United States History 17A
Adapted from U.B. Phillips, American
Negro Slavery, (1918)
Unlike corn, for example, the seeds
could be dropped by hand in the field and the mature plants harvested
three months time, tobacco seeds were too expensive to risk planting in
this way and too small for this kind of planting to be effective.
seeds are about the size of finely ground pepper. About ten thousand of
them will fit into a teaspoon).
Tobacco seeds had to be sown in late
or early spring in a special bed of deep forest mold covered with wood
ashes and then tended until they were about the length of and adult's
finger. The young plants then were uprooted carefully from their beds
planted in the fields, each on its own hill about three or four feet
This was usually done during or just after an April, May or June rain.
An experienced field hand could transplant them at the rate of several
thousand in a single day. This task had to completed before the ground
became dry enough to endanger the young seedlings' lives.
After the transplanting, the fields
and hoed continuously to prevent the growth of weeds. After a rain, the
plants that had died were replaced. When the first flower bud appeared,
the plant was topped so that only a few choice leaves were left growing
on the stalk. As the plant grew, any suckers growing at the base of the
stalk had to be pulled off. And the underside of every leaf had to be
on a regular schedule for horn-worms. Horn-worm infestations could come
at any time, but they usually came in two gluts -- one when the plants
were half grown, the other when they were nearly ready for harvest. If
not discovered immediately , a whole field could be infected in only a
When the leaves of the crop began to
the stalks were cut off close to the ground, and, after they had
were carried to a well-ventilated tobacco barn and hung upside down for
curing. Each stalk hung at the proper distance from its neighbor,
to wooden lath strips laid perpendicular on the roof joists. The crop
in this barn for several months, with the windows open in dry weather
closed in wet. When the weather was moist enough to make the leaves
some slaves lowered the stalks to the floor, where the rest of the
working in threes, stripped the leaves off the stalks. One took off the
rejected leaves, or culls, another stripped the best, or bright leaves,
and another the leaves with dull color. Each then bound his takings
"hands" of about a quarter of a pound each and sorted them into piles.
Next came the packing or prizing
which a barefoot man inside a large barrel, or hogshead, laid the
bundles of leaves in rows, tramping them down gently. Then a second
without a bottom, was set on top of the first and filled in the same
and, then, perhaps even a third would be filled in a similar manner.
the whole stack was put under blocks and levers and the contents of all
three hogsheads compressed into the one at the bottom. A top was then
in place, and the hogshead rolled down to a nearby river where a
ship took it to market, probably in England. Often a crop was not cured
enough for prizing until the next crop had been planted. Hence the need
to have enough resources to survive this long growing process until the
tobacco crop could be sold.
Answer the following questions
16. What three things did one need to grow tobacco
in the Chesapeake?
17. How long could it take before a profit might
from planting tobacco?
18. Why couldn't tobacco seeds be sown directly
19. How many tobacco seeds will fit into a
20. How many tobacco plants could be transplanted
day by an experienced hand?
21. Why were tobacco plants topped?
22. What could infect a whole field within a few
23. Where and for how long did the curing process
24. What were the best and worst leaves called?
25. What was a hogshead? What was prizing?
the cured tobacco sent to market?
26. Often a tobacco crop was not cured for
After you have finished the first assignment page,
want to rent the movie, Shakespeare in Love. See if you
identify the glaring historical error concerning the reference
tobacco plantations in Virginia?
to Study Guide #1
Revised January 24,
by Tom Gallup, e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
West Valley College