In May I had the opportunity to participate in first annual Hemp History Week. From printing up an old newspaper article showing how hemp was used in the Civil War to taking a field trip to George Washington’s farms in Mount Vernon, Virginia, I had a great time learning about America’s historical use of hemp.
In the video above, I make a cameo at the beginning and later in the video the editor included a map of Mount Vernon from the Library of Congress that I submitted for inclusion in the video. The map nicely corresponds to the map shown during the interview at Mount Vernon.
When we arrived at Mount Vernon, the staff had prepared copies of a statement concerning George Washington’s cultivation of hemp at Mount Vernon. Below is a transcription of the document:
Hemp Production and Use at Mount Vernon
Throughout his lifetime, George Washington cultivated hemp at Mount Vernon for industrial uses. The fibers from hemp held excellent properties for the making of rope and sail canvas, which was a major industry in the age of sailing ships. In addition, hemp fibers could be spun into thread for clothing or, as indicated in Mount Vernon records, for use in repairing the large seine fishing nets that Washington used in his fishing operation along the Potomac.
At one point in the 1760’s Washington considered whether hemp would be a more lucrative cash crop than tobacco but determined that wheat would be a better alternative. During the period when he was considering hemp, he wrote to his agents in England in the hope of determining the costs involved in production and shipping.
In September 1765 he wrote:
“In order thereto you woud do me a singular favour in advising of the general price one might expect for good Hemp in your Port watered and prepared according to Act of Parliament, with an estimate of the freight, and all other incident charges pr. Tonn that I may form some idea of the profits resulting from the growth.” (Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington v. 2, September 20, 1765, George Washington to Robert Cary & Company, p. 430-431)
The Act of Parliament that Washington mentions in his letter to Robery Cary & Company, was enacted to promote hemp production in the American Colonies. In 1767, he did sell some of his Mount Vernon-grown hemp, gaining an income from the bounty that Parliament had laid on the crop.
Hemp Background and History:
“Hemp, Cannabis sativa, a plant originally from central Asia, was cultivated with, and sometimes in place of flax, because its stem fibers are similar to those of flax. Hemp seeds, like those of flax, can be used to extract an oil used in paints, varnishes, and soaps. By the seventeenth century, Russia, Latvia, and other countries around the Baltic Sea were major producers of hemp, and it was from this area that Britain obtained its supply, a situation which left the English vulnerable during periods of military hostilities. Hemp made into rope was vital to navies worldwide. Hemp was also used to make a coarse linen cloth as well as sacking, and other rough materials.” (Colonial American Fiber Crops, Charles Leach, from The National Colonial Farm research Report No. 20. the Accokeek Foundation, Inc. p. 3-4)
Although George Washington’s initial interest in hemp was to determine if it could be a viable cash crop, he proceeded to cultivate it just to meet the needs of his own plantation. Hemp was used at Mount Vernon for rope, thread for sewing sacks, canvas, and for repairing the seine nets used at the fisheries.
Washington’s diaries and farm reports indicate that hemp was cultivated at all his 5 farms, (Mansion House, River Farm, Dogue Run Farm, Muddy Hole Farm, & Union Farm.) In February 1794, Washington wrote to his farm manager, William Pearce, “…I am very glad to hear that the Gardener has saved so much of the St. Foin seed, and that of the India Hemp… Let the ground be well prepared and the See (St. Foin) be sown in April. The Hemp may be sown anywhere. (Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, v. 33, George Washington to William Pearce, February 24, 1794, p. 279.)
It must be noted that industrial hemp, Cannabis sativa, — the kind that Washington grew– is not the same strain of the plant as Cannabis sativa indica which is used as a drug (marijuana). Cannabis sativa (industrial use hemp) contains less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and therefore has no physical or psychological effects. Cannabis sativa indica grown for marijuana can contain 6% to 20% THC.
Therefore, there is no truth to the statement that George Washington was growing marijuana. His hemp crop was strictly the industrial strain needed for the production of rope, thread, canvas, and other industrial applications.