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  • Writer's pictureAccokeek Foundation

We've spent the past few months talking about tobacco. Here's what we learned

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

Over the past several weeks, we have been digging deep into tobacco culture in our "Tuesday Tobacco Talks" series, and we have heard the stories of staff, community members, and experts alike. We planned this series, in part, because we felt a gap in public knowledge around tobacco. While many know tobacco was a major cash crop in colonial Maryland and might see aging tobacco barns on their daily commutes, fewer have an understanding of just how influential commercial tobacco production has been on the Southern Maryland region.

Tobacco hung to dry at the National Colonial Farm

On October 20th, we explored in "Planting Power: Tobacco as a Status Indicator in the 18th Century," how, over the course of the colonial era, Maryland and Virginia went from struggling survival colonies to global juggernauts of plantation agriculture and commerce, due to the popularity of their tobacco exports. Colonialist ideas of land ownership enabled English farmers to expand tobacco production quickly, as they perceived the indigenous landscape as being free for the taking, while the global colonial trade allowed wealthy landowners to enslave workers to increase their production. By the 18th century, those who were successful planters were able to live a life of immense luxury - at the expense of the enslaved people who made tobacco-growing profitable. Led by foundation educator Kate McGowan, and Dr. Jim Gibb of the Smithsonian Environmental Archeology Lab, we discussed some of the defining traits of the Chesapeake gentry and looked at the archeological evidence of their wealth. Although many of these plantation homes are museums today, many of the families that operated them are still wealthy and powerful today, and this model of plantation agriculture was replicated as the country expanded westward.

Tobacco had tremendous power to elevate the wealthy and subjugate the enslaved. (MD Gazette via MD archives)

For our next talk, on November 10th, we hosted “A Scientific Study of Sot-Weed,” where we asked, “how has tobacco changed in the last 600 years?” From the traditional varieties cultivated by indigenous peoples in Peru to the tobacco of today, how have hundreds of years of tobacco growing, smoking, and chewing, especially in Maryland, altered the plant itself? Educator Kaylin Beach and former volunteer Buddy Scott led us in a discussion of the common pests and genetic issues in commercial tobacco crops, and how farmers adapt to them. Over the years, Maryland tobacco, Nicotiana tabacum, has undergone many genetic in-breedings and cross-breedings in response to these pests, but despite this lab engineering, the USDA in 1930 declared Maryland tobacco to be genetically indistinguishable from the first exports from Virginia in 1617. While the commercial tobacco trade certainly has left its mark on our world, locally and globally, the mark left on tobacco by our culture is much smaller and nearly indistinguishable. This remarkably resilient plant is a reminder of the limit of human power to destroy natural beauty as tobacco holds fast to its original roots and continues to serve its original purpose in the natural world, despite human interruption.

A family tree of several of the different varieties of tobacco

How is tobacco culture present in Southern Maryland today? On November 17th, we dove into this question with “Buyouts and Beauty Queens: Tobacco Culture in the 20th Century”. We heard from our board member, Phil Gottwals, on the history of Maryland’s tobacco buyout, which ushered in a huge change in Maryland’s tobacco industry, and Outreach Specialist Shemika Berry led a talk with Queen Nicotina pageant winners past and present to hear their thoughts on the significance of the pageant in Charles County. The tobacco buyout was the final step in the transition away from a tobacco-based economy in southern Maryland, and while the legacy of tobacco agriculture remains today, much of the landscape has been transformed into shopping centers and housing developments. Our agrarian past can be seen in the county fairs, which have historically been a time for the community to connect and celebrate a successful harvest, and in Charles county, the Queen Nicotina pageant pays homage to the plant that this state was founded on while providing scholarship opportunities for young women.

Queen Nicotina in 1955 (Southern MD Studies Center, College of Southern MD, Thomas and Maxine Headen Collection.)

To close out our series, we partnered with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and heard from several members of the indigenous community for “Sacred Tobacco: A Native Plant,” who shared their personal experiences with growing and using tobacco, and the significance of tobacco in their respective cultures. The tremendous cultural significance of tobacco is sometimes at odds with the commercial industry - as Robin Wall Kimmerer states in Braiding Sweetgrass, “for a plant to be sacred, it can not be sold.” Our speakers included traditional chief Elisha Locklear (Tuscarora), Glenn Burlack (Lumbee) of NMAI, Cedric Woods (Lumbee) of the Institute for New England Native American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and foundation board member, Chairman of the Maryland Indian Tourism Association, and State Commissioner for the Maryland Commission of Indian Affairs, Rico Newman (Piscataway), who all brought their unique views to our discussion, and shared some of their fond memories of tobacco.

Rico Newman (front) and Dennis Zotigh (back) hang tobacco at the National Colonial Farm in Accokeek.

We have heard a lot, but the conversation continues. We would like to thank all of our speakers again for their valuable insight. By looking at our shared history regionally through the lens of tobacco, we are able to illuminate issues of racism, colonialism, environmental sustainability, and culture. It’s our hope that we can continue to foster these important conversations and increase public knowledge about the significance and influence of tobacco across time and place.

Want to learn more about tobacco? Check out the resource lists for each of our presentation topics here.

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