hemp history

Hemp History and Colonial America

Hemp History Week 2015 is rolling along nicely.  Part of hemp history week involves talking about the potential benefits of hemp in America today, but American Hemp history goes back to the very start of colonization.  In fact, the pilgrims brought hemp with them, and not just in seed form.  Hemp was on the Mayflower itself–it was used in the sailcloth and the rope rigging.  But that was only the ‘seed’ for hemp in colonial America; hemp would go on to grow in the colonies in some unexpected ways.

Britain and the need for Hemp

Women beat hemp, preparing it for the rope-making process

The importance of hemp in the American colonies dates to before colonial times. At the end of the 15th century, when Britain began to grow as a naval power one of the biggest challenges they faced was securing enough hemp to fully outfit their sailing ships.  This was a perennial problem for the British empire, and since their European adversaries France had a more consistent supply of hemp the British crown felt that securing raw hemp was a necessity.

To solve this issue, Britain mandated that hemp be grown in the American colonies. The goal was to secure a steady supply of raw hemp, and thereby secure their spot as a global power.  This plan, however, did not work out so well.  As British colonies in America grew, so did their own need for raw materials.  The first ship-builders were established by the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629; and like the British, they required hemp.

Besides shipbuilding, the colonial cottage industries which were sprouting up interfered with the British thirst for hemp. These companies produced clothing and furniture within the colonies, and they needed raw materials such as hemp.  Britain tried to create laws that would slow or stop the industrialization of early America, but they all failed; much of the domestic (colonial) hemp crop never reached Britain.  This (among many, many other things) caused some tension.

Hemp in Early America

As the colonies grew in prosperity, so did their reliance on hemp. As a result, a few of the colonies had laws requiring farmers to grow hemp.  Hemp was even used as legal tender and to pay taxes in the young American economy.  At this point in history, Americans used hemp in many of the same ways the ancients did–and more.  They produced ropes and cloth.  They extracted oils from the seeds to use in lamps.  They bartered with it and used it to support their families.

“Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth & protection of the country.” -Thomas Jefferson

Hemp was a staple in Colonial America.  In fact, according to the Children’s book of nature, Benjamin Franklin himself used hemp string to secure a key to his kite on one famous (if apocryphal) day in American history. Benjamin Franklin went on to open one of the first hemp paper mills

Benjamin Franklin was a hemp entrepreneur

in the colonies.

The relationship between America and Britain began to degrade after 1760.  Britain was disappointed in the colonies growing their own industry, as opposed to bolstering the crown.  It was at this point in history that Britain began to pass laws that seriously hindered the American economy.  Laws like the sugar act, stamp act and the Townshend acts taxed the colonists heavily and engendered resentment against the crown.

Revolution and a Hemp rallying point

As resentment toward the crown grew, so did the prominence of hemp in the independence movement.  Noteworthy leaders of this movement, like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, were hemp growers (at least occasionally) at this point in history.

Eventually revolution broke out and the colonies declared independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote drafts of the declaration of independence on hemp paper.  But with this declaration and revolution came another need– an American flag.  Previously the flag used by continental forces was the “Grand Union” flag.  This flag, however, was inspired by the British union jack and thus caused some confusion.  When it’s flying over Wasington’s base at prospect hill during the siege of Boston was taken as a sign of Surrender by British loyalists, it was determined that we needed a new flag.

“Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere.” -George Washington

Struggling widow, friend of Washington and noted seamstress– Betsey Ross, was chosen to sew a new flag.  One that would be a unifying element for the colonies–something they could rally around.  And for her material Mrs. Ross chose durable hemp cloth.

hemp history

The American hemp flag

Underneath their hemp banner, the colonies would win the war and the United States would change the world.  Hemp remained a common crop in the US until it was outlawed.  Although its economic prominence was diminished by cheap imports like jute.  The decorticator had yet to be invented and less labor was needed to process the imported fibers.

Now we are at the cusp of a new revolution.  Technology has allowed us a new plethora of uses for hemp, but the growth of which is still largely outlawed here in the United States.  It is bitterly ironic that citizens of the US are not free to grow hemp as they see fit considering hemp was at the core of the colonies breaking away from Britain.  This Hemp History Week, call your senators and congressmen and remind them of America’s hemp history.

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