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Days that changed America: Tobacco (1614)

John Rolfe, not John Smith, married Pocahontas
John Rolfe, not John Smith, married Pocahontas

The first English settlement in the New World disappeared. The second attempt nearly ended in catastrophe. The Jamestown colony followed the Roanoke failure and nearly followed its predecessor into oblivion. However, the colonists persevered despite the struggles. Jamestown did not begin to thrive until tobacco was discovered and evolved into a profitable cash crop. At that point, the colony began to grow and the English foothold in America expanded.

Spain successfully established colonies in the New World and profited greatly. Other European powers followed with varied success. The English made their first attempt at colonization over six decades after the Spanish conquest. They established the Roanoke Colony in 1585, but were unable to resupply the effort in a timely fashion. War with Spain intervened and help arrived too late for the colonists. The entire colony vanished with only cryptic clues remaining.

Elizabeth I died in 1603 and the new king was willing to allow another attempt to colonize the Americas. The Jamestown Company incorporated and sailed for Virginia in 1606. They arrived on April 26, 1607 and established their colony. The colonists faced a malarial swamp, hostile Indians, and laziness. Many of the colonists refused to work. They came from noble stock and felt it beneath them. Starvation and disease ravaged the colonists. Some turned to cannibalism before relief ships arrived with supplies and new colonists to replace the dead.

The colony’s survival remained uncertain for years. Colonist John Rolfe stumbled upon tobacco and fortunes changed. Rolfe discovered the leaf in 1609 and began cultivating the crop for profit five years later. He grew extremely wealthy and married Pocahontas, the daughter of the local Indian chieftain. The marriage alliance brought peace and stability to Jamestown while tobacco infused cash. Rolfe toured England to promote the colony and his product. His efforts infused new enthusiasm for colonization.

Following his wife’s death, Rolfe worked hard to improve his product. By 1620, tobacco was a major economic export and was even used as currency in lieu of money or coins. Colonists literally grew the product in the streets. Jamestown’s population topped 4,000 after falling to just 60 a decade earlier. The colony began to import black laborers in 1619, but it is likely these were indentured servants rather than slaves. Jamestown also opened the House of Burgesses that year. The institution marked the first democratic government in the New World. Tobacco cultivation soon spread throughout the Old South and the American colonies began to grow exponentially. Had Rolfe not discovered tobacco, it is likely Jamestown would have floundered and failed leaving North America to the Spanish or some other power. A Spanish North America would have evolved along another path than English North America. In all likelihood, democracy, capitalism, and slavery would have evolved in different ways or not at all.

English attempts to colonize the New World failed at Roanoke and nearly failed at Jamestown. The colony struggled in its formative years and almost folded. At one point, colonists resorted to cannibalism and the population dwindled to 60 individuals. Supplies and replacements arrived, but the colony lacked footing. Then, John Rolfe discovered tobacco and fortunes changed. Rolfe became rich and the colony prospered. The cash crop became “brown gold” and plantations emerged throughout the Old South. Tobacco made the English colonies profitable, led to their expansion, and eventually the United States emerged.