Tobacco Seed

Project details

  • Date

     January 31, 2015

  • Task

     Study Collection

  • Category

     Tobacco

  • Object number – Various
  • Material – Organic
  • Place of Origin – Possibly Caribbean
  • Date – c. 1607-1624
  • Context – Second Fort Well
  • Location – Collections
  • Category – Tobacco

A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose,” was King James I’s view of smoking tobacco. But this seed saved Virginia. Colonist John Rolfe brought the seeds of sweeter tobacco to Jamestown in 1610, and from this microscopic item came the first major crop of the English Atlantic trade. By the end of the 17th century, hundreds of ships left England each year to transport tobacco leaf.

This tiny specimen is the oldest tobacco seed discovered at an English Colonial site and may represent the earliest attempt to grow tobacco at the Jamestown colony. The seed was unearthed in 2006 by Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists in a well used by colonists as early as 1610. Tobacco seeds are rarely found at archaeological sites because of their tiny size, dry burial conditions, and the practice of topping tobacco plants. The watery, oxygen-deprived well environment preserved this uncharred seed in excellent condition and two other charred seeds. The find is all the more incredible when you know that it takes more than 350,000 tobacco seeds to weigh an ounce.

Evidence suggests tobacco was growing in North America by 6,000 BCE, and smoking tobacco leaves may have been practiced on the continent for 2,300 years. But the leaf smoked by the North Americans was bitter — Nicotiana Rustica. Rolfe brought to Jamestown seeds from the more desirable South American species, Nicotiana Tabacum. No one knows where he got such seeds. Spain controlled Central and South America and had declared a penalty of death to anyone selling such seeds to a non-Spaniard. Perhaps the answer is that Rolfe was shipwrecked on Bermuda for 10 months before making his way to Jamestown in the spring of 1610 with other survivors.