Photo courtesy of Creative CommonsIn the early 1600s, the colony of Virginia was on the verge of failing to make a profit until John Rolfe married Pocahontas to gain the secret of growing tobacco. But another important crop, often overlooked in history books, is a plant that has gained a bad reputation in modern times--hemp.
In 1611, Sir Thomas Dale introduced hemp to Virginia. The English navy depended on the crop, but the demand was far greater than the country was able to produce. Hemp was used for paper, cordage, fiber for linen, and of course, medicinal uses. The First Virginia Assembly encouraged colonists to grow hemp, and they received favorable reports from England on the superiority of the colony's crop.
The early years were hampered by shortage of seed and lack of skilled labor to separate the fiber from the woody part of the stalks to make cordage. In 1646, the Virginia Assembly commissioned houses to be built where poor children were taught to card, knit, and spin, thus helping the manufacture of linen. In 1665, the removal of import duties to England stimulated production further.
Less than ten years later, laws were enacted for each county to purchase and distribute hemp seed. Failure to do so resulted in fines. In spite of these encouragements, during the 17th century, hemp production tended to remain limited to self-sufficient farms, never really competing with tobacco until well into the 18th century, where the practice became so common that even founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp.
Hemp's importance went beyond cordage and fiber. Both industrial hemp and what's known today as marijuana are classified as Cannabis sativa, a species with hundreds of varieties. According to some sources, many varieties that were grown in North America have been lost. The East Indian variety (marijuana) of hemp was known as "bangue" in the 17th century from the Hindi word "bhang."
Culpeper's Complete Herbal, first published in 1653, states that hemp, "is so well known to every good housewife in the country, that I shall not need to write any description of it." Besides pain relief, Culpeper advised the different portions of the plant to be used for various ailments, such as jaundice, digestive disorders, killing worms, flushing earwigs from the ear canal, and burns.
While hemp has become much maligned in recent years, Virginians of the 17th and 18th centuries held no reservations for making use of its quality fiber or legitimate medical uses.
Herndon, George Melvin, "The story of hemp in colonial Virginia." Doctor of Philosophy dissertation, University of Virginia, 1959.
Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper's Complete Herbal.