Tobacco Trade in the Chesapeake Bay State

Maryland as a Pioneer American Colony and How Its Economy Relied on the Tobacco Trade

Tobacco Trade in the Chesapeake Bay State

Maryland, USA—a state bordering Virginia, West Virginia, Washington, DC, Pennsylvania, and Delaware—was one of the original thirteen colonies and is considered to be the birthplace of religious freedom in America. George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, formed this state in 1634 as a refuge for Catholics on the run from Protestant England and was known then as the Chesapeake Bay State owing to the Chesapeake Bay nearly bisecting the entire state.

Tobacco came from the Spanish who learned to smoke from Native Americans, and it became popular in England. But the tobacco smoked became expensive because it was exported from the West Indies, and so the settlers of Virginia decided to capitalize on this by utilizing the land for tobacco fields. This didn’t become popular as the tobacco variety grown in Virginia then was too harsh, but when seeds from the Caribbean were used instead, it started a huge tobacco trade in the seventeenth century.

It was around this time that the European demand for tobacco was high as it served as a status symbol, and was especially prized by the British as a way to display wealth to the public because at that time, only rich people could afford the relatively new product. As the second English colony, Maryland soon developed a tobacco industry that became a dominant export just like its neighboring pioneer state. There was an abundance of tobacco plantations, and aided by the Chesapeake Bay, the inlets, creeks, coves, and river mouths allowed for ships to sail directly into the docks of the plantations to trade their tobacco or corn for goods brought from England.

Maryland’s first colonial town and former capital was called St. Mary’s City (now known as St. Mary’s County), which experienced an economic boom due to its successful farming of tobacco. Maryland at this point had become a significant economic force. Thanks to the Chesapeake Bay. This rise in fortune was aided by regulation and inspection, thereby improving the quality of tobacco that was meant to be exported. It is also interesting to note that tobacco could be used as legal tender and the value depended on the grade it received. This gave rise to the Chesapeake Consignment System where American tobacco farmers sold their crop on consignment to merchants in London. This in turn would require the London merchants to take our loans from London guarantors to pay for farm expenses in return for tobacco delivery and sale. Finally, the loans were then repaid using the profit from the tobacco sales. The trade proved lucrative, and so the Maryland plantation owners expanded the size and output of their tobacco fields. Despite this, multiple markets were established and helped the persistence of smaller tobacco farms because the cost of moving the tobacco was reasonable and the profits were assured. Tobacco could not be mass-produced like the other crops at that time (cotton, corn, etc.) because it required a more artisanal and craft-like approach that depended on laborers that were skilled, careful, and efficient in creating a culture of expertise.

These days, however, Maryland doesn’t only just grow tobacco. It now has agricultural crops such as cucumbers, watermelons, sweet corn, and tomatoes, and the once prevalent tobacco plantations are relegated to the western shoreline of Chesapeake Bay due to a state government buyout in the 1990s. This may be so, but with so much history intertwined with the tobacco trade and Chesapeake Bay, it is a sure thing that Maryland will always have a high place in the narrative of the United States.

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