could devise for a present gaine, so that every man betooke himselfe to the best place he could for the purpose: now though Sir Thomas Dale had caused such an abundance of corne to be planted, that every man had sufficient, yet the supplies were sent us, came so unfurnished, as quickly eased us of our superfluitie. To relieve their necessities, he sent to the Chickahamanias for the tribute Corne Sir Thomas Dale and Captaine Argall had conditioned for with them.

Samuel Argall and John Rolf, 1617

. . . In March they set saile 1617. and in May he arrived at James towne, where hee was kindly entertained by Captaine Yearley and his Companie in a martiall order, whose right hand file was led by an Indian. In James towne he found but five or six houses, the Church downe, the Palizado's broken, the Bridge in pieces, the Well of fresh water spoiled; the Store-house they used for the Church, the market-place, and streets, and all other spare places planted with Tobacco, the Salvages as frequent in their houses as themselves, whereby they were become expert in our armes, and had a great many in their custodie and possession, the Colonie dispersed all about, planting Tobacco. Captaine Argall not liking those proceedings, altered them agreeable to his owne minde, taking the best order he could for repairing those defects which did exceedingly trouble us; we were constrained every yeere to build and repaire our old Cottages, which were alwaies a decaying in all places of the Countrie, yea, the very Courts of Guard built by Sir Thomas Dale, was ready to fall, and the Palizado's not sufficient to keepe out Hogs. Their number of people were about 400. but not past 200. fit for husbandry and tillage: we found there in all one hundred twentie eight cattell, and fourescore and eight Goats, besides innumerable numbers of Swine, and good plentie of Corne in some places, yet the next yeere the Captaine sent out a Frigat and a Pinnace, that brought us neere six hundred bushels more, which did greatly relieve the whole Colonie: For from the tenants wee seldome had above foure hundred bushels of rent Corne to the store, and there was not remaining of the Companies companie, past foure and fiftie men, women and Children.

This yeere having planted our fields, came a great drought, and such a cruell storme of haile, which did such spoile both to the Corne and Tobacco, that wee reaped but small profit, the Magazine that came in the George, being five moneths in her passage, proved very badly conditioned, but ere she arrived, we had gathered and made up our Tobacco, the best at three shillings the pound, the rest at eighteene pence.

John Rolf, 1618

In May came in the Margaret of Bristoll, with foure and thirty men, all well and in health, and also many devout gifts, and we were much troubled in examining some scandalous letters sent into England, to disgrace this Country with barrennesse, to discourage the adventurers, and so bring it and us to ruine and confusion; notwithstanding, we finde by them of best experience, an industrious man not other waies imploied, may well tend foure akers of Corne, and 1000. plants of Tobacco, and where they say an aker will yeeld but three or foure barrels, we have ordinarily foure or five, but of new ground six, seven, and eight, and a barrell of Pease and Beanes, which we esteeme as good as two of Corne, which is after thirty or forty bushels an aker, so that one man may provide Corne for five, and apparell for two by the profit of his Tobacco; they say also English Wheat will yeeld but sixteene bushels an aker, and we have reaped thirty: besides to manure the Land, no place hath more white and blew Marble than here, had we but Carpenters to build and make Carts and Ploughs, and skilfull men that know how to use them, and traine up our cattell to draw them, which though we indevour to effect, yet our want of experience brings but little to perfection but planting Tobaco, and yet of that many are so covetous to have much, they make little good; besides there are so many sofisticating Tobaco-mungers in England, were it never so bad, they would sell it for Verinas, and the trash that remaineth should be Virginia, such devilish bad mindes we know some of our owne Country-men doe beare, not onely to the businesse, but also to our mother England her selfe; could they or durst they as freely defame her.

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