History of Tobacco in America

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

Tobacco is a billion dollar industry today, but its historical roots trace back long before European contact. This lesson reviews the history of tobacco in America, from indigenous ritual use to popular recreational drug and public health concern today.


Tobacco--For many of us, the word conjures up a mixed sense of vice and recreation juxtaposed with well known health concerns and regulations. The history of tobacco runs back at least two millennia, where its origins of human use are still unknown. After contact, European settlers quickly learned of the plant's stimulative properties, exporting it as a luxury good around the world. Today, tobacco is a multi-billion dollar industry. The history of tobacco provides an intriguing cross-cultural journey into the world's most popular plant.

From Ritual to Recreation: The Origins of Tobacco Use in America

Tobacco use in America has been traced back to seeds recovered from archaeological contexts in the high Andes of South America around 1500 BC. Tobacco is a member of the night shade family of plants, which includes the potato, tomato, and chili pepper. All of these originate from the Andes, where tobacco has been a key part in ritual ceremonies for millennia.

As opposed to the recreational usage we are accustomed to, tobacco was used by priests in supernatural communication. Tobacco smoke holds powerful supernatural properties to communicate with spirits, and is also used in curing ceremonies by curanderos, or ritual healers, in traditional Andean societies. Tobacco leaves also form part of offering ceremonies to the earth, known as the Pachamama in the Quechua language.

Ancient Maya Tobacco Glyph
Ancient Maya Vessel
vision quests

Eventually, tobacco reached North America, where it was widely used by many different Native American tribes. Because Native American cultures in North America were smaller in scale, finding evidence of their tobacco use is more difficult. Pipes were more popular in North America, and it is believed that most tobacco was smoked. Archaeological evidence from pipes shows that hunter-gatherers on the Pacific Northwest coast of North America had acquired tobacco by at least AD 850. Archaeologists believe that tobacco was widely farmed in the Americas alongside corn from the eastern United States to the Puebloan Southwest, around AD 1000. It is within this context that Europeans encountered tobacco, some 500 years later.

Tobacco Globalization and the Birth of the American Tobacco Industry

18th Century Smoking Club
slave trade

Marlboro Man
Philip MorrisRJ ReynoldsMarlboro Man

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