The Bush That George Grew

By Kenyon  Gibson

The first recorded planting of hemp by a colonial power in the New World took place in 1545, by Spaniards in Chile.  Less than a hundred years later the Pilgrims followed suit in New England.  Hemp was an essential item, and was quick to take root in North and South America.
However, these were not the first plantings of hemp, as many history textbooks claim.  Jack Frazier, in "The Great American Hemp Industry, cites several early writings describing hemp growing naturally without any European influence:
John de Verrazano "we found these folkes to be more white than those that we found before, being clod with certaine leaves that hang on the boughs of trees, which they sewe together with threds of wilde hemp.
Thomas Hariot "The truth is, that of hempe and flaxe there is no great store in any one place together, by reason it is not planted but as the soule doth yield of itself.
Lord Delaware "The country is wonderful fertile and very rich, Hempe better than English growing wilde in abundance.
Du Pratz "I ought not to omit to take notice, that hemp grows naturally on the lands adjoining to the lakes on the West of the Mississippi.
Frazier further notes evidence of pre-Columbian voyages to the New World, quoting Cyrus Gordon, whose book Before Columbus, links between the Old World and Ancient America, documents of such voyages to 531 BC.  Gordon brings to light the discovery of a Hebrew inscription found at Bat Creek, Tennessee in 1890.  The inscription, dated to 35 AD, in conjunction with Bar Kohbu coins of 135 AD in Kentucky, strongly supports the possibility of a Jewish settlement in the New World shortly after the Diaspora. Another writer who Frazier cites is Henriette Mertz, who discusses Asian voyages to the West Coast, in "Pole Ink, Two Ancient Records of Chinese Explorations in America.  It is just possible that the original Indians, reached North America in this fashion, and brought with them hemp seeds. Such voyages may not have in fact been possible without hempen ropes and sails, which were of so much a necessity to Europe that hemp was mandated in the New World.
In the Spanish colonies, such orders were taken seriously, with the viceroy of the New World colonies encouraging hemp cultivation by providing seed to settlers.  The chief areas of production were Chile, Mexico, and California.  In 1795 Spain opened up the Mississippi to international trade to encourage hemp exports, some of which was actually transacted using hemp as barter. With greater access to trade routes, California increased its hemp production, going from 12,500 pounds in 1807 to over 220,000 pounds in 1810.  Much of Latin America has a Mediterranean climate, and hemp was of easy cultivation.  Remnants of these plantings still thrive, especially in the Valparaiso district of Chile, where it has had the most continuous cultivation anywhere in the New World.
France also looked across the Atlantic for hemp.  When French merchants heard that hemp was growing wild in the New World they sensed an opportunity for enormous profits.  After the first disappointments subsided, the French thought they could still make a profit in hemp if they could simply persuade the settlers in New France to cultivate cannabis as a crop.  To this end, Samuel Champlain, the great explorer and coloniser, brought hemp seeds along on his early expeditions to New France.  By 1606, hemp was growing in Port Royal in Nova Scotia under the supervision of botanist and apothecary, Louis Herbert.  Both the French and the British had difficulty in finding enough laborers to cultivate the hemp as the early settlers were busy trying to grow food to eat.  Jean Talon, the finance minister of Quebec, provided seed free to farmers which they were to plant immediately and return with seed from the following years crop.  He also confiscated all the thread in the colony agreeing only to sell it in return for hemp.  
This forced the settlers to grow hemp so that they could barter or sell it for thread so that they could clothe their children.  By this rather unorthodox method, Talon succeeded in increasing the production of hemp to the satisfaction of the French government.  The French traded hemp cloth with the natives in the Louisiana territory, and a French settlement wrote a treatise describing hemp,s importance.  However, there were times as early as 1721 when France, in order to protect its home industries, discouraged production in its colonies.  Generally this was not the case; the Governor of Louisiana who was told to increase production by offering free hemp seed to the colonist.  Towards the end of the eighteenth century New Orleans had a hemp factory which provided ample cordage for ships which docked there.  By 1763 French interests in the New World wer e to subside, as the Treaty of Paris gave up Quebec.
British settlers were encouraged to grow hemp in all the colonies, which was done in Canada by land grant.  Perhaps the first orders to cultivate hemp were made at Jamestown, Virginia, which Jack Herer, in his 1985 book "The Emperor Wears no Clothes, notes as the nations first marijuana laws, in 1619. Massachusetts and Connecticut followed suit by mandating cultivation in the 1630,s. A more positive approach was to allow its use for payments of taxes, as in Virginia where hemp could be used to pay the poll tax, or, even as legal tender as a statute of 1682 shows. A 1685 account notes both New Jersey and Pennsylvania as good for growing hemp, that much was shipped to England, and that a receipt for hemp from the store house register was as good as money Subsides also worked, as Massachusetts law decks record; in 1701 such a subsidy was enacted, giving farmers a farthing per lb. of hemp, which then went for four and a half pence per lb.  Virginia was a steady producer of this staple; one 1649 account mentions "an old planter of over 30 years standing who sows yearly of hemp and flax, and causes it to be spun. In 1723 South Carolina encouraged the production of hemp by offering a bounty and in 1733 Richard Hall was paid by the state to write a book in order to promote the production of hemp and flax.  He travelled to Holland to study European practices and returned with hemp seed to plant.
Ultimately the colonies were to become independent, starting with the United States.  Independence, however, did not curtail hemp production; in many areas production increased, particularly in the United States, where the founding fathers were passionate hemp advocates.
Benjamin Franklin, as the leading paper manufacturer in the colonies, noted the raising of it in his state, of which he was in support. Thomas Paine noted hemp as a strength of the colonies, citing it as evidence of self-reliance that made the revolution plausible. George Washington grew it on his estates, and took an interest in its uses stopping on one occasion to visit a hemp paper factory in Hempstead, N.Y.
Thomas Jefferson even took a stand in favour of hemp versus a native plant, tobacco.  He voices his opinion in The Farm Journal of March 16, 1791, stating that tobacco required much more manure, employed less people, and did not contribute to the wealth or defence of the state.  He also compared hemp favourably to flax, and invented a method for breaking, which involved a thrashing machine moved by a horse; this was to be the new nation,s first patent.
John Quincy Adams wrote of Russian hemp cultivation which was printed into government records.  Little did he imagine the future governments anti-hemp activists would view these activities as subversive and un-American, or that the very substance of the paper on which the constitutions were written would be a matter of controversy.
After independence, there was new pressure on the young nation to produce hemp, as the need for defence and trade fell solely on their shoulders.  Ironically, while great amounts of hemp were grown, they were not water retted, and thus the United States, like other nations, sent to Russia for its supplies.  At one stage Yankee ships carried hemp not only to Boston and New York, but also to London and Liverpool, acting as agents for the British whom Napoleon tried to force out of the Baltic.  Many Americans voiced concern over the amount of imported hemp, and two ideas were put forth: tariffs, which were unpopular with the merchants, and subsidies to farmers producing water-retted hemp.  While much debate was heard on these proposals, Russian hemp continued to be the choice of the Navy, and sold for 100% more than American dew-retted hemp, which was used for other purposes; bagging cotton, ordinary ropes, clothing and oil.  In 1824 the Plymouth Cordage Company was founded in Plymouth, Mass.  This firm used Russian hemp, despite a tariff rise of 4 cents a pound that same year.  Bourne Spourner, Plymouth,s founder, was an abolitionist, and his dislike of slavery put him off to using the products made by such means.  Despite paying higher prices for hemp, the company prospered to become the largest cordage company in the world by 1950.
The above table shows that Kentucky and Missouri had become the centres of production, while the North-eastern States had by 1850 just about abandoned hemp growing.  
Mechanisation and westward expansion were two forces behind this shift, but much was due to the soil and climate in Kentucky being especially favourable to cannabis cultivation.  The first recorded crop of hemp grown in that state was by Archibald McNeil of Clark,s Creek, near Danville in 1775.  The "Blue Grass region especially attracted hemp farmers, and was for over a century to remain the largest growing area of hemp in all of North America.  Its fertile soil, formed by the disintegration of lower Silurian limestone was especially rich in mineral deposits.
Early hemp cultivation in Kentucky was hampered by the scarcity of seed and its consequential high price.  By 1790 the situation was different because it was noted in the Kentucky Gazette that hemp was "the most certain crop and the most valuable commodity"  The exportation of hemp products from Kentucky was hampered by the difficulties of transport and its consequent costs.  As new settlers moved west, crossing the mountains, new trade opened  upssissippi was the means by which goods could be transported.  At that time the lower reaches of the river and New Orleans were Spanish possessions.
In order to boost trade the Spanish in 1788 opened up the Mississippi Basin to trade giving special privileges to such men as General James Wilkinson.  In 1795 the Pinckney Treaty concluded with Spain gave Americans free navigation on the Mississippi and a deposit, in New Orleans to land and store goods.  The latter was revoked in 1803 for a few months, which caused some inconvenience and a reduction in the export of hemp.  However, due to the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803,  the export market was reinvigorated, and Kentucky was able to send hemp and produce to the southern markets at will.  The wars in Europe in the early part of the nineteenth century helped the cultivation and manufacture of Kentucky hemp.  During the wars, importation of European hemp products and hemp fibre was curtailed which meant Kentucky took up the slack with exports to the East and the South.  After 1815 European imports resumed with the eastern states resuming their trade with European countries.  In 1839 Kentucky,s hemp crop was badly damaged by drought, but it was able to satisfy its own needs by imports from other states such as Illinois, Missouri, and Minnesota.  
North Americans tried to raise the best crops they could, and this meant constant revision and a willingness to try new methods.  However, Russian, Italian, and Dutch hemp continued to be the most desirable, largely due to the centuries of experience that these nations possessed.  In Europe and Russia there was much literature available and superior seed stocks, It was apparent to some producers and distributors of hemp that the Kentucky seed was in need of improvement, and importation of quality seed was encouraged.  Bologna Hemp, grown from imported Italian seed was being cultivated with excellent results.  Its white colour, strength and fineness were much admired and appreciated.  A Dr. Spurr even suggested that the navy should obtain seed from Russia or Italy and supply Kentucky farmers so that they produce better hemp. 
 In 1851 L. Maltby of Mason County, having learnt of So-ma, hemp variety, while travelling in France, brought back some of these seeds, some of which were planted successfully in Louisiana.  Other varieties included Russian hemp but these were not always successful since some of the seeds were more adapted to Northern European latitudes than the southern States such as Kentucky.  That is not to say that there were not successful plantings.  A French colleague of William L. Vance, a hemp farmer, gave him some Chinese seed similar to So-ma with excellent results.  This variety was from then on to be known as the "Vance Seed.
Other factors figured into the equation, such as sorting.  Francis Campbell in 1845 laments the fact that while Canadian hemp was of good quality, it was never sorted properly, and could not be relied upon.  But the biggest factor was in processing, as U.S. farmers favoured dew retting; however, the more desirable fibres were obtained from the water retting method.  Consequently few Kentucky farmers ever achieved top prices for their hemp.
In 1842 the Frankfort Commonwealth newspaper urged farmers to water-ret most of their crop because of the higher prices they could achieve.  The crop that year was expected to be the largest ever recorded.  Some farmers did follow this advice.  However, despite a growing interest they were still a minority. 
 Only when the price of dew retted hemp fell to that of half water-retted hemp did farmers change their age-old practices.  Water retting was a time consuming business, which the farmer was not prepared to do unless there was extra financial benefit.  Until the Civil War the Kentucky farmer continued to depend for the most part on the manufacture of bail rope and bagging to consign his hemp fibre. The quality of dew retted cordage was not of an acceptable quality for the American Navy or merchant fleet.  The United States navy saw the strategic importance to have a home grown supply of cordage and canvas and therefore tried to encourage the growth of superior hemp equal to that of Russia,s.  Previous attempts were made in 1810, an account of which is as follows:  "In the years 1809 and ,10, Russia hemp being scarce and very high, we urged on Messrs. Caruthers, of Lexington, Virginia, (large dealers in the article, and living in the neighborhood of the best hemp country) the advantage and necessity of improving it, and contracted to give them $290 per ton, for 70 to 80 tons, to be clear and well prepared.  
Mr. W. Caruthers paid particular and personal attention to it and it proved, (with some exception) of excellent quality.  This was all grown in Rockbridge, Botetourt, and Montgomery counties, on the James, the Jackson, and Cowpasture rivers, and this has hitherto been the part of the State where it was grown to any extent, the three counties then producing 50 to 100 tons each annually. Knowing that the practice of preparing it was by dew, or air-rotting, which is very tedious, it lying out for months, exposed to all the vicissitudes of weather, and is often thereby injured in strength, always in color, in the year 1810, Mr. Theo. Armistead, who was Navy Agent here, and also had a rope walk, and who was very zealous in the improvement of country hemp, with our establishment, held out strong inducements to have the hemp water-rotted, in place of the usual mode, but so difficult is it to change old habits, that only in one instance did we succeed.  Colonel Wilson C. Nicholas, of Albemarle county, and formerly Governor of Virginia, water-rotted his crop; and, to encourage and extend its mode, we gave for the part of it we got, (a few tons) $360 per ton; the quality was excellent, color much improved, and we believe, the fibre also, in strength and fineness, though it was not so well cleaned or prepared as it might have been.  The experiment seems satisfactory that it was capable of improvement by proper management.
In 1824 the navy desired American hemp to be used on the ship the North Carolina so as to compare it side by side with Russian hemp.  Not enough American water-retted could be procured, so the experiment was delayed and took place some months later on board the Constellation.  The conclusion made was that the Russian hemp was superior for maritime purposes.  A further attempt to use domestic cordage took place in 1841 when the navy contracted to buy 500 tons of water-retted hemp from David Myerle of Kentucky.  Myerle delivered twenty tons to the Charleston, Massachusetts shipyard for inspection, where it was not accepted; tests showed his product to be stronger than the best Riga Rein, but the amount of tow and waste caused the inspectors to reject it under the terms of the contract. This act of rejection of domestic hemp in favour of imported hemp sparked off debates for years, with allegations of corruption voiced in Congress.  Commodore John Nicholson sided with Myerle, telling him "you have been damned badly treated, and your hemp should never have been rejected.26Sympathy, however, did not prevent Myerle from bankruptcy.  His hemp was seized by creditors, who in turn suffered a loss, as they were not adept in the handling of its sale.
Over the years tariffs have been enacted against Russian hemp, starting in 1792 with the tax of $20 per ton, rising to $60 in 1828, then falling back nearer to original levels until abolished in the twentieth century.
Another attempt at using American hemp failed completely in which unretted hemp was used.  It fermented, putting paid to many attempts to use unretted cordage.27 In 1906 hemp was successfully water retted in Northfield, Minnesota, produced in cement tanks with water circulation and temperature carefully controlled.  The resultant fibre was similar to Italian hemp in quality.
At that time prices were coming off their highs caused by the wars in Europe, when hemp was fought over.  War was the main cause of scarcity and price increase; but other factors had an effect as well, such as drought.  Many prominent families in Kentucky grew hemp and were effected by the changes, such as the Speeds and the Todds.  The latter were a major force in the hemp industry, and of some historical interest as Mary Todd was to marry a then unknown lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln.
In 1873 Kentucky produced 10,687 tons, 8,975 of which were from the countries of Bourbon, Foyette, Jossamine, Scott, and Woodford.28 This figure is well off previous highs from before the Civil War.  The war caused great disruption; hemp growing came to a standstill and did not ever recover to its previous levels.  One interesting use of hemp that the war occasioned was that of movable defences-Secessionist soldiers rolled wetted bundles of hemp towards the Union Army, thus able to fire upon their enemy from behind movable cover.  By such means was the battle of Lexington, Missouri, decided.
By 1879 total hemp production had been reduced to 5,025 tons with Kentucky producing 4,583 tons, the remainder coming from Missouri, Michigan, Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota and North Carolina.  
The decline in the hemp industry was one of many adversities suffered by both sides in the war, and in 1882, an organisation was founded to address this loss The American Flax and Hemp Spinners and Growers Association. In 1889, Edwin Willits, then Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, noted the decline in the yearly report and exhorted his countrymen to extend the culture of hemp.  Noting that its production is an industry that dates back to the earliest history of the United States, and acknowledging the great changes in the manufacture and economics of hemp, he looks ahead, hoping that the "energy for which the American people are noted and "data concerning economical production would encourage cultivation.
In the future, hemp was to decline and be revived in the 1930s, when Henry Ford was set to use hemp as a fuel for cars. Other uses of hemp were discovered, and the American farmer was to find that he would be able to sell even the hemp wastes at a profit. However, special interest groups cut down this hope, and hemp was outlawed just as it was set to revive the US economy.
It was not until the 1980s that major interest was revived, when Jack Herer and others started to write on the subject and make the facts known. Today many US businesses are selling hemp, although it can not be grown legally in the US; ironically, arrests are being made as farmers try to get their rights, and recently Woody Harrelson was arrested for sowing the seeds of hemp in his hope state, Kentucky. In New York City, Galaxy Global Eatery serves hemp foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, ever struggling with the attempts to outlaw hemp foods in the US. John Roulac in California sells hemp oils and seeds out of his company, Nutriva, and is that same state the environmentally aware are buying their threads from Mina Hegaard at her Minawear outlet, Nirvana Ranch.
Below is a list of outlets in the US where hemp products can be legally purchased.
212 777 3136
310 306 1958



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