History of Hemp

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The Forgotten History of Hemp Cultivation in America

Hemp was an important crop from Colonial times through World War II, when it was last widely planted across the country for the war effort

The USS Constitution in Boston Harbor: More than 120,000 pounds of hemp fiber was needed to rig the 44-gun USS Constitution, America’s oldest Navy ship affectionately called “Old Ironsides.”

Nearly 55 tons of fiber was needed for the lines and rigging on that vessel alone. Even more hemp fiber went into making canvas for sails and caulking for the wooden hull.

Where did all of that hemp fiber come from? It came from the cannabis sativa fields of patriotic Revolutionary War-era farmers who originally grew the fibrous crop for the British Crown. Strong fibers formed strong nations in the pre-industrial age, and hemp was strategically important during the Revolutionary War.

Yet, hemp is no longer purposefully grown in the U.S. in any significant amount. The forgotten history of this lowly “ditch weed” – now hugely important as a food for migratory birds – reveals that hemp was an important crop from Colonial times through World War II, when it was last widely planted across the country for the war effort.

Hemp was the fiber of choice for maritime uses because of its natural decay resistance and its adaptability to cultivation. Each warship and merchant vessel required miles of hempen line and tons of hempen canvas, which meant the Crown’s hunger for the commodity was great. Ship captains were ordered to disseminate hemp seed widely to provide fiber wherever repairs might be needed in distant lands.

British colonies compelled by law to grow hemp

Hemp arrived in Colonial America with the Puritans in the form of seed for planting and as fiber in the lines, sails and caulking of the Mayflower. British sailing vessels were never without a store of hemp seed, and Britain’s colonies were compelled by law to grow hemp.

Hemp: Important crop for colonial farms and Republic

By the mid-1600s, hemp had become an important part of the economy in New England, and south to Maryland and Virginia. The Colonies produced cordage, cloth, canvas, sacks and paper from hemp during the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Most of the fiber was then destined for British consumption, although at least some was used for domestic purposes. Ironically, the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were penned on hemp paper.

Hemp fiber was so important to the young Republic that farmers were compelled by patriotic duty to grow it, and were allowed to pay taxes with it. George Washington grew hemp and encouraged all citizens to sow hemp widely. Thomas Jefferson bred improved hemp varieties, and invented a special brake for crushing the plant’s stems during fiber processing.

Shortly thereafter, Robert McCormick (father of Cyrus McCormick, who invented the first successful reaper) patented a hemp fiber-processing device. Through the International Harvester Co., Cyrus’ descendants later contributed additional labor-saving harvesting tools to hemp farmers in the 20th century.


The History of Hemp in America

Thought to be among the first cultivated crops in human history, hemp was a staple in America before being federally prohibited just decades ago.

Long before the cultivation of hemp was criminalized in the United States, the versatile and sustainable crop played a major role in the building of a new nation. One of the oldest plants to be cultivated by human civilization, hemp is a sustainable crop grown for food, oil and fiber.

In celebration of the 8th annual Hemp History Week this week, we’ve taken a moment to look back on the long history of hemp in America. We also explore what brought about its eventual downturn before what now appears to be a resurgence for the valuable crop.

Surprising 5,000-Year-Old Cannabis Trade: Eurasian Steppe Nonmads Were Earliest Pot Dealers

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... Hill, a writer of Ancient Origins, reports : ''In 1997, a hemp rope dating back to 26,900 BC was found in Czechoslovakia, making it the ... object to be associated with cannabis.  Since that time, hemp has played an important role in humanity’s development.  For thousands ...

First hemp-weaved fabric in the World found wrapped around baby in 9,000-year-old

Çatalhöyük in Turkey

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Latest excavation work in the ancient city of Çatalhöyük in Turkey has revealed the world’s first hemp-weaved fabric, which was found wrapped around a baby skeleton in the ground of a burned house.

hemp trader
Hemp’s Role in Colonial America

Hemp was already being cultivated by Native Americans in the New World when pioneers who had taken to the seas for a better life arrived. Hemp fibers are exceptionally strong and durable, and the crop was used to produce thread, cordage, cloth, paper, and food.

The first recorded use of hemp in America’s colonial years comes from 1632, as the Virginia Assembly mandated “that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.” Shortly thereafter, courts in Massachusetts and Connecticut passed similar mandates and in the 17th and 18th centuries, farmers cultivated hemp throughout the American colonies. Hemp was exported to England where it was used for clothing, shoes, maps, books, ship’s rigging, parachute webbing, baggage, sails, and tents. For over 200 years, hemp was even considered legal tender that could be used to pay taxes. As the relationship between Britain and the American colonies went downhill, homegrown hemp was used for products beneficial to ground troops and naval forces.

As the United States earned its independence from Great Britain in the late 18th century, hemp remained a staple. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew cannabis on their plantations, and Benjamin Franklin started one of America’s first paper mills with hemp. According to historians, the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper.

Cannabis Sativa is an old plant with a long history. The word, sativa, comes from Latin and means "sown" or "cultivated." And, in fact, the hemp plant, Cannabis Sativa, has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. Cultivated primarily for its strength as a fiber and for its medicinal uses, it has even been grown for food. Some of the earliest archeological hemp evidence, about 10,000 B.C., comes from rope imprints on broken Chinese pottery. Fragments of hemp cloth have also been found in Chinese burial chambers dating from the Chou Dynasty (1122-249 B.C.). In addition to archeological evidence, written documents refer to hemp as a source of clothing. For example, The Shu King, a book dating to about 2350 B.C., refers to the soil in Shantung as rich with silk and hemp while ancient poetry mentions young girls weaving hemp into clothing (Abel, 1980).

The Chinese also relied on hemp for warfare. Due to its strength and durability Chinese archers made bowstrings from hemp. Because these hemp bowstrings were stronger than the enemy's bamboo ones, the Chinese arrows could fly further. This was a large advantage in war. In fact, hemp was so important that Chinese monarchs allocated large portions of land specifically for growing hemp - the first war crop.

Then, there is paper. Yes, paper. Paper is probably one of the most significant Chinese inventions. Fragments of paper containing hemp fiber have been found in Chinese graves dating to the first century B.C. The Chinese made paper by crushing hemp fibers and mulberry tree bark into a pulp and putting the mixture into a tank of water. The tangled fibers rose to the top of the water, were removed, and placed in a mold. After drying, the fibers formed sheets that could be written on. The Chinese kept paper making a secret for many centuries. Eventually the secret became known to the Japanese during the 5th century A.D. and finally to the Arabs through Chinese prisoners in the 9th century.

So, the  Chinese used the hemp plant for rope, clothing, bowstrings, paper and of course, medicine.  The ancient emperor, Shen-Nung (c.2700 B.C.), is known as the Father of Chinese Medicine. Because he was a good farmer and concerned about his suffering subjects, he looked to plants for cures. According to legend, Shen-Nung tried poisons and their antidotes on himself and then compiled the medical encyclopedia called, Pen Ts'ao. The Pen Ts'ao list hundreds of drugs derived from vegetable, animal and mineral sources. Among these drugs is the plant cannabis, "ma."

Ma was a unique drug because it was both feminine, or yin, and masculine, or yang. Yin represented the weak, passive, and negative female influence in nature while yang represented the strong, active, and positive male force. When yin and yang were in balance, the body was in harmony and healthy. When yin and yang were out of balance, the body was in a state of disequilibrium and ill. Realizing that the female plant produced more medicine, the Chinese cultivated it instead of the male plant. Ma was used to treat absences of yin, such as: female weaknesses (menstruation), gout, rheumatism, malaria, beri-beri, constipation, and absentmindedness (Abel, 1980).

During the second century A.D., the Chinese surgeon, Hua T'o, began to use cannabis as an anesthesia. He combined cannabis resin with wine (ma-yo) and used it to reduce pain during surgery. He performed painful organ drafts, resectioning of the intestines, loin incisions, and chest incisions while the patient was anesthetized with ma-yo.

Cannabis was a mulitipurpose plant to the ancient Chinese. It has been cultivated and used for over 4000 years. It was used for war, writing, food, and medicine but there is very little mention of its psychoactive properties by the Chinese. It wasn't until India came upon cannabis that it became a widespread religious and medicinal intoxicant.

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