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HEMP 101 -- The introduction of hemp to North America

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The difference between marijuana and hemp


Marijuana is selectively bred strains of the Cannabis plant sown several feet apart to produce the most flowering parts.  The flowers are individually very small, but they clump together to form large buds.  Cannabis has male and female plants with an occasional hermaphrodite containing both sexual parts.  Properly grown marijuana, referred to as “sesamia,” are buds from female plants which are kept from being fertilized so they will use all their energy producing resin instead of seeds.  Male plants found in the crop are pulled from the soil as soon as they are identified.  Most professional growers start their seedlings from grafts taken from their finest female plants or grow their seedlings from carefully chosen hybrid seed designed to yield only female plants.  As a result, the marijuana being 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 Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).  THC is the psychotropic cannabinoid in marijuana that produces an euphoric high and has certain medical properties which have been recorded for over 2,000 years.

Above is a picture of cannabis being grown for sale as recreational or medical marijuana.  The plants have grow about five feet high topped off by large buds.  One plant can send up eight large buds as shown in this marijuana being legally grown in South Africa.  The marijuana buds are harvested, trimmed, and then sold.  Often times, the major stalks of the  marijuana plant are dried upside down (seen below) in the hope that 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 8 states.  Marijuana for just medical purposes can be grown and sold in 21 additional states.  Recreational and/or medical marijuana may be Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa, or a hybrid of Cannabis indica and cannabis sativa.

Hemp is selectively bread Cannabis with the seeds historically sown close together.  The female plants’ flowering parts are sometimes allowed to be fertilized by the male plants’ pollen and go to seed.  Planting many hemp seeds spaced close together results in the cannabis plants developing long stalks as they compete with one another for sunlight, and the stalks will be left with few leaves and side branches.  Historically, 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.  The remaining seeds are made into a variety of products.  The United States Government has previously argued that hemp is included in the United States Code’s all-encompassing definition of marijuana, but the United States Government has more specifically defined hemp as marijuana containing less than or equal to 0.3 percent THC in any particular part of the plant, and 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.

In recent years, hemp has been hybrid and grown for its cannabidiol (CBD) content with the goal being to grow Cannabis plants high in CBD and and low in THC.  CBD is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid which produces no euphoric effect but has many medicinal properties.  Hemp plants with flowering parts high in CBD but within the federal specification of hemp, meaning having a THC content at or below 0.3 percent by weight, have now been developed.  Below is a picture of Cannabis being grown the traditional way for sale as hemp to be processed into cordage and cloth.

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 the English claiming ownership of the entire east coast of North America.

In 1550, Pedro Cuadrado, one of Hernan Cortes’ Spanish conquistadors, brought hemp seed to Mexico and began to grow hemp.  Enticed by the prospect of raising hemp in the New World, famous soldier, explorer, writer, poet, and politician, Sir Walter Raleigh (seen below), 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, and 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 which was similar to hemp and first mistaken for hemp but which produced a very inferior fiber.

England desperately needed hemp to make rope and sails for its ships, so in 1611, King James I ordered the Virginia Company Governor, Sir Thomas Dale, to tell the King’s subjects the King demanded they grow hemp, and by 1616, colonist John Rolfe (seen below) claimed Jamestown was raising hemp which had “no equal in England or Holland.”  However, when Rolfe introduced tobacco, it soon became more profitable for the colonists to grown tobacco, and the production of the more useful hemp was 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.

The English Parliament continued to offer further inducements to encourage the colonists to grow hemp, and after King Charles II came to the throne in 1660, Virginia Company Governor William Berkeley (seen below) 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.

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.  In fact, 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.

When shipbuilding began in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1629 (seen below), there was not enough hemp grown in the colonies to satisfy the growing demand for hemp for manufacturing ropes and sails.  Additional hemp to satisfy the shipbuilder’s needs needed to be imported.  In 1639, the Massachusetts court passed a law which required every household to plant hemp seeds.  The Connecticut assembly also strongly encouraged hemp farming.

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

Meanwhile, the British crown continued to require its colonies to grow hemp to quench the British Navy’s thirst for rope and sails.  Growing hemp became a staple of the colonial economies and became George Washington’s third primary crop behind wheat and tobacco.  In fact, when Virginia suffered a shortage of hemp between 1763 and 1767, a land owner could be jailed for refusing to grow hemp.  The drawing below shows early colonialists harvesting their hemp crop.

A number of our country’s subsequent presidents, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and Franklin Pierce, also grew hemp.
A May 1765 entry in George Washington’s diary says he had hemp seeds planted each day from mid-April, and in October of that year, Washington wrote he had grown 27 bushels of hemp.  In a letter from Washington to William Pearce, who managed 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 that Washington was trying to grow himself some sesamia marijuana plants for smoking.  The pictures below are of Washington standing next to his hemp harvest and of a harvested field of hemp at Mount Vernon.

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

The quality of hemp depends on how it is retted

The quality of hemp has a lot to do  with how it 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 was achieved when the stalks being retted were soaked in water for a few days, but this tended to foul the ponds and streams.  The next best method was winter retting in which the stalks of hemp were 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 hemp fiber was dew retting which entailed laying the hemp out in the evening, and then after the stalks were dampened by the overnight dew, stacking them up tightly into vertical piles during the day.  The process was repeated until the hemp was ready to be dried and “braked.”  Dew retting was popular in Kentucky, but Kentucky's hemp was considered too inferior in quality to be used on board a sailing ship.  The best hemp came from Russia and was actively imported by the Boston shipbuilders.  Below are 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 it moist, in this instance, next to a tobacco crop.

Braking the hemp stalks to free the fibers from the outside shaft was back-breaking work before the advent and wide dissemination of power equipment designed to do the job.  Braking the 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.  A poor, depression-era farmer with his hand brake is shown in the photo below.  Often times, the task of braking was assigned to convicts in jails and prisons so hard was the work.

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 to 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 of osnaburg looked rather modest.  In the picture below, workers pull hemp fibers through progressively finer combs in an early 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 cloth could be made from cotton and European wool, but neither of those fabrics were nearly as durable as hemp.  Below is a picture of the fairly course fabric 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 (seen below) 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 country’s defense, and Hamilton and Clay wanted to end the United States’ reliance on foreign hemp. Kentucky was also 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 level of THC.

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.  The picture below is of “Old Ironsides” defeating the H.M.S. Guerriere in the War of 1812, and below that is a picture of hemp rope which often had tar rubbed into it to help protect it from the elements.

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 purchase their freedom.  Slaves who worked in hemp factories which 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.  Below is a picture of nautical tow rope 16 inches in circumference made at the Tubbs Cordage Mill which opened in San Francisco in 1850.  This particular rope was sold in 1,200 foot lengths and was made from imported Manila hemp.

In 1854, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the following poem “Ropewalk” in honor of the workers who worked in the 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.

It was well know 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.  Below is a picture of some of the bottles of cannabis laden medications offered for sale in the mid-1800's.

Recreational cannabis started to be considered a fashionable narcotic in the 1850's with Asian hashish parlors being found next door to Asian opium dens.  Every large city had at least one hashish parlor, and New York City reportedly had 500 such establishments.  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.”

The Civil War brought an end to large scale hemp production in the United States although sharecroppers still worked the Kentucky hemp fields as shown below.  Russian hemp was still preferred for use on ships, and three 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 grew well in the monsoon climates because its seedlings needed 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 which is now better known as the 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.

Cannabis continued to see use as a medicine, and by 1900 Cannabis formulations were 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 which 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 even though their directions said they were to be taken orally.  One such example is shown below.

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 as seen below.

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.  In Hemp 102, we discuss how growing any form of Cannabis became illegal or highly discouraged and how the United States government effectively banned research into a most valuable medical remedy.

Just within the last 10 years has marijuana gained widespread acceptance for its medical uses.  CBD is marketed to increase one’s personal well being and to treat various medical disorders without causing the euphoric feeling of being “high” or causing one to fail a drug test, and it is known to offer relief from anxiety, pain, inflammation, seizures, spasms, and migraine headaches.  Recent government funded clinical studies show CBD has the potential to treat arthritis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and epilepsy.  CBD has also been demonstrated to have nueroprotective and anti-cancer properties.

Go to Hemp 102

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