Voices

Tobacco on the Chesapeake

Twelve years after the British colony of Jamestown was founded in Virginia, the first Dutch ship brought several African men and women to the colony in 1619.  These people may have been indentured servants, but they were probably sold as slaves.  Over the next two centuries, the colonies expanded along the eastern coast from Georgia to Canada.  In the Chesapeake colonies of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, slavery was the predominant way of organizing labor.  By 1790, nearly forty percent of the population in the British colonies were enslaved.

Tobacco was a major cash crop in the Chesapeake colonies.  During the 1700s, many plantation owners were able to increase their fortunes by selling tobacco to Europeans and Africans.  The vast majority of tobacco during the late 16th century was cultivated by slave labor.  Slaves planted, harvested, cured and packaged tobacco in an extremely labor intensive process.  You can learn more about the colonial cultivation methods of tobacco here.  Between 1619 and 1775, generations of enslaved people labored in the American colonies to create wealth for their owners. 

You can learn about tobacco and other cash crops like sugar cane, rice and cotton in the From Slavery to Freedom exhibition at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

— Cori Sisler, Manager of Exhibitions and Collections