Tobacco Planting in Tidewater Virginia

The vast swaths of land their immigrant ancestors had acquired through grants from the Crown and cunning sales were put to good use by the planters of the early eighteenth century. A contemporary estimated that “planters required at least fifty acres for every field laborer” so as not to feel cramped.[1] With the average planter holding at least 1,000 acres and the richest up to 5,000,[2] that meant each needed between twenty and one hundred laborers, who were now much more likely to be black slaves than white indentured servants. As a result, their plantations became so productive that they forced smaller planters, those who held anywhere from thirty to several hundred acres,[3] out of the market.[4]

Tobacco, or “tobo” as it was often informally called,[5] had made the Minors very wealthy, placing them in the top three to ten percent of Virginia society.[6] They could now import luxury items from Europe such as crystal, wine, china, silver, and fashionable dresses,[7] and transport themselves like the gentry of London, with great horses and carriages with attendants.[8] They also built large brick mansions in which dinner became an elaborate ritual of many courses to mimic those of fine English houses.[9] Like English feudal manors, their estates were nearly self-sufficient, with their own carpenters, blacksmiths, tanners, weavers, coopers, and members of other trades.[10] Here, women supervised everything from the household to “the dairy, the smokehouse, the poultry yard and the garden; they cut out all the slaves’ clothing and supervised the sewing.”[11]

This wealth also brought with it political power that enabled families like the Minors to firmly entrench themselves in law and politics.[12] As historian Timothy H. Breen asserts, “The great planters of Tidewater Virginia enjoy a special place in American history. They included some of the nation’s ablest leaders, and without the likes of Washington [to whom Virginia and Francis were distantly related] and Jefferson [a close Minor family friend], it is hard to see how Americans could have made good their claim to political independence.”[13]

However, this power came at a cost. The planters sold their tobacco on consignment by shipping it to English or Scottish merchants who sold it at the highest price, but also purchased manufactured goods that the planter desired on credit.[14] William Knox, Britain’s Undersecretary of State for America, summed up how this system functioned:

The planter becomes indebted to the merchant for two years’ supply before he makes him any payment; and as it seldom happens that at the end of the second year he pays the expence [sic] of one, he goes on increasing his estate in a much greater proportion; and all this time the English merchant, who supports the  whole, is without any return.[15]

Thus, the planters became indebted to the merchants, which the planters viewed as akin to being enslaved to their creditors.[16] This was debt they could ill afford. Contemporary Scottish economist Adam Smith estimated that colonists paid their creditors at most a third of what they were owed.[17]

As a result of their financial uncertainty, tobacco became an obsession for the planter class.[18] Major planters could cultivate more than 100,000 plants, but only if they were very careful, very lucky and worked very hard—tobacco was one of the most labor-intensive crops grown at the time.[19] Unlike sugar or wheat, tobacco had to be closely tended and in many cases, it was experience that determined the outcome. One mistake could mean the failure of the whole crop.[20]

The growing cycle began in late December or early January, based on weather conditions, with preparation and sowing of the seed beds, which were separated from one another so that if one was ruined by frost, bugs, or disease, the others were more likely to be spared. This was so common that experienced cultivators often planted ten times as many crops as was needed.[21] Once the soil was fertilized with manure or wood ash and the seeds sown, the bed was covered with branches to insulate it from frost.

In late April, or when the planter determined the seedlings could survive being transplanted into the ground—usually by examining the size and thickness of the leaves—the seedlings were transported to the fields. This was one of the most precarious steps in the tobacco growing process, second only to curing, because so much could go wrong. It was ideally completed by the end of May, but if the weather was particularly wet or dry, planting could still be taking place in June. 

The summer months were spent encouraging the leaves to mature through careful hand tending that included weeding, hoeing, and de-worming. Removing the flowering top of the plant and any suckers (a process called topping) prevented nutrients from being diverted from the leaves and made them grow larger.

 Unlike with other crops, harvesting (or cutting, as it is properly known)[22] didn’t happen at a set time, but depended on the judgment of the planter, and usually took place sometime in September. Picking the correct time was crucial because cutting too early meant there would be too much moisture in the leaves for them to cure properly, but if a planter waited too long, he risked an early frost damaging the plant.

Throughout the rest of autumn, the tobacco leaves hung in the curing barn, where planters nervously watched to make sure it dried enough to prevent rot, but not so much that it would disintegrate in the cargo hold on the way to England. This was largely a matter of humidity, which could be decreased by lighting fires in the barn, but was a risky practice that could catch the whole crop on fire.

After the leaves had “reached case,” they were stripped from the stalks and “prized” or packed into hogsheads for inspection and shipment, another tedious process that could take weeks. Most planters aimed to have their harvest complete by Christmas because it gave them two weeks to tend other chores before beginning the cycle all over again. But given the unpredictability of Mother Nature, some years saw slaves still finishing the prizing while others began the planting.[23]

This grueling schedule, which affected when men were available for all community activities including court sessions and militia drills, was one of the reasons why wheat later became more popular. Because it was less demanding, elections, leisure time, and weddings could be reliably scheduled between planting and harvest when the need for labor was low.[24]

But that was only one small reason tobacco fell out of favor. By 1750, price swings became more frequent, making it much more difficult to recover from misfortune, which many planters experienced during long droughts at the end of the decade. On top of that, the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763, also called the French and Indian War), which began with the Iroquois trying to prevent the French from controlling the Ohio Valley and ended with a profound change in the balance of power among European nations,[25] brought with it economic depression that further imperiled the lives of colonists who relied on a delicate, fickle crop to fund their impossibly lavish lifestyles.[26] Financial crises continued with regularity in the 1760s and 1770s,[27] but the Credit Crisis of 1772 was particularly impactful on the American colonies. Though mainly a European issue, it caused English creditors to call for repayment of debt from planters in the colonies.[28] 

To help ease the burden tobacco had become, many planters began growing other crops such as corn, hemp, flax, silk, cotton, and grapes.[29] By 1765, Virginia planters were quietly discussing ending tobacco cultivation altogether, a drastic step that had already been taken in Maryland.[30] By 1774, wheat was rapidly replacing tobacco as a staple crop.[31] It was easy to ship, kept well over long journeys, sold at prices up to twice that of corn and fifty percent higher than rye, and could be used to make large quantities of bread.[32] In addition, because of tobacco’s association with the wealthy political class, it eventually became a symbol of loyalist sentiment, a dangerous association in a land rapidly heading toward revolution[33] that favored the common man’s rights over those of the American “nobility.”

As the Revolutionary War dragged into the 1780s, even those stubbornly clinging to tobacco saw the practical wisdom in switching to wheat:[34] soldiers needed to eat. But unlike in previous wars, the soldiers were not located in far-flung areas; they were now fighting in the backyard of the producers of the wheat and the flour it was milled into.[35] In 1778, one mid-Atlantic miller reported milling more than 7,400 bushels—about half of what he’d purchased from local farmers—for the Continental army.[36] Flour quickly became “the most valuable ‘article of American commerce.’”[37]

The Revolutionary War may have brought about an end to tobacco culture and replaced it with “amber waves of grain” as the symbol of the new independent nation,[38] but it didn’t free newly-American citizens from their debt to British creditors. According to Breen,

Americans owed British citizens about £3 million, of which Virginians alone were responsible for £1.4 million… Though they accounted for only 21 percent of the country’s population in 1776, they held approximately 46 percent of the officially documented debt claims… An examination of post-Revolutionary debt claims reveals at least ten of Virginia’s great planters owed £5,000 or more. This was a huge sum. In the £1,000 to £4,000 range appear such familiar names as Jefferson and Washington.[39]

 And likely the Minors as well. A fledgling country with a debt-ridden economy was the inheritance which John Vivian Minor gained from his father and he and subsequent generations had to navigate.

[1] Quoted in Breen, 43.

[2] Clemens; Paul, 23.

[3] Clemens, Paul, 23.

[4] Breen, 35-36.

[5] Breen, 82.

[6] Breen, 32.

[7] Breen, 107.

[8] Breen, 36-37.

[9] Lebsock, 43.

[10] Breen, 87–88.

[11] Lebsock, 85.

[12] Breen, 35–36.

[13] Breen, 24. Text in brackets is my addition.

[14] Breen 36, May 5–6

[15] Quoted in Sheridan 163.

[16] Breen, 91.

[17] Sheridan, 162.

[18] Breen, 16.

[19] Breen, 48.

[20] Breen, 45.

[21] Breen, 47.

[22] According to Breen, “the cutting process was not called a harvest because that word ‘suggested finality,’ and cutting was not the end of the tobacco cycle.”

[23] Breen, 46–54.

[24] Breen, 55–56.

[25] Anderson, Fred, xvii–xxii.

[26] Breen, 125-131.

[27] Breen, 24, 31.

[28] Breen, 128.

[29] Breen, 57.

[30] Breen, 177.

[31] Breen, 180-181.

[32] Hunter, 508.

[33] Breen, 200.

[34] Moore, John Hammond, 88-89.

[35] Hunter, 509, 516.

[36] Hunter, 514.

[37] Hunter, 506.

[38] Breen, 204-205.

[39] Breen, 128.