It was called sotweed before it known today as tobacco. Back in the day, when the western branch of the Patuxent River was still navigable, the town served as a port town for tobacco ships. Upper Marlboro blossomed into an agricultural, social, and political hot spot. Farms, many of which raised tobacco, dominated the surrounding areas. It encouraged the slave trade in Maryland.
When the colonists established their first settlement at St. Mary’s City in 1634, Lord Baltimore urged the new colonists to develop a diversified economy of farming, lumbering, fishing, mining, etc. Despite this desire and his repeated efforts, Calvert was completely disappointed in this goal. The lure of fine profits to be had from growing tobacco proved too much and Marylanders rapidly adopted this crop as the mainstay of their economy. That decision, in turn, shaped colonial life and the society which developed along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. The story of tobacco, or sotweed as it was called, thus became integral to the history of Maryland.
Early European settlers came to the New World in search of riches – gold, jewels, spices, etc.- to bring back to their mother countries and strengthen burgeoning empires. But as the probability of discovering an easily accessed mother-lode proved faint, even deadly in the case of the first years of the Jamestown (Virginia) settlement, the true wealth of American continent was eventually realized: the land itself.
In America was found an abundance of natural resources that would fuel commerce in Europe. Furs, timber, ores were collected by colonists venturing to the remotest ends of the known world, but in 17th century Chesapeake society, it was agriculture that would eclipse all other commercial endeavors, and chief of the cash crops was tobacco.
Native Americans were the first to smoke tobacco and the Spanish and Portuguese introduced this New World plant to Europe and Africa in the mid-1500’s. As the craze to smoke the new “weed” swept England, prices were extraordinarily high since the Spanish were the only suppliers. This situation began to change in 1612 when a Virginia settler, John Rolfe, planted tobacco seeds at Jamestown that were smuggled from Venezuela. Rolfe’s experiment proved that the Chesapeake’s soil and climate were ideal for this crop and production of tobacco exploded in Virginia, expanding from 2300 pounds in 1615 to half a million pounds in the 1620s. Maryland’s settlers quickly joined in this boom, growing Oronoco tobacco. By the early 1670s, over 10 million pounds were being exported from the Chesapeake. It became the main product of the region and caused mariners to give the Chesapeake another name – the Tobacco Coast.
So important was tobacco in the Chesapeake colonies that it became the money. Items were bought, debts settled, innkeepers paid and tavern drinks purchased in pounds of tobacco. Maryland designated this crop as the official medium of exchange in 1637. In part, this was due to a severe shortage of coinage in England and her American settlements. However, other colonies never resorted to making a crop their official currency, such as sugar in Jamaica or wheat in Pennsylvania. This is a powerful indication of the central place tobacco held in early Maryland.
Demand for tobacco rose quickly as new peoples tried it and enjoyed the effects of smoking sotweed. In addition to the pleasure derived from smoking tobacco, people during the 16th and 17th centuries also believed that the smoke offered significant health benefits, especially for ailments of the lungs. English and Dutch merchants began an international trade in Chesapeake tobacco to meet this growing demand, exporting it to Europe, Africa and Asia. As a result, Maryland was connected through tobacco to the emerging global economy. Artifacts found on sites attest to this international trade. Ceramics from England, the Netherlands, the Rhineland, France, Portugal, Italy and even Turkey appear on colonial Maryland sites. The most distant and exotic of these artifacts are rare Chinese porcelain vessels. The desire for tobacco and the excellent waterways of the Chesapeake directly linked Maryland colonists to the wharves of London or Amsterdam and from there, to the wider world.
As tobacco became more available, this had a notable effect upon how people smoked. Clay tobacco pipes found archaeologically appear to evidence this change. Pipes were originally copied from Native American examples and made in Europe using molds and white clay. These English and Dutch pipes were then shipped to the Chesapeake and elsewhere. The earliest pipes are tiny, reflecting tobacco’s steep price. Smoking consisted of placing a small amount of tobacco in the small pipe bowl, lighting it and filling ones lungs with the smoke until the tobacco was totally consumed. This was called “drinking” tobacco. As the supply of tobacco increased, costs declined and smokers could afford to burn it less carefully. They would load the bowl and smoke in a leisurely manner, as do pipe smokers today. This change is probably reflected by the gradual increase in pipe bowl sizes over the 1600s, physical evidence of the success of the Chesapeake tobacco industry.
By the 1660s, improved methods resulted in that number climbing to over 7000 individual tobacco plants. Further advances during the last quarter of the 17th-century led to one person being expected to care for roughly 10,000 hills of tobacco. In part, this was achieved by working servants and enslaved Africans harder, but new methods and techniques were key.
Still another innovation from the tobacco economy was a new architectural form, the tobacco house. Originally, these were a barn-like building covered by clapboard and with horizontal poles added on the interior from which to hang the tobacco. By the early 18th-century, movable boards began being built into the sides to increase air flow and enhance curing. Such a form has long endured, for tobacco barns used in Southern Maryland today are quite similar in design to the colonial tobacco houses. Knowing how to grow and cure tobacco is thus the result of generations of experimenting, observing and learning about the needs of this demanding plant.
Tobacco determined the rhythm of life in early Maryland. Work began in February and March with the preparation of new land and planting beds. Using a Native America approach, trees were left standing but had their bark cut to kill them. After burning the land under these trees to remove leaves, limbs and other vegetation, a planter, their servants and later, enslaved Africans, broke up the soil with an iron hoe and worked the ash and charcoal into it as nutrients. Soil was then formed into small hills. In May or June, seedlings were transplanted to these hills. From then until harvest time in late August or September, the slaves had to regularly hoe weeds and pull tobacco worms from the leaves, remove the tops of plants to stop them from flowering, remove the bottom leaves and tear or cut suckers off the stems. The scale of this effort is indicated by the fact that each slave was expected to tend about 10,000 tobacco plants by the 1680s. Properly caring for the crop meant constant attention and backbreaking work six days a week during the heat of summer. The standard work-day was at least 12 hours long. In late August, weather permitting, the tobacco was ready to harvest. Slaves cut the plants at their bases, carried them into barns, and hung the tobacco to air cure. By November or early December, curing was finished and the tobacco was taken down, prepared and placed in large wooden barrels called hogsheads. This ended the yearly cycle and the planters eagerly awaited the arrival of the annual Tobacco Fleet from England, which brought new manufactured goods, foods and alcoholic beverages to exchange for the crop.
Tobacco would also impact American society in a far more profound and enduring way, it’s labor-intensive nature fueling the demand for man-power that would be supplied by slaves transported from Africa. Growing tobacco became more than an occupation, it was a way of life, and in the absence of coin or paper money, tobacco became the common currency of the region.
Farmers in Maryland’s Chesapeake constructed large, airy barns for air curing tobacco, using curing methods perfected in the late seventeenth century (Miller 2001:34). Some experimentation with flue curing occurred during the nineteenth century, but this method had largely been abandoned by around 1880, since the financial returns on the flue-cured tobacco did not justify the cost of the required equipment (King 2001:46-48). The United States Census stated that in 1850 tobacco was being grown in every county in Maryland, with a yield of over 21 million pounds that year (Kennedy 1864:xcvii). By the late 1970s, production was confined largely to the five counties considered to make up Southern Maryland: St. Mary’s, Prince George’s, Charles, Calvert and Anne Arundel (Street 1978).
Approximately 5,000 tobacco barns remain standing in Southern Maryland. Today, these tobacco barns are considered an endangered cultural resource, making the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List in 2004 (Preservation Maryland 2013). Several factors have contributed to their current status. Over the last fifty years, an explosion of commercial and residential development in the counties surrounding metropolitan Washington has taken thousands of agricultural acres out of cultivation. But the real death knell for the barns was the “tobacco buyout”, a state policy enacted in 2001 to discourage the production of tobacco. When the program began, more than 1,000 farmers grew tobacco; a figure that had declined to approximately 150 by 2004 (Gately 2004). Unfortunately, the open and airy design of these barns, which made them perfect for air curing tobacco, makes them very difficult to repurpose for other uses.
Tobacco shaped the history and landscape of Maryland for the last 370 years, and today, even in its absence, continues to affect southern Maryland, as former tobacco farmers experiment with new crops and ways to make a living off of the land.
“Much of the South’s wealth and economic powers stemmed from the institution of slavery, and that included border states such as Maryland,” said Christopher E. Haley, research director for the history of slavery in Maryland in the Maryland State Archives.
Even the governor, Thomas H. Hicks of the Know Nothing Party, was a slaveholder. But like many in the border state, he also personified the conflict that stretched across Maryland, where some would fight for the North and others for the South. Hicks was a staunch supporter of the Union and would press hard for Maryland to remain part of that fragile coalition.
To keep the Union intact, Lincoln would step gingerly when it came to Maryland and its slaveholders. Political expediency in pursuit of the high moral ground would be his method, allowing a slow march towards abolition. If Hicks and then his more liberal successor, Augustus Bradford, would ensure that Maryland stayed in the Union, Lincoln, temporarily at least, would look the other way on the question of slavery.
“It was very much a divided state,” said University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin, a well-known scholar who specializes in the study of slavery. In some cases, families themselves were divided, with sons fighting on both sides.
*Most of this is from WWW.HSMCDIGSHISTORY.ORG and other sources.Rev. Kenn Blanchard is a professional speaker, writer, podcaster, and digital influencer. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook He is the founder of Blanchard.Media and the GunPodcastNetwork.com