The Cultural Roots of the Sot Weed

Most of us are aware, probably vaguely, that the success of colonization in the Chesapeake rode on the insatiable English demand for one thing: tobacco. But how did it all begin? Our modern concepts of what tobacco is, how you use it, what is in it, and where it came from are leagues away from its cultural origins in England as an exotic New World indulgence, tinged with danger, indolence, and even reputed to have ties with the devil himself. Today, cigarette butts speckle city gutters and we concoct schemes to scare away and restrict would-be smokers. But the English settlers who streamed into the Bay’s low-lying landscape knew that their fortune, and that of their future offspring, could be cultivated in the wide, soft leaves of Nicotiana tabacum. Tobacco, the craze it had created, and the vast sums of currency paid for its smoke, was the future.


Tobacco, like that grown at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s Heirloom garden, was widely grown in Europe initially for its beauty in addition to its intoxicating properties.

Tobacco was introduced to the Chesapeake twice. The first time, it was through Indian trade around 300 AD. The second time, it was in the form of seeds from Trinidad, carried by John Rolfe (famously the husband of Pocahontas). In between, tobacco occupied an important role in the daily ceremonial and social life of Chesapeake Indians, whose partook their tobacco through pipes. Like most North Americans pre-European contact, Chesapeake Indians grew their own tobacco, and when they couldn’t grow it, they traded for it. The variety they cultivated, Nicotiana rustica, was harsh, strong, and, when smoked in large quantities, caused hallucinations, stupor, or even death.

The European perception of such an intoxicating herb was initally to regard it as a dangerous and savage habit- especially the Spanish, who associated it with the bloodthirsty, cigar-smoking Aztec culture. But other Europeans, like the English, had no such baggage. As tobacco became available in shipments from the New World, wealthy or powerful English sophisticates took a page from Drake and Ralegh’s book and consumed their precious, astronomically-expensive import in ‘fairy’ pipes- the technique revealing the influence of North American Indians and the tiny pipe bowls indicating high price of the New World indulgence.


The British called their minuscule tobacco pipes “Little Ladells.” Image courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg.

The popularity of tobacco skyrocketed throughout England, eventually reaching all levels of English society. The domestic use of tobacco, first documented in Harrison’s 1573 Chronology, describes the domestic use of tobacco: “In these days the taking in of the smoke of the Indian herb called Tobaco, by the instrument formed like a little ladle, wherebye it passeth from the mouth into the head and stomach and is greatly taken up and used in England.” (Tobacco’s appetite-suppressing qualities were another bonus in an era when stretches between meals could be long and rumbly.)

Within a few years, fans of the fragrant weed could now pursue their pleasure in 'tabagies’, or smoking dens, where habitual immolators (nicknamed 'reeking gallants’) could 'drink’ the tobacco in the company of like-minded aficionados.   An early English experimenter of tobacco commented, “While we drink this in, it does not inebriate quickly, nor drive one mad…but it fills the ventricles of the brain with a certain vaporous perfume.’


The earliest image of a man smoking, from Of the Tobaco and Greate Vertues, 1577, by Anthony Chute.

But the smoking craze drew a few vehement detractors, like the historian Camden who criticized the widespread trend, stating, "In a short time many men, everywhere, some from wantonness, some for health sake, with an insatiable desire and greediness, sucked into he stinking smoke thereof…which presently they blew out again through their nostrils, insomuch that tobacco shops are now as ordinary as taverns and tap houses.”

Even King James decried the use of tobacco, to the extent that he published a rather  grumpy pamphlet entited A Counterblaste to Tobacco, where he compares the spread of the 'herb’ to syphilis, ascribes its use to “wild, god-less and slavish Indians”, and calls smoking “filthy abuse” and a “vile custom.” He summarily raised the taxes on tobacco a sobering 4000%.

Taxes aside, the English demand for tobacco, which was the highest throughout Europe, had another serious problem- its availability. By the late 1500’s, not a single English tobacco plantation existed in the New World, which meant the entire economy tenuously relied on trade, smuggling, or capture of vessels bound to Portugal or Spain from Central or South America. This, of course, increased the price drastically, and proved to be one of the dominant factors in the move towards establishing an English colony in the Americas.

So, skip ahead a few years to Jamestown.  Things weren’t looking too good for the new settlement in the Chesapeake. The tiny, struggling colony on a malarial spit of marsh on the James River was comprised of a motley and ill-suited crew of laborers, tradesmen, and gentry. Far from producing gold, silk, or lumber, the way the Virgina Company had hoped, the majority would die in the first two years of things like starvation, toothache, bilious fevers (dysentery), ague (malaria), and the rapacious Indian arrow.  (Jamestown had been unfortunately established in a drought period and as a result, the Indians quickly grew tired of supplying food for the ever-demanding Englishmen. John Smith would famously attempt Machiavellian negotiations, with mixed results). Farming anything in those early years was pretty much out of the question. But the English were loathe to abandon an investment, and by 1612, several ships of new settlers had come to infuse the hardscrabble colony with relief bodies. On one of those ships, laden with the wealthy, poor, and above all, desperate,  were some tiny tobacco seeds from the Carribbean.


Tobacco is a notoriously hard crop to cultivate. Producing that crumbly, aromatic dried leaf means a year of hard labor, with painstakingly exact work at 16 steps throughout the process. As the colonists around him hunted for fool’s gold, mistaking it for the real thing, or prepared shipments of sassafras root for export to England as a “cure” for veneral disease, John Rolfe toiled over his tobacco plants, spending four years perfecting the cultivation and curing of his “sot weed”. By 1613, Rolfe was able to send his Jamestown tobacco back to England, where it was noted for its delicacy and aroma. By 1617, the trend had spread. The colony’s new governor arrived to find, “only five or six houses, the Church downe, the palisades broken, the Well of fresh water spoiled (but) the market-place, and streets, and all other spare places planted with Tobacco.”

From there, tobacco continued to spread its verdant, stimulating leaves throughout the Chesapeake. Forests were felled to make room for the egg-carton shaped fields. The first boatload of African slaves were brought over in 1619 to work the clay hummocks of tobacco land . Even today, the dead continue to speak of the insatiable English demand for tidewater tobacco. A man’s skeleton, dated to the middle of the 1600’s, was recently found along the Patuxent River. Estimated to be between 25 and 29 years of age, the man’s teeth were crenelated like castle fortification, pierced over time by the stem of his tobacco pipe.