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History repeats itself…

Three hundred years ago, the government of the American colonies paid farmers to grow hemp. The government feared that a single crop economy was developing around tobacco, which is hard on the soil and subject to great market fluctuations, so hemp was promoted as a viable alternative in the New World. Fast forward three centuries to this week, and we see an article about hemp researchers at James Madison University, which quotes a professor involved in the project, “We’re hoping, particularly, farmers who may have been involved in something like tobacco farming and are looking for alternatives, this may be a way to save small family farms, give them a healthy crop alternative.” I don’t need to say it, but I will: history repeats itself.

However, it can be hard to see the repeating history if we don’t know our real history. The history of hemp has often been reduced to a few cherry picked facts and out-of-context quotations from the founding fathers. Only knowing this meme-ified history of hemp, it would be easy to think that hemp was an enormously popular crop among early colonial farmers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington (who did grow the crop, but not in large amounts) and that it could have easily challenged the reign of tobacco. But in reality, hemp consistently struggled to take off as a popular crop in Colonial America, which is precisely why the government had to give out “bounties” (rewards like today’s crop subsidies) to get people to grow it. Even then, it failed to displace tobacco as the preferred crop on the early colonial farm.

I think it is far more powerful and efficient to learn from those who have gone before us than it is to idealize the past.

Knowing this history, we can look more critically at our task of making hemp a viable and popular crop in the United States. If we understand why hemp didn’t take off in the 1700s, it can give us insight into what difficulties it might face in 2016. I believe in hemp. I know it can help revitalize our soil and our economy. But, I think it is far more powerful and efficient to learn from those who have gone before us than it is to idealize the past.

This is why I am starting this blog series on the history of hemp, “The Old Story of a New Industry”. I will focus on important and prominent eras in the history of hemp in North America, trying to weed out trends and facts that are relevant to our maturing hemp movement today. Without further ado, here is our first installment, “Hemp in Colonial America.”


Hemp Cultivation in the American Colonies.

Hemp is not native to the Americas. Evidence suggests that Hemp (Cannabis Sativa) originated in the steppes of Central Asia, in what is now Mongolia and Southern Siberia[i]. For thousands of years, hemp traveled throughout Asia, Africa and Europe, becoming a valued commodity for textiles, rope, food and medicine in nearly every culture it entered. In Europe hemp became particularly valuable for maritime vessels. Rope and sails required hearty, water-resistant materials to withstand years of use in the high seas. The Royal Navy of the British Empire was the most notorious naval force throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and required significant amounts of hemp for the production of ships. It is within this context that hemp was first brought and sewn in the American Colonies.

Despite all of these incentives, and contrary to popular mythology, hemp never actually took off in the colonies as England had hoped

There is no evidence of hemp being brought on the Mayflower, but by the time the first permanent colony was establishment at Jamestown, early settlers were instructed to grow the crop. Pressure on the colonists to grow hemp came from the English Crown, which had been searching for new hemp sources for decades in an effort to reduce their reliance on Russian hemp imports[ii]. As early as 1563, Queen Elizabeth had made hemp growing compulsory to landowners in English colonies with over sixty acres of growth[iii]. England saw an opportunity for a more stable source of fiber that wouldn’t require trade with, as one English commentator put it, “nations where the balance of trade with us, turns in their own favour”[iv]. Hemp, flax, and cotton were all encouraged by colonial government so that they could be exported to England[v].

The Royal British Navy
The Royal British Navy


In 1619 the Virginia Assembly had made legislation forcing all colonists to grow hemp and flax[vi]. So began a long period, lasting into the 18th century, during which many laws and trade policies were introduced to encourage the growth of hemp in the colonies. Great Britain enacted colonial “bounties” for hemp, meaning that hemp farmers were rewarded with cash or matching amounts of another crop. For instance, in 1682, the House of Burgesses in Jamestown passed legislation that required individuals to take their hemp and flax to a “justice of the peace” in order to have it registered, and rewarded them with a bounty of two pounds of tobacco for every pound of hemp or flax[vii]. In 1731, a “drawback” on foreign hemp that was re-exported from England to the colonies was abolished (meaning that taxes on hemp exports from England to America went up), which encouraged hemp production in North America. By 1745, the colonial government was rewarding hemp farmers first for growing the crop, and then again if they exported their hemp to England[viii]. Despite all of these incentives, and contrary to popular mythology, hemp never actually took off in the colonies as England had hoped[ix].

The crop that did take off was tobacco, which produced fear in the colonial government of a weak, single crop economy. Tobacco was so popular that besides wanting hemp to please the English Crown, the early colonial government also encouraged hemp crops to “break the dependence on one crop,” tobacco[x]. Tobacco was grown by most settler farmers, and was the “closest thing to a cash crop in what was essentially a barter system.”[xi] Hemp was often grown by these same farmers, but generally it was relegated to a single acre to be twisted into cordage or woven into crude frontier clothing for personal use or trade[xii].  Even when bounties were at their highest, hemp was only grown extensively as a cash crop when the price of tobacco went down.

Despite the lack of domestic hemp agriculture, manufacturing of hemp products began early in the colonies. The first “ropewalk,” a factory designed to built industrial rope from hemp, was constructed in New England in 1630, and there were several more in Philadelphia alone by 1698[xiii]. This rope industry served the burgeoning shipbuilding industry in Virginia and New England. In the last decade of the 17th century, over twenty-five thousand tons of ships were built in the Massachusetts colonies alone, a large quantity of this weight coming from the thousands of pounds of hemp rope on each ship[xiv].


An map of the British Colonies
An map of the British Colonies


The colonies never produced enough hemp to supply the maritime industry in America, and the hemp that was grown domestically was generally of a lower quality. Rope manufacturers prefered Russian hemp and it was imported in large quantities via England (direct trade routes between America and Russia were not developed until long after the American Revolution, a scenario that greatly benefitted England)[xv]. American grown hemp was  homespun for homemade fabrics[xvi] and used for small scale manufacture of canvas, linens, and oil[xvii]. But there was never a serious hemp textile industry in the country, as Colonial America “possessed no textile fibers in such quantities that their abundance formed a motive for manufacturing”[xviii]. So, ironically, even though there was great pressure and economic incentive to grow hemp in America, the colonies still found themselves importing large quantities of hemp fiber from Russia.


The Politics of Colonial Hemp Production.

Why, if it was so difficult to get farmers to grow hemp in the colonies, did so many of the United States’ founding architects speak of its importance? Well, first of all, they weren’t quite as enthusiastic about the plant as some would suggest. That Thomas Jefferson quote you have heard about “sitting on the veranda” is a complete fabrication (you can read everything Jefferson wrote about hemp here. Most of it is mundane information about farm stores). That popular quote attributed to George Washington about growing hemp everywhere is a bit tempered when one consults the full text of the letter in which he wrote it. Washington was not instructing a new nation to grow hemp everywhere, but rather giving instructions to his farm manager, William Pearce, in a letter where he wrote that he is “very glad to hear that the Gardener has saved so much of the St foin seed, & that of the India Hemp. Make the most you can of both, by sowing them again in drills… Let the ground be well prepared, and the Seed (St foin) be sown in April. The Hemp may be sown any where.”[xix]

The founding fathers talked about the importance of hemp for two reasons. The first is rather mundane: they were farmers and agriculturalists who grew many crops, from tobacco and wheat to hemp and cotton. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, grew hemp to be weaved into rough clothing for his family by slaves on his plantation. The second reason that they talked about hemp is more complex, and related to the intense and ever-shifting politics in Colonial America at the time.

Many of the planners of the Boston Tea Party were rope manufacturers who knew the hemp economy well, and knew that the struggle for independence would occur on economic as well as military battlefields.

From the standpoint of the English Crown, the settlers in America were colonial subjects whose main role in the prosperity of the empire was exporting cheap materials for manufacture across the Atlantic. As mentioned above, the British Empire needed a lot of hemp to maintain their naval supremacy. While there were some in England who wanted hemp to be grown in the homeland, even they considered cultivation in the colonies to be the ‘lesser of two evils’, suggesting that it was better than depending on a foreign country like Russia for such an important military asset[xx]. Bounties (financial reward) were given out for hemp in the hopes of getting more hemp to England, but this was not their only purpose. As Borougerdi writes, “the British also considered the bounty a strategic tool to maintain control over the colonial world, for they felt that encouraging hemp cultivation amongst the colonists would lead them to neglect the manufacturing stage, thereby forcing them to remain reliant on the metropole for manufactured hemp-goods”[xxi]. The English encouraged the hemp industry in the states as part of a larger project of colonization, in which the colonial subjects weren’t meant to gain independence.

For those in the colonies, growing hemp was often seen as a way to appease the English crown[xxii]. However, from another standpoint, the domestic production of hemp was seen as a necessary precursor to independence, since it would diversify the economy (away from tobacco monoculture) and it would provide a stable source of rope and canvass for an independant navy in the new nation. These complicated and competing interests were not lost on the early American Revolutionaries. In fact, many of the planners of the Boston Tea Party were rope manufacturers who knew the hemp economy well, and knew that the struggle for independence would occur on economic as well as military battlefields.

Signing of the Declaration of Independance
Signing of the Declaration of Independence


The Wool Act of 1699 was meant to protect the English textile industry by eliminating existing bounties on manufactured linens (including those from hemp) in the colonies and forcing these textiles to be sold to English markets, where they could then be resold to other colonies. The renewal of these textile bounties by colonial governments in 1775 was seen as one of the first acts of revolt by the American Colonies[xxiii] because it incentivized local production, which took a share of the market away from British manufacturers. But even with such measures, the colonies were a long way from economic independence from England. As late as 1770 the city of Boston alone was importing between 400 and 500 tons of hemp from England[xxiv]. These imports halted completely with the onset of hostilities, just as demand increased for domestic military needs.

It is within this context that the architects of this nation praised hemp. They didn’t care about getting high from marijuana, and they didn’t know about CBD. They, like many others, wanted to secure economic and political independence from Great Britain, and thus encouraged the cultivation of a plant that was, at the time, very important for the construction of a navy and the creation of textiles. Yes, In the days leading up to July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson sat in his apartment to scribble draft after draft of what would become the Declaration of Independence on what was probably hemp paper (the actual material of the paper has never been confirmed, but it was likely of Dutch origin, where paper was made from many different fibers, including hemp). But, if the paper was hemp, it was not to make a statement about the importance of the plant. It was because most paper at the time was made from discarded hemp textiles.

It wasn’t until after the revolution that the hemp industry really picked up in North America, and even then it was likely for reasons that you don’t see talked in about in the memes. But that is another story for another blog (In the next blog we will talk about hemp in early U.S. history).


Learning from the Past.

Today, as the hemp industry struggles for legal protection, legitimacy, and for the resources to actually produce sustainable hemp products and materials, we can take some lessons from the early American Colonies.

  1. Hemp will not automatically replace cash crops like tobacco: Hemp is an amazing plant. It replenishes the soil, requires little to no pesticides or herbicides to grow, and three distinct parts of the plant can be sold after harvest. However, as we see in this history, hemp will not automatically replace cash crops like tobacco. Hemp is difficult to learn how to grow, and for many there is economic safety in old staple crops. Also, hemp is subject to market fluctuations like any other crop, and when demand goes down, farmers will likely turn to more profitable cash crops. Incentives from the government can be helpful (like those that are given currently for corn), but these will not automatically make farmers change what they sew in their fields.
  2. A hemp industry requires farms and manufacturers: We can see in this history that the English crown incentivized hemp exports not only to get the raw materials, but also to keep their supremacy as the center of global textile manufacturing. They wanted the American Colonies to remain export based economies with little manufacturing infrastructure. Without domestic demand for hemp from local industry, farmers were less likely to grow hemp and the market was fundamentally unstable (much more about this in the next installment). In today’s hemp industry, we see hemp farmers and activists in the United States searching for a market for domestic hemp crops. One of the most important solutions is developing domestic manufacturing, and the most clear and uncrowded market awaiting development is for the processing of and manufacturing using the hemp hurd.
  3. Economies are political: Lastly, we learn from this history that economies are political. Despite many claims that we live in a “free” market economy, government and special interests are always intervening in the favor of entrenched businesses and groups. Hemp played a role in the American Revolution, not because people were ideologically attached to the plant, but because of its role in the economy. Today, as we try to make hemp viable in the economy, it’s important to remember that in markets it’s not the most environmentally friendly or socially just products that win out. We need to wade into the dirty water of politics, and build our movement to take on the special interests which put profit and economic growth above people and the environment.





[i] Warf, Barney. “High Points: An Historical Geography Of Cannabis.” Geographical Review 104.4 (2014): 418-419. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.

[ii] Warf, Barney. “High Points: An Historical Geography Of Cannabis.” Geographical Review 104.4 (2014): page 426. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Borougerdi, Bradley J. “Cord of Empire, Exotic Intoxicant: Hemp and Culture in the Atlantic World, 1600-1900.” page 83. Order No. 3626432 The University of Texas at Arlington, 2014. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.

[v] Holmes, William C. Nineteenth Century Hemp Culture in the Missouri River Valley. Page 20. 1982. Print.

[vi] Hopkins, James F., and Clark Thomas D. A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky. Page 6. U of Kentucky, 1951. Web.

[vii] Crawford, B S. Economic Interdependence Along a Colonial Frontier: Capitalism and the New River Valley, 1745-1789. Page 74. 1996. Print.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Hopkins, A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky, 8. Holmes, Nineteenth Century Hemp Culture in the Missouri River Valley, 20.

[x] Hopkins, A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky, 6.

[xi] Holmes, Nineteenth Century Hemp Culture in the Missouri River Valley, 22.

[xii] Ibid, 22.

[xiii] Borougerdi,  “Cord of Empire, Exotic Intoxicant: Hemp and Culture in the Atlantic World, 1600-1900,” 97.

[xiv] Ibid, 97.

[xv] Ibid, 92.

[xvi] Clark, Victor S. History of Manufactures In the United States: 1607-1860. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1916.

[xvii]  Borougerdi,  “Cord of Empire, Exotic Intoxicant: Hemp and Culture in the Atlantic World, 1600-1900,” 92.

[xviii] Clark, History of Manufactures In the United States. 318.

[xix] “From George Washington to William Pearce, 24 February 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 15,1 January–30 April 1794, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009, pp. 269–271.]

[xx]  Borougerdi,  “Cord of Empire, Exotic Intoxicant: Hemp and Culture in the Atlantic World, 1600-1900,” 93.

[xxi] Ibid, 111-112.

[xxii]  Hopkins, A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky, 9.

[xxiii]  Clark, History of Manufactures In the United States. 35.

[xxiv]   Borougerdi,  “Cord of Empire, Exotic Intoxicant: Hemp and Culture in the Atlantic World, 1600-1900,” 112.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][social-media][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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