• Accokeek Foundation

We've spent the past few months talking about tobacco. Here's what we learned

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

Over the past several weeks, we have been digging deep into tobacco culture in our "Tuesday Tobacco Talks" series, and we have heard the stories of staff, community members, and experts alike. We planned this series, in part, because we felt a gap in public knowledge around tobacco. While many know tobacco was a major cash crop in colonial Maryland and might see aging tobacco barns on their daily commutes, fewer have an understanding of just how influential commercial tobacco production has been on the Southern Maryland region.

Tobacco hung to dry at the National Colonial Farm

On October 20th, we explored in "Planting Power: Tobacco as a Status Indicator in the 18th Century," how, over the course of the colonial era, Maryland and Virginia went from struggling survival colonies to global juggernauts of plantation agriculture and commerce, due to the popularity of their tobacco exports. Colonialist ideas of land ownership enabled English farmers to expand tobacco production quickly, as they perceived the indigenous landscape as being free for the taking, while the global colonial trade allowed wealthy landowners to enslave workers to increase their production. By the 18th century, those who were successful planters were able to live a life of immense luxury - at the expense of the enslaved people who made tobacco-growing profitable. Led by foundation educator Kate McGowan, and Dr. Jim Gibb of the Smithsonian Environmental Archeology Lab, we discussed some of the defining traits of the Chesapeake gentry and looked at the archeological evidence of their wealth. Although many of these plantation homes are museums today, many of the families that operated them are still wealthy and powerful today, and this model of plantation agriculture was replicated as the country expanded westward.

Tobacco had tremendous power to elevate the wealthy and subjugate the enslaved. (MD Gazette via MD archives)