Economics of Tobacco


Elementary, Middle


Students will explain how and why tobacco became a “cash crop” for Jamestown, as well as describe different perspectives on its use.

Standards of Learning:

VA SOLs: 3.7; VS 1 h; VS 3 a, e, f, g; VS 4a
National Standards for History: Historical Comprehension; Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making
National Economics Standards: Specialization and Trade

Materials Needed for Activity:

Early Industries – Essay
Tobacco and Labor – Essay
The Economics of Tobacco – Worksheet
The Economics of Tobacco – Period Quotes

Teacher Background:

Officials of the Virginia Company established the colony at Jamestown to make a profit.  They expected the colonists to find marketable natural resources, develop industries or produce an agricultural product that would succeed in making money for the colony and its investors in England.  After finding no precious metals and failing at such endeavors as glassmaking and silk production, John Rolfe finally succeeded by growing a sweet variety of tobacco which was all the rage in England.  In other words,consumers were waiting!  This meant land became a very important resource since a great deal of land was required to grow tobacco.  Because growing tobacco also required a lot of hard work and labor, more people (human resources) were needed to work in the fields.  The more workers one had, the more tobacco they could grow and the greater the profit they could recognize.  Indentured servitude met this need at first, but later slavery became entrenched as an institution in Virginia, because of the labor force it provided the colonists for tobacco production.  It didn’t take the colonists long to realize that economic specialization would be the way to go, and tobacco became a cash crop for the colony.

In spite of the popularity of “the weed” in London, John Rolfe probably knew better than to smoke a pipe in front of King James I as it was well-known that the king was vehemently opposed to tobacco.  In 1604, King James I wrote that the substance polluted man’s “inward parts….with an unctuous and oily kinde of soote.”  This is interesting to point out to students given our recognition today of tobacco’s harmful effects.

The following information may be helpful to students as they role-play these individuals:

King James I – King James became king of England in 1603 after the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England.  Queen Elizabeth had no children, so her cousin, James of Scotland, became king.  King James I was not an absolute monarch, because an elected House of Commons had responsibility for raising money necessary to operate the English government.  In spite of this, King James I had great power as a king.  In 1606 King James I granted the Virginia Company of London a charter to establish a colony in Virginia.  The hope was that the colony would furnish valuable raw materials to England so they would not have to be purchased from other countries.  The colony would then become a market for England’s manufactured goods.  King James himself was rather sickly, having crippling arthritis, weak limbs, abdominal colic, gout and a number of other chronic illnesses.  Perhaps this could have affected his outlook on tobacco.  In 1604, he wrote, “A Counterblaste to Tobacco,” which stated his strong feelings about the weed.  His disapproval did not halt the popularity of tobacco.  Consumption of tobacco in England actually increased, due in part to its supposed health benefits.

John Rolfe – John Rolfe left England bound for Jamestown in May 1609.  He was aboard the ship Sea Venturewhich was the flagship of a nine-ship convoy of 500 settlers.  In July, a hurricane blew several of the ships off course.  The Sea Venture ran aground on a reef off the Bermudas, but the entire company of 150 safely reached shore in the ship’s boats.  John Rolfe and his wife had a daughter who was born and died on Bermuda.  His wife passed away either before or shortly after reaching Virginia.  Once in Virginia, John Rolfe experimented with the planting of tobacco seeds he obtained from somewhere in the Caribbean.  He gave some tobacco from his crop to friends, and they agreed that the new leaf was very pleasant and better than the Indian tobacco.  He shipped the remainder of his crop to England where it compared favorably with “Spanish” leaf.  At about this same time, Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, paramount chief of the Indians in Tidewater Virginia, was kidnapped and brought to Jamestown.  John Rolfe eventually married her in 1614.  Their marriage coincided with a temporary peace with the Indians, allowing the settlers to develop and expand their colony, including planting more tobacco.  In 1616 he took his wife and infant son, Thomas, to England.  Pocahontas, now known by her Christian name of Rebecca, was introduced to English royalty.  It was here that she died and Thomas remained under the care of a guardian in England.  Upon Rolfe’s return to Jamestown, he became a member of the House of Burgesses and continued his efforts to improve the quality and quantity of tobacco in Virginia.


Step 1:  Review the economic terms italicized above: consumer, resource, human resources, profit, production, economic specialization, cash crop.

Tell students that they will be participating in a role-playing activity involving a news conference with John Rolfe and King James I of England.  Before this can occur, students will need a little background information on the economic life of the Virginia colony.  Copy the three essays Early IndustriesProfit Motive and Global Economy, and Tobacco and Labor for students.  Divide students into three groups, giving each group one of the above essays to read and a copy of the corresponding set of questions fromThe Economics of Tobacco Worksheet.   Each group should read and discuss the questions in order to share information from each essay with their classmates.

The questions and answers from the worksheet are as follows:

Early Industries:

What were some of the hopes of the Virginia Company when Jamestown was first settled in 1607?
They hoped to find gold or silver; provide England with valuable raw materials; establish manufactories that would turn a profit.

What were some of the early industries which were tried by the colonists?
Lumbering, manufacture of wood by-products, soap making, glassmaking,  silk making, wine making,  iron production, perfume and dye making, growing of hemp and flax, salt production.

What were some of the successes and disappointments experienced by the colonists?
Tobacco production was the biggest success. Wood products and the fur trade earned a small profit. They were disappointed that they found no gold or silver and that industries such as glassmaking, silk making, wine making, and iron making were not successful.

Profit Motive and Global Economy:

What factors contributed to the success of tobacco as a cash crop?
There was a great demand for tobacco in England. There was much available land in Virginia, and labor was available from indentured servants and later slaves.

What were both positive and negative results of this success?
Profits, prosperity and ability to purchase luxury goods with the profits of tobacco were positives. Establishment of slavery was a negative that would affect American society for years to come.

How did Virginia become part of the global economy?
English merchants served as the middlemen, acquiring goods from around the world to send to Virginia in exchange for tobacco.

Tobacco and Labor:

What two things were required in order for tobacco growing to become profitable?
Land and labor.
What were some long-term effects of tobacco growing as it related to these factors?
Land ownership, indentured servitude and enslavement of Africans.

Step 2:  After students have read the articles, have them share their responses to the above questions, making certain they understand the correct answers.  This discussion will lay the foundation for their role-playing activity which follows.  As part of the class discussion, have students give examples of the economic terms they came across in their group readings: consumer, resource, human resources, profit, production, economic specialization, cash crop.

Step 3:  By this time, students will have learned about the success of tobacco as a cash crop for Virginia.  So that students understand that not everyone thought tobacco was a benefit to society, they should examine excerpts from “A Counterblaste to Tobacco” by King James I.  Briefly review the background information above on King James I and John Rolfe.  Hand out copies of The Economics of Tobacco – Period Quotes.  Have students read each except and determine the argument being made against the use of tobacco.

Step 4:  Assign two students to play the roles of John Rolfe and King James I.  It is the responsibility of these two students to be prepared to represent the viewpoints of these two men.  Divide the remainder of the class into groups of no more than five each.  Students in each of these groups will prepare questions, on behalf of their newspaper, for John Rolfe and King James.  One student in each group will play the role of a news reporter using the questions developed by the group.  John Rolfe and King James will be prepared to answer questions about tobacco and the role it should play in Jamestown’s economy.  Set up the activity by providing the following scenarios:

Scenario for Groups:  You are a news reporter for the Jamestown Journal.  You are here in London to interview John Rolfe and King James I.  You are very fortunate in that King James has agreed to grant you an audience.  Your questions to the King and to John Rolfe should center on such issues as:  Why do you think tobacco should be exported from Jamestown to London?  What are the advantages and disadvantages?  If not, tobacco, what else could take its place?

Scenario for Student Portraying John Rolfe:  You are John Rolfe.  You believe that tobacco has great possibilities as the product that might save the colony.  Be prepared to explain and answer a reporter’s questions about why you feel this way, especially knowing how King James feels.

Scenario for Student Portraying King James I:  You are King James I.  You have granted this news reporter from Jamestown an interview, because you feel so strongly about the ill effects of tobacco.  Be prepared to defend your belief while at the same time, sharing your interest in seeing the Jamestown colony succeed.

Summary Activity:

Have students conduct the interviews.  Review the pros and cons of growing and marketing tobacco.  Have the class discuss who they feel had the better argument and why.

Other Helpful Resources:

Hall, Donald.  Ox-Cart Man.
Ox-Cart Man is a craft book which traces the natural resources of a farming family through their transformation into goods and ultimately their trip to market.  The economic cycle of resources to goods to market is traced along with the cycle of the seasons.  It is a beautifully illustrated story which includes many economic terms found in the Virginia Standards of Learning.

Lesson plans made possible by Archibald Andrews Marks.