Hemp in America: a crucial crop in our nation’s history

cannabis leaves over american flag hemp in america

Modern hemp may be mostly associated with the production of cannabidiol (CBD), but it’s actually capable of far more. Hemp has a variety of uses, from making new construction more sustainable to helping electric vehicle batteries be more efficient.

Hemp was also an important crop in colonial America. Many of the Founding Fathers grew the plant on their estates. 

But why was hemp so popular in this time period, and what did early settlers use it for? As it turns out, cannabis had a big role in the history of the United States, and we may not be here without it.

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A crucial crop for colonial innovation

Hemp has been utilized for its many industrial applications for thousands of years. It’s especially useful as fiber for rope and textiles. The plant was particularly attractive in the 16th and 17th centuries thanks to its durability and ease of production.

According to an analysis of records conducted by a team of historians at Colonial Williamsburg, early European settlers in America were compelled to grow hemp due to the English naval’s reliance on the plant for its ships. A decree by the Virginia Assembly in 1632 commanded “that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.”

With hemp being such an important crop during this period, George Washington believed it was even more profitable than tobacco. He began cultivating the plant on his Virginia estate and encouraged others to do the same. Residents of the colony were permitted to pay taxes in hemp, a particularly sweet deal for a crop that was plentiful and easy to grow.

Hemp and the Revolutionary War

Demand for hemp exploded in the Colonies once the war for independence broke out in 1775. Americans pushed to make their own clothing from hemp textiles instead of buying British imports. 

Revolutionary forces also needed large quantities of hemp for their ships’ sails, ropes, and riggings (many believe that the original American flag was crafted from hemp fabric, but that rumor cannot be confirmed). At its peak, over 5,000 tons of hemp were produced annually in Virginia alone. Without the plant, American patriots may not have had the tools they needed to defeat the British.

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But did the Founding Fathers smoke their hemp?

Many urban legends exist about the consumption of cannabis among the Founding Fathers. A supposed quote from Thomas Jefferson began circulating in 2008, wherein America’s third president allegedly said, “Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see.” But research into Jefferson’s writings found no evidence he ever said this. 

Others have pointed to a journal entry from Washington regarding the separation of male and female hemp plants as proof America’s first president smoked pot. After all, female cannabis plants are the ones that contain buds suitable for consumption. However, this musing can also be explained, given that female hemp plants also provide stronger fibers and are, therefore, more valuable.

So while it’s certainly possible that the Founding Fathers smoked their hemp, there’s nothing concrete to prove it. Maybe they just kept it quiet, but we’ll likely never know sure (unless time travel is perfected and we go back to inquire).

What we do know is that hemp was an important part of American history. While greed and racism may have played a large role cannabis criminalization in the early 20th century, the plant has seen a resurgence in recent years. Perhaps relating pot to patriotism is another way to argue for its legalization—after all, George Washington was a fan.


rachelle gordon

Rachelle Gordon is a cannabis journalist, Emerald Cup judge, Budist critic, and editor of GreenState.com. She began her weed writing journey in 2015 and has been featured in High Times, CannabisNow, Beard Bros, MG, Skunk, and many others. Rachelle currently splits her time between Minneapolis and Oakland; her favorite cannabis cultivars include Silver Haze and Tangie. Follow Rachelle on Instagram @rachellethewriter