Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Worth his Weight in . . . Tobacco?


Reaching back through time to view the court records of my seventh great-grandfather Larkin Chew, I realize how different than ours that time period had been. Rather than rush through the document chase, that realization caused me to slow down and savor the contrast. Life was so very different back then, not only for manner of dress or speech, but in day to day interactions that comprised the social fabric of the Colonial Virginia community.

In a spate of financial transactions in Spotsylvania County in 1723, for instance, Larkin Chew was mentioned several times in those court records. Most were deeds recording the exchange of property ownership, and one would expect—just as it is now—that such sales would involve the trading of money for title to a specific parcel of land in the county. Not always so; apparently Larkin Chew was worth his weight in, um, tobacco? If that was what the abbreviation "tob" meant in one 1723 entry, that was apparently the medium for at least two business transactions I found concerning this ancestor.

Recorded in Spotsylvania County court records on April 2, 1723, for instance, the exchange of one hundred fifty acres in Saint George's Parish was consummated, if I am right here, with a payout of 2,100 pounds of tobacco. Of course, there were many other deeds bearing Larkin Chew's name which were facilitated by an exchange of money—specifically, so many pounds of sterling silver. But, pushing back far enough in the records, I saw another such exchange involving tobacco show up, linked to Larkin Chew's name.

Moving back in time another twenty years or so, in nearby Essex County on April 11, 1701, a document was drawn up specifying an exchange of Larkin Chew's contracting services for a payout "in the sume [sic] of one hundred and ten thousand pounds of good sound merchantable tobo." This payout was for "certaine proposicons" regarding the building of a new courthouse with "ye exact dementions" as that of the King and Queen County courthouse, which apparently had also been built under the supervision of Larkin Chew. 

That was how the transcription put the exchange: for his services, a certain weight of "tobo." Tobacco? I needed to verify that. The only reason I had found the information regarding that court document was thanks to a transcription posted in the notes section of an entry for Larkin Chew's genealogy found at a website which had been shared in his blog by Patrick Jones of Frequent Traveler Ancestry. I have yet to see the handwritten document itself.

While an abstract of Essex County court records is available in digitized format on some genealogy websites, the earliest date in that collection at is two years after this business exchange was recorded. However, in the specifications for the original contract in 1701 was a stipulation that the work was to be finished in 1703—the first year of the court records abstracts.

I looked to see what I could find. There, on an entry bearing Larkin Chew's name in 1706, was an entry for a judgment regarding an unpaid debt owed to Larkin Chew. The amount owed? Once again couched in the same terms, the amount was two thousand pounds "tobo." 

So what was "tobo"? I sometimes saw the term coupled with another: "tobo & cask." I took my question to Google, but even then the question stumped the Answer guru...until I found this readout on the first century of interactions between British settlers and the Native population in the region around Jamestown. In a spreadsheet of abstracts of colonial papers, I used the "find" mechanism to look for the abbreviation, "tobo." 

There were 128 instances of that term. And yes, I clicked through them all. Finally, at entry number 67, I located a line which not only included the abbreviation, but then spelled it out as tobacco.

Tobacco as a form of money in the early days of the colonies? I hadn't thought of it that way. That gives an idea of just how many other details about everyday transactions in colonial Virginia we might have missed, as we sift through those old court records, trying to imagine what life was like for our seventh great-grandparents. 


  1. Very informative article. Yes, bartering worked here too. More common with eggs as a substitute medium. Greetings!


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