1600’s Chesapeake Tobacco Cultivation

The Chesapeake Bay was home to the earliest English colonies. Charter companies brought hundreds and eventually thousands of people to these new colonies. Beginning with the Jamestown settlement of 1607 and hopes for gold, poor location and disease would afflict early colonial settlers. While there was no gold to be found, the cultivation of tobacco eventually made the colony profitable.

t Tobacco Production, Virginia, 1700s Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

To cultivate tobacco, planters brought in large numbers of English workers, mostly young men who came as indentured servants. The Chesapeake region offered little economic opportunity to indentured servants who had completed their term of obligation. Even with the small amount of capital needed for tobacco cultivation, former indentured servants at best became subsistence farmers, a class ripe for such calls to rebellion as those proposed by Nathaniel Bacon.

Virginia and Maryland were characterized by large plantations and little urban development. The emphasis on indentured labor meant that relatively few women settled in the Chesapeake colonies. This fact, combined with the high mortality rate from disease—malaria, dysentery, and typhoid—slowed population growth considerably.  Because tobacco had become  the mainstay of the Virginia and Maryland economies, plantations were established by riverbanks for the good soil and to ensure ease of transportation. Wealthy planters built their own wharves on the Chesapeake to ship their crop to England, slowing town development.

As the number of new indentured laborers declined because of limited chances for advancement and reports of harsh treatment, they were replaced by African slaves. The Chesapeake colonies enforced laws that defined slavery as a lifelong and inheritable condition based on race. This made slaves profitable because planters could rely not only on their labor but that of their children as well. The slave population, which numbered about four thousand in Virginia and Maryland in 1675, grew significantly to the end of the century.

The Virginia colony made it’s fortunes through the cultivation of tobacco, setting a pattern that was followed in Maryland and the Carolinas, but eventually, fluctuations in Chesapeake tobacco prices caused a prolonged economic depression from 1660 into the early 1700s.

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