Colonial Virginia
The Tobacco Economy

Governor De La Warr's arrival in May 1611 helped to infuse some discipline into the aimless residents of Jamestown. More important to the long-range survival of the colony, however, was the development of a dependable economic base.

Tobacco was not an unknown commodity in early 17th century Europe. Christopher Columbus noted the curious practice of smoking among the natives in Cuba and took leaves with him on the return trip of his first voyage. Over the next century, smoking gained in popularity and provided a profitable activity for Spanish ships, which distributed West Indian tobacco to a variety of European ports.

Attitudes toward smoking differed sharply. James I of England, one of the most vocal critics of the practice, objected to the foul smell left by the smoke. On the other hand, some physicians prescribed smoking as a cure for a variety of illnesses.

In 1612, John Rolfe of Jamestown imported West Indian tobacco seeds and began to cultivate a small crop for his own enjoyment. The plants thrived in the heat and humidity of the Virginia lowlands and soon brought about a reordering of the colony’s economy. Two fundamental changes occurred: