by Kayla Marciniszyn – Field Archaeologist
Tobacco played an important role in the development of Colonial Virginia. The tobacco plant requires very rich, sandy soils and exhausts the soil very quickly; an abundance of land and labor are required for tobacco production. It was this need for land that attracted many to the New World. Land was plentiful so in the first few decades of colonial America it was relatively easy for gentleman to secure a few plots of land, purchase indentured or enslaved laborers and establish his own tobacco farm and in turn, his fortune. As the profits from tobacco soared through the seventeenth century, its production expanded across the Virginia coastal plain and, by the eighteenth century, into the piedmont.
Initially, tobacco farmers could sell their product anywhere, no matter the length of distance from their farm. There was always the assumption, on both ends of transaction, that the tobacco a merchant was selling was of good quality and the proper quantity. It wasn’t until 1730 that Virginia enacted a comprehensive inspection law which required each planter to have the quality of his tobacco inspected before selling. As a result of this policy, tobacco warehouse construction soared along Virginia port towns. It was at these warehouses that merchants were required to bring their tobacco for inspection, and graded according to quality, packaged up in hogsheads for shipment and sale.
There is documented evidence that Colchester had at least two tobacco warehouses, both of which were situated on town plats along the Occoquan River. Why was it necessary for these towns to construct these warehouses so close to the river? The answer is simple. It provided a centralized inspection and made transportation from the site of inspection to the shipping vessel much easier (they were really heavy barrels!)
The first tobacco warehouse in Colchester town was owned by Benjamin Grayson. Another warehouse was built several years later in response to the growing colonial tobacco industry. It’s safe to assume the town of Colchester depended on the sale and exportation of tobacco to Great Britain for distribution throughout the world.
The park does not currently own the lots on which the tobacco warehouses were located but there is evidence in our collections of the significance of tobacco in colonial Colchester.
See also Cool Finds from 44FX0704
Other things to check out: On the Water – Living in the Atlantic World, 1450 – 1800: New Tastes, New Trades from the National Museum of American History