Sunday, June 11, 2023

Gathering the Bones, XXVIII: Devil Take the Tobacco People

 Who knew that I'd need the "Drug Humour" tag again the week after I created it?

Tilsonburg is a town of 18,700 fifty kilometers southeast of London. (Where nephew M., who is getting married next Saturday, attended medical school. W00t! Go M.!). In the golden postwar days of the Canadian leaf, it may or may not have been synonymous with the Canadian tobacco industry before Stompin' Tom Connors recorded "Tilsonburg" in his golden years after the Centennial. Afterwards, Tilsonburg became synonymous with back breaking fieldwork in the "nicotine dew." This isn't exactly a trivial point. There wouldn't be a Virginia, or, quite possibly an America had John Rolfe not been able to establish the broadleaf Virginia tobacco industry in 1611. The received story is that Rolfe obtained Nicotiana tabacum seeds produced in Trinidad, the so-called "Orinoco" strain, and established it in Virginia in place of the tobacco then grown in Virginia, said to have been the rougher tasting and more psychoactive Nicotiana rustica 

Apparently, some historians I've never met don't listen to Stompin' Tom and certainly a larger group have never seen the  1992 Sommersby movie, perhaps because they weren't dating way out of their league and thus weren't into seeing a later Richard Gere vehicle. 

(It's too bad that the extract doesn't include the later footage of the beds being covered.)

Since I, personally, have this rigorously scholarly background in the literature, it occurs to me to wonder whether, given that producing tobacco is evidently quite hard,  there isn't more to say.

Modern, domesticated tobacco is a native South American plant, but the plant family is diversified into some eighty species, including indigenous North American varieties no longer favoured because of their low nicotine content and unproductively small leaves. Shawn Wood's video is interesting, because it might provide some insight into the pre-Columbian tobacco complex. Nicotiana attenuata and Nicotiana obtusifolia were both smoked in northwestern North America before trade tobacco very quickly replaced them in the Eighteenth Century, and Wood's Old Hopi is likely a landrace of one or the other. 

We see field Tabacum here:
This is a very challenging plant to grow compared with other field crops. Seedlings are grown in nurseries, and then transplanted into the field. The Sommersby clip shows the preparation of raised beds for planting, but cuts before a remembered scene of the beds being covered, presumably to prevent weeds from taking root. I am guessing that tobacco isn't planted until after midsummer, and is harvested before Labour Day? The reason that I am guessing that is the dangerously little that I know about tropical plant biology, and in particular work on the "C3" and "C4" paths of photosynthesis. "C4" is the "tropical" photosynthesis, more efficient than C3 in hot and dry climates. Sugarcane, maize corn and sorghum all use the C4 path preferentially and, as a historian, my acquaintance with this work comes from archaeologists attempting to explain the preferential success of tropical crops.  

So is Nicotiania tabacum a "tropical" C4 plant? No, yes, kind of! (God damn it, scientists, stop complicating things!) The takeaway here? A sort-of-seat-of-the-pants feeling that given that Nicotiana is probably one of those forest transients that flourishes in disturbed soil, that you have to break the ground for it, and if you plough at the beginning of the growing season and then wait until July to plant tobacco, you won't have anywhere to plant it. The reason that this is not a problem for modern tobacco farmers is that they have tractors and can rip out the sod whenever they please. Reconstruction-era West Virginia tobacco farmers are not so lucky, and use tarps to keep the weeds down, instead. Plausible? I hope so! 

The second interesting question about Nicotiania tabacum is "Why is Nicotiania tabacum"? The received story is that noted London merchant John Rolfe involved himself in the Virginia Company specifically because The English were importing so much tobacco from the Spanish Caribbean that it was adversely affecting the balance of trade. Which, hmm. Virginia tobacco was a huge item waiting down the British balance of payments in the postwar era, and one of the reasons that the (Southern) Rhodesian problem was so intractable. The British smoking public wanted tobacco from American (and Canada), not that horrible and Bulgarian and Turkish stuff. Southern Rhodesia produced a good Virginia leaf, and just writing this is making me feel a bit icky. Is everything white supremacy? I'm not saying that the same scenario wasn't playing out in 1607, but it seems like this stuff is just a bit too on the nose. 

Pocahontas cosplay by Yunakairi
That said, Rolfe had definitely introduced "Orinoco tobacco" by 1612, amongst other things, and everything in Virginia has gone swimmingly ever since. By the mid-century, Virginia was a solvent colony on the strength of tobacco exports, and there was a bit of a tobacco rush going on New Sweden and New Amsterdam, in the former colony hardly even halting for the end of the formal colony. (The generation between the dissolution of the Swedish colony and the foundation of Pennsylvania is a fascinating one in which local government was handled by a county under New Amsterdam/New York with a county seat, a court, and parishes in the greater Philadelphia and Wilmington areas, which get swept under the rug to make Penn an entrepreneur carving out a new settlement from the virgin woods.)

It seems that the origins of tabacum are lost to us. It is a relatively recent hybrid, with sylvestris, tomentosiformis, and otophora all fingered as potential parent species. All three of these species are native to the Andes, especially Bolivia, which I guess would  make the most likely originator an Incan breeder. But no-one cares about the archaeology of tobacco where the industry originated when there's some cave in Utah that might have evidence of smoking from 13,000 years ago, and there you go. (The ScienceNews story.) Given that the potato had reached Virginia on its own by 1607, I am going to guess that the breeding of tabacum occurred closer in time to the development of the mature Spanish industry then in the ancient past, but that's just lazy speculation. 

Moving right along, if there's anything this toe-deep dip into the archaeology of tobacco has taught me that I already knew perfectly well, it is that tobacco cultivation and consumption has been an important part of Eastern Woodlands culture for a very, very long time. In particular, like any good Canadian child I was brought up on certain historical setpieces, including the foundation of St. Marie-Among-the-Hurons and the martyrdom of several Jesuit missionaries there. Although the mission is named for the Huron/Wendat people whom it evangelised, it is physically located close to the porous boundary between that people and other Iroquoian-speaking groupings, amongst whom were the Petun

As with names applied by the French to other Eastern Woodlands groups, "Petun" is an exonym that may ultimately have been motivated by the difficulty in getting Eastern Woodlands "tribes" to assign themselves an identity more precise and specific than the clan/sept names that were more socially important to them, but which tended to recur across the landscape due to their crucial social role of ensuring out-marriage. (Infra-clan/sept marriages being forbidden.) However, because it was an obvious and confusing exonym also applied to other groups, an alternative was in use by at least 1632: ''The Tobacco People." That is because, by the 1630s, but not before, the Petun/Tobacco are reported to have been growing large fields of tobacco. Shortly thereafter, the Haudenosaunee targeted the Petun/Tobacco as one of their victims in the Beaver Wars,
(The Huron get their own back)

, and the Petun/Tobacco disappear --although perhaps some of them reappear as the Guyandotte of West Virginia in the late Seventeenth Century. 

So the question that occurs at this point: It is easy enough to see how a tobacco rush might have occurred on the Niagara Peninsula in the early 1630s; but how did the Petun/Tobacco manage to plant waving fields of tobacco so prominent that they get picked up by French gazetteers? My man Fenimore Cooper has an explanation, in Wyandotte: Or, The Hutted Knoll.

"Saucy Nick," the drunken Indian warrior and part-time Tuscarora war chief, sells Captain Willoughby his "discovery" (Fenimore Cooper, through Nick, puts prematurely modern sneer into "discovery") of a 400 acre beaver pond favourably located on a tributary of the Umadilla not far from modern Utica. The four-acre "knoll" in the middle of the lake becomes the centre of Willoughby's (several) thousand acre patent, and the dam is broken at 9 AM "on the 2d day of May, 1765. By evening it is an "open expanse of wet mud," and by August 40 acres were in crop and the rest was in hay, the harvest was "enormous, and of excellent quality." 

One supposes that the Petun/Tobacco might have built their own dams and created their own "beaver ponds," but it seems like a lot of work to go to in a period in which North America's annual beaver export rose to between 100,000 and 300,000 pelts annually, a harvest suggesting a curated population of beavers in the millions,  and the price of pelts exceeding 10 shillings each from 1752 through 1763. The figures from Albany cited by Anne Carlos, which I cite here, end in 1763, and a postwar fall in the price of pelts might justify Nick's decision to sell this highly productive pond. (Nick's suggestion that it was hunted out is absurd on its face, as the dam would have quickly failed.)

From here we are left with Fenimore Cooper's thesis (Feudalism good; libertarianism bad!) and his habit of writing his Indian characters obliquely. Saucy Nick is an extreme example of this: 

"'[Comic Irishman identifies Nick as the Devil] . . . 

Lest the reader get an exaggerated notion of Michael's credulity, it may be well to say that Nick had painted a few days before, in a fit of caprice, and that one-half of his face was black, and the other a deep red, while each of his eyes was surrounded with a circle of white, all of which had got to be a little confused in consequence of a night or two of orgies, succeeded by mornings in which the toilet had been altogether neglected. His dress, too, a blanket with tawdry red and yellow trimmings, with ornamented leggings and moccasins to correspond, had all aided in maintaining the accidental mystification. Mike followed his companion, growling out his discontent, and watching the form of the Indian, as the latter still went loping over the flat, having passed the captain, with a message to the barns.

I'm just a simple country blogger and not a fancy literary criticisin' guy, but when an author puts something like this in, you do a Google search. Nick is admittedly wearing paint rather than a mask ('false face"), but as the passage goes on it is clear that he is exorcising the new Willoughby house as a False Face Dancer is supposed to do. The rest of the narrative, not to spoil anything, seems to align Nick with the other False Face dances: curative, gatekeeping, and marching. Nick is a very high status Tuscarora, but holds no title within the community. It is hard to know what Fenimore Cooper knew about Eastern Woodland society, but Nick would have derived the peacetime sachemship he seems to have once held from the female relations who, we are told, have since died. Mid-story he recovers his sachemship for reasons that Fenimore Cooper doesn't spell out. My personal opinion is that it hangs on the Willoughby's adoptive daughter, Maud, reclaiming her identity as Maud Meredith, but I don't suppose anyone wants to hear my literary theorising. The point is that Nick/Wyandotte owns, or, rather, has feudal office over the pond and disposes of it in that light, perhaps as an agent for a female relation. (The Meredith women are of mixed race! I am not a crackpot!)   

So what's my point? Not much of one, except perhaps to set up a tobacco-vs-beaver divide along the Mason-Dixon Line, which is obviously a difficult sell, what with the whole "Tilsonburg" thing. I guess the argument is that the edge of the "secondary" range marks the plausible northern limit of commercial tobacco (cotton?) growing in North America. North of it, you sell your pond for corn and potato land; south of it, for plantations. 

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