It could be said that without tobacco, the Chesapeake Colonies would never have been able to survive. By 1612, many colonists in Jamestown had died, and many more were on the verge of starvation because of their lack of knowledge in farming.
Gold and silver, used as currency, was becoming scarce, and "wampum," a Native American currency, was too complicated, it's use soon being terminated. It was about this time that John Rolfe, experimenting with native plants, discovered that Virginia's soil was perfect for growing tobacco. Word soon got around, and everyone was growing tobacco.
Rolfe discovered that Virginia Indians' Nicotiana rustica—tasted dark and bitter to the English palate. It was John Rolfe who in 1612 obtained Spanish seeds, or Nicotiana tabacum, from the Orinoco River valley, that when planted in the rich bottomland of the James River, produced a milder, yet still dark leaf that soon became a favorite in England.
Soon every field, clearing and street in Jamestown was planted with tobacco, and it became a staple of the Chesapeake Colonies during this period. Government, society and domestic life began and ended with it. England was happy to buy all the tobacco the colonies shipped, and it was very profitable for both parties.
The Mercantile System
Because the colonies were considered subsidiaries of England, the Chesapeake Colonies were bound by the rules of the English Mercantile System. Under this system, England could receive raw goods, supplies and natural resources from the colonies, turn them into finished goods and eventually sell them to the rest of the world.
The colonies, on the other hand, were forbidden to engage in any production or trade outside this arrangement. As the need for tobacco grew in England, the colonies were able to trade for all the supplies and goods they needed on an equal basis. Things were working out very well for all concerned.
Tobacco became the currency of choice in Virginia as well as the Maryland colonies. It was the most stable and safest currency the colonies could have and was as valuable as gold. Tobacco was also used to pay fines and taxes too. For example, persons encouraging Negro meetings were to be fined 1000 pounds of tobacco; owners letting Negroes keep horses were fined 500 pounds tobacco.
If someone wanted to get married, he had to go to the rector of his parish and pay however many pounds of tobacco was needed. A man's wealth was literally estimated in annual pounds of tobacco harvested.
Tobacco production increases
As the population in the colonies grew, so did the annual production of tobacco. In turn, with this increase in production came an increase in the export of tobacco to England. Imports of tobacco to England in 1622 came to 60,000 pounds. 500,000 pounds were imported in 1628, and1,500,000 pounds in 1639. By the end of the seventeenth century, England was importing more than 20,000,000 pounds of colonial tobacco per year.
Tobacco has continued to be an important crop for Virginia farmers. The process of growing tobacco is still labor-intensive, but profits from several acres of tobacco can exceed the profits from many more acres planted in corn or soybeans.
Today there are four different types of tobacco grown in Virginia: flue-cured, dark fire-cured, light air-cured (Burley) and dark air-cured (sun-cured). In 1994, the gross income from tobacco production in Virginia was close to $182 million. Virginia's tobacco crop has ranged in value from a low of $61 million in 2005 to a high of $266 million in 1981. In 2010, the value of the tobacco crop was $78 million.