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Hemp 101: 1550-1910 How hemp was introduced and became an accepted crop in North America


In Hemp 101 we discuss how cannabis came to North America, how hemp was a required crop and needed to be grown to produce cordage and fabric, how cannabis was offered for sale and accepted as a medical remedy, and how smoking marijuana for its recreational benefit was considered fashionable.

The difference between marijuana and hemp


Marijuana produces a euphoric high.  Marijuana is enjoyed recreationally and smoked or otherwise consumed for its medical properties.

Marijuana begins with selectively bred strains of cannabis seed.  In an effort to produce the most flowering parts, the seeds are sown several feet apart to give space for side stalks.  The flowers are individually very small, but they clump together forming large buds.

All cannabis species have male and female plants with an occasional hermaphrodite containing both sexual parts.  Properly grown marijuana, referred to as “sesamia,” are buds from female plants that have been kept from being fertilized.  By the female plant being deprived of fertilization, the female plant uses more of its growing energy producing resin in its flowering parts instead of producing seeds.  Male plants found in the crop are pulled from the soil as soon as they are identified -- hopefully before they fertilize the female plants.  If a hermaphrodite fertilizes another female, that female will produce seeds that yield female plants or additional hermaphrodites.

Most professional growers start their seedlings from grafts taken from their finest female plants, or they will grow their seedlings from carefully chosen hybrid seeds identified as yielding only female plants.  As a result, the marijuana grown for recreational and most medical purposes will have a low or nonexistent seed count, be high in resin production, and contain a high percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).  Delta-9 THC is the psychotropic cannabinoid in marijuana that produces a euphoric high, and THC has certain medical properties that have been recorded for over 4500 years.

Cannabis plants grown for sale as recreational or medical marijuana are usually grown about five feet high and develop large flowering buds at the end of their stems.  One plant can send up eight stems each containing a large bud.  The marijuana buds are harvested, trimmed, and then sold.  Often times, the major stalks of the marijuana plant are dried upside down in the hope all the plant’s resin will settle in the topmost buds.

Recreational and medical marijuana can now be grown and sold in the District of Columbia and nine states.  Marijuana for just medical purposes can be grown and sold in 22 additional states.  In total, marijuana can now be grown in 30 states, and initiatives and legislation to legalize marijuana are taking hold in the remaining states.  Recreational and/or medical marijuana can be cannabis indica, cannabis sativa, or a hybrid of cannabis indica and cannabis sativa.  cont.


Hemp has historically been grown to produce fiber.  Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the many cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, and CBD is usually extracted from hemp.

Hemp is selectively bred cannabis with its seeds historically sown close together.  When hemp is grown for fiber, the female plants’ flowering parts are often allowed to be fertilized by the male plants’ wind-blown pollen and go to seed.  The hemp seeds are often pressed to extract a nutritious cooking oil leaving behind a high protein edible pulp.

Planting hemp seeds close together results in cannabis plants that develop long, thin stalks as they compete with one another for sunlight, and the stalks will be left with few leaves and side branches.  The male plants are allowed to release their pollen into the air, and the wind blows this pollen upon the female plant’s numerous flowering parts producing an abundance of new seeds.  Some of those seeds are used for planting the next crop.  cont.

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has from time to time taken the position, never proven in court, that industrial hemp is included in the United States Code’s all-encompassing definition of "marijuana" found in the Controlled Substances Act.

The DEA has been slow to acknowledge passage of the Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research section of the Agriculture Act of 2014, 7 U.S.C. §5940, wherein Congress specifically defined "industrial hemp" as cannabis containing no more than 0.3 percent Delta-9 THC in any particular part of the plant.  Industrial hemp is now legally grow in 43 states.  Products made from hemp seeds, such as lotions, oils, and food products, and products made from hemp fiber, such as rope, twine, and cloth may be sold nationwide, and so can CBD extracted from industrial hemp.  See our legal argument (click here).

In recent years, hemp has been hybrid and grown to be high in CBD and low in THC.  From such plants CBD can be readily and economically extracted.  CBD is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that produces no euphoric effect but has many desired properties.  Hemp plants with flowering parts high in CBD but within the federal specification of industrial hemp, meaning having a Delta-9 THC content at or below 0.3 percent by weight, have been developed, and these hemp plants are grown much like marijuana with the goal being to grow seed-free flowering parts.

In this picture, hemp is grown in China.  The seeds are planted close together so the plants produce long stalks from which fiber and cordage are made.

Through 99 percent of recorded history, cannabis has been legal, necessary, and desired.

Hemp was a required crop in the early American colonies.

In 1497, John Cabot set sail for America at the request of King Henry VII of England.  Cabot landed in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Labrador, resulting in England claiming ownership of the entire east coast of North America.

John Cabot led the first English expedition to the New World in 1479..

In 1550, Pedro Cuadrado, one of Hernan Cortes’ Spanish conquistadors, brought hemp seeds to Mexico and began growing hemp. 

Hernan Cortez first arrived in Cuba in 1511.  From 1519 to 1521, Cortez became famous for conquering the Aztec Empire in Mexico.

Enticed by the prospect of raising hemp in the New World, Sir Walter Raleigh, expressed interest in harvesting hemp in the American colonies, but when English settlers first arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, they were more interested in searching for gold and silver than growing crops.  Had it not been for the generosity of the Powhotan native Americans, the early Jamestown settlers would have starved to death.  The New World was originally devoid of hemp, but there was acnida cannabina -- a plant similar to hemp and first mistaken for hemp but which produced a very inferior fiber.

Sir Walter Raleigh, an English landed gentleman, writer, poet, soldier, explorer, spy, and politician, lived from 1554 to 1618.  Tried in 1603 upon hearsay evidence, most notably the sworn confession of his friend Henry Brooke, who Raleigh was unable to cross examine, Raleigh was convicted of treason for plotting against Queen Elizabeth's successor, James I.  After being imprisoned in the Tower of London, Raleigh was beheaded in 1618.

England desperately needed hemp to make rope and sails for ships, so in 1611, King James I ordered Virginia Company Governor, Sir Thomas Dale, to tell the King’s subjects the King demanded they grow hemp, and by 1616, colonist John Rolfe said Jamestown was raising hemp which had “no equal in England or Holland.”  However, when Rolfe introduced tobacco to the Virginia farmers, it soon became more profitable for them to grown tobacco, and production of the more useful hemp substantially diminished.  As a result, the Virginia Company ordered its Jamestown colonists to “set 100 [hemp] plants and the governor to set 5,000."   In addition, 100 pounds sterling was appropriated to pay Swedish and Polish hemp dressers ten pounds, ten shillings apiece if they would emigrate to the Jamestown colony.

John Rolfe was the first person to successfully cultivate tobacco in the Colony of Virginia and sell it as an export crop.  Hemp cultivation suffered because of tobacco's success.

The English Parliament continued to offer further inducements to encourage the colonists to grow hemp, and after King Charles II came to the English throne in 1660, Virginia Company Governor William Berkeley offered to pay two pounds of tobacco for every pound of hemp the colonists brought to market.  Similar inducements were offered colonial settlers in Maryland.  By 1682, hemp became legal tender for up to one-fourth of a farmer’s debts.  Maryland and Pennsylvania followed suit in 1683 and 1706, respectively.

Virginia Company Governor William Berkeley offered two pounds of tobacco for every pound of hemp.

In the New England colonies, hemp was first brought to America by the Pilgrims when they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.  The Mayflower’s ropes and sails were made from hemp because of its natural resistance to decay.  All British ships carried a store of hemp seed in the event they were shipwrecked and needed to grow hemp for rope and sails.  Hemp was introduced as one of the first crops in the Massachusetts Colony, and growing hemp was considered necessary if the Pilgrims were to make enough clothing to survive the winter.  cont.

In 1629, when shipbuilding began in Salem, Massachusetts, there was not enough hemp grown in the colonies to satisfy the demand for rope and sails.  Additional hemp to satisfy the shipbuilder’s needs needed to be imported.  In 1639, the Massachusetts court passed a law requiring every household to plant hemp seeds.  The Connecticut assembly also strongly encouraged hemp farming.

Ships in need of hempen rope and sails began to be built in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1629.

In 1635, the first building in America specifically designed to manufacture rope from hemp was built in Salem, Massachusetts.  Such buildings were called “ropewalks,” and they were up to 1000 feet long.  The first rope making operation in Boston was begun by John Harrison who Boston politicians induced to come to Boston in 1642 by offering him a monopoly consisting of his having the exclusive right to manufacture hemp rope in Boston until his death.  Soon ropewalks could be found along the entire East coast, and by 1770, long after Harrison’s death, there were a total of 14 ropewalks in Boston.

A drawing of one of the first ropewalks in America.

The British crown continued to require American colonies to grow hemp to satisfy the British Navy’s need for rope and sails.  Growing hemp became a staple of colonial economies, and hemp became George Washington’s third primary crop behind wheat and tobacco.  When Virginia suffered a shortage of hemp between 1763 and 1767, a land owner could be jailed for refusing to grow hemp.

Early English colonialists are shown harvesting their hemp crop.

A number of our country’s subsequent presidents, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and Franklin Pierce all grew hemp.

A May 1765 entry in George Washington’s diary says he had hemp seeds planted each day from mid-April.  In October of that year, Washington wrote he had grown 27 bushels of hemp.  In a letter to William Pearce, the manager of his hemp plants, Washington wrote, “What was done with the Indian Hemp plant from last summer?  It ought, all of it, to be sown again; that not only a stock of seed sufficient for my own purposes might have been raised, but to have disseminated seed to others; as it is more valuable than common hemp.”  Washington also wrote in his diary that he had separated the male cannabis plants from the female cannabis plants “rather too late” leading to speculation Washington was trying to grow himself some sesamia indica marijuana plants for smoking.

George Washington is shown standing next to his hemp harvest.


The fields of Mount Vernon following the hemp harvest.

Click here for a blog examining the question of whether George Washington smoked recreational marijuana.

Thomas Jefferson composed his drafts of the Declaration of Independence on Dutch hemp paper when 75 to 90 percent of all paper was made from hemp fiber.  The final Declaration of Independence signed by the delegates to the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the one containing John Hancock’s famous signature, was written on parchment made from sheep’s skin. 

Thomas Jefferson wrote this draft of the Declaration of Independence on Dutch hemp paper.

The quality of hemp fiber depends on how the hemp is retted.

The quality of hemp fiber has a lot to do with how the hemp is “retted.”  Retting is a process designed to weaken the resin holding the hemp’s outer fibers to its stalk.  The thinner the hemp stalks, the more easily they are retted.  The strongest and longest lasting hemp fiber is achieved when the stalks being retted are soaked in water for a few days, but this method would foul ponds and streams. The next best method is winter retting in which the stalks of hemp are left on the ground over the winter months where the frost and snow eventually loosened the resin. The least desirable method of retting resulting in the least durable fiber is dew retting which entails laying the hemp out in the evening, and then after the stalks are dampened by the overnight dew, stacking them up tightly into vertical piles during the day. This process is then repeated until the hemp is ready to be dried and “braked.”

Dew retting was popular in Kentucky, but Kentucky's hemp fiber was considered too inferior to be used to manufacture rope and cloth for sailing ships.  The best hemp fiber came from Russia and was actively imported by Boston shipbuilders.

Two early pictures of hemp being dew retted in Kentucky.  First the hemp stalks were spread on the ground to pick up the dew overnight. Then the hemp stalks were bundled vertically during the day to keep them moist, in this instance, next to a tobacco crop.

Braking hemp stalks to free their fibers from the outside shaft was back-breaking work before the invention and wide dissemination of power equipment designed to do the job.  Braking hemp was such a hard, physical task that Thomas Jefferson gave up manufacturing hemp because it caused his slaves “too many back problems.”  The hand brake was invented to assist in performing the task, but it was merely boards connected with a hinge at one end, and the workman needed to lift and smash, lift and smash, lift and smash the top boards against the bottom boards with the hemp stalks in between.  Often times, the task of braking hemp stalks was assigned to convicts in jails and prisons so hard was the work.

A poor, depression-era farmer with his hand brake.

Hemp was historically used to make rope, sails, clothing, and medicine.

Once the hemp fibers were loosened from the plant’s shaft, they could be run through progressively finer combs and then spun into twine from which rope and fabric were made.  Often times such a task was assigned to women who worked together in spinning bees.  The coarse fabric produced was called "osnaburg" from which shirts and trousers were made.  Many a Revolutionary War soldier’s uniform was made from osnaburg.  Compared with the fine woolen clothing worn by the French soldiers who allied with the colonists during the American Revolutionary War, the Continental soldier’s uniform made from osnaburg was very modest.

Workers pull hemp fibers through progressively finer combs in an early hemp cordage factory.

By 1810, there were 8327 hemp plantations in the United States, mostly outside the deep South where cotton and tobacco were king.  Finer and more comfortable to wear clothing was made from cotton and European wool, but neither of those fabrics were nearly as durable as hemp.

This fairly course fabric is made from hemp.  Canvas was made from hemp, and the word “canvas” comes from the word “cannabis.”

During the War of 1812 when Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury, he and Kentucky Senator Henry Clay successfully lobbied for the imposition of a tariff on imported hemp which they thought would stimulate domestic hemp production.  Hemp was considered essential to the new country’s defense, and Hamilton and Clay wanted to end the United States’ reliance on foreign hemp.  Kentucky was the leading hemp growing state, and Clay felt the tariff would financially benefit his constituency.  Wild hemp can still be found in Kentucky growing by the side of the road, but it is no good as recreational marijuana because it has such a low THC content.

Henry Clay successfully lobbied for the imposition of a tariff on imported hemp.

“Old Ironsides” defeats the H.M.S. Guerriere in the War of 1812.  The hemp rope and the hemp sailing used on the U.S.S. Constitution, commissioned in 1797, weighed a total of 60 tons. The anchor cable was 25 inches in circumference.

Hemp rope used on sailing ships had tar rubbed into it to protect it from the salt water.  Sailors assigned the duty of tarring the ropes were called Jack Tars.

Prior to the Civil War, William C. Bullitt of Lyndon, Kentucky, argued in 1849 that if the slaves were taken away, then the production of hemp would be destroyed when hemp production was “otherwise bound to make the rich lands of Kentucky and Missouri still more valuable.”  Interestingly, slaves were allowed to earn money braking hemp, and some slaves were able to earn more money than free white men, enough to eventually buy their freedom.  Slaves who worked in hemp factories that produced rope and cloth were even better off, with some earning up to $900 over their lifetime, more than many free, white workers were ever able to accumulate.  By the 1830's, hemp production in America reached its peak.

Nautical tow rope 16 inches in circumference was made at the Tubbs Cordage Mill which opened in San Francisco in 1850.  The rope shown here was sold in 1,200 foot lengths and was made from imported Manila hemp fiber.

In 1854, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the following poem in honor of those who worked in ropewalks:


In that building, long and low,
With its windows all a-row,
Like the port-holes of a hulk,
Human spiders spin and spin,
Backward down their threads so thin
Dropping, each a hempen bulk.

Cannabis was the basis of many late 18th Century medicines.

It was universally thought prior to the Civil War that cannabis had useful medicinal effects.  By 1850, medicinal preparations containing cannabis had become widely available and could be purchased over the counter without a prescription.

Some of the bottles of cannabis laden medications offered for sale in the mid-1800's.  Some of these medications were made from cannabis indica and could be expected to produce a euphoric high.

By 1900, cannabis medicine was being marketed to treat sleep disorders, rheumatism, digestive complaints, and nausea.  With the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, all drugs that were not issued by a pharmacy needed to display the word “poison” on their label whether or not they were actually poisonous.

Medicine bottles containing cannabis began to carry “poison” on their labels.  Their directions said they were to be taken orally.

Recreational marijuana was a fashionable narcotic.

Recreational cannabis was considered a fashionable narcotic in the 1850's with Asian hashish parlors found next door to Asian opium dens.  Every large city had at least one hashish parlor, and New York City reportedly had 500.  According to an article written by Harry Hubbell Kane for Harper’s Magazine, the hashish-houses in New York City were said to be frequented by “the better classes.”

American hemp production declined after the Civil War.

The Civil War brought an end to large scale hemp production in the United States although sharecroppers still worked Kentucky hemp fields.  Russian hemp was still preferred for use on ships, and less expensive fibers began to be imported. One such fiber was Jute, a shiny vegetable fiber from the jute plant from which burlap is made. Jute began to be imported from the east coast of India and from Bangladesh where it grows well in the monsoon climate because its seedlings need be covered with water early in their growing season.  Another alternative fiber was Sisal, from which Mexican hats are often made.  Sisal fibers are extracted from the Mexican agave plant from which tequila is made.  The third and most prevalent alternative fiber was Manila hemp.  Manila hemp is buff-colored, and it proved to be the best substitute for cannabis hemp.  Manila hemp is extracted from the musa textilis plant, a relative of the banana tree, and it is named after the capital city of the Philippines where musa textilis plants are primarily grown.

Sharecroppers harvest a Kentucky hemp field in the second half of the 19th Century.

Hemp production in America continued to decline, but in the 1910's it was still prevalent enough to be pictured on the back of the 1915 series of the $10 dollar bill.

Farmers harvesting hemp in the early 1900's as shown on the back of the 1915 series of the United States ten dollar bill.

Up until the 1910's and the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, cannabis was offered for sale, and its formulations were accepted as a medical remedy.  Hemp was farmed to produce a variety of useful industrial materials, and smoking marijuana for its recreational pleasure was considered fashionable.  Political attacks upon cannabis did not occur until the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.

For more on the history of cannabis, you may enjoy this video entitled "Magic Weed History of Marijuana.

In Hemp 102 we discuss how the use of marijuana was outlawed as a means of attacking the Hispanic and black communities, how the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, and billionaire newspaper baron and yellow journalist, William Randolph Hearst, disseminated false and prejudicial information about marijuana to successfully increase their own power and sell newspapers, and how truthful information was withheld from Congress leading to the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 which brought an end to all American research into the medical properties of cannabis (click here).

PharmaXtracts sells the finest, purest CBD products at the lowest prices you will find anywhere.  With over three decades of combined experience in the CBD industry, PharmaXtracts is a Band of Brothers who decided the CBD market needed a serious intervention.  No longer could we stand by and let false information be perpetuated and insignificant dosages be taken by people in need of CBD’s many benefits.  It was time for us to bring clarity to a once shady world.

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These statements have not been evaluated by the United States Food and Drug Administration.  PharmaXtracts CBD products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.  A doctor’s advise should be sought before using PharmaXtracts CBD products or any other cannabis extract especially if you have a serious medical condition, use prescription medications, are pregnant, or are nursing a child.  Not for sale to those under the age of 21 years.  Keep PharmaXtracts CBD products out of the reach of children.

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