Tobacco Influence On Chesapeake Society Essay

The Influence of Tobacco on Chesapeake Society and its Subsequent Effects on Society, the Environment, and Politics. Every day in America, 3200 people smoke their first cigarette. [1] Tobacco has been a part of daily life for so long, we don’t think twice when we see someone take a smoke break, or buy a pack of Camels at the gas station. However, tobacco was once an even larger part of society. In the early 1600’s nearly everything one did was dictated by tobacco. In fact, it is thought by many that America would not exist today were it not for the boom of the tobacco industry in the seventeenth century.

Tobacco was king, and it shaped every aspect of Chesapeake society, from the economy to the environment and even the politics with by the land was governed. The tobacco industry in America started out more out of necessity than anything else. By the early 1600s, colonists in Virginia were at the heels of their bread, so to speak. Gentlemen from England and Spain, who had been told that America was a land of riches, arrived only to find that they had to do hard labor just to have enough food to eat and clothes on their backs. 2] The Virginia colony was as close to its demise as it ever was, and the Virginia Company of London was not turning any sort of profit. [3]

It was at this moment in history in which the colonists discovered the many wonders of the tobacco plant, and how it could turn their lives from barely living to living the lives they had been promised when they left Europe. Tobacco offered these broken men a ladder out of the ditch into which they had fallen; a ditch full of disease, hunger, conflict with Indians, and a life as opposite the one they had been promised as it was ossible to have. So, despite the advice of many that it was not economically smart to rely entirely on a single crop, tobacco began to spring up everywhere. [4] The crops grew despite the conditions and lack of experience by its planters, and profits began to stream in. Thus, tobacco was the salvation of Virginia. The society of Chesapeake was also impacted by tobacco growth in the area. Tobacco is an extremely labor-intensive crop to produce.

With an almost unlimited amount of land available and a steady supply of seeds coming in from Europe via the Virginia Company of London, the only limiting factor was the number of workers who could be had to work the land. [5] The obvious choice to a settlement of former gentlemen was unpaid labor, and as such, slaves and servants began to arrive in America. So many people were imported from Africa that it is estimated that anywhere from one to one hundred million slaves were enslaved before the eventual abolishment of slavery centuries later. 6]

A typical plantation ranged from five hundred to one thousand acres, with about five thousand plants per acre. [7] The labor needed for this type of work began to come more and more from slaves, because of their nonexistent wage price, and the amount of work which they could do. It is estimated that the number was around 10,000 in the period of the 1600’s, which may not be nearly as many as in subsequent years, but keep in mind that the population of the colonies was not much larger. 8] The cultures that these slaves brought, though highly subdued by their masters, still were prevalent and helped shape the society of the time, and years to come.

Apart from its effects on the people of the Chesapeake region, focusing on tobacco growth changed the surrounding environment as well. The tobacco plant is very tough on the soil it is planted in, often exhausting the ground in seven years. [9] This meant that colonists were forced to continue spreading out in search of fertile ground that could support their crop. 10] The people of Jamestown were not very forgiving to the grounds they lived on; with each new expansion, they cut down trees for shelter, hunted local animals, and let their non-native livestock strip the local plants. The effect of all this activity on the environment was negative, but to the settlers, land seemed to be an inexhaustible resource, so it was of no real concern.

Tobacco was also the main driving force of the American economy. In addition to exporting tobacco almost exclusively, the plant’s availability meant that in times where gold and silver were not common, tobacco was used as a currency. 11] Also, as economic subsidiaries of England, the various colonies of the Chesapeake region were bound by its mercantile system. [12] This required the colonies to export raw materials back to England, who would turn them into product which could be distributed wherever in was in demand. [13] This arrangement prevented direct trading with other nations, and as England needed tobacco more than almost anything else, colonists continued to produce it for them. Politics was not excluded from the repercussions of the tobacco industry.

In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon, Jr. , became the first in a legacy of revolutionaries in America. Bacon’s cousin’s husband, Governor Sir William Berkeley was a playwright and a scholar. [14] Berkeley treated Bacon with respect, gifting him both a substantial land grant and a seat on the local council in 1675. [15] However, Bacon was nothing if not a troublemaker. Accompanied by his group of fellow poor tobacco farmers, Bacon seized control of Virginia on the basis that Berkeley was too opposed to making war with the Indians. 16] Shortly after, Bacon’s group set fire to Jamestown, burning the settlement to the ground. [17] Bacon’s Rebellion is credited as the first hinting of what would turn into the American Revolution, and the root of Bacon’s grievances was the dwindling success of tobacco farmers in the area. Today, nearly twenty percent of Americans are active smokers. [18]

Tobacco did more to save the earliest colonists than many people give it credit for. Apart from giving colonists enough income to live happy lives, it became what America was most nown for at the time. In many ways, tobacco can also be credited for the nation we live in today; without the continued support of European nations, it is unlikely at best that we would have stayed in America, let alone turn it into a global superpower. Tobacco affected every aspect of seventeenthcentury life, and we should consider ourselves lucky that it did. America was built on the backbone of the tobacco industry, and influenced the lives of Americans for centuries afterwards.