Archeobotanical Evidence for the Universal Remedy — Tobacco
Updated: Apr 13
Justine McKnight, Justine McKnight Archeobotanical Consultant LLC
Tobacco agriculture defined Maryland’s cultural heritage from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Historic accounts describe vast acreages planted in tobacco and enormous quantities of tobacco leaf produced for export and domestic use. Archaeologists have recovered abundant clay tobacco pipes, but curiously, a key artifact of Maryland’s tobacco history has been elusive. Until recently, not a single tobacco seed had been identified from a Maryland archaeological site.
Tobacco was introduced to Europe from the Americas by the early 15th century as an ornamental plant and was soon recognized to be a valuable medicinal. It quickly became wildly popular for its purported healing properties. By the end of the 16th century, tobacco was touted as a panacea to treat dozens of different ailments and was widely prescribed by physicians. Prepared as smoke, ointment, snuff, poultice, enema, tea, or syrup, tobacco was thought to be a universal remedy – from curing cancer, to “quieting fear”.
Archeobotany is the study of plant remains recovered archaeologically, and archeobotanical data help us to better understand human-plant relationships in the past. While
archeobotanists have identified a rich array of other farm products from Maryland sites, tobacco seeds were heretofore undocumented. But archeobotanists have recently found tobacco seeds using flotation – a technique that uses water to separate tiny organic materials from soil. Tobacco seeds are very small, hardly visible to the naked eye. They have now been identified at over a dozen Chesapeake sites, and, interestingly, many of the places where tobacco seeds have been found are associated with the homes and work spaces of enslaved Africans. Across the Chesapeake, tobacco was the driving factor behind the development of African slave labor. In Maryland, tobacco seeds have been recovered from the Kings Reach Site (18CV83) and the Smith’s St Leonard site (18CV22) in Calvert County, Billingsley (18PR9) and Beechfield (18PR955) in Prince George's County, and Cloverfields (18QU868) in Queen Anne’s County. While there is no way to know with certainty, the archeobotanical record suggests that tobacco was used therapeutically by enslaved people at these sites.
The Maryland tobacco discoveries align with results from sites in Virginia, Delaware, and New Jersey, and together the data tell a story about the potential importance of tobacco as a powerful plant with healing properties. Ongoing research and new discoveries may reveal details about the ways tobacco was historically used and valued by different communities across Maryland.
Thanks to Alex Glass (Applied Archaeology and History Associates) for her help in preparing this article.