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When settlers first migrated from Virginia to North Carolina, they struggled to grow any crop, much less tobacco, partially because of the dry, sandy soil. Because Londoners viewed tobacco as a desired luxury and bought it exclusively from Spain, the new North American colonists knew if they could raise tobacco, they could earn a living off of selling tobacco to England (tobacco was both rare and expensive). Growing tobacco, however, proved to be troublesome, and the quality of the first crop of North Carolina tobacco was poor. How did North Carolina change from a state that struggled to raise crops to one that dominated the tobacco market? And how did that empire come to an end?
The following timeline tells the story of settlers of the early colonies, their discovery of tobacco, and the eventual wealth and power tobacco brought to North Carolina.
North Carolina Tobacco Timeline
Sir Francis Drake visits Roanoke Island to see how the new colonists are faring. Facing constant lack of food and Indian attacks, the colonists returned to England with Drake and appeared before Sir Walter Raleigh to present gifts from their colonization attempt. One of these gifts was dried tobacco leaves and tobacco seeds. Colonists learned tobacco planting from the Indians, who used it in their pipes.
Sir Walter Raleigh plants and cultivates the North Carolina tobacco seeds, and some of the seeds are sold to farmers in central England. The English prefer the taste of this tobacco to the Spanish tobacco they had been buying .
During the 1590s, tobacco was rare and expensive. The cost of tobacco was as high as $125 a pound for the best and over $15 for inferior grades.
Colonists from Virginia begin traveling south to start a colony, since Virginia was becoming crowded (pop. = 22,000) .
King Charles II grants an area from Florida to the border of Virginia to explorers from England who wanted to colonize in North America. The colonists are dubbed The Lords Proprietors of Carolina. As colonists from Virginia come to Carolina, they bring their tobacco farms with them.
The Albemarle Assembly of Carolina passes a tax exemption to new settlers for a year and prohibits creditor suits for five years. The inability to collect on debts of the new Carolinians, along with the competition of Carolina tobacco, infuriates Virginians. Carolinians, however, are struggling to survive against Indian attacks and difficulties in shipping their goods from Virginia ports.
Tobacco takes the place of currency to pay for services from clergymen, educators, officials and soldiers. The Carolina Assembly sets the maximum price of rum at 25 pounds of good tobacco.
The Parliamentary Plantation Act of England imposes a penny per pound tax on tobacco shipped from one colony to another. The tax leads to Culpeper's Rebellion, named after John Culpeper.
Virginia passes an Act that prohibits importation of Carolina tobacco because of its poor quality. Carolinians saved the good leaves for sales on their farms and exported a lesser quality product.
Thomas Ash publishes a promotional tract for Carolina tobacco.
Carolina tobacco is a monopoly for a small group of Yankees.
Carolina is growing slowly and has only 3 towns with enough people to give them representation in the Assembly.
Groups of Germans, Scotch-Irish and Welshmen settle in Carolina, increasing the settlement rate. They grow tobacco because they are familiar with that crop.
A number of roads run from the upper sections of North Carolina to southern Virginia, allowing for the transport of tobacco despite the 1679 Act. Most Carolina farmers don’t want to compete with Virginia tobacco export and are happy to make a meager living.
Virginia renews the exclusion of North Carolina tobacco.
The charter of the Lords Proprietors ends, and ports are established at Brunswick and Wilmington.
The Privy Council in London repeals the Virginia Act of 1726.
Port Roanoke (Edenton) becomes the main export center for NC tobacco.
A Moravian in Old Salem, Matthew Miksch, opens a tobacco shop and sells cured, rolled tobacco leaves for smoking or snuff.
The British wage a "Tobacco War" against Virginia, destroying millions of pounds of tobacco. The reduction of the Virginia supply opened the market for North Carolina.
Stephen, a slave on the farm of Captain Abisha Slade in Caswell County, accidentally discovers "Bright" leaf tobacco as he tends the wood fires to cure tobacco. After falling asleep for several hours, he awakes to find the fire dying and nearly out. Hurriedly casting hot coals into the fire, he inadvertently creates a blast of heat, turning the tobacco leaves a bright yellow color, never seen before in the States. Other tobacco farmers soon begin using the "Slade" technique to cure what is called Bright leaf tobacco.
Up until now, six Piedmont counties adjoining Virginia have ruled the tobacco market. Farmers discover that Bright leaf tobacco needs thin, starved soil, and farmers who cannot grow other crops find that they can grow tobacco. Formerly infertile farms are now worth 20-35 times their previous worth.
Captain Slade makes $35 per hundred pounds for 20,000 pounds of tobacco, the highest profit any farm in the States had seen to that date.
A small tobacco factory opens in Durham, around which the entire town grows.
The factory in Winston begins manufacturing tobacco for sale.
Durham opens its market for the sale of tobacco.
Furnace cured Bright leaf tobacco becomes the popular type. Winston begins marketing its tobacco.
Lucky Strike water tower and smokestack in Durham built.
There are 126 tobacco factories in North Carolina, producing 6.5 million pounds of chewing tobacco and 4 million pounds of smoking tobacco in one year, worth $2,300,000. Some factories, including four in Durham, rolled 2,347,207 cigarettes.
The factory of W. Duke, Sons and Company in Durham begins implementing a cigarette-rolling machine invented by James A. Bonsack in 1880. The machine significantly speeds up production, rolling 120,000 cigarettes a day.
James B. Duke joins with 4 of his biggest rivals to start a new tobacco company. He becomes president of American Tobacco Company in Durham.
North Carolina tobacco harvests exceed 100 million pounds. The market is dominated by only a few, with little competition.
The world's largest tobacco corporation is formed, with its corporate headquarters in Durham. The corporation is called the Tobacco Trust.
Tobacco is valued at $16 million and will increase to $1 billion by 1951.
After the federal government decides that the Tobacco Trust violates the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the Trust is dissolved. Several competitive tobacco companies result.
Wilson is the world's largest Bright leaf market. Smaller factories begin closing due to the inability to afford expensive equipment, leaving only a few to dominate the market.
RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston-Salem spends $8 million on advertising, mostly on Camel.
The American Medical Association begins publishing studies linking cigarette smoking to health problems.
President Roosevelt makes tobacco a protected crop as a result of World War II.
The First Surgeon General's report links smoking to lung cancer.
The Surgeon General's warning is mandatory on cigarette packs.
Hawthorne Books publishes Lloyd Mallon's It is Safe to Smoke but take it off the market in November after Hawthorne discovers tobacco companies financed it.
RJR closes down "mouse house" facility in Winston-Salem.
Federal government bans cigarette advertising on television and radio.
American Tobacco Complex in Durham closes.
Quotas are established for tobacco growers for the amount of flue-cured tobacco they can grow.
In December, the State legislature revisits the subject of tobacco quotas and decides to increase them.