J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, January 06, 2012

George Washington Harvests His Hemp

It’s been about two decades since I first recall someone telling me that George Washington grew hemp for smoking. The only evidence anyone has ever offered to back up this assertion is the sort that appears in Harvey Wasserman’s article “Was Washington a Gay Pot Smoker?” from March 2009:
As for smoking, I know of no significant communication among the Founders extolling their “great weed.”

But in one of his meticulous agricultural journals, dated 1765, Washington regrets being late to separate his male hemp plants from his females. For a master farmer like George, there would be little reason to do this except to make the females ripe for smoking.

The medicinal uses of cannabis were known to the ancient Chinese. Thousands of years later, it’s inconceivable American growers would not indulge in its recreational powers.
Inconceivable to some who can’t imagine life without that recreation, I suppose. But I rarely see eighteenth-century Americans doing something just because the ancient Chinese did it.

Wasserman, a twenty-first century writer, couldn’t think of a reason to separate male from female hemp plants “except to make the females ripe for smoking,” so he projected his knowledge and priorities into the mind of an eighteenth-century planter. But we don’t have to do that.

Here’s cannabis cultivation advice from the entry on cannabis in The Gardeners Dictionary, published by Philip Miller in London in 1759:
In the Choice of the Seed, the heaviest and brightest coloured should be prefered, and particular Care should be had to the Kernel of the Seed, so that some of them should be cracked to see if they have the Germ or future Plant perfect; for in some Places the male Plants are drawn out too soon from the female; i.e. before they have impregnated the female Plants with the Farina; in which Case, though the Seeds produced by these female Plants may seem fair to the Eye, yet they will not grow. . . .

The first Season for pulling the Hemp is usually about the Middle of August, when they begin to pull what they call the Fimble Hemp, which is the male Plants; but it would be much the better Method to defer this a Fortnight or three Weeks longer, until these male Plants have fully shed their Dust, without which, the Seeds will prove abortive, produce nothing if sown the next Year, nor will those concerned in the Oil Mills give any Thing for them, there being only empty Husks, without any Kernels to produce the Oil. These male Plants decay soon after they have shed their Farina.

The second Pulling is a little after Michaelmas [29 September], when the Seeds are ripe: This is usually called Karle Hemp, it is the female Plants, which were left at the Time when the male were pulled.
And here are the relevant passages from Washington’s farm diaries in 1765:
7 [August]. Began to separate the Male from the Female hemp at Do [ditto for the part of his lands he called “Muddy hole”]—rather too late.

9. Abt. 6 Oclock put some Hemp in the Rivr. to Rot.

10. Seperated my Ewes & Rams but I believe it was full late—many of the Ewes having taken Ram.

3. Finish’d Sowing Wheat at the Rivr. Plantn. i.e. in the corn ground. 123 Bushels it took to do it.

15. The English Hemp i.e. the Hemp from the English Seed was pickd at Muddy hole this day & was ripe.

Began to separate Hemp in the neck.

17. Finishd Sowing Wheat in the Corn field, which lyes over the Run at the Mill 27 Bushl.

22. Put some Hemp into the Water about 6 Oclock in the Afternoon—note this Hemp had been pulld the 8th. Instt. & was well dryed, & took it out again the 26th.

4 [September]. Began to Pull the Seed Hemp but it was not sufficiently ripe.
Thus we see Washington ordered the male hemp plants pulled a couple of weeks before the female plants in the month of August—much as described in an agricultural manual published just six years before. The “English Hemp” at Muddy hole was harvested first, the crop “in the neck” later in the month. Crops in Virginia obviously came in earlier than those in Britain.

Washington’s next step was to have the stalks put in water to rot—part of extracting the valuable fibers. As even Wasserman admits, there’s not a word in the planter’s writings to indicate Washington gave any thought to smoking the buds. Nor did The Gardeners Dictionary or other eighteenth-century British farming manuals suggest doing that, no matter what people had discovered in ancient China.

[The thumbnail above shows an image by Daniel Baxter for Whole Health Magazine, featured at The I Spot.]


Unknown said...

Excellent post.

"But I rarely see eighteenth-century Americans doing something just because the ancient Chinese did it."

Especially considering the outlook of the Chinese at that time.

John L. Smith said...

It appears Newt's novel news netted nothing. Go figure. (Thanks J.L.!)

G. Lovely said...

The following website includes passages from a ca.1970 report by the UK's National Commission of Marijuana and Drug Abuse that discusses the history of Hemp's use as an intoxicant.


It includes some interesting observations regarding the social status component of its use, noting its historical association in some cultures with 'lower classes', and contrasts that with 1960's US attitudes that presumed its users to be "an exclusive and advanced "in-group"". My grandfather, who was a crewman in the last days of sail, echoed those sentiments when he talked about the smoking of 'hemp', clearly stating that in was something done by only the poorest of seamen, or when alcohol was not available.

It's certainly possible that there were recreational users in 18th century America, but given the paucity of contemporary references, especially when compared to tobacco or alcohol, cultivation by someone of Washington's station for anything but fiber seems unlikely at best. Its use by slaves, with severely limited access to other intoxicants, is worthy of investigation, but as the report notes, it appears little used in Africa until the 19th century, and thus would lack a traditional basis. I also know of no reports from slave owners of its abuse by their slaves, which, for me, argues against its widspread use in the 18th century.

The Victorian Times said...

Just discovered your blog; most interesting post