What is Tobacco? - History of Tobacco
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What is Tobacco?

Tobacco plants
Tobacco plants

When European traders first came to North America around 1500 AD, local people tried to figure out what they could sell to the Europeans in exchange for their fancy steel knives and wool blankets. In the north, the Iroquois and Algonquin began to sell furs, but in the south, Cherokee people tried to sell the Europeans tobacco plants. This was a natural idea, because Cherokee and other Mississippian people had always used tobacco as a kind of money, trading it with each other for things like pipestone or corn.

At first the Europeans didn't want tobacco, because they had never seen it before and they didn't know what to do with it. But native Americans showed the Europeans that you could smoke tobacco. Tobacco soon became very popular back in Europe, where a lot of people got addicted to it even though governments tried to stop them from smoking, and at first Cherokee people sold a lot of tobacco to the traders. By the late 1500s, people of European origin living in North America began to use tobacco as money too.

But in 1612, John Rolfe (who later married Pocahontas) began to get the Europeans to grow their own tobacco in Virginia. As Europeans grew more and more tobacco, they needed people to work in the fields growing it, and by 1619 European traders forced the first Africans to come to Virginia to work in the tobacco fields. Soon many Africans worked as slaves growing tobacco.

Slaves drying tobacco
Black children working as slaves to dry the tobacco

Many tobacco farmers in Maryland and Virginia supported the Revolutionary War in 1776 because they owed a lot of money to British traders who bought their tobacco, and to the British government for taxes on the tobacco. George Washington was able to borrow money to pay his soldiers by using tobacco as a guarantee for the loan. During the Civil War, almost a hundred years later, the governments of both sides gave soldiers tobacco as part of their pay, and that got a lot of young men to start smoking.

Beginning in the late 1800s, though, people began to realize more and more that smoking was really bad for you, and governments tried harder to get people to stop smoking. Through the 1900s, more and more laws and taxes made it harder to find a place to smoke, and harder to afford a pack of cigarettes. Today, the percentage of the United States population who smoke is much lower than it was fifty years ago (45 percent then, and about 20 percent now), and it keeps going down. But United States tobacco companies now sell more and more tobacco to poorer countries, where more and more people are smoking.

Learn by doing: interview somebody who has been addicted to tobacco about what it's like
More about Native American religion

Bibliography and further reading about the history of tobacco:

American Economy
American History
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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