Tobacco, grown from seeds stolen from the Spanish, was the cash crop that saved the first permanent English settlement in the New World from extinction and ultimately came to dominate economic development in the Southern colonies. When John Rolfe arrived in Jamestown in 1610, starvation had thinned the settlers from 500 to 60. Rolfe was in desperate straits himself, having been shipwrecked in Bermuda and then losing his newborn daughter and wife. But somewhere in the Caribbean he had purloined seeds for a strain of tobacco monopolized by the Spanish and coveted by the English. Within six years Rolfe was able to fill a boat with fine tobacco and sailed to England with his new bride, Pocahontas. By 1620 tobacco cultivated in Virginia was an increasingly lucrative export to England. When the supply of indentured servants to work the fields ran low in the decades that followed, tobacco planters turned to a new commodity: slaves from Africa.
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.