Economics and Business

American Tobacco Industry

How did the American tobacco industry get started?

Tobacco, a member of the nightshade family, is an indigenous American plant. When Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) arrived in the West Indies in 1492, he found the native inhabitants smoking rolls of tobacco leaves, called taino. (The word tobacco is derived from the Spanish tabaco, which is probably from taino.) The practice of “drinking smoke” was observed to have a relaxing effect. Upon returning to Spain, Columbus took seeds of the plant with him. By 1531 tobacco was being cultivated on a commercial scale in the Spanish colonies of the West Indies. In 1565 English naval commander John Hawkins (1532–1595) introduced tobacco to England, where smoking was condemned as a “vile and stinking custom” by King James I (1566–1625) decades later.

Tobacco was not commercially cultivated on the North American mainland until English colonist John Rolfe (1585–1622) carried seeds from the West Indies to Jamestown, Virginia, where he settled in 1610. By 1612 he had successfully cultivated tobacco and discovered a method of curing the plant, making it a viable export item. Jamestown, Virginia, became a boomtown and England’s King James, who collected export duties, changed his mind about the habit of smoking. The coastal regions of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina were soon dominated by tobacco plantations, and the crop became the backbone of the economies in these colonies. Cultivation of tobacco did not require the same extent of land or slave labor as did other locally grown crops such as rice and indigo, but it depleted the nutrients of soil more rapidly, causing growers to expand their lands westward into the Piedmont region (the plain lying just east of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains).

In 1660 British Parliament passed the Second Navigation Act, declaring that tobacco and other articles from England’s American colonies could only be exported to the British Isles. Tobacco prices dropped in response to the legislation and the colonial economies were weakened, causing political discontent with the mother country. But European demand was not diminished and the colonists soon resumed exports, despite the Second Navigation Act. By 1765 colonial exports of tobacco were nearly double in value the exports of bread and flour. The crop helped define the plantation economy of the South, which prevailed until the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861–65). During the 1800s companies such as R. J. Reynolds Tobacco and American Tobacco were founded. Despite the highly publicized dangers of using tobacco (smoking or chewing), tobacco has remained an important crop and the manufacture of tobacco products an important industry in the American South.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy History Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App