Date of Award

Spring 1980

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


While the literature detailing the intricacies of the colonial tobacco trade is extensive, and often quite persuasive, its conclusion that Virginia's economy began and ended in the production of tobacco is misleading. Virginia's expansion into previously unsettled lands, and the tremendous increase in the size of its labor force during the first three quarters of the eighteenth century did produce a gigantic growth in the tobacco trade, but it had other effects as well. Grain and meat products along with naval stores and iron contributed little to the colony's economic output in 1701, yet by 1774 they accounted for better than a third of the value of her exports.

In tandem with the growth and diversification of her export products, Virginia's marketing structure underwent a series of changes during the eighteenth century which helped ease her ultimate transition from a colony dependent upon a distant mother country for her economic services into an independent state ready to compete in the international marketplace. These changes included both the substitution of direct sales marketing for complicated consignment systems, and the replacement of part-time merchants who appeared in the colony only seasonally with a permanently resident merchant community. In time these merchants came to represent a Virginian, rather than a British, point of view when making economic decisions.

The sources of this study are many and varied. The primary evidence for export expansion and diversification is the collection of Virginia Naval Office Lists located in the Colonial Office Papers of the British Public Records Office which is now available in the United States on microfilm. These records, when computer processed to remove multiple recordings of the same cargoes, can serve as an accurate measure of Virginia's exports. The evidence concerning merchants and marketing practices is drawn from the extensive collections of mercantile papers to be found in the Library of Congress, the Virginia State Library, the Virginia Historical Society and the Alderman Library of the University of Virginia. The collections of the Research Department of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation were also indispensible.

The conclusions of this study are threefold. First, the extent and variety of non-tobacco exports grew at an increasing rate as the eighteenth century progressed. Second, the nature of the mercantile community changed from non-resident to resident and its role in Virginia's economic and political society changed from passive to active. Third, and perhaps most important in the ongoing development of American economic history, the evidence of actual per capita growth in export earnings between 1700 and 1775 is incontrovertable.