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Hemp

Hemp, along with flax and cotton, was primarily used for making clothing at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson grew hemp both at Monticello and at Poplar Forest, his plantation in Bedford County, Virginia.

Documentary References

Undated. "[H]emp. plough the ground for it early in the fall & very deep, if possible plough it again in Feb. before you sow it, which should be in March. a hand can tend 3. acres of hemp a year. tolerable ground yields 500. lb to the acre. you may generally count on 100 lb for every foot the hemp is over 4. f. high. a hand will break 60. or 70. lb a day, and even to 150. lb. if it is divided with an overseer, divide it as it is prepared. seed. to make hemp seed, make hills of the form & size of cucumber hills, from 4. to 6. f. apart, in proportion to the strength of the ground. prick about a dozen seeds into each hill, in different parts of it. when they come up thin them to two. as soon as the male plants have shed their farina, cut them up that the whole nourishment may go to the female plants. every plant thus ended will yield a quart of seed. a bushel of good brown seed is enough for an acre."1

1774 December 29. "Wrote to Tom Stewart of Augusta for 10. bushels of flax-seed & 10. do. of hemp seed. <Wrote to James Black for ... 100 ℔ hemp ready dressed for spinning.> Never sent them."2

1781. "[Plants] Useful for fabrication ... Virginia hemp. Acnida cannabina. ... Tobacco, hemp, flax, and cotton, are staple commodities. ... During this time [the Revolutionary War] we have manufactured within our families the most necessary articles of cloathing. Those of cotton will bear some comparison with the same kinds of manufacture in Europe; but those of wool, flax and hemp are very coarse, unsightly, and unpleasant .... Besides these [Arabian horses] there will be other valuable substitutes when the cultivation of tobacco shall be discontinued, such as cotton in the eastern parts of the state, and hemp and flax in the western."3

1781. "Other losses by the British in 1781 ... 250. lb. hemp in the house. 250. lb. do. growing."4

1784 August 20. (James Madison to Jefferson). "The price of hemp however has been reduced as much by the peace as that of Tobacco has been raised, being sold I am told as low as 20/. per Ct. beyond the mountains."5

1790 July 4. (Jefferson to Nicholas Lewis). "For this purpose [i.e. to avoid spending farm income at the stores] it is vastly desireable to be getting under way with our domestic cultivation and manufacture of hemp, flax, cotton and wool for the negroes."6

1792 September 23. (Memorandums for Manoah Clarkson, Monticello Overseer). "Tend the next year two acres of hemp on east side the river, and 1000 cotton hills for every working hand."7

1793 June 30. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). Jefferson's plans for his farms included "The following bye-articles. ... Hemp, turneps, pumpkins. In the new clearings."8

1793 July 11. (Thomas Mann Randolph to Jefferson). "It is necessary to break up meadow grounds once in 5 or 6 years, and on the 5th. or 6th. part of mine I rely for Hemp and flax which, with us, thrive no where so well as in the flat grounds on our little streams."9

1796 April 23. "Gave Page to buy hemp seed 3.D."10

1808 March 22. (Jefferson to Anne Cary Randolph). "[T]he plant [benne] grows somewhat like hemp."11

1809 January 26. (Edmund Bacon to Jefferson). "I can Get flax & hemp seed plenty."12

1811 March 1. (Jefferson's Constitution for Proposed Agricultural Society of Albemarle). "And principally, the cultivation of our primary staples of wheat, tobacco, & hemp, for market."13

1811 December. (Instructions for Poplar Forest Management). "An acre of the best ground for hemp, is to be selected, & sown in hemp & to be kept for a permanent hemp patch.  ... Hemp should be immediately prepared to set them [the spinners] at work, & a supply be kept up."14

1812 January 21. (Jefferson to John Adams). "[W]e consider a sheep for every person in the family as sufficient to clothe it, in addition to the cotton, hemp & flax which we raise ourselves."15

1812 April 20. (Jefferson to Robert R. Livingston). "... there being scarcely a family in the country which does not clothe itself, as far as coarse woollens, or those of midling quality are required. so also as to hemp, flax, and cotton."16

1812 May 19. "Left with Mr. Goodman 110.D. to be paid as follows ... for 100. ℔ more of hemp 6.[D]."17

1812 October 11. (Jefferson to James Ronaldson). "[Cotton] is spun so much more cheaply than hemp & flax that it will be substituted entirely for coarse shirting instead of oznabrigs & ticklenburgs."18

1812 December 12. (Instructions for Poplar Forest Management). "[S]ow about half an acre of hemp."19

1813 January 12. (Jefferson to James Ronaldson). "[B]ut we must acknolege their services in furnishing us an abundance of cotton, a substitute for silk, flax & hemp. the ease with which it is spun will occasion it to supplant the two last, & it’s cleanliness the first."20

1813 September 8. (Memorandum to Jeremiah A. Goodman, Poplar Forest Overseer). "[S]ow from half an acre to an acre in hemp."21

1814 November 4. (Instructions for Poplar Forest Management). "Sow from half an acre to an acre of hemp, & 4. acres of pumpkins."22

1815. (From notations in Jefferson's Farm Book). There were three hemp spinners in the Monticello textile shop: Aggy, Nanny, and Isabel. The annual hemp requirement was 400 lbs., to be spun by the three spinners in 26 weeks.23

1815 January 6. (Jefferson to Jeremiah A. Goodman). "[W]e can very illy spare it [wool], not having enough for our people here [Monticello], but we will try a mixture of hemp & cotton for the negro children here, in order to help out for your people."24

1815 March 21. (Jefferson to Charles Willson Peale). "I make the same saw-gate [of Monticello sawmill] saw-gate move another lever at the other end of which is suspended the upper head-block of a common hemp break (but much heavier than common) the break is ranged under that arm of the lever, in the same plane, and the center of it’s motion as nearly as may be under that of the lever. while two persons feed the break with the hempstalks, a third holds the hemp already beaten & formed into a twist, under the head block, which beats it most perfectly: but as one beater is not enough for 2. breakers, I lengthen that arm of the lever 3 f. beyond the point of suspension of the head block, and at the end suspend a pestle, which falling on a block under it, presents a 2d beater. to make this work true, a section of a circle (like the felloe of a cart wheel, but shorter) is mortised on the end of the lever, with a groove in it for the suspending chain to lie in. the following is a coarse side view of the whole. ... two breakers & 2. beaters will compleatly break and beat 400.℔ in a day, & they need not be men. a patent has been obtained for fixing the upper swords to the underside of the saw gate, and placing the bench & lower swords under it, and the patentee gave me leave to use it; but that place being wet and inconvenient, I thought it better to remove the action by a lever to a drier & more convenient spot, outside of the mill. I wish to make the same agent work an apparatus for fulling our homespun; but have not yet attempted it, tho’ we need it much, as we clothe ourselves chiefly, & our laborers entirely in what we spin and weave in our family."25

1815 December 29. (Jefferson to George Fleming). "[H]emp ... is abundantly productive and will grow for ever on the same spot. but the breaking and beating it, which has been always done by hand, is so slow, so laborious, and so much complained of by our laborers, that I had given it up, and purchased & manufactured cotton for their shirting. the advanced price of this however now makes it a serious item of expence; and in the mean time a method of removing the difficulty of preparing hemp occurred to me, so simple & so cheap, that I return to it’s culture and manufacture. to a person having a threshing machine, the addition of a hemp break will not cost more than 12. or 15.D. you know that the first mover in that machine is a horizontal horsewheel with cogs on it’s upper face. on these is placed a wallower and shaft which give motion to the threshing apparatus. on the opposite side of this same wheel I place another wallower and shaft, thro’ which, and near it’s outer end, I pass a cross-arm of sufficient strength, projecting on each side 15.I. in this form. ... nearly under the cross arm is placed a very strong hemp-break, much stronger & heavier than those for the hand. it’s head block particularly is massive, and 4.f. high, and near it’s upper end, in front, is fixed a strong pin (which we may call it’s horn). by this the cross arm lifts & lets fall the break twice in every revolution of the wallower. a man feeds the break with hemp stalks, and a little person holds under the head block a large twist of the hemp which has been broken, resembling a twist of tobacco but larger, where it is more perfectly beaten than I have ever seen done by hand. if the horse wheel has 144. cogs, the wallower 11. rounds, and the horse goes 3 times round in a minute, it will give about 80. strokes in a minute. I had fixed a break to be moved by the gate of my sawmill, which broke & beat at the rate of 200 ℔. a day. but the inconveniences of interrupting that induced me to try the power of a horse, and I have found it answer perfectly. the power being less, so also probably will be the effect, of which I cannot make a fair trial until I commence on my new crop. I expect that a single horse will do the breaking & beating of 10 men. something of this kind has been so long wanted by the cultivaters of hemp, that as soon as I can speak of it’s effect with certainty, I shall probably describe it anonymously in the public papers, in order to forestall the prevention of it's use by some interloping patentee."26

1816 May 8. (Jefferson to Charles Willson Peale). "[I]n a former letter I mentioned to you that I had adapted a hemp break to my sawmill, which did good work. I have since fixed one to my threshing machine in Bedford, which breaks & beats about 80.℔ a day with a single horse. the horizontal horsewheel of the threshing machine drives a wallower and shaft, at the outer end of which shaft is a crank which lifts a common hemp-break the head of which is made heavy enough to break the hemp with it’s knives, & to beat it with it's head.''27

c1817. "1. lb. spun cotton will make 5. yds. of shirting mixed with hemp."28

1818 March 14. (Jefferson to Joel Yancey, Poplar Forest Overseer). "[I]f we are to make for ourselves it will never do to break up the establishment on every temporary variation of the material. the wool we have. the hemp we may make, and may in a great measure make it take the place of cotton in the shirting. by doing this, little cotton will be wanting, and I believe we might easily make this. you once suggested it, and I liked the proposition, and think it would be an excellent supplementory employment for the spinners."29

1819. [Needed for clothing 52 slave children were 48 lbs. of hemp and 32 lb. cotton.] "30. yds. cotton & hemp weigh 15. lb. the 30. yds. require 6 lb cotton & 9 lb hemp."30

1820 January 21. (Thomas Appleton to Jefferson). "I have inclos’d in the bag of hemp-seed, four little bundles of the white, gentilli wheat."31

1821 February 15. (Isaac A. Coles to Jefferson). "I send you enclosed a specimen of wild Hemp which I find in great abundance on many parts of my Land [Clarksville, Pike County, Missouri]. We have collected a sufficient quantity of it for all our purposes, and find that it makes a much stronger rope than the Hemp of Virginia—the stem is generally of the size of ones finger, and from 5 to 10 feet in height—it is a perennial Plant, delights in low, moist, rich land, and yields fully as well (I think) as the common hemp—The seeds are small, resembling very much the seed of the Yellow Jessamine but larger and , Start insertion,more, End, full, and are contained in pods on the top of the Plant. as these burst open in the early part of winter, I have not been able to procure any of the seed to send you—The Specimen enclosed was [taken] from a Stalk which I yesterday cut in the woods, and prepared as you see it, by merely rubbing it between my fingers, & then combing it straight with my pocket comb. It has stood out exposed in the woods the whole winter—As there is now nothing remaining of this Plant, but the naked stem and the roots (which are exceedingly numerous) it will be difficult to class it, but it does not appear to me to resemble atall either Hemp or flax.—Whatever it may be, it must, I think, prove a Plant of great value—the strength, delicacy, softness & whiteness of the fibre, will no doubt be greatly improved by being cut on the proper time, & heated in a proper manner & being perennial, when once sowed it will last for ages, and, may be cut with as little trouble as a timothy meadow—I do not despair still of being able to prepare a few of the seed, and if I succeed, they shall be forwarded to you. an Inch or two of the top of the Plant, with 2 pods are also inclosed."32

Hemp Beyond Monticello

1779 December 30. (Jefferson to Samuel Huntington). "They [General Assembly] had however, early in the present year, laid a Tax payable in specific commodities; and, in their late session, directed the executive to raise from the proceeds of that Tax, six hundred thousand pounds towards making up the quota’s of money for which they were called on by Congress. The Articles Specified were Wheat, Indian Corn, rye, Barley, Oats, hemp and Tobacco at the option of the payer but it is conjectured that paiment will be made almost wholly in Indian Corn and Tobacco."33

1781 March 29. (The Tax Commissioners of Culpeper County to Jefferson). "On Settlement yesterday with the Collectors of the Additional Tax, we find the greatest part has been received in Tobacco and Hemp, only about fifty Thousand pounds in money. The Hemp cannot be sold for the price directed by Law; you’ll please observe this County has to furnish 106."34

1781 April 15. (David Ross to Jefferson). "[Hemp] is an Article very much in demand at Philadelphia and a valuable Fund as far as it will go, tho a very unweildy one but it must be used.''35

1781 May 16. (David Ross to Jefferson). "My agent at Philadelphia writes me the 2,000 Stand of Arms will be ready this Week. He was obliged to engage hemp to pay for the repairs and has no encouragment from Congress that they can do any thing for him in money matters."36

 1781 May 23. (David Ross to Jefferson). " I have engaged a Mr. Richard Mathies to inspect, pack and prize the hemp in the several Counties and to employ waggons [that it] may be forwarded to Philadelphia immediately. The inspecting and prizing the hemp is very necessary and can only be done by people of some experience in the business, wherefore I think it will [be] best to load those waggons with the rope yarns and hemp, which I saved from the works at Warwick before the Enemy got there. I dont know but there is a sufficient quantity to load the whole of them with the hemp in this county. If so it will be best not to interfere with the operations of Mr. Mathies."37

1784 June. (Notes on Commerce of the Northern States). "[New Hampshire residents] raise a little hemp, but their sail duck and most of their cordage is from Europe."38

1792 January 1. (David Humphreys to Jefferson). "This may be a favorable time for Americans 'to come forward with proposals for furnishing at certain rates, Timber, Hemp, Tar &c.'"39

Further Sources

Related Links:
19th-Century Vegetables and Cultivation Techniques
The Trees of Monticello
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