A crucial factor in the migration of the Jamestown colony was the discovery of tobacco’s successful growth in the Chesapeake soil. Francis Drake’s heavy load of “jovial weed” procured in the West Indies in 1586, popularized it among the upper class and launched an addiction that still continues to this very day. James I denouncing on the effects of smoking failed to stop the smoking craze, as he had described it as “loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, and dangerous to the lungs.” This had become Virginia’s salvation. The first shipment of this crop, by the planters, was in 1617; tobacco cultivation spread rapidly. Tobacco brought a surplus amount of profit which even enabled the planting in the streets and martketplaces of Jamestown. By 1624, 200,000 pounds had been exported, but by 1638, although the price of this crop had skyrocketed, it had exceeded 3 million pounds. Tobacco had become to Virginia in the 1620s what sugar was to the West Indies and silver to the Mexico and Peru. Due to the fact that tobacco required intensive care, cheap labor was found.
The planters found it by recruiting a majority of English and Irish laborers with others from Spain, Germany, Portugal, Turkey, and Poland. They had come as indentured servants; they were willingly selling part of their working lives in exchange for the free passage to America. Four of every five immigrants were indentured. Nearly 75% of them were male, around the age of 15-25 years old. A majority of the immigrants were from the armies of the unemployed, while others were orphans, political prisoners, or convicts who had escaped from their execution. Some were even younger sons who were unlikely to inherit a father’s farm or shop, or even men fleeing an unfortunate marriage of theirs. Others were simply drawn by the prospect of adventure. Overwhelmingly, the indentured servants had come from the lower rungs of the social ladder at home.
The life of an indentured servant often turned into a horrible nightmare, as only about one 5% had realized the dream of freedom and land. If malarial fever was not the case of their swift deaths, the cruel work routines had them deceased sooner or later. Half had died during the first couple years of “seasoning.” Their master had purchased and dealt their servants as property, gambled for them, and had maxed them out till their deaths; there was no other reason for their existence other than the use of labor. When servants were near the end of their labor contract, masters had always found ways to add time and were backed by courts that they had controlled.
Contrary to the English custom, female servants were also used for labor. Sexual abuse was ordinary, as women had to pay a great amount for illegitimate pregnancies. They were fined heavily by the courts and were ordered to serve extra years to repay the time lost during their unplanned pregnancies and births of the child. The children had been seized from them, therefore, at an early age, they had been indentured. Marriage was the chief release of this life of tough labor. Many had accepted the purchases of their indentures by any man who had suggested marriage.
The American People, Creating a Nation and a Society