FROM THE MAGAZINE
The story so far: One of the first plants known to be collected and cultivated by humans, over the millennia, cannabis sativa spread all across the globe from its presumed origins in Southern Central Asia. Scholars have traced its use for therapeutic purposes in virtually every civilization from China and India to Egypt; Iran and Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean; from Europe and Africa to the New World.
Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought cannabis culture with them to the Caribbean and to Central and South America. The English Empire had colonial ambitions as well. And they knew all about hemp.
CANNABIS IN EL NORTE.
In the English settlements in Canada, Massachusetts and Virginia – as in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies to the south – the initial fantasy of limitless gold and silver in the New World quickly evaporated. But the colonizing powers never abandoned their desire for wealth through exploitation of the newly found lands. It was obvious that both Americas offered a virtually endless source of furs, timber, foodstuffs and minerals (including precious metals in the earth). Wealth untold. But now, instead of just carrying it away, the colonists would have to work for it – farming, mining, lumber jacking, raising livestock. Few who made the perilous trip across the ocean wished to work hard for a long term benefit. Many still hoped to make a short term fortune, then return to civilization to enjoy it.
In some cases, they needed coaxing from home to jump-start their ambition. These persuasions ran the gamut from friendly help and incentives… to royal commands delivered under threat of severe penalties.
As early as 1606 the British began cultivating cannabis in their Canadian colonies. A French agriculturist named Hebert planted the first transported hemp crop in Port Royal, in what is now Nova Scotia.
In 1611 the Jamestown Colony in Virginia received an order from the Crown – a Proclamation from King James I, to raise hemp. (This is the same year His Majesty’s far better-known King James Bible was published.) By 1619 the Virginia government was budgeting significant funds to import hemp experts from Poland and Sweden, to teach “hempi-culture” to local farmers.
We have no proof that the Pilgrims brought cannabis to Plymouth on the Mayflower. But it is noteworthy that most Pilgrims came from England and Holland – and both English and Dutch hemp were considered “state of the art” botanicals in the early 1600s.
Accounts vary, but it is evident that, even from the first years, cannabis was a part of life in colonial New England.
In 1625 – only five years after Plymouth Rock – colonists led by the “gentleman lawyer” Thomas Morton founded the cheerfully named settlement called Merrymount. There, near present-day Quincy, MA, they made merry. They traded, drank whiskey, smoked, danced around the maypole and otherwise cavorted with local Indians. These brotherly gatherings infuriated the strait-laced Plymouth Puritans, who dispatched soldiers under Captain Miles Standish (yes, the shy suitor in Longfellow’s poem) to destroy Merrymount in 1628. He arrested the “atheistic” Morton, and (after savagely beating him, despite a “safe conduct” guarantee) deported him to England and prison. (History does not record John Alden or Priscilla’s reaction to Standish’s brutality.)
In 1629, the Salem township (later notable for ill treatment of “witches”) got its first documented shipment of hemp seed from England and Holland. This was intended to enable the colonists to make winter clothing.
Salem established the first commercial hemp rope factory in America in 1635. These businesses were called “ropewalks.” By 1770 there were 14 of them in Boston alone; at least one in nearly every seaside town, where their output was used by ship builders.
Contrary to popular belief, most Native Americans did not smoke weed in their peace pipes. Confusion may be due to the use by some Western American tribes of peyote for religious rituals. The most common smoke of choice was … tobacco, which many native cultures considered sacred. (Presumably there were no warnings from the “Medicine Man General.”) Tobacco smoke was believed to float up to the Great Spirit.
In the North American colonies, hemp was among several commodities (like lumber, tar and wool) occasionally declared “legal tender” – valid currency for paying public and private debts, even taxes. Cannabis seed was also a popular barter item. Thanks to a series of “must plant” laws instituted in the colonies, by the end of the 17th Century there were ample stocks of commercial cannabis not only for maritime uses, but also to support a burgeoning paper industry. (The Declaration of Independence would be drafted on hemp paper.)
Printer Ben Franklin established one of the first paper mills, so the Colonies could have a free press without depending on the Mother Country for paper for newspapers and books. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – both farmers, after all – cultivated hemp. The ever-curious Washington was interested in the medicinal (and possibly, the recreational) properties of the plant. Jefferson disliked tobacco, at least as a crop.
He wrote in his journal for March 16, 1791:
The culture [of tobacco] is pernicious. This plant… requires much manure… there is no return for the manure expended.
So, in Jefferson’s opinion, compared to hemp, tobacco was not worth shit.
…[hemp] is of the first necessity… to the wealth
and protection of the country. [Tobacco] is
Jefferson even invented a hemp threshing machine, for which he received United States Patent #1.
Over the first half century of the English presence in North America, most of the original thirteen colonies instituted the mandatory planting of hemp, with penalties for farmers who refused. Cannabis eventually proved to be, with the exception of corn, the most important agricultural product on the newly developing continent.
— Dean Christopher