Tobacco in the Colonies


Investment in the field yields profits in the marketplace for diligent tobacco farmers. Rural tradesman Wayne Randolph describes the hungry crop’s allure.

Learn more: Historic Farming


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

A new world's worth of virgin soil meant that 1700s colonists could plant their crops in a brand-new field each season. Agriculture Specialist Wayne Randolph is here to tell us how the approach to American farming has evolved in the years since. I'm absolutely positive you can't plant in new virgin soil every year.

Wayne Randolph: Not around here, not now. But at one time, that was possible. In this immediate vicinity of Williamsburg, that would have been in the 17th century, probably the mid 17th century.

Lloyd: I have always been told that one of the reasons there was a westward expansion for the Virginia colonists is once they discovered tobacco, they had to move – not every year – but fairly frequently because tobacco would sort of wear out the soil. Is that true?

Wayne: Yeah, it is true compared to other crops. It's a pretty hungry one, perhaps the most hungry of any that I can think of. The range that we have historically is anywhere from two to maybe six or seven years of successive planting on one piece of ground. Now, keep in mind that a worn-out piece of ground is a subjective term. It depends on what you expect from your ground and your crop. If you are seeing your crop get smaller and smaller, your tobacco leaves get smaller and smaller, and deem that not due to poor rainfall that season or an unusual population of insects, but rather to fertility issues, then you would come to a point where you would make the decision that my tobacco is not big enough. I need to put it on stronger soil. That would be the time that you would then clear a new piece of ground, virgin piece of ground, and put your next year's crop in that ground and continue monitoring that until you made the decision that it was not adequate.

Lloyd: How important was tobacco to 18th-century Virginia?

Wayne: Very important, because it was almost always a commodity with a high demand, for the reasons we would suspect. Therefore, it normally commanded a superior price at the marketplace. If we could provide what was being demanded, primarily by the tobacconists of England and Europe, if we could meet those demands, then we could sell our tobacco for a superior price to any other export item, or even domestically produced item that we might generate from the soils.

Lloyd: So it was, ah, kind of like cash, really.

Wayne: Yeah, it was lucrative. The inordinate amount of time that we invest in producing tobacco is paid off at the marketplace. If it's not, we wouldn't do it. We would select something else. It actually did become cash, because it could be depended upon to generate money abroad. It was that predictable. Now, the price varied, but it tended to be standard during certain times. So we would actually equate many debts in tobacco. There was a good demand for tobacco normally through most of our colonial period.

Lloyd: How much time did tobacco take, compared to other crops? You said "inordinate amount of time."

Wayne: Inordinate amount of time. We all have so much labor and so much time that we can tend crops. It's usually when we can see, so it's a long day and a long week: long months. But tobacco, to produce high-quality tobacco requires a lot of human intervention. It's somewhat like growing a field of tomato plants. If you've ever grown a tomato plant or another garden plant that requires you to be manipulating it and handling it and examining it, overseeing its development. It's like that. So that we're in our tobacco a lot of our waking hours, particularly during that season when it's in the field. It requires us to, for example, inspect every leaf once a week.

Lloyd: That does take time. You said "worn out" was a subjective term. Was there any sort of crop rotation you could do that would take tobacco land and re-fertilize it?

Wayne: We understood crop rotations. They had been employed in Europe for centuries. The Romans did. So it's not that we didn't know what to do, we didn't have to do it normally. But when we do have to do it, and that does occur in this neighborhood around the time of the Revolution, actually. In those years, the second and the third, actually the third and fourth quarters of the 18th century, we are wearing ground out. Those that want new ground have to move to the west, and do, as we've discussed. But we could rotate crops, and we were beginning to do something else more often, and that was manuring our ground. Rather than rotating, say, like a leguminous crop like clover into one of the rotations and then a low-feeding crop, and then a heavy feeding crop: a three-part rotation. Some people were doing that. There's some evidence for that, but much more for manuring. That was generally done by cow penning, or penning a concentration of cattle in one small area. They deposit the manure heavily and then they move to another adjacent piece of ground and are penned there. Then we would plow that manure into the soil. That was the most common way, when we were fertilizing soil, to do it, rather than rotating crops. Crop rotation did occur, and peas and beans would have been one of those, because they were a marketed crop. They had value on the marketplace and we exported a good number of them.

Lloyd: You said you penned cattle on the land you wanted to manure. When I was a boy, there used to be a manure spreader that a tractor would pull. So, nothing like that in those days?

Wayne: Yes. That was another way. If we did not pen our cattle, we could go to the pasture – if we had a pasture and did not put them in the woods, which was very common to do – if we had a pasture, we can direct labor, invest labor in picking up that manure and gathering it together in a pile, moving that pile via carts onto the ground, and then distributing that onto the ground or in a hill where our plant grows, in an artificial effort. But it was an effort that would not pay if we had new ground. New ground was always preferred. So yes, we would do it that way. Wouldn't be a mechanical distribution, which would have been wonderful. We didn’t quite have that. We're not there in our technological development. But we could get it gathered and distributed by hand.

Lloyd: Shovels.

Wayne: Shoveled or forked.

Lloyd: If a mechanical distribution system wasn't available, and you had to do a lot of labor by hand, what sort of equipment did a farmer have in those days to help him?

Wayne: The most common equipment, of course, were hand hoes. That was absolutely essential. That was really the heart of our technology, was hand hoes, or cultivating ground and raising hills. By the 18th century, horse or oxen-driven plows pulled turning plows were fairly typical. We would add that to our soil-preparation efforts. So we would have draught animals to help us. Originally, we started – as the Native Americans -- with hand hoes. We did most of our work with hand hoes through a good portion of the 17th century. But we would employ the European technology. Generally, it's thought when we begin to do a lot of commercial wheat, which is a European material, and it's prepared and handled in a European fashion. So our classic Native American hoe-hill culture focusing on tobacco and corn is pretty much human labor. We can overlay that with European technology, and we did so. So we had a mixture. By mid-18th century, we certainly had a mixture of technology. So those are the two main. We had a lot of simple harvesting technology in the form of reap hooks, sickles, and scythes. Which again were human-powered. We had very little animal-powered machinery. Plows and carts are about it. Harrows, of course, to smooth out the ground after we turn it. I'm trying to think of some other technology. Some simple hand knives, some riddles or sieves.

Lloyd: But agriculture was essentially hard work.

Wayne: It was hard work, and it was human labor. Human muscle labor.

Lloyd: That is, yeah, that would not be something that attracted you unless you had a profitable crop.

Wayne: That's correct, that's correct. We found, when we came here in the early 17th century, looking for an industry, looking for a path to personal wealth and profit, first through the [Virginia] Company, and then later independently, we were looking for something to do, something that would make income. We tried a number of things, but the one that actually turned out to be the real resource of North America was the soil. Of course, that's farming. The selection of crops to farm commercially was by demand and the suitability of the climate. That put us into tobacco. We tried a number of crops. We also had our forest resources, which were very abundant, and our waterways also produced things that we could extract and sell. That's really the focus of our economy.

Lloyd: So essentially, a man and his family who came here to get rich, by and large became a farmer.

Wayne: Generally so. We find here in Virginia that even tradesmen, people with a trade, would come here and that trade was often in demand. But it was not unusual for tradesmen to be seeking land acquisition and going into farming and leaving a trade or practicing a trade on the side.

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