Chesapeake Region

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Chesapeake Region

The Chesapeake region, encompassing the colonies of Virginia and Maryland, was neither the first nor the only area of Anglo-America where settlers cultivated tobacco. English immigrants established commercial tobacco plantations in the Amazon region and Guiana in 1609, four years earlier than Bermudans and Virginians, and several Caribbean island colonies were founded on the economic base of tobacco cultivation. Yet, after the fall of England's South American colonies and Providence Island to Spain and Portugal, and once Caribbean planters switched to the even more profitable staple of sugar from the 1640s, the Chesapeake became the New World's leading tobacco-producing region, and tobacco became a fundamental force in Chesapeake life, defining to a great extent its settlement patterns, society, and politics, as well as its economy.

The Settling of Virginia

ORIGINAL PLANS. The first English colonists arrived in Chesapeake Bay aboard the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery in April 1607, settling Jamestown the following month. (The town was named after the English king and the colony in honor of the virginity of Elizabeth I.) The first migrants included thirty-five gentlemen, forty soldiers, a doctor, an Anglican minister, and a number of artisans and laborers. As there were no farmers or women, the group did not intend to form a self-sufficient agricultural community. The Virginia Company, the organization that sponsored the settlement, did not originally intend to plant tobacco or indeed any crop in Virginia. Instead, its early settlers, like the Spanish conquistadors, were to conquer local peoples and collect gold, silver, and sassafras (believed to be a medicinal panegyric ). When they failed to find these resources, they attempted to turn the colony into a trading post and only when this failed did settlers finally turn to tobacco agriculture.

EARLY DISASTERS, 1607–1624. Partly as a result of this misguided planning, the early years of English settlement in the Chesapeake were disastrous, though tobacco eventually proved crucial in rescuing the venture. Another problem was that Jamestown was located on a tidewater marsh, so settlers suffered from malaria, saline poisoning, and cholera ("the bloody flux") as their sewage washed back and forth in the tide. Half the settlers died within three months and only thirty-five survived the first winter. Also, without agriculture, the colony depended for food and new settlers on resupply ships from England. When a resupply fleet was scattered by a storm off Bermuda in October 1609, there followed a bad winter when, again, half the settlers died. Nor could settlers rely entirely on Amerindians supplying food. The local Powhatan people fed the English until 1609, when, realizing they intended to stay permanently, they cut off their food supply and began attacking crops and livestock in a war that lasted until 1614. On 22 March 1622, after the emperor Powhatan died and was succeeded by his brother, Opechancanough, and following the murder of a werowance (chief), local Indians rose up and killed 350 colonists, one-third of the settlers, and it would have been worse if an Amerindian Christian convert had not given advance warning. In all, the Virginia Company shipped 7,500 people to the colony, but Virginia's population was only 1,200 in 1624. That year the Virginia Company was dissolved and in the following year Virginia became a royal colony.

Foundations of Successful Colonization

POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS. Though it was not clear in 1624 that the colony would last, the foundations of its survival had in fact been laid. One foundation was a stable political system that commanded settlers' respect. Rivalries among the original twelve councilors and weak leadership by president Edward Wingfield led to ineffectual government until Captain John Smith forced settlers to relocate and to grow food. Smith departed in 1609 following a gunpowder accident, although some historians suspect attempted assassination. Governors Thomas Gates (1611–1613) and Thomas Dale (1614–1616) enforced the authoritarian Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall (1611) that may have helped the colony survive but were deeply resented. By 1618 Governor George Yeardley and the Virginia Company treasurer Edwin Sandys restored English laws and established political representation (at least for wealthier property holders) with the first meeting of the Virginia Assembly on 30 July 1619.

PRIVATE PROPERTY (HEADRIGHTS). Another foundation for colonial survival and prosperity was private property. Initially the Virginia Company owned the colony's land, but shareholders soon found it necessary to offer land to attract settlers. These plans culminated with the headright system wherein the Virginia Company granted fifty acres to all migrants who paid their own passage across the Atlantic, plus another fifty acres for every family member and servant they brought with them. By granting headrights the Virginia Company helped bring about its own bankruptcy, but it nevertheless helped created a viable society.

TOBACCO. Equally important, successful colonization required a profitable staple commodity, and Virginians found this in tobacco. The Chesapeake's native tobacco was nicotiana rustica, which was too bitter and unpalatable for commercial success. During the 1609 Bermuda shipwreck, though, John Rolfe had encountered the sweeter West Indian nicotiana tabaccum and in 1612 introduced a Trinidadian strand of it to Virginia. After some experimentation, Virginia exported its first four hogsheads containing 2,600 pounds of tobacco in 1614. Exports rose rapidly to 50,000 pounds in 1618 and 200,000 pounds in 1622. In these early years, tobacco cultivation threatened the colony's survival. With prices peaking at three shillings per pound, planters neglected food production in favor of tobacco cultivation and ruthlessly overworked their servants. As Virginian supply caught up with English demand, however, prices fell to three pence per pound by the mid-1630s, and the tobacco boom settled into steady growth in which the crop took its central place in the formation of Chesapeake economy and society.

The Settling of Maryland

THE CALVERT FAMILY'S PROPRIETORSHIP. The next stage in establishing Chesapeake tobacco society came with the founding of Maryland in 1634. Unlike Virginia, Maryland was neither a company nor a royal colony but a proprietorship (technically a palatinate ) in the hands of the Calvert family. George Calvert, from a Yorkshire landowning family, was a courtier of James I who withdrew from public life because his Catholicism rendered him unable to take the Oath of Supremacy in 1625. James I nevertheless rewarded Calvert's service with the title Baron Baltimore, and King Charles I granted his son, Cecilius Calvert, a charter for Maryland (named after Queen Henrietta Maria) in April 1632, two months after George died. One hundred forty migrants aboard the Ark and Dove reached Maryland in May 1634.

EARLY SUCCESSES. Maryland's founders benefited from the existence and experience of Virginians. They collected food supplies in Jamestown before settling at St. Mary's City, and the proprietor ordered that settlers grow food crops before cash crops. It helped too that the Piscataway Indians had been suppressed following the 1622 massacre, and the Yaocomico saw the colonists as possible allies against the Susquehanna. While colonial Maryland suffered many political convulsions, first with Virginia settlers already in the territory and afterward between Catholics and Protestants (despite Calvert religious toleration), Marylanders avoided the catastrophes that plagued early Virginia and soon established prosperity based on tobacco planting.

Tobacco Cultivation

PRODUCTION AND MARKETING. Within four years of settlement Marylanders exported 100,000 pounds of tobacco, and in 1640 the two Chesapeake colonies exported one million pounds. By 1690 the figure reached 25 million pounds and then dipped during the Nine Years War (1689–1697) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1713), but by 1728 Chesapeake exports reached 50 million pounds and by the time of American Independence in 1776, 100 million pounds. Mass consumption (with 25 percent of adults smoking a pipe per day) appeared in England by the 1670s and throughout Europe by 1750. Demand was greatest among the French, and by the 1770s four-fifths of Chesapeake tobacco was re-exported from Britain to France. The Navigation Acts (1660, 1696) required Chesapeake tobacco to be exported directly to England or, after the Act of Union of 1707 that created Great Britain, to Scotland. Thereafter Glasgow became a major tobacco center, and Scottish factors established themselves in the Chesapeake (planters had previously traded directly to London merchants).

After Independence, European wars disrupted markets and drove production down until the 1810s. After that, U.S. production rose to 300 million pounds by 1859, although by then Maryland and Virginia produced only 37 percent of that total while production had shifted to North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and especially Kentucky, where newer land was more productive and lighter soil more suited to the milder and increasingly popular Bright tobacco.

DIVERSIFICATION. In colonial times overproduction drove down prices, and overdependence on one product made planters vulnerable to price fluctuations and wartime disruption of trade. The Virginia Company and later Governor William Berkeley of Virginia attempted to encourage the cultivation of cotton, silkworm, flax, hemp, naval stores, sugar, rice, rapeseed, and various fruits and spices. Yet Chesapeake planters stuck tenaciously to tobacco as their staple, although the region was self-sufficient in food and indeed an exporter of grain and livestock products to the West Indies once planters there began neglecting food production in favor of sugar cultivation. Only in the early to mid-eighteenth century did significant numbers of planters and farmers in western and northern Virginia and northern and eastern Maryland switch to wheat cultivation, giving the Chesapeake a much more diverse economy.

REGULATION. Tobacco production nevertheless required regulation, and planters attempted unsuccessful voluntary production limits to stem a fall in prices in the 1630s and from the 1680s. In the early eighteenth century concerns about the quality of Chesapeake tobacco inspired lawmakers in Virginia in 1730 and Maryland in 1747 to pass tobacco inspections acts wherein county inspectors burned poor-quality produce. Up to a third of produce was thereby destroyed. This policy hurt smaller yeoman farmers and tenants most especially, and they retaliated by cutting and burning gentlemen's plants in the fields. After the Revolution, states amended these laws so that while poorer farmers could still not export poor tobacco they could sell it locally instead.

Tobacco Society

POPULATION. The creation of a viable society in the Chesapeake, made possible by political stability and a tobacco commodity combined with widespread landownership, meant that the population rose steadily after the demographic disasters of the early years. From just 1,200 souls in 1624, the population rose to 35,446 in 1660, 190,000 in 1760, and 2.3 million in 1860. For much of the seventeenth century the populations of Maryland and Virginia remained predominantly immigrant. By the 1690s, however, after the equalization of sex ratios and after birth rates overtook death rates, the Chesapeake had a predominantly Creole (American-born) population that developed an increasingly powerful and distinct local identity and culture that were profoundly shaped by tobacco. In The Present State of Virginia (1724) Reverend Hugh Jones provided a sense of how central tobacco was to Chesapeake life when he wrote that the crop is "our meat, drinke, cloathing and monies." (Indeed, tobacco was used as currency in the Chesapeake throughout the colonial period and continued to represent money afterward.)

SETTLEMENT PATTERNS. Tobacco cultivation largely determined settlement patterns. Settlement began on the banks of the deep and wide rivers leading off the bay, so that planters could load their crops directly on to oceangoing vessels. Only after the riverbanks were full did settlement move inland. Even then, the land-intensive nature of the crop closely shaped the human geography of the Chesapeake. To avoid soil exhaustion (manure was thought to taint tobacco, although planters experimented with various forms of fertilizer), tobacco cultivation usually required at least forty acres of land per worker: three acres planted in tobacco, the rest in food crops or fallow. Even the smallest tobacco farms, therefore, had to be a minimum of forty acres in size, while the largest plantations ran to tens of thousands of acres.

John Rolfe

J ohn Rolfe (6 May 1585–22 March 1622) played a fascinating role in early Chesapeake history. Besides being in the Bermuda shipwreck that inspired William Shakespeare's play The Tempest (1611) and bringing tobacco cultivation to Virginia, he also observed and recorded the arrival of the first slaves in Jamestown among other major events. Most famously, in 1613 he met and in 1614 he married Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan of the large Native American confederacy of tribes south of the Potomac River, and thereby helped bring an end to the first Anglo-Amerindian war in North America (1611–1614). On a subsequent trip to London, King James I snubbed Rolfe, affronted by the commoner marrying into Amerindian royalty (Powhatan was crowned a king by the English, though he owned fealty to James I). Sadly, Pocahontas died at the beginning of the return voyage to Virginia and was buried at Gravesend, Kent. Poignantly, given his role in improving Anglo-Amerindian relations, Rolfe died in Opechancanough's uprising in 1622.

The soil-exhausting potential of tobacco therefore required that settlement spread rapidly throughout the region. Virginia tobacco planters had already settled in northern North Carolina before the Carolinas officially became colonies in 1660. By the early eighteenth century, settlement reached the backcountry, or piedmont region, near the Allegheny Mountains. After the Revolution, Chesapeake planters established tobacco as the principal crop in Kentucky and Tennessee. But the land-intensive quality of tobacco also led to a thinly spread population and an absence of towns. Courts, churches, taverns, and markets tended to be located at crossroads near the center of counties, not in villages. To counter the consequent image of rusticity Governor Francis Nicholson of Virginia ordered the building of capital cities at Williamsburg, Virginia, and Annapolis, Maryland, in the 1690s.

INDENTURED SERVITUDE. In addition to being land-intensive, tobacco was labor-intensive, and it thus powerfully shaped the nature of Chesapeake social relationships. Early colonial planters relied mainly on indentured servants as laborers, men and women who received free passage across the Atlantic in return for typically four to seven years of service to the planter who paid their fare. Some 100,000 servants migrated to the Chesapeake in the seventeenth century, predominantly from the southwest of England (although later servant migrants came from all over the British Isles), constituting over 80 percent of all migrants. In the peak period of the 1630s to 1650s up to 1,900 servants migrated there annually.

Servants were housed, fed, and given so-called freedom dues by masters at the end of their terms (usually a set of clothes, tools, and a small amount of food and money, depending on local custom). Though servants had certain rights, their status was lower than that of agricultural servants in England who were employed annually and were members of local communities and often neighbors of their masters. In the newer and looser communities and more intensive economy of the Chesapeake, servants were often treated more as commodities and with less humanity.

FROM SERVITUDE TO SLAVERY. The commodification of labor grew worse, though, for from the 1660s slavery began to displace servitude as the primary workforce on Chesapeake tobacco farms and plantations. The first twenty slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619 aboard a Dutch privateer that had been raiding the Spanish West Indies. With a ready supply of cheap servants from England, though, slavery remained a minor institution for some forty years.

From the 1650s, however, the English economy improved and new colonies opened up in New York, New Jersey, the Carolinas, and later Pennsylvania and Delaware, so the supply of servants to the Chesapeake declined while their prices increased. By that time, Chesapeake planters had acquired the capital necessary to purchase significant numbers of slaves, who were costly to transport, whose service was lifelong, and who were therefore expensive. By 1720, slaves had overtaken servants as the region's primary source of labor, and indentured servitude gradually disappeared by 1830. Meanwhile, the slave population of the Chesapeake rose from only 950 in 1660, to 8,000 in 1710, 49,000 in 1760, and 578,000 in 1860. From the early eighteenth century, slaves represented around a third of the region's inhabitants.

SLAVERY. As long as slave numbers remained small, slavery remained a relatively moderate institution. Some early Chesapeake slaves mixed socially with and were treated similarly to white servants, even being freed after a number of years of service, although the historical evidence is inconclusive regarding how extensive this was. In any case, once servant numbers declined and planters became more reliant on slave labor, conditions deteriorated. Virginia and Maryland enacted the first slave codes, defining slaves as chattels for life and closely regulating their lives, in the 1660s, and these laws were codified in 1705.

The history of tobacco affected slave life in other ways besides creating such great demand for their labor. Because English settlers learned to cultivate tobacco from Amerindians, planters were able to impose the harsh sunup to sundown gang labor regime on Chesapeake slaves. In the colonial Carolinas, by contrast, planters depended on African expertise in rice production, so slaves created a task system that left them more free time. Also, rice being more lucrative that tobacco, Carolina plantations tended to be larger and their owners more often absentees, taking little interest in their slaves' lives, while the normally resident owners of smaller Chesapeake plantations tended to be more paternalistic as slaveholders. Carolina slaves therefore tended to be more culturally autonomous and to retain more of their African traditions than did slaves in the Chesapeake. Even so, slaves in the Chesapeake had some measure of autonomy and, once a large Creole community appeared by the 1740s, they laid the foundations of a new and profoundly vital African American culture.

The Civil War and the End of Slavery

Slavery survived in the Chesapeake until the Civil War (1861–1865), although the history of Maryland and Virginia diverged drastically during this conflict. Most Maryland farmers had switched to wheat production long before the Civil War, and dependence on slavery was relatively weak in this so-called border state, allowing President Abraham Lincoln to keep Maryland in the Union (although many Marylanders fought for Southern regiments). Virginia (and other tobacco states) seceded from the Union following the Battle of Fort Sumter in April 1861. Richmond became the Confederate capital and from the first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 to General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox in April 1865 much of the war was fought on Virginian soil. Even there, though, there were Union loyalists, especially in the mainly wheat-growing west where several counties seceded from the Old Dominion to form the state of West Virginia in 1864.

See Also British Empire; Native Americans; Plantations; Slavery and Slave Trade; United States Agriculture.



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plantation historically, a large agricultural estate dedicated to producing a cash crop worked by laborers living on the property. Before 1865, plantations in the American South were usually worked by slaves.

panegyric a speech or writing of high praise for a person or event.

authoritarian demanding unconditional obedience; dictatorial

hogshead a large wooden barrel formerly used to store and transport cured leaf tobacco. A hogshead typically held approximately 800 to 1000 pounds (350 to 450 kg) of tobacco.

palatinate the territory of a feudal lord having sovereign power within his domain.

Navigation Acts laws passed by the British Parliament that subjected the American colonies to sell only to Britain, buy only from Britain, and ship only in British vessels. The Navigation Acts were one of the background causes of the American Revolution.

chattel personal property, other than real estate, that may be bought, sold, or pledged against a debt.

paternalistic fatherly; acting as a parent. Although paternalism presumes an obligation for the stronger to provide for the weaker, it implies superiority and dominance over them as well. For example, slave masters often had paternalistic feelings for their slaves, whom they considered child-like.