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


| November 2004



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."

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.”

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.

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 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.

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.

Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky farmers key in 19th century hemp industry

Hemp crops quickly spread, and arrived in Kentucky with settlers from Virginia just prior to the Revolutionary War, according to a 1919 article in the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin no. 22. These settlers set the stage for what would become one of the most important and long-standing hemp industries in America.

Along with Missouri and Illinois, Kentucky farmers produced most American hemp until the late 1800s, when demand for sailcloth and cordage began to wane as steam ships dominated the seas. By the end of the Civil War, Kentucky was the only state with a significant hemp industry until World War I, and that state remained the nation’s leading producer of hemp seed.