Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Tobacco in Early Colonial New England

from the pamphlet "Tabaco"
by Anthony Chute, 1594
Whilst mining some early Massachusetts court records for my genealogy research, I was struck by how often my ancestors and their neighbors were mentioned along with documents mentioning tobacco use, abuse, and fines.  I found this very interesting, and I collected some of the stories to tell you in this blog post. You might want to mine the early court records, too!

Tobacco originated in the New World. Soon after European contact tobacco was traded, sold, and imported back to Europe where it was extremely popular.  King James I of England found tobacco to be extremely distasteful, and even penned a book A Counter-blaste to Tobacco where he mentioned on page 11 “That the manifolde abuses of this vile custome of Tobacco taking…” and condemned the practice of using tobacco.  The pope in Rome at this time period, Urban VIII threatened to excommunicate anyone who smoked in a church!

My ancestor, Isaac Allerton, a Mayflower passenger, was a merchant and trader.  He was a witness to the peace treaty with the Wampanoag people on 23 March 1620/21 “Captain Standish and Isaac Allerton went venturously, who were welcomed of him after their manner: he gave them three or four ground nuts and some tobacco." And on 8 June 1654, "Thomas Adams and Isaac Allerton gave a bond...for the delivery of 3000 pounds of tobacco to Director (Governor) Stuyvesant." Again, on June 11, 1649, "Mr. John Treworgie [of Kittery] did acknowledge to have received four thousand wt of Tobacco by Isaac Allerto[n] for the Account of Mr. Georg Ludlow.” [see the website https://sail1620.org/content.php?page=Isaac_Allerton_and_Tobacco ]

In 1637 in Plymouth County the first anti-smoking law was written in New England.  It threatened a 12 pence fine for smoking in any street, barn, outhouse or highway, and for smoking further than 1 mile from home.  A second offense was 2 shillings. One year later, on 4 December 1638, the Mayflower passenger Francis Billington was fined 12 pennies for “drinking tobacco in the highway.” [Records of the Colony of New Plymouth, in New England by Nathaniel B. Shurtleff and David Pulsifer, Volume 1, page 106.]

My ancestor George Soule was appointed in 1646 to a committee to deal with Duxbury’s problem of the disorderly smoking of tobacco.  They drew up strict limitations on where tobacco could be smoked and the fines to be levied. [History of Scituate, Massachusetts: From Its First Settlement to 1831 by Samuel Deane, page 308.]  In the Plymouth Colony records, from 1633 – 1643 there were 8 convictions for tobacco smoking, with 6 fines extracted from the guilty.  Compare this to 6 convictions for swearing and 6 convictions for Lord’s Day violations.  Smoking was more popular, but not as popular as drinking, with 13 convictions resulting in 13 fines.

Also in the Plymouth Colony records “Richard Berry, Jedidiah Lombard, Benjamin Lombard, and james Maker, fined for smoking tobacco at the end of Yarmouth Meeting-house on the Lord’s Day”  Faithful tradition informs us, that the early settlers were greatly addicted to smoking, and they would often disturb divine service by the klicking of flints and steel to light their pipes, and the clouds of smoke in the Church. Hence that law of the Colony, passed 1669: “It is enacted that any person or persons that shall be found smoking of tobacco on the Lord’s day, going to or coming from meetings, within two miles of the Meeting-house, shall pay 12 pence for every such default, for the Colonie’s use, to be increased,” &c.”

And from the book The Language of the Law by David Mellinkoff, 2004  “Tobacco smoking ‘gretlie taken-vp and vsed’ in late sixteenth-century England, troubled the Puritan law makers of the Massachusetts Bay Colonly.  It was a fire hazard, and bothered non-smokers (Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts, Farrand, 1929, page 50) Worse, it led to idleness ‘Tobacco takers’ bore special watching (Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts, Farrand, 1929, page 26”.

Eventually the profits from the cash crop tobacco and the profitable taxing of tobacco eased the Purtian fear of idleness.  Even when doctors and scientists began to identify tobacco as unhealthy, the profits won over reason and settlers began to plant tobacco for sale as a cash crop in New England, as well as all over the middle colonies and the south. 

In my own family history I find a story about Sarah Belden, daughter of Daniel Belden and Elizabeth Foote, about age 14, who in 1696 escaped the Deerfield massacre by hiding in a tobacco field.  Clearly the settlers were growing their own tobacco right from the beginning.  By the 1800s tobacco farming as a large cash crop was well established in the Massachusetts Connecticut Valley. [“History of Tobacco Production in the Connecticut Valley” by Elizabeth Ramsey, Smith College Studies in History, Volume 15 (Apr – July 1930), pages 133 – 134].

The Puritan fear of idleness and sin lead eventually led to the Blue Laws which banned all sorts of activities on Sundays, including smoking and alcohol.  The legacy of the Puritans was strict control over tobacco use, including taxes and fines.  These rules forbade the sale of Tobacco on Sundays until 1983.  The control over tobacco still persists through health codes and recent laws such as raising the age to buy tobacco to age 21 in Massachusetts in 2018.  Some blue laws remain on the books (yet unenforced) such as hunting on Sundays. 

For the truly curious:

A Counter-blaste to Tobacco, by James I (King of England), 1604 – available online through Google Books.

The Pennsylvania Mayflower Society “Isaac Allerton and Tobacco” by John M. Hunt, Jr. https://sail1620.org/content.php?page=Isaac_Allerton_and_Tobacco


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Tobacco in Early Colonial New England", Nutfield Genealogy, posted September 17, 2019, ( https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2019/09/tobacco-in-early-colonial-new-england.html: accessed [access date]). 

1 comment:

  1. Great post Heather. Seems tobacco has been a continuing issue here in "the colonies." I had no idea.