A History: Georgetown and Tobacco

A History: Georgetown and Tobacco

In our 60th year, Georgetown Tobacco has a rich history.  We’ve shared some of our many stories in the Caucus Brief, but in this week’s issue instead of talking about Georgetown Tobacco, we’ll talk about the history of Georgetown and tobacco. It’s quite a legacy that dates back to the 1600’s.

First, a little geography.  Here at Georgetown Tobacco, we see customers from all over the world.  Just this week, we’ve welcomed people from Turkey, Israel, Cyprus, Jordan, Vietnam, France, Italy and virtually every state in the country.  While we hope everyone has a chance to visit our store, a lot of our customers know us only through web and phone orders.

For our distant customers, it’s helpful to know that Georgetown is a neighborhood in the upper northwest of Washington D.C.  It is the oldest part of the city, and a tributary to the Potomac River somewhat separates Georgetown physically from other parts of Washington, D.C.  Also, the neighborhood is located at what was the northernmost navigable point on the Potomac River.

It is this last point about Georgetown’s location that enabled Georgetown to become a major tobacco port and the center of growing tobacco commerce after its founding in the 1600s.  Due largely to its location on the Potomac, Georgetown was easily accessible to trading vessels and therefore attractive to tobacco farmers seeking to export their crop.

In 1672, one commentator said that “almost everyone in the region was growing tobacco.”  Another said that the “general trade of Maryland depends chiefly on tobacco” (Georgetown was actually part of Maryland until it became part of the District of Columbia in 1871), and another wrote that Georgetown wharves were “thronged with vessels sailing across the seas laden with the precious weed.”

Planters found Georgetown so convenient that they would store tobacco in hogsheads and then roll them to Georgetown wharves along what is now Wisconsin Avenue, a major thoroughfare in Georgetown.  (One hogshead would hold about 1,000 pounds of tobacco, so farmers would insert an axle into a head, attach shafts to the axle, and use horses or oxen to pull the hogshead).

Tobacco exports grew from 2,500 pounds in 1616 to 15,000 pounds by the late 1660s, 21 million pounds by 1680s, and 28 million pounds by 1690.  Most tobacco exported was so called “sweet scented” tobacco grown in Virginia that was preferred to that grown in North Carolina.

By the early 1700s, tobacco was called the “meat, drink, clothing, and money of the colonists.”  People could even pay their taxes with tobacco.  In 1752, 280 pounds of tobacco was paid to each person whose land was taken to form the original community of Georgetown.  It was the most popular product of the Chesapeake shipped to Europe, and most of the tobacco grown in the south, and nearly all of it grown in Virginia, was shipped through Georgetown.

By the end of the 18th century, George Washington wrote that “Georgetown ranked as the greatest tobacco market in Maryland, if not the Union.”  The tobacco industry wasn’t limited to farmers, merchants, and shippers.  Demonstrating the integration of tobacco into the larger society of Georgetown, Robert Peter was among the first of Georgetown residents to establish himself in tobacco exports; he later became Georgetown’s first mayor.  Peter was from Glasgow, and sent so much tobacco to that city that merchants there called him the “Virginia Don.”  There is still a Virginia Street in Glasgow.  (Interesting facts:  Georgetown was largely settled by Scottish merchants; large Scottish merchant houses based in Glasgow dominated the tobacco trade on the Potomac through the 1700s; and Georgetown was once called “Little Scotland.”)

Other of the many other men of Georgetown important to the country who were also tobacco merchants were Colonel Benjamin Stoddert, a friend of Washington and the Secretary of the Continental Board of War and the first secretary of the Navy; and Uriah Forrest, a hero of the Revolution and delegate to the Continental Congress.

The Georgetown tobacco boom wasn’t to last, however, and started to decline in the early 1800s.  By the early 1800s, tobacco shipping from Georgetown was gone and Georgetown shipped grain and flour.  The primary reason for this decline was the silting of the Potomac River at Georgetown, making it inviable for shipping.  In spite of spending millions of dollars to remove silt, Georgetown was ultimately considered unreliable as a shipping hub.  (Port Tobacco, the second largest river port in Maryland in the late 17th century and once a thriving tobacco port about 33 miles from Georgetown, suffered a similar fate.)

By the end of the 1700s, Alexandria, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland superseded Georgetown as the most important tobacco exporting ports.  Ironically, construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal along the southern edge of Georgetown and a project designed to increase commerce, actually made direct communication between ships and Georgetown proper more difficult.

Soil exhaustion, European wars, smaller European immigration, the chronic instability of the tobacco supply due to weather, the consequent high fluctuation in tobacco prices, and the diversion of merchants’ capital to speculation and real estate were other factors contributing what was ultimately the demise of tobacco as a driving factor in Georgetown’s economy.

The quality of tobacco sent from Georgetown was also a factor in the loss of the industry.  Some merchants sold lower quality leaves mixed with floor sweepings to increase the weight of what they sold to increase profits.  Tobacco quality was of such concern during the late 1700s, especially in years in which production was affected by bad weather, that Maryland required the construction of inspection rules that were implemented at inspection houses (also known as “rolling houses” from the roads on which hogsheads were moved).

Finally, one writer noted the “obvious problems” with tobacco that made the diversion of capital attractive: “it couldn’t be eaten by humans or animals; it couldn’t be burned for heat; it did not yield timber; it required constant care from planting to harvest and curing; and it was especially prone to the effects of bad weather.”

By the time of the Civil War, trade from Georgetown was largely grain, coal, timber, cheese, potatoes; and by 1880, products shipped from Georgetown were flour, coal, timber products, and the products made by blacksmiths.  Large scale tobacco commerce in Georgetown was gone.

Today, Georgetown boasts a major university, high-society residents, and beautiful retail shops and restaurants, but tobacco is no longer the economic driving force it was in the 18th century.  Still, the history of tobacco’s influence in Georgetown can be seen.  Dumbarton Oaks, an historic estate, was a former tobacco plantation.  Tudor Place, a mansion in the Federalist style, was founded by tobacco magnate Francis Lowndes; and Cooke Row, a series of houses on what is now “Q” Street in Georgetown were built on property owned by Francis Dodge, a tobacco tycoon.

Founded in 1964, Georgetown Tobacco may be a relative newcomer to the tobacco scene in Georgetown, but we proudly continue the tradition of tobacco commerce in Georgetown.