The Role of Chemistry in History

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Tobacco and America

April 20th, 2008 · 1 Comment ·

One Small Leaf, One Large Continent: Tobacco and the Establishment of America


            In 1607, America’s first permanent English settlement, Jamestown, was established.  However, the colony that began the nation of America as we know it today had an incredibly shaky start.  In fact, it was very close to failure when it was saved largely because of one factor – tobacco.


            When the colonists set out to form the colony of Jamestown, they certainly were not prepared for the miserable fate that they would encounter early on in America.  From the beginning, settlers faced diseases, hunger, and Indian attack.  Sadly, the combination of these factors proved to be so lethal that about eight months after their arrival, half of the colonists had died.  They were in need of something to help them turn their situation around – and fast – or they would never survive.


            The answer to their desperate pleas for help came in 1612 when John Rolfe, one of the English settlers attempted to plant tobacco seeds from the West Indies.  This tobacco was sweeter and easier to grow than that of the local Indians.  After sending a sample of this tobacco back to England, colonists soon discovered they had found a solution to their problems.


            At first, the Virginia Company and James I, king of England at the time, were at all pleased with the colonists’ choice of industry and urged them to find something else, something more marketable.  Nevertheless, England soon had a change of heart as tobacco proved to be incredibly lucrative for them – between 1618 and 1628 the amount of tobacco England imported increased from 20,000 pounds to 150,000 pounds.  This renewed English interest in the colony of Jamestown was so important, because without this lucrative market the Virginia Company would have deserted an unsuccessful Jamestown.  Instead, the success of tobacco initiated the arrival of more colonists to prosper from the ‘gold’ of America.  Also of historical importance was the fact that tobacco used up the fertility of the soil it was harvested in after only a few years.  However, when this land was eventually used up, settlers were forced into “westward expansion” in order to be able to continue growing tobacco.  Without the success of tobacco, America today could be a very different place.  Without tobacco, English colonists might have all died off, or England would have at least lost interest in the colony.  Such events would have permitted the potential settlements of any of the other powerful nation at the time, which, needless to say, would have produced a much different America than exists now.


Introduction to Nicotine | A Brief History of Tobacco | Chemical Properties | Addiction | Toxicity | Tobacco and America | Tobacco and the Cinema | References

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