Hemp is History

Posted by Darby Cox on

by Smoke Cartel guest contributor Bart Benne

America owes its freedom to hemp. Let that sink in, because despite its prohibition, America would never have won its independence from England without the humble cannabis plant.

In America, hemp has only been illegal since 1937. Before that, it had been in the country’s good graces, until sweeping legislation made the entire plant illegal. Cannabis prohibition would have global implications, too, as other nations followed suit.

But let’s back up a minute to put things into perspective. Before 20th century politicians had their collective way, cannabis sativa (the scientific name for the plant) had been with humanity since before recorded history.

For example, the oldest stash of herb was recently unearthed in China, and it dates back over 12,000 years (probably stale, but don’t pretend you wouldn’t try to light it up anyway). The charred stash was found next to a shaman, suggesting psychoactive and/or recreational use for spiritual purposes.

Prehistoric cannabis use is evidenced around the globe, from its origin in China throughout the east, middle east, Africa, Europe and eventually the west.

From Neolithic-period cave paintings in ancient Japan depicting medicinal use to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics depicting the Goddess of Wisdom Seshat (who used her mighty hemp leaf hat to create paper for the first written word), cannabis was there at the beginning, predating recorded history.

For its position in antiquity, hemp was arguably one of the first cultivated plants in the world. From its use as an early form of paper to the earliest Chinese texts detailing how hemp was cultivated, cannabis is easily seen as a necessity (and a blessing) by early humans.

Hemp was highly prized by farmers for its ease in growing and its high worldwide demand. The plant's earned agricultural admiration lasted for millennia, especially into the time of the founding fathers of America, many of whom were farmers before they became politicians.

Among hemp’s many uses include its seeds that can be used for food and oil for fuel. The budding flower is used for spiritual and medicinal purposes (as we all know). Perhaps best of all for early Americans, the husk of the plant becomes crazy strong thread, bowstrings, cording, cloth, paper, rope and more.

The utility of hemp made it valuable throughout all human history. Its cultivation followed humanity as it spread from China some 12,000+ years ago, throughout upper and lower Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa.

Hemp cultivation was brought to the western hemisphere around 1545 by the Spanish to Chile. In North America, hemp was farmed as early as 1600 in the Powhatan Village of the Virginia Algonquian Native Americans as observed by early settlers.

In the era of revolutionary America, hemp was critical for nation building. The founding fathers knew it; the founding fathers grew it.

As the American colonies grew, so did the fledgling nation’s cannabis crop. Soon American hemp production outpaced that of Europe. England in particular needed to import vast amounts for their massive Navy and demanded that American farmers each devote land to the crop.

As early as 1619, the first ruling house in Virginia (established by England) issued an edict requiring both American and East India hemp be grown by colonial farmers to support the needs of the Crown, which considered itself America’s owner.

The spread of industrial hemp ultimately occured because the fiber was superior material for rigging (rope) and canvas (sails), both critical for a strong Navy. 

FUN FACT: the word “canvas” comes from the Latin word cannapaceus, meaning “made of hemp.” Guess what the Mona Lisa is painted on?

Industrial hemp had other uses too including clothes, bags, and, as Seshat knew, paper. In fact, the first texts that detailed hemp cultivation were written on hemp parchment, whoa, so meta!

By the mid 1600's, hemp was such an important cash crop for the American colonies that farmers could even pay their taxes with the crop. England even paid bounties for hemp making it even more of a cash crop.

Hemp was smart for other reasons too, and our founding fathers knew it. The economics proved superior to shorter crops like flax because hemp grows to towering heights, and the entire husk can be used. Also, unlike tobacco, hemp roots also aerate soil as the plant grows, making the land workable with little effort. Hemp requires little water or fertilizer compared to other crops, making it easy to grow.

In the 1700's, hemp was so useful for England that a bounty was paid to American farmers just ten years before the country declared its independence. This caught the attention of farmer George Washington, who considered dropping tobacco altogether to plant hemp instead.

“Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere,” penned the first president of the United States in a note to his gardener in 1794.

Thomas Jefferson, another founding father cannabis farmer, invented a “hemp brake” to help separate the plant’s fibers from the husk. As a chief architect of America’s revolution, Jefferson notably said, “Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country."

Hemp is everywhere in American history:

  • Benjamin Franklin conducted the famous experiment with the kite and key tied to a hemp line, and would later become Philadelphia's first hemp paper purveyor.
  • Betsy Ross chose durable hemp cloth to sew the nation’s first flag.
  • The soldiers who crossed the Potomac River with Washington were clad in hemp uniforms.
  • Even the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were inked on hemp parchment.

Once 1776 rolled around, Washington grew the nation on the roots of hemp production. What had chiefly been exported was now used domestically to in the fight to gain independence England, the strongest nation in the world at the time. Hemp cemented American freedom in history.

Hemp is history, especially American history. So the next time you're singing the National Anthem or saying the Pledge of Allegiance while looking at the Stars and Stripes, remember the country’s roots.

Bart Benne has written for newspapers, magazines and websites of all sizes. He is a passionate advocate and educator for numerous just causes including cannabis reform, and now specializes in the leafless cannabis industry. You can reach him at bbenne@gmail.com

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