A Seed of Empire and Vice Found at Jamestown

This 400-year-old tobacco seed, shown magnified, may represent crop cultivation by early settlers.
This 400-year-old tobacco seed, shown magnified, may represent crop cultivation by early settlers. (College Of William And Mary Applied Research Center)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

They are little specks no bigger than the period that concludes this sentence, but they represent the germ of something enormous: fortune, empire and a national vice that would visit a slow death on millions of people.

Three 400-year-old tobacco seeds recovered recently from the ooze of a colonial well in Jamestown appear to be the first and earliest-known evidence of cultivation by English colonists of a plant that would become the cash crop of a New World empire, a form of living gold that would eventually be shunned as a cancer-causing scourge.

Now, just as Americans progressed from the public health threat of tobacco to the threat of obesity, the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown is refocusing attention on the "golden weed" because tobacco played a key role in turning around the colony's fortunes.

The commemoration began last year with a series of events that will culminate in a three-day celebration in May highlighted by a visit by Queen Elizabeth II. The results of the microscopic analysis of the seeds will be presented this week at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference in Williamsburg.

The seeds were found, along with the remains of wild food collected by the colonists, in a 15-foot-deep well dug sometime after 1610 at the site of the first permanent English-speaking settlement in North America.

Scientists also found the seeds of indigenous wild plants that the colonists also obtained for food, including blueberries, huckleberries, blackberries, cherries, grapes and persimmons. The remains of hickory nuts, acorns and beech nuts that had been hulled but not eaten suggest that the colonists had gathered those before they were ripe.

But Steve Archer, an archaeobotanist for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, said those finds suggest that the colonists, facing starvation because of their own folly and ineffectual attempts to make do, had been taught by Native Americans what to eat.

"The guys in Jamestown were not just stumbling around the woods stuffing things into their mouths," Archer said. "They had never encountered a persimmon before. What someone had to do was show them how to eat them, particularly since persimmons are not edible until they're practically rotten."

Tobacco seeds are rarely found at archaeological sites because of their tiny size, dry burial conditions and practices by growers that removed the seeds from the plants. But in a study funded by National Geographic magazine, Archer recovered the tiny tobacco seeds by sifting through three samples of goopy mud recovered from an early well built by the colonists.

"It was thick and soupy," he said. "It had the consistency of frosting."

Archer said further testing, through DNA analysis, could shed light on whether these seeds came from the highly desirable, milder Nicotiana tabacum species grown in the West Indies or the harsher, more powerful Nicotiana rustica grown locally by natives.

John Rolfe, a Jamestown colonist better known as the husband of Pocahontas, somehow got his hands on the West Indies strain of tobacco seeds and began growing them in Virginia. The Spanish, who were making a market in tobacco, had decreed the death penalty for anyone caught giving such seeds to a non-Spaniard.

In March 1614, Rolfe sent four barrels of tobacco to England; four years later, the colony shipped 49,528 pounds, according to the book "Love and Hate in Jamestown" by David A. Price.

The well was later abandoned and used as a trash heap. It was sealed when colonists built an addition for the governor's house atop it, and archaeologists began excavating it in fall 2005.

Under magnification, the seeds show a wrinkly husk covered by jigsaw-like shapes. Packed inside was a terrible genie with the power to soothe and torment its users.

But no one knew that then. Natives in the West Indies offered Christopher Columbus some tobacco leaves as a gift. Columbus knew enough to see that the Indians' pungent dried leaves were intended as tribute, but he didn't know what to do with them. He threw them overboard.

Despite four decades of a concerted public health campaign, about 45 million U.S. adults still puff away each year, and tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death, accounting for more than 400,000 deaths a year. Yet last year, a group of state attorneys general reported that per capita consumption fell to levels not seen since the 1930s.

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