Colonial Settlement Tobacco


The Indians of Virginia grew a type of tobacco that was not enjoyed by the English settlers in Jamestown, for it was very bitter. It also did not appeal to the market in England. John Rolfe (c. 1585 – 1622), who was one of the early settlers, wanted to introduce to the European market a sweeter type of tobacco. Using seeds he obtained from Trinidad, he successfully cultivated tobacco as an export crop in the Colony of Virginia. He helped turn the Virginia Colony into a profitable venture. Tobacco can be credited with making Jamestown the first English colony in the New World.

In the year 1758, Virginia exported 70,000 hogsheads of tobacco. The production of tobacco in colonial times required much work. The plants had to be grown from seeds, set out, weeded, harvested, and cured or dried.  At the end of the growing season, the tobacco was cut and hung in barns to dry. It was subsequently stripped from the stems and packed in large wooden barrels called hogsheads. A hogshead fully packed with tobacco weighed from about 950 to 1,200 pounds.

Each acre produced about 5,000 plants that required hand care over and over again. Enlaved labor was used. Profits exceeded any other plant that could be grown.  Tobacco was extremely hard on the soil and could only be grown for two to three seasons on the same location. Then it had to be planted in a new location. Many of the wealthy and influential men in Colonial Virginia owned tobacco plantations, for they owned many acres. Fitzhugh at Chatham, Carter, and Brent in the Aquia area were names of people who had tobacco plantations. Tobacco, however, was gradually phased out of Stafford’s economy for land was overworked and other industries thrived like iron and sandstone quarrying.

Until the early nineteenth century, tobacco was an important part of Virginia’s economy. Each early Virginia county had official tobacco inspection stations (warehouses) that were situated at locations convenient to the region’s planters. For example, in order to pay taxes to the crown, a farmer would go to the Parish Church, Overwharton Parish (Aquia Church), and pay taxes in tobacco…. so many hogsheads for so many acres of land owned. Tobacco inspectors were appointed by the court for a term of one year. This was a very important job, for it was the responsibility of the inspectors to check the quality of the tobacco and set a value upon it. Since tobacco was used as legal currency, the economy of Virginia depended upon the quality and, therefore, the value of the tobacco brought to the warehouses.

The first tobacco warehouse in Stafford County was at Marlborough Point, though it was soon replaced by a new warehouse at Aquia, the town cut from George Brent’s Woodstock plantation on Aquia Creek (today’s Aquia Harbour). By the late eighteenth century, this warehouse had been closed and three others had taken its place. Two of these, the Falmouth and Dixon warehouses, were located in Falmouth. Cave’s Warehouse was on Potomac Creek. Planters brought their hogsheads of tobaccco to these warehouses and from here it was shipped all over the world.

In Stafford, inspection stations were located in the town of Aquia, at Marlborough, Belle Plain, and at Falmouth, all of which were on the navigable waters of Aquia Creek, Potomac Creek, or the Rappahannock River. A very early warehouse was also built near Richland Baptist Church, but the Rappahannock wasn’t navigable at that point the facility seems not to have operated for very long.

The earliest sustained European settlement in Stafford occurred along Aquia Creek and the little village of Aquia had its own tobacco warehouse. This was quickly followed by settlement along Potomac Creek from which tobacco was also shipped.

As purely utilitarian structures, these buildings were of simple design and were often of frame construction. However, Stafford featured an abundance of Aquia freestone, which seems to have been used in the walls of the warehouses at both Aquia and at Cave’s near Belle Plain.

To facilitate the loading of the heavy hogsheads of tobacco onto ships, the warehouses were built very close to the water and, typically, each had its own wharf. The proximity to the water made them extremely susceptible to flooding and even to destruction by violent freshets. The use of stone may have made the buildings slightly less likely to be washed away, but to the writer’s knowledge, not a single colonial-era tobacco warehouse survives in all of Virginia.

The stations were staffed by one or more court-appointed tobacco inspectors. These men had the important duty of inspecting, grading, taxing, and safely storing this vital commodity until ships arrived to carry it abroad. The inspectors issued crop notes to the planters who deposited their tobacco in the warehouses. These notes were the equivalent of cash and could be used to pay for anything from land to store goods.

It may have been William Cave (1700-1742) who built the first tobacco warehouse on this property just upstream from Belle Plain. He acquired the land by way of his marriage to Anne Travers (c.1705-c.1748), the daughter of Giles Travers (c.1661-1717). The building was standing by May 1742 when the inspection was made official and the Virginia Assembly agreed to pay the inspectors there a salary of £25 per annum. The warehouse site is presently known as Stone Landing, that name being derived from the quantity of stone that litters the edge of Potomac Creek, likely all that remains from the ruined building and/or a stone wharf.

Colonial records contain the names of inspectors at Cave’s from 1742 – 1780, but these records aren’t necessarily complete:

  • 1742—Charles Waller (1702-1749) and William Mountjoy (1711-1777)
  • 1750—William Mountjoy and Thomas Monroe (1745-1777)
  • 1761—Thomas Hay and Andrew Edwards (1725-1788)
  • 1773—Col. William Garrard (c.1715-1787) and Thomas Mountjoy (1739-c.1818)
  • 1777—Thomas Mountjoy and Edward Raleigh
  • 1778—Raleigh Travers Brown (1753-1803) and Alvin Mountjoy (1745-1827); Jonathan Finnal (died 1792) was assistant
  • 1780—Andrew Edwards (1725-1788)

Tobacco warehouses often drew various types of businesses that benefitted from the flow of people around those facilities. It’s not known to what extent this was true at Cave’s. Falmouth merchant, William Allason, noted that James and Rawleigh Chinn were blacksmiths at Cave’s in 1760.

During the 38 years for which there are records pertaining to this facility, the warehouse and its immediate vicinity were quite busy. To the south of Cave’s, perhaps within view, was the courthouse and a considerable number of the county’s population lived within a few miles of the site. The court met once each month, an event that brought people from near and far. Just to the northeast of the warehouse was Potomac Church.

During the early years, the water at the landing at Cave’s was deep enough to allow ocean going sailing vessels to dock, off-load goods, and take on tobacco. A road, albeit primitive, long existed between Cave’s Warehouse and Falmouth. This long-used byway later became the stage road out to the steamboat landing at Belle Plain.

By 1772, silting had substantially reduced the depth of water at Cave’s, making it difficult for larger ships to tie up there. A petition asking that the inspection be closed noted, “The water in the Creek, at Cave’s Inspection, is so shallow, that a Boat, with four Hogsheads of Tobacco, cannot easily go down it, and it is daily growing worse.” In spite of this, the county court ordered Thomas Mountjoy, one of the inspectors, to build a second warehouse. Andrew Edwards, a former inspector at Cave’s, complained that the project had been completed “in a private, unfair, and illegal Manner, and for a much larger Sum than the Work is really worth.” A petition to the Burgesses claimed that “the Expenses of the said Inspection considerably exceeds the Money it brings into the Treasury” and asked that it be discontinued.

At the outset of the Revolution, a limited amount of tobacco was still being inspected at Cave’s, but a change of function was at hand. In 1776 the state awarded James Hunter (1721- 1784) a contract to supply and distribute naval stores within the Potomac River District. Unable to warehouse such a quantity of goods at his own iron manufactory above Falmouth, the Potomac Creek buildings offered substantial storage space, a convenient shipping point (despite the limited water depth), and was well upstream from the Potomac River making it less vulnerable to English discovery and destruction. In October of 1776, the House of Delegates passed “An act to establish public storehouses, at the head of Patowmack creek for the reception of naval stores.” This act authorized the “use of the said land for a publick warehouse…for the reception and safe keeping of the naval stores and materials for ship building.” Although Hunter’s petition was granted, it wasn’t without a vigorous complaint from neighbors who didn’t want undisciplined sailors traipsing over their property. In 1779, Andrew Edwards, within whose plantation the warehouses stood, claimed that such use would cause him “many inconveniences and impositions.” He also said that his pastures and orchard “would be under the mercy of lawless and ungovernable people, the men belonging to the different ships.” How long Hunter used Cave’s warehouses is unknown, but the facility was officially discontinued as a tobacco inspection in February of 1780.

During the War Between the States, Union forces established a landing downstream at Belle Plain, but found the water too shallow and soon moved further downstream to Waugh Point. If there were any usable building materials remaining in or around the warehouses, they may have been collected and used by the troops. Any easily retrievable stone or bricks remaining after the war might likely have been scavenged by local residents. Other than the previously-mentioned quantity of stone resting along the edge of the creek and a number of old bricks around the courthouse site, little physical evidence of these old buildings remains. Today, the area is occupied by the Potomac Creek Estates subdivision.