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Hemp history

Posted on January 1, 2001

Hemp Since The Beginning Of Time

Cannabis, family Cannabaceae; species: Cannabis indica, Cannabis ruderalia, and Cannabis sativa L., has been found on every continent in this hemisphere, it was used long before its first recorded uses. It’s safe to believe, that no historian knows which peoples were first to experience her treasures.

In every society where people discovered Cannabis hemp, they often discovered the five uses for hemp which include; hempen fibers, oil from the seeds, the seeds for food, a medicine, and for its narcotic properties. Cannabis use has existed for over ten thousand years, and is one of the oldest crops used for cultivation. It was cultivated in China as early as 4000 BC. Most cultures viewed hemp as a gift, or treasure, from the Divine Sprit, to be used during ceremonials, at which time it was either burned as incense, ingested for deep meditative and heighten awareness, smoked for pleasure, or worn for clothing during these ceremonies. Hemp has been mentioned in many important documents over its recorded history, The Zend-Avesta, a sacred book used by the peoples of India dating back to 600 BC, spoke of hemp’s intoxicating resin. The Chinese emperor and herbalist, Chen-Nung wrote about hemp’s medicinal uses 5000 years ago, his pharmacoepia recorded its effects on malaria, female disorders, and many other illnesses, hemp was referred to as, Ma-fen “hemp fruit”, said; “if taken in excess, will produce hallucinations”. The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621 recommended hemp for depression. The New English Dispensatory, of 1764 suggested applying hemp roots to the skin for inflammation.

In Africa hemp was used for dysentery, and fevers, today some tribes use hemp to treat snake bites, and women smoke it before childbirth. During the seventeenth century peasants believed in the magical power of hemp, and practiced their traditions. On Saint John’s Eve, farmers would pick flowers from their hemp plants and feed them to their livestock to protect the animals from evil and sickness.

A western physician by the name of W.B. O’Shaughnessey published in 1839 of the benefits of cannabis for the treatment of rabies, rheumatism, epilepsy, and tetanus. He also reported that a tincture of hemp and alcohol taken orally was found an effective analgesic.

Henry VIII required the cultivation of one quarter acre of hemp for every sixty acres of land under tillage, for maritime purposes in England.

The British began cultivating hemp in its Canadian colonies in 1606, cultivation began for Virginia in 1611. The Pilgrims introduced cultivation to New England as early as 1632, they learned about the cultivation of hemp from the Native Americans people.

Hemp Equals Freedom In The New World

Hemp was already in the new world when the first European colonist arrived, thought to have been introduced from China by explorers, migrating birds from across the Bering Strait, or possibly drifting shipwrecks.

It is reported that the colonist were not eager to grow hemp, however the European motherland wanted hemp, and cultivation was deemed mandatory. The Puritans at Jamestown grew hemp, as part of their contract with the Virginia Company. Jean Talon at the order of France Quebec colony minister, confiscated all thread the colonist possessed and forced them to buy it back from him with hemp. Talon supplied the seeds to farmers, which had to be reimbursed after hemp crops were harvested. Mandatory cultivation of hemp continued throughout the New World, the General Court in 1637 at Hartford Connecticut, and the Massachusetts courts in 1639 ordered all families to plant one teaspoon of hemp seed. “that we might in time have supply of linen cloth among ourselves.” Several colonies passed legal tender laws, hemp was so valued it was used to pay taxes.

Until 1776 many colonies passed laws to encourage farmers to produce hemp, Virginia designed laws to compel farmers, fining those who did not comply. Lobbyist were hired to promote, and education the public about the importance of hemp. Books were published that wanted to establish hemp as America’s trademark product.

Colonies under the crown, were banned from spinning and weaving hemp, this fostered dependence to England, which was demanding raw materials from the colonies as a way to increase its labor forces. The exported fibers, were then bought back as finished products from England. As the market was flooded with hemp, immigrant weavers from Ireland arrived in Massachusetts, setting up shop and passing their skills to the peasantry. What may have seem a small movement, grew into self-sufficiency from the British Crown, to the extent of a boycott of English fabric products. These were some of the conditions which lead into the War of Independence from the British. The American paper industry was born of hemp, linen, and cotton rags which provided writing materials throughout the war, essential for communication.

In 1777, Edward Antil wrote in his introduction of Observations on the Raising and Dressing of Hemp, “hemp is one of the most profitable productions the earth furnishes in northern climates; as it employs a great number of poor people in a very advantageous manner, if its manufacture is carried on properly: It … becomes worthy of the serious attention … of every trading man, who truly loves his country.”

The Importance Of Hemp And The War Efforts

In preparation of war, mandatory cultivation laws were passed, and colonist increased their production of hemp, for paper and clothes. Colonist were convinced to take up arms, as they read pamphlets published on hemp paper. Thomas Paine in 1776 encouraged colonist to fight for freedom with Common Sense he writes “in almost every article of defense we abound. Hemp flourishes even to rankness, so that we need not want cordage.”

The founding fathers of this nation George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both promoters of hemp, as noted in their farm diaries spoke of their experiences as hemp farmers. Throughout Washington’s farm diary he spoke about the quality of seeds, always taking care to sow seeds in best areas on his farm. He documented the importance’s of cultivating seeds at the proper time taking care to pull the male plants from the females. In 1790’s Washington began cultivating “Indian hemp” which he said produced the best quality of plant, and noted its superior quality to common hemp mostly grown during that time. Both Washington and Jefferson disliked tobacco, and on occasion they would exchange gifts of a smoking mixtures, Washington reportedly enjoyed smoking hemp flowers, however there is no hard evidence.

Jefferson, was also a promoter of hemp, and during his tenure as Governor of Virginia he kept reserves of hemp, and in May of 1781 used hemp as currency when money from the government was in short supply.

Jefferson believed hemp to be a superior crop to tobacco, which he said exhausted the soil, used to much manure, provided no nourishment for cattle. Hemp on the other hand “was of the first necessity to commerce and marine, in other words to the wealth and protection of the country.” Around 1815 Jefferson received the first US patent for his hemp breaking machine, which reportedly did the work of ten men.

Kentucky was a large supplier of hemp, primarily because the soil would not sustain a grain crop. In 1792 its legislature levied a tax of twenty dollars per ton on imported hemp, this worked to Kentucky’s advantage and by 1850 domestic hemp crops increased and the amount of imported hemp dramatically decreased.

Hemp Production In The 19th & 20th Centuries

The belief that hemp was one of the most important crops to the common wealth, continued throughout the 19th century. As production increased, more states like Illinois, California, and Nebraska began to grow hemp, with more domestic hemp available, creative ideas for hemp use increased. In 1841, Congress ordered the Navy to buy domestic hemp, and in 1843 they appropriated fifty thousand dollars to purchase American hemp.

Hemp Production was a hard and tedious process, its production was always relegated to the slaves in this countries. After the Civil War when labor was no longer free, there was a great decline in the domestic cultivation of hemp. In 1861 G.F. Schaffer of New York patented the Hemp Dresser, used to prepare hemp for manufacturing. After Schaffer invention, many improvements to his machine followed.

By the early 20th century, industrialization, lead to inventions, of machines that would do the work of many, this was caused by the abolition of slavery. One of the most important inventions to the hemp industry was the Decorticator machine, it was hailed as the invention to revolutionize the hemp industry. In an article from Popular Mechanics magazine dated February 1938 spoke of hemp as a cash crop soon to be worth a billion dollars. [See the Popular Mechanics article “New Billion Dollar Crop.”]

Unfortunately its praises came one year to late, the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act HR 6385 was enacted, this required a $100 transfer tax on the sale of marihuana. The issue for those in opposition of this tax related to the underhanded manner in which this tax was enacted. Those thought to gain the most were Hearst who owned large timber holdings which feed the paper industry. DuPont who dominated the petrochemical market, which manufactured plastics, paints, and other products of fossil fuels and the Secretary of the Treasury and owner of Gulf oil Andrew Mellon who pushed legislation through congress giving tax breaks to oil companies. The Conspiracy was against hemp, it threaten certain vested financial and industrial interest especially those in the paper and petrochemical industries.

Through the Hearst newspaper chains racist propaganda messages were abound, it was Hearst that coined the phase “Marihuana Madness” this was related to Mexicans, African Americans, and jazz musicians, use of marihuana said to caused excessive sex, and violence, and threatened the safety of white women and children. Following this campaign against hemp it was not long before the complete prohibition of hemp was enacted.

As history continues so does this chapter.

Copyright © 2001, Unknown. All rights reserved.

  • Jay

    Not going all advocate or anything, but this was interesting. Learned some stuff too.