Tobacco has been grown in the Americas for at least two millennia, but European colonization created the conditions for the emergence of cultivators that specialized in large-scale tobacco production. While staple crops such as sugar were readily identified with slave labor in the American colonies, much tobacco was grown by farmers who did not own slaves. However, tobacco's long growing season and its intensive labor requirements meant that it was often produced by enslaved laborers, and the unique nature of its cultivation shaped the work as well as the community of tobacco plantation laborers.
During the American colonial period, tobacco plantations emerged in a variety of places, from parts of Connecticut and New York in the North, south to the Caribbean colonies of Barbados and Jamaica, and as far west as Spanish Louisiana. The largest concentration of tobacco plantations in North America, however, developed in the Chesapeake Bay colonies of Virginia and Maryland. Following the American Revolution, tobacco plantations spread westward to other parts of the upper South, including western Kentucky and Tennessee as well as Missouri.
Successful tobacco cultivation required steady labor from late winter through the fall. The season began in January when laborers cleaned and prepared the beds where tobacco seed was sown, and sowing usually occurred in late February or early March. After significant mid-spring rains, the seedlings would be replanted into hilled rows. One method involved workers using a hoe to gather soil around their leg, which they would remove to create a space for transplanted seedlings. According to historian Philip Morgan, by the mid-eighteenth century Chesapeake tobacco planters expected workers to transplant a seedling every two minutes, and to plant 350 hills per day.
Once transplanted, tobacco seedlings required nearly constant tending until harvest. First, after a certain numbers of leaves appeared, workers would use a small knife or a sharpened thumbnail to cut off the top of each plant to prevent it from flowering. During the summer months, laborers performed three additional tasks: weeding, suckering (or the removal of secondary shoots that would divert energy away from the tobacco leaves), and removing worms and beetles. All three of these tasks required workers to pay close attention to individual plants, to work hunched over, and to perform tasks by hand, all under close supervision. In the mid-nineteenth century, runaway slave John Thompson testified to the nature of the work, and the degree of supervision:
When the tobacco is ripe, or nearly so, there are frequently worms in it, about two inches long, and as large as one's thumb. They have horns, and are called tobacco worms. They are very destructive to the tobacco crops, and must be carefully picked off by the hands, so as not to break the leaves, which are very easily broken. But careful as they slaves may be, they cannot well avoid leaving some of the worms on the plants. It was a custom of Mr. Wagar to follow after the slaves, to see if he could find any left, and if so, to compel the person in whose row they were found, to eat them. (Thompson, p. 18)
Harvesting the tobacco plants took place as the plants ripened in late August or early September and it was the most labor-intensive part of the crop cycle. The plants were cut and allowed to wilt in the field for several hours, and then the stalks would be gathered and dried in a barn. After they had dried for a sufficient length of time, the leaves would be stripped from the stalks, and the largest fibers would also be taken out of the leaves, which were then carefully packed into hogsheads. Harvesting, curing and packing tobacco were all delicate operations requiring experience, practice, and close attention.
The nature of tobacco production shaped plantation communities in a variety of ways. Producing significant quantities of quality tobacco was a difficult enterprise because many things could ruin the crop, including pests, disease, weeds, excessive moisture, and improper packaging. Given these dangers slave owners supervised workers quite closely, and typically organized tobacco workers into small teams or squads of a dozen workers or fewer, rather than large gangs. Even slaveholders who owned large numbers of slaves tended to settle them in small groups on different parcels of land. This meant that slave quarters on tobacco plantations were comparatively small, and therefore enslaved men and women often had to look beyond their own quarters in order connect with kin and friends. Social activities were structured around the tobacco calendar, which meant that there was little slack time in the summer, whereas winter provided more free time for social events such as marriages.
In addition to requiring intensive labor, specialized tobacco production also took a toll on the fertility of the soil. Typically, land would be used for three years, and then allowed to lie fallow for up to twenty so that the land could recover, so this meant that tobacco laborers were required to be more mobile than laborers on rice or sugar plantations. These small squads of workers could be composed of many members of an extended family because men, women, and even very young children were put in the fields to tend tobacco. While the pace of the labor was supervised, the bodily movements of tobacco workers could not be synchronized like they were on sugar plantations, because each plant needed individual attention. But while slaves had some control over their bodily movements, they were still watched closely and struggled to moderate the pace of the labor, as is clear from the testimony of escaped slave Lewis Clark, who recalled his experience on a tobacco plantation in Kentucky:
When stooping to clear the tobacco-plants from the worms which infest them,—a work which draws most cruelly upon the back,—some of these men would not allow us a moment to rest at the end of the row; but, at the crack of the whip, we were compelled to jump to our places, from row to row, for hours, while the poor back was crying out with torture. (Clarke, p. 24)
Clarke, Lewis Garrard. Narratives of the Sufferings of Lewis and Milton Clarke: Sons of a Soldier of the Revolution, during a Captivity of More than Twenty Years Among … Boston, 1846. "Sources in U.S. History Online: Slavery in America." Gale. Available from http://galenet.galegroup.com.
Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Thompson, John. The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave: Containing His History of 25 Years in Bondage, and His Providential Escape Worcester: 1856. "Sources in U.S. History Online: Slavery in America." Gale. Available from http://galenet.galegroup.com.