Native Americans used tobacco for thousands of years before Columbus encountered it during his 1492 voyage to North America. By the end of the 16th century, its consumption had spread worldwide. It became inextricably linked with the Jamestown story when John Rolfe brought sweet South American tobacco seeds to the colony in 1610. That strain of tobacco quickly became Virginia’s major cash crop and number one export from the early 17th century until the end of the 20th century. Tobacco fueled English colonization, the use of slave labor, and the mass production of consumption-related items such as the inexpensive clay smoking pipe that was popular until the end of the 19th century.
English tobacco pipe maker Robert Cotton arrived at Jamestown in January 1608. Although he is not mentioned in historic records after that date, fragments of Cotton’s distinctive red clay pipes are recovered in quantities comparable to the small English white clay pipes in the early James Fort contexts. Based on archaeological evidence, Cotton clearly was the most prolific and successful craftsman working at Jamestown in 1608.