Tobacco rapidly became the main crop of the colony because of the profits derived from its culture, but the emergence of a one-crop system of agriculture was not pleasing to officials of the Virginia Company or to the English government. Under the brief leadership of Sir Edwin Sandys the Virginia Company tried to discourage the growth of tobacco and to turn the energies of the people to other products.
Tobacco rapidly became the main crop of the England colony
In 1619 a number of new settlers were sent to Virginia with instructions to produce a variety of commodities, including “iron, cordage, hemp, flax, silk-grass, pitch, tar, potash, soap ashes, timber of all sorts, masts, silk, salt, and wine.” In the same year the first Virginia assembly attempted through legislation to force the colonists to grow hemp and flax, but all efforts during the existence of the company to break the dependence on one crop were not successful, although small quantities of the fiber-bearing plants were produced for local needs.
The annulment of the Virginia charter did not change the policy of encouragement for hemp production and discouragement for tobacco. An act passed by the assembly in 1633 was intended to compel every planter to grow hemp and flax, although the law probably was not effective because of the scarcity of seed.5 Five years later several prominent men in the colony expressed their disapproval of the practice of concentrating on tobacco to the exclusion of other commodities, and shortly afterward Governor William Berkeley, entering his first period as governor of Virginia, brought with him instructions to encourage the production of a number of staples, including hemp and naval stores.
In the New England area hemp also received some attention, especially after shipbuilding became important to that region. It was possible to produce hemp on fertile soils as far north as Maine, although the crop grew better in a more southerly climate. The legislature of New Plymouth in 1639 enacted a law requiring every householder in the colony to plant a minimum quantity of hemp and flax each year. Shortly afterward Connecticut adopted similar legislation, the requirement concerning hemp resulting in part from a need for fiber to be used in the manufacture of marine cordage.
After the Restoration in England new efforts were made to encourage the production of fiber crops in the colonies and to bring an end to the widespread dependence on tobacco in the South. Charles II urged that tobacco be abandoned in favor of hemp, flax, and silk, and in 1662 certain dissatisfied residents of Virginia requested that the growth of tobacco in both Virginia and Maryland be forbidden in order to encourage the planting of other crops.
Governor Berkeley, back at the head of the Virginia government, had specific orders to promote staples other than tobacco. He grew hemp and flax upon his own estate, and in 1663 reported that he had succeeded beyond his expectations in inducing others to follow his example. That he had not yet actually secured co-operation for a widespread program may be inferred from his statement that in the colony “mighty numbers will shortly be employed in perfecting those excellent Commodities.” Unfortunately for the success of his program, later in the year he admitted that he had lost a thousand pounds in his venture into the production of fiber crops.
Toward the end of the seventeenth century the colonial governments, largely because of acute dissatisfaction with the price of tobacco, became more active in encouraging the cultivation of hemp, flax, and other crops which might be expected to yield a good return. On several occasions Virginia adopted legislation requiring each county to purchase a quart of hemp seed and a like quantity of flax seed for each tithable, who was expected then to produce in the following year a specified minimum quantity of fiber.
Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and other colonies adopted laws making hemp and other staples legal tender, the dual purpose of these acts being to encourage the production of the commodities in question and to relieve the prevalent money shortage. In addition, colonial legislatures began to offer special inducement in the form of bounties for hemp and flax. None of these efforts to increase the production of fiber was particularly successful. It is true that during periods when the price of tobacco was depressed, planters turned to other crops, but it was said that “The moment the price of tobacco rises, other produce is laid aside.
Laws providing bounties for the production of hemp were common in the colonies over a long period of time, but the purpose behind these subsidies was not the same in every instance. The objective of the earliest bounties was the encouragement of manufacturing as well as the growth of hemp.
Maryland in 1671 offered one pound of tobacco for every pound of hemp raised in the colony in order to put an end to the importation of materials which could be made at home.