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Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Virginia's Other Cash Crop

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons
With the recent election where a couple of states have voted to legalize marijuana, I thought I'd blog about the history of hemp (which includes the marijuana variety) in Virginia. In the early 1600s, the colony was on the verge of failing to make a profit until John Rolfe married Pocahontas to gain the secret of growing tobacco. But hemp, often overlooked in history books due to its bad reputation in modern times, was another important crop.

 In 1611, Sir Thomas Dale introduced hemp to Virginia. The English navy depended on the crop, but the demand was far greater than the country was able to produce. Hemp was used for paper, cordage, fiber for linen, and of course, medicinal uses. The First Virginia Assembly encouraged colonists to grow hemp, and they received favorable reports from England on the superiority of the colony's crop.

 The early years were hampered by shortage of seed and lack of skilled labor to separate the fiber from the woody part of the stalks to make cordage. In 1646, the Virginia Assembly commissioned houses to be built where poor children were taught to card, knit, and spin, thus helping the manufacture of linen. In 1665, the removal of import duties to England stimulated production further

Less than ten years later, laws were enacted for each county to purchase and distribute hemp seed. Failure to do so resulted in fines. In spite of these encouragements, during the 17th century, hemp production tended to remain limited to self-sufficient farms, never really competing with tobacco until well into the 18th century, where the practice became so common that even founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp.

Hemp's importance went beyond cordage and fiber. Both industrial hemp and what's known today as marijuana are classified as Cannabis sativa, a species with hundreds of varieties. According to some sources, many varieties that were grown in North America have been lost. The East Indian variety (marijuana) of hemp was known as "bangue" in the 17th century from the Hindi word "bhang."

Culpeper's Complete Herb first published in 1653, states that hemp, "is so well known to every good housewife in the country, that I shall not need to write any description of it." Besides the well known modern use of pain relief, Culpeper advised the different portions of the plant to be used for various ailments, such as jaundice, digestive disorders, killing worms, flushing earwigs from the ear canal, and burns.

While hemp has become much maligned in recent years, Virginians of the 17th and 18th centuries held no reservations for making use of its quality fiber or legitimate medical uses.

Kim Murphy


Herndon,George Melvin, "The story of hemp in colonial Virginia." Doctor of Philosophy dissertation, University of Virginia, 1959.

Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper's Complete Herbal 


  1. This is such an interesting post! We are all so trained to hear "dope addict" whenever cannabis sativa aka marijuana is mentioned, we forget this was a staple of the ancient world. You so rightly point out its many uses. I am curently writing about the 5th century BC and most ships relied heavily on hemp ropes used as brails to lift their sails and fold them tight against a spar. One ship was found recently that used branches of cannabis sativa as a cushioning dunnage. I imagine there was some after hours smoking going on there!

  2. Thanks, Judith. I actually discovered the history in Virginia, when I wrote the story of a 17th-century cunning woman. Good luck with your book.

  3. Another bit of fascinating and little known history from Kim--thanks for posting this. Too bad we aren't as sensible as the folks in the 16th century and don't just continue to grow hemp for cloth and rope fiber. Posters from as late as WW2 exhort farmers to "grow hemp for the war." As to the medicinal uses, sleep remedies and religious and meditative practices, it's a case of us being far less-enlightened and far more fearful than our ancestors.

  4. Thanks, Juliet. I love making those little known facts of history known.