The Jamestown Colony and Survival

This paper will argue that the cultivation of tobacco was central in the Jamestown colony’s survival during its most difficult years, the first third of the 17th century. Bad weather, laziness, Indian raids, poor leadership and disease would have eliminated the colony had not Spanish tobacco, transplanted to Virginia, become so profitable in English markets. Tobacco gave the struggling colony a new lease on life, a focus from which high profits and political power derived.

In North America after King James’s decision of 1605 to colonize Virginia, a newly transplanted crop was to play a central role in the economy of this centrally important, rich area. Tobacco was the means by which the early colonists, ravaged by plage, division, raiding and disease, was to create a true home out of a wilderness most uninviting to the early settlers. As the official Jamestown Preservation Society reports, the Spanish saw the Indians cultivating this plant, and brought it back to Europe, a fateful decision, since it was to become the lifeblood of the Jamestown colony. (ABVA, np, also Crawford, 1853: 46)

Many of the early settlers in Virginia were adventurers, many not used to a days hard work, and who had moved to Jamestown on rumors of wealth and plenty. Unfortunately, this meant that the colony was filled with men who were used to a very different sort of life than that of a full time farmer, and labor issues became yet another problem within the troubled settlement (Morgan, 1971: 596). The first few years of the colony were saw little but suffering, saved only occasionally by boats from the Carribean, and useful trade with the two surrounding Indian tribes, the Algonquin and the Powhatan, the former more hostile than the latter.

The winters of 1606 and 1607 were particularly difficult. Morgan’s work makes it clear that one of the worst problems of the colony was its poor labor, who was considered lazy and incompetent. The profits to be made from tobacco, it is claimed (Morgan, 1971: 598) brought lazy workers to their senses and provided them with ample incentive to begin working regularly. But two men began the tobacco empire that was to define Virginia life, and that was the famous Sir Walter Raleigh, and less famous, Governor, John Rolfe, husband of Pocohontas.

The latter was particularly important because he was instrumental in bringing the higher quality Spanish tobacco from Bermuda to Virginia (APVA, np), where it grew well, therefore cutting the Spanish near-monopoly on tobacco in European markets. Hence, Jamestown became a English weapon in a long struggle against the Spanish empire, essentially transplanting Spanish tobacco to English controlled areas. By 1618, the first supply of tobacco was sold on the English market.

Soon after, all agreed that the colony was dependent on this single crop for its livelihood, an idea that did not sit well with the English monarch, a well known crusader against smoking. (APVA, np, also Crawford, 1853: 47) It might be noted that, while Raleigh rarely stepped foot onto American soil, it was his experimentation in tobacco farming techniques on his estates in Ireland that set the tone for later development. Even further, Raleigh loathed the Spanish, and held that by cultivating this plant in the New World, this could be a means by which English trade can supplant the Spanish.

Hence, though not a part of the Virginia colony, his influence was everywhere found. (Gosse, 1903: 604) Crawford writes that Raleigh single handedly developed the English market for tobacco as early as 1560, creating a growing luxury market that was to later keep Jamestown afloat (Crawford, 1853: 46) Between 1618 and 1630, the amount of tobacco shipped to British market and the crown colonies went from 15 tons yearly to almost 1000 (APVA, also “Description,” 1905: 88).

Once the impact of its economic importance was well known, the Jamestown colony saw itself not as social outcasts or refugees, but a permanent outpost of the English economy, and they began to see themselves as permanent, complete with families and bureaucrats (Morgan, 1971: 600). Jamestown was saved by tobacco because her location was, in itself, swampy and difficult to farm (Morgan, 1971: 596). Fresh water was always a major issue, but the quality of Virginia tobacco and British demand made sure the colony was going nowhere.

When a full third of the English population were slaughtered by the Algonquins in 1622, the survivors were capable of recovery only because of the cash value of her tobacco crop. Hence, a poor location, poor water supplies and a marshy ground became a flourishing colony solely because of the demand for her “Spanish” tobacco leaves in England. Without Spanish tobacco, there would have been little reason to continue on, to work–sporadically as it was–toward an uncertain future. None of this is to downplay the role of John Smith in the early years of the colony.

His battles against the Algonquin are legendary and were absolutely necessary for the physical survival of the already harried colonists. Be that as it may, his work could only have been useful if there was something to save and protect, and ultimately, it was Jamestown’s role as the tobacco supplier to England and, later, Russia. Smith was motivated by profit, and, as such, he can be called a far sighted individual, for in the winter of 1607, profit was about the last thing one could speak of concerning the colony.

Nevertheless, he promoted discipline and hard work among those who had given up hope, and for that, he is a powerful reason the colony survived. (APVA). By the time of Smith’s death, the tobacco trade had just begun, and hence, the colony would have dispersed after the death of such a stellar leader. Tobacco kept the population in place and willing to work and suffer. Karen Kupperman make sit clear that there was little hope for the colony in 1608, she writes, “At the end of the first year 1607-1608, thirty-eight out of the original 108 settlers were alive” (Kupperman, 1979: 24) Malnutrition was the primary source of mortality at the time.

She also makes clear that by 1610, all accounts of the situation at Jamestown were dire, and most refused to work (Kupperman, 1979: 25). Kupperman develops an intriguing argument that death was not a significant incentive to work once hunger and despair had sapped the colonists out of all will to survive. Hence her title, “Apathy and Death” are meant to underscore that the two things go together. Prior to the first tobacco profits, it is shocking that the colony survived even to enjoy the fruits of its labor. Tobacco not only provided incentives, it actually produced a will to live. (Kupperman, 1979: 30).

According to the Fredericksburg Foundation, tobacco became so central, even early on, that it became currency in itself, proving its value and significance. Even more, the Jamestown colony even sought to regulate both the price and the quality of the plant prior to its bring shipped to Britain. Because of its basic monopoly status, the colony itself could, and did, control prices and regulate production closely. The Fredericksburg Foundation Scholars make the bald claim: “Tobacco became the most profitable agricultural product in the Virginia colony; without which, the colony would have failed.

” (Foundation, np, nd) One can go even further and make the claim that not only did tobacco save the Jamestown colony, but it also assisted in important ways the British ascendancy over Spain, a central issue of the era. O. J. Fridericksen, in his “Virginia Tobacco in Russia under Peter the Great” makes the claim that the English made a killing in Russia once Peter decided to begin importing tobacco, a plant known to Russia, but unpopular due to church prohibitions against it.

This contract would have gone to the Spanish had Jamestown not begun to plant it, and hence, the Virginia colony assisted in no small way the development of British commerce contra Spain (Fredericksen, 1943: 41-43) Agents of king William in the late 17th century were anxious to meet Peter in his trip to Holland in 1697 (Fredericksen, 1943: 42). Clearly, the profits from Jamestown were such that the British saw this American outpost as important to its own drive to Empire against the dominant Spanish power.

Tobacco became a weapon in the arsenal of England as a whole, not just the struggling American settlement. The (1905) “Description of Virginia Commerce” makes it clear that the staple commodity in the 1600s of both Virginia and Maryland was tobacco. (Description, 1905: 88) Morgan’s work is clearer on tobacco’s role, as he states (Morgan, 1971: 609 ff) that there was not one industry that the strange and motley labor force in the area could make profitable, as they had tried glass and hemp, unsuccessfully, until tobacco, which, due to its profitability, focused labor and provided incentives for hard work.

He writes, with some sarcasm, that “Seventeenth Century Englishmen could adapt themselves to hard and varied work if there was sufficient incentive” (Morgan, 1971: 610) Furthermore, as Morgan states, there is a (brief) time, when the colonists were willing to raise sugar in order to make a profit and compete with the Spanish from the Carribean. However, Spanish overproduction flattened the market, which forced Jamestown to move to tobacco as a final attempt at financial success. This is very important since sugar would have been a much harder sell in Virginia, as well as being more labor intensive than tobacco (Morgan, 1971:611).

Sugar cropping would have likely destroyed Jamestown. The decision against it saved it. Martin Quitt makes it clear that the early contacts with both Algonquin and Powhatan tribes was generally positive, but the reason for it more germane to this topic: the lack of food (Quitt, 1995: 230). The early colonists needed Indian supplies of corn, and the infamous “laziness” of the early settlers made it clear that if there was not a crop or crops that could finance the colony, it would not last. Hence, prior to the development of the tobacco boom, the settlers would have been dependent on increasingly hostile natives to survive.

By the 1620s, it was clear, given native hostility, that the colony would have failed. Hence, the profits from tobacco saved the colony from food dependence on hostile natives. (Quitt, 1995: 232-234) While Quitt does say that the early years of the colony were dependent on Indians, he makes it clear that it was not as part of a “trading company” that the Jamestown settlers were concerned with, but their standing with the Indians (Quitt, 1995: 244). He seems to hold that it was early exchanges with the Indian tribes that brought Jamestown out of those first few winters.

But it is also clear that that free trading was soon to disappear, and the Powhatan were soon to ban trade with the English. Hence, though Indian good will was central to early success, long term success can only be laid on the doorstep of tobacco. L. C. Grey takes the argument even further. He mentions, and is the only significant scholar to do so, that the British government in the first years of the tobacco experiment in Jamestown, had artificially fixed the price high, hence stimulating further work efforts in America.

This is because the Jamestown tobacco was being priced at the same level as Spanish tobacco from the Carribean, even early on, when the Virginia plants were still at a lower quality than that grown by the more experienced Spaniards (Grey, 1927: 232). Grey concludes that it was this advantageous pricing process that brought Jamestown out of its initial doldrums and into the center of European commerce. Therefore, it was not just the labor power of the colony that saved it, but also the monopoly pricing methods of the English government.

Eventually, the British did permit the price to float, but not before the American colony in Virginia was awash in new found profits and a strong sense of purpose. But by 1677, long after the success of the colony was manifest, prices bottomed out (Grey, 1927: 234). Nevertheless, predatory trading practices and the contract with Russia (cf. Fredericksen) had all but destroyed Spanish tobacco profits, giving England an important edge in a growing field of luxury tobacco.

Paul Clemens writes concerning tobacco in Virginia, “their dependence on the crop was absolute” (Clemens, 1975: 256) Nevertheless, while admitting that tobacco was the lifeblood of the Virginia colony, he also makes clear that prices by the 1660s dropped, and, in so doing, much of the predatory pricing fell to Dutch merchants taking over from the less interested English (Clemens, 1975: 256). In conclusion, there can be little doubt as to the centrality of tobacco in maintaining a colony that by 1609 was seemingly doomed.

The new colony of Jamestown had lost most of its members, failed in many of its crops, was suffering from severe despair and depression as well as malnutrition. It was only the introduction of the tobacco crop by governor Rolfe that provided the material basis for the colony to revive and then survive. Until the crash of 1670, Jamestown was an increasingly wealthy colony. The colony was to feed itself, defend itself and establish itself as a permanent part of the American landscape solely due to tobacco, its profits and the new lease on life it provided.

Works Cited:

Fredericksen, O. J. “Virginia Tobacco in Russia under Peter the Great” Slavonic and East European Review. American Series. 2 (1943). 44-56“Description of Virginia Commerce” The Willliam and Mary Quarterly. 14 (1905). 87-93 Morgan, Edmund S. “The Labor Problem at Jamestown, 1607-18″ The American Historical Review. 76 (1971). 596-611 Quitt, Martin H. “Trade and Acculturation at Jamestown, 1607-1609: The Limits of Understanding” The William and Mary Quarterly 52 (1995) 227-258

Gosse, Edmund. “Sir Walter Raleigh” The Geographical Journal. 21 (1903) 602-605 Gray, LC. “The Market Surplus Problem of Colonial Tobacco” The William and Mary Quarterly. 7 (1927) 231-245 Crawford, John. “On the History and Consumption of Tobacco” Journal of the Statistical Society of London. 16 (1853) 45-52 Clemens, Paul G. E. “From Tobacco to Grain: Economic Development on Maryland’s Eastern Shore 1660-1750″ The Journal of Economic History 35 (1975) 256-259

Kupperman, Karen Ordhal. “Apathy and Death in Early Jamestown. ” The Journal of American History. 66 (1979). 24-40 The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. “History of Jamestown. ” http://apva. org/history/index. html (Accessed November 5, 2008) nd. The Fredericksburg Foundation. “Tobacco and Slavery in the Virginia Colony” http://www. historypoint. org/education/teaching/history_backyard/tobacco_slavery_virginia_colonies. asp. (Accessed, November 5, 2008) nd.