Colonial Currency: The Role of Tobacco 
in Proprietary Maryland


Early European settlers came to the New World in search of riches - gold, jewels, spices, etc.- to bring back to their mother countries and strengthen burgeoning empires.  But as the probability of discovering an easily accessed mother-lode proved faint, even deadly in the case of the first years of the Jamestown settlement, the true wealth of American continent was eventually realized: the land itself.

In America was found an abundance of natural resources that would fuel commerce in Europe.  Furs, timber, ores were collected by colonists venturing to the remotest ends of the known world, but in 17th century Chesapeake society, it was agriculture that would eclipse all other commercial endeavors, and chief of the cash crops was tobacco.

Tobacco saved the Virginia colony from failure, and by the time of Maryland's establishment in 1634, tobacco was powering the economy of England's possessions in the Chesapeake.  The lure of tobacco profit was so great, Lord Baltimore felt it necessary in his instructions to colonists to advise his initial tenants to plant "corne and other provision" before any other "comodity."  That commodity would shape the settlement of both Virginia and Maryland into dispersed plantations, hugging every creek and inlet that allowed access for the merchant vessels that carried the product to English ports.  Tobacco would also impact American society in a far more profound and enduring way, it's labor-intensive nature fueling the demand for man-power that would be supplied by slaves transported from Africa.  Growing tobacco became more than an occupation, it was a way of life, and in the absence of coin or paper money, tobacco became the common currency of the region. 

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades K-4.

Topic 2: The History of Studentsí Own State or Region 

STANDARD 3: The people, events, problems, and ideas that created the history of their state. 

Standard 3B: The student understands the history of the first European, African, and/or Asian-Pacific explorers and settlers who came to his or her state or region.

K-4: Examine visual data in order to describe ways in which early settlers adapted to, utilized, and changed the environment. [Draw upon visual data] 
Use a variety of sources to construct a historical narrative about daily life in the early settlements of the studentís state or region. [Obtain historical data] 
Gather data in order to analyze geographic, economic, and religious reasons that brought the first explorers and settlers to the state or region. [Obtain historical data]
3-4: Reconstruct in timelines the order of early explorations and settlements including explorers, early settlements, and cities. [Establish temporal order] 
3-4: Analyze some of the interactions that occurred between the Native Americans or Hawaiians and the first European, African, and Asian-Pacific explorers and settlers in the studentsí state or region. [Read historical narratives imaginatively] 

Primary Resources

  1. TITLE: Instructions to the colonists by Lord Baltimore  
    SOURCE:  American Memory, The Capital and the Bay: Narratives of Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region, ca. 1600 - 1925, The Calvert Papers, Volume I
    REPOSITORY:  Library of Congress

  2. TITLE: Chapter XXIV, Laws of 1696: An Act calling for the establishment of Rolling Roads for the transportation of Tobacco 
    SOURCE:  Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY:  Maryland State Archives

  3. TITLE: Judicial and Testamentary Business of the Provincial Court, 1637-1650, Volume 4, page 26.
    SOURCE:  Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY:  Maryland State Archives

  4. TITLE:  Judicial and Testamentary Business of the Provincial Court, 1637-1650, Volume 4, page 13
    During Maryland's first century, the primary vehicle used in the settlement of debt was "good merchantable leaf tobacco" to which the records of the Provincial Court attest.
    SOURCE:  Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY:  Maryland State Archives

  5. TITLE:  James I, King of England, A Counterblaste to Tobacco
    NOTES:  Not everyone embraced the new commodity that was returning to Europe from the New World.  King James I of England issued a condemnation of what he perceived to be a dangerous intoxicant that he believed to be linked with savages and syphilis.  The king's counterblast was more than likely born of politically motivation than health concerns, and his opposition waned in light of the fact that tax revenues from the importation of tobacco were filling his coffers.  
    SOURCE:  DRY DRUNK: The culture of Tobacco in 17th - and 18th-century Europe 
    REPOSITORY:  Google Books. Images from volume in the Bodleian Library

Additional Media Resources

Monardes, Nicholas. "Of The Tobaco And His Greate Vertues" from the 1577 work: Joyfull Newes of the Newe Founde Worlde.  Translated into English. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1925.

Secondary Resources

Barnett, Todd H. (1994). Tobacco, Planters, Tenants, and Slaves: A Portrait of Montgomery County in 1783. Maryland Historical Magazine.

Brugger, Robert. "From Province to Colony (1634-1689)." In Maryland: A Middle Temperament. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press in association with the Maryland Historical Society, 1988.

Carr, Lois G., et al. Colonial Chesapeake Society. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988

Carr, Lois G., Russell Menard, and Lorena Walsh. Robert Cole's World: Agriculture and Society in Early Maryland. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Finlayson, Ann. Colonial Maryland. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1974.

Fishwick, Marshall W. Jamestown: First English Colony. New York, New York: American Heritage Publishing Company, 1965.

Meyer, Eugene L. Chesapeake Country. New York, New York: Abbeville Press, 1990.

Middleton, Arthur Pierce. Tobacco Coast. Newport News, Virginia: Mariners' Museum, 1953.  

Scharf, J. Thomas. History of Maryland: From the Earliest Periods to the Present Day. Hatboro, Pennsylvania: Tradition Press, 1967.  

Schaun, George and Virginia. Everyday Life in Colonial Maryland. Annapolis, Maryland: Greenberry Publications, 1959.  

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Maryland State Archives
350 Rowe Boulevard
Annapolis, MD 21403

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Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Derrick Lapp.


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