Founding Weed

Author: Robert Prasker
Article Published: 2009/11/25


When the news of Columbus' discovery of new lands in the West spread throughout Europe, the possibilities for exploration and discovery in the  New World excited the imagination. So did the lucrative potential of new imports, and the opportunity the natives of the New World presented for Christian ministry.

But the obstacles to overseas exploration were significant. The voyage across the Atlantic was arduous, and death, disease, mutiny, or even catastrophic failure were significant possibilities. The financial costs of an overseas venture were incredibly extravagant. Even the pooling of financial resources via partnerships meant that any single investor could still be left responsible for significant debts, which could far exceed the initial investment. The odds of an overseas voyage failing completely were too significant to justify such a financial risk.

So, not in America, but in Europe, corporations, as "joint-stock companies" were born. By holding investors responsible for only the money they invested, and not the debts of the entire enterprise, it was possible to collect the vast amounts of money necessary for investment in speculative ventures in the New World. As a result, seafaring companies from many European countries were formed for exploration in the hope of trading goods from the New World.

One of these companies was called The Virginia Company, and with a charter from King James I, three ships carrying 105 men set sail from England for America in December of 1606. By the time the ships arrived in what is now known as America's Chesapeake Bay, 39 of the 105 men who'd set sail had died at sea. On May 13, 1607*, the survivors anchored and settled at a site they'd call Jamestown, named for England's King.
Others came after, but in 1608. nine months after the first ship had landed, the cruelties of exploring the harsh and unfamiliar New World had taken their toll. Only 38 of the hundreds of men who had set sail from England still survived.  The settlers failed at all enterprises and, in 1610, they gave up in defeat, and boarded a ship to head back to England.  They didn't get far. As they sailed out of the bay, they spotted three arriving ships coming toward them. The refugees joined the newcomers, and turned back to try once again.

These pioneers struggled on until a ship arrived in in 1612. That ship carried a man named John Rolfe.

Rolfe knew that the English preferred Spanish tobacco to any other, and he'd brought the seeds for Spanish tobacco with him to test them in the soil of the New World. Fortune had it that the seeds grew wonderfully in the soil of what is now the State of Virginia. The natives of the New World assisted in growing the tobacco crops, and this is how Rolfe met his (not John Smith's, despite legend) wife. Her name was Pocahontas.

Only once Rolfe's tobacco seeds were brought to the New World did England's first colony in America finally begin to thrive. At first, a collective approach was taken where all worked for the benefit of the Virginia Company. This proved troublesome because there was little incentive other than to work tirelessly to survive while only the company benefited. This was hardly an incentive for anyone to take a chance on an ocean voyage that was likely to kill them, only to find a job awaiting them in a strange new world when, and if, they arrived. The approach was changed, and instead, every pioneer was awarded 50 acres of land for themselves, and every person they brought with them to the New World. So, a husband, wife, child, and indentured servant (American slavery, as we remember it today, didn't really exist yet) would be given 200 acres of private property to cultivate. Existing settlers were given the same deal. The benefits of private property and an entrepeneurial spirit were recognized as a matter of survival. 
In 1616, Rolfe and Pocahantas brought the first commercial crop of tobacco back to England. Their arrival caused a sensation. Both Rolfe and Pocahantas became celebrities of their time, and Pocahantas, as a native visitor from the New World, captured the imagination of Europe to such a degree that, even today, her personality is still a part of mainstream culture. (Only in the past several years, at least two movies have been made regarding the life of Pocahontas: filmmaker Terrence Malick's "The New World" and Disney's animated film "Pocanontas". Both take up the error that she was married to John Smith. Pocahantas was never even romatically involved with John Smith. Rather, she was married to the man who brought tobacco to America; John Rolfe.)
The tobacco Rolfe brought with him to England also caused a sensation, and eventually tobacco smoking took on new heights of popularity in Europe. This caused King James I, the very man who chartered the pioneering voyage to Jamestown, to republish a document the he'd originally authored in 1604 entitled "A Counterblaste to Tobacco"; a document that is still referenced today by tobacco prohibitionists and tobacco proponents alike.

In retrospect, the irony is overwhelming. Perhaps the world's first  anti-tobacco activist was responsible for bringing Englishman to a new land that would later become the world's most prosperous republic, and, today, the world's oldest living democracy. And the key element in making the initial Jamestown venture successful was tobacco; the very weed that King James I so despised.

However, no sooner had tobaco established itself as the founding weed of the New World, than a "counterblaste" also set itself into place: King James I taxed tobacco heavily and sequestered all tobacco trade via monopoly. Soon enough, the British crown received a quarter of its revenue from tobacco.

Jamestown, the first establishment in the New World, which would eventually become The United States of America, would not have existed if it hadn't been for tobacco. Sure enough, King James I, perhaps the world's first anti-tobacco activist, decried tobacco while ensuring and encouraging profit from its use.

Things haven't changed so much after 400 years.

Something to reflect upon this Thanksgiving holiday is that the true first Thanksgiving did not actually occur in Plymouth in 1621, as so many believe. The first Thanksgiving occurred near Jamestown in 1619. The settlers gave thanks for the success of their new settlement. Tobacco was what allowed that settlement to survive, and tobacco is the founding weed that allowed America to be born.

Primary Source: "An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power" by John Steele Gordon

*There may be a diffference from the dates I use and those in the links provided. I attempted to  give priority to the dates provided by John Steele Gordon's book over internet sources. 


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