What was the economy like at Jamestown?

Coat of Arms, Virginia Company of London

Coat of Arms, Virginia Company of London

From the beginning when the Virginia Company of London was formed, the overseas venture was an economic one. Captain Newport led the efforts of the settlers to discover gold ore even when their efforts might have been better used toward acquiring food. They were not quick to learn how to grow food in their new environment and increasingly had to rely upon the Indians for corn and other crops. In addition, the colonists did not have the tools they needed since they were limited in what they could bring from England. Lumber was a resource that was plentiful in Virginia, and the location of Jamestown along the water where ships could dock should have been ideal for this industry. Yet, lumber turned out to be a very expensive commodity to ship. Wood extractives such as pitch and tar, soapash and potash were more practical but needed processing before shipping. Silk production, glassmaking and wine production were all industries which were attempted with varying degrees of success, yet none to the extent needed to make a profit for the Virginia Company. Within a few years, most of these early attempts, with the exception of lumber products, were abandoned. Settlers continued to barter with the Indians, as they had from the beginning, in order to meet their daily needs. Even the fur trade, which made a small profit for the Company, would not become a very successful venture until after 1630.

The first truly marketable product raised in Virginia was tobacco. By 1612, John Rolfe experimented with planting a new variety of tobacco, a mild Spanish leaf, which he anticipated would be more suited to English tastes than the bitter Indian variety. He not only learned how to raise this new type of plant but also managed to harvest and cure it so it could be transported to England without spoiling. After a couple of years, he met with great success and was busily marketing his crop among English merchants and tobacco sellers when he traveled with his bride, Rebecca, to London in 1616. Ironically, he could not smoke a pipe in the presence of King James I as the king’s vehement opposition to tobacco was well-known at court and had been set out at length in his A Counter-Blaste to Tobacco published in 1604, in which he attacked arguments in favor of smoking and derided claims about its medicinal qualities. He called it a “stinking weed,” and “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs…” Nevertheless, tobacco revolutionized the colony’s economy and became the cash crop of Virginia.

John Rolfe, Sidney King

John Rolfe, Sidney King

Virginia colonists quickly gave up all other products to meet the demand for tobacco in England. Production increased phenomenally into the 1620s, and became readily available for mass consumption in England. All classes and genders smoked. Virginia became synonymous with tobacco, and Virginians developed a way of life that revolved around its production.

Since tobacco was too bulky to carry very far across land, farmers spread out along the rivers where boats could easily pick up their crops. Tobacco was shipped to England where it was sold to buy goods or to purchase more labor. With profits from tobacco, wealthy Virginia planters could purchase luxury goods from around the world such as Chinese porcelains, Oriental silks, Dutch and German ceramics, Venetian glass, objects of gold, silver, brass and pewter, fancy foodstuffs and stylish household furnishings. Virginia became part of the global economy.

Success with tobacco would not have been possible without the right of individuals to own private property. Both as a means for planters to gain more land and as a way to populate the colony, the Virginia Company developed a new policy of land ownership in 1618. Instead of Company controlled plantations, land began to be allotted to individuals. Settlers who had arrived before 1616 (“ancient planters”) were granted 100 acres of land for their own use. Investors also received 100 acres for every share. The new plantations were called “hundreds” or “particular plantations.” These plantations were allowed some self-government, an added incentive for new investors to risk their capital. Those who arrived after April 1616 and paid their own passage received 50 acres for themselves and another 50 for every person they transported. This arrangement, known as the “headright” system, became the primary means by which laborers were recruited and sent to the colony for the rest of the century. By importing hired workers, successful planters could fulfill their need for labor while amassing additional land. The opportunity to realize substantial profits from growing tobacco while accumulating land sparked the spread of settlement. Without a doubt, this new policy changed the economic life of the colony forever.

Working Tobacco, Sidney King

Working Tobacco, Sidney King

The headright system eventually led to a hierarchy of labor as well. Indentured servants signed contracts agreeing to work a specified number of years in exchange for transportation to Virginia. This contract was signed with an agent who sold the contract to a colonial planter. Those who acquired indentured servants had to provide them with food, clothing and shelter. They could exact labor under certain conditions, using what the law deemed reasonable discipline. When a contract expired, the servant received “freedom dues,” usually three barrels of corn and a suit of clothes. Former servants often leased land until they could acquire some of their own. Tobacco required a lot of labor, however. Eventually, indentured servants could not meet this demand and, over time, slavery developed in Virginia.