The written history of tobacco and Americans begins October 12, 1492, when Christopher Columbus reached the beaches of San Salvador in the West Indies. From the first meeting between Europeans and Americans, it was obvious how important tobacco was in American culture. Columbus wrote in his journal how they offered his Spanish sailors fruit, spears, and “certain dried leaves” for which columbus could think of no use. So Columbus and his crew welcomed the fruit and spears; the dried leaves they threw away.
Three days later, Columbus met a solitary Native American in a canoe, he also offered the dried leaves, and made a great show of his offering. No doubt the Europeans wondered why the dried leaves were so highly valued.
The following month, two sailors, Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres were sent on a three day expedition across Cuba. They reported how the Natives wrapped tobacco in “a musket formed of paper,” and after lighting one end inhaled smoke through the other. Jerez and Torres became the first Europeans to smoke tobacco. Rodrigo de Jerez became a confirmed tobacco smoker; probably the first European to become addicted to nicotine.
Later voyages would discover the importance of tobacco in Native American cultures. Tobacco was used by Native Americans in all temperate regions of the Americas. In some areas where it could not be grown, people made long voyages to trade skins for tobacco. It was used only by males as a social drug, much as it is by people today. But tobacco was also used for medicinal and spiritual purposes by most Native American tribes.
Long before the Europeans were rediscovering America, Native Americans were using tobacco in all its forms. Cigarette, snuff, cigar and chewing tobaccos were all being used for hundreds of years before Columbus’ arrival. But smoking tobacco through a pipe was almost universal for Native Americans. Just about every Native American culture in the Americas had a “pipe” of some kind, and it was the most common method for smoking. It was from the West Indian snuffing pipe called a “tobago” that tobacco got its name.
There were two species of tobacco cultivated and most preferred by Native Americans. Nicotiana rustica from North and Central America, is somewhat bitter, and was smoked through a pipe. And Nicotiana tobaccum from Central and South America and the West Indies, is mild enough to be smoked as a cigar or cigarette. They would also smoke wild tobaccos called Nicotiana petunoicles, which are very harsh, but were used in the absense of the cultivated tobacco species.
From the beginning, Europeans and Native Americans most preferred smoking the South American Nicotiana tobaccum over all other tobaccos. The Spanish and Portugesse were the first European countries to set up tobacco settlements in the New World. The settlements were established in Central and South America to grow the Nicotiana tobaccum to be exported to Europe. The addiction would soon spread to France and England, and the rest of the world.
The first English tobacco colony was set up at Jamestown in Virginia. John Rolfe first introduced the South American Nicotiana tobaccum into North America on his plantation at Jamestown in 1612. It would be a great success. Nicotiana tobaccum would soon become the most favored tobacco by people all over the world. It is the only tobacco cultivated and marketed in the world today.
John Rolfe grew tobacco as a cash crop for British consumption, and it was very profitable. But the people at Jamestown didn’t grow enough food crops to feed themselves through the winter. So John Rolfe and the Jamestown Marshal Thomas Dale, Kidnapped Pocahontas, the daughter of the Algonquin Chief Powhatan. They demanded that Powhattan pay a ransom of foods for his daughter’s safety. Powhattan paid, but Rolfe and Dale then increased the ransom. While being held captive, Pocahontas was forced to accept a Christian baptism, along with the name Rebecca. She was then forced to marry John Rolfe, even though she was already married to one of her own people. In this way the ransom became an annual dowry, the Algonquins paid faithfully, and the English continued to grow their primary cash crop, tobacco. This would end nine years later with the death of Pocahontas. Her uncle Chief Opechancano attacked Jamestown in 1623 and killed 349 out of the 1200 colonists. But the British-American tobacco industry was growing, and nothing would slow European tobacco consumption.
The story of Pocahontas, in its fictional form, has been read by millions of elementary school children. It is a romantic story of a beautiful Native American woman who falls in love with an English settler at Jamestown. The true story is much sadder. John Rolfe used her as a pawn for his tobacco enterprise. He even brought her to live in England where she could help market his exotic new product, Nicotiana Tobaccum. He was a complete success. In the four centuries since, millions of English people would become addicted to smoking, and die from smoking related illnesses. And his Nicotiana Tobaccum is being cultivated and smoked in every region on Earth. John Rolfe is the model for tobacco industry success; stop at nothing, get them addicted, and make money! John Rolfe may not have known about nicotine addiction, heart disease and lung cancer, but he was the first tobacco industry businessman to so relentlessly push its product. There have been many to follow in his footsteps.
Tobacco plantations grew in number all over the Americas, and they even tried to grow Nicotiana tobaccum in Europe, but not with as much success as in the Americas. Tobacco plantations were built in Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas. The labor to run the plantations could not be Native, for they refused to work for most settlements. So a system of indentured servatude was created. Under this system, a man could earn his passage to the Americas by working on a plantation for a number of years, usually seven. But indentured servants were only temporary, and were soon replaced by African slaves as the chief form of labor on American tobacco plantations.
For hundreds of years, most people used tobacco in cigar pipe, chew and snuff forms. Cigarettes were a little more difficult, for to smoke them you had to keep a pouch and roll your own. In the 1870’s, tobacco businessman Bill Taylor began using immagrants in his factories as rollers. He began to market ready to smoke boxes of tobacco cigarettes.
In 1881, James Albert Bonsack invented the first economically practical cigarette rolling machine. His machine produced 120,000 rolled cigarettes a day, equivalent to the output of 50 expert rollers working 13 hours. This was the beginning of the tobacco industry we know today. The invention of the rolling machine made tobacco much more accessable to the masses, and made smoking an easier habit to manage.
This new technology allowed James Buchanan Duke to create a cigarette monopoly equal to Rockefeller’s in petroleum and Carnegie’s in steel. Duke tied Bonsack to a series of unbreakable contracts guaranteeing that Bonsack could sell his machines to competitors, but the royalties Duke paid would always be 25 percent less. James Duke began mass producing and marketing cigarettes. He expanded advertising and made cigarettes affordable and readily available to American consumers. Through price cutting he managed to subdue all his competitors, and Duke controlled a tobacco trust in the United States.
The trust soon turned on tobacco farmers and forced them to sell tobacco for three cents per pound, two thirds less than they were getting before Duke’s monopoly. But the tobacco growers formed farmer associations and fought back. In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the existance of Duke’s monopoly in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Supreme Court forced the Duke family to break up the monopoly. From this antitrust break up emerged R. J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Ligget and Myers, and the American Tobacco Company. These companies, along with Philip Morris Inc, comprise 95 percent of the American tobacco market today.
The cigarette fits our fast paced life style. They are a fast, convenient nicotine fix. By 1921, cigarettes had become the leading form of tobacco consumption in the world. Cigarettes fit our life style, and therefore we can more easily manage this habit, getting the nicotine we crave, when we crave it. But in the 1950’s, a time when tobacco consumption had peaked at nearly 50 percent of the adult population smoking, it was proven that tobacco causes lung cancer. This discouraged many people from smoking, but the tobacco industry responded with filtered cigarettes, and people continue to smoke.