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As It Was: Southern Oregon Indigenous Grow One Crop: Tobacco

Before settlers came to Southern Oregon, Native Americans mostly hunted and gathered their food, but carefully cultivated one crop – tobacco!

Most likely originating in Southern California, the tobacco spread all over the West Coast. Early Scottish botanist David Douglas traded European tobacco to an American Indian for some leaves and seeds in his tobacco patch.

The American Indians burned logs over the ground in preparation for planting the seeds. They thinned the seedlings and kept the plants watered, harvesting and drying the sticky, leathery leaves in the fall.

They brought out pipes of wood or stone as a greeting when meeting with others, and smoked in men’s sweat lodges. They combined tobacco-leaf poultices with other medications used for healing and spiritual purposes. The men did not allow women and children around the smoke, although it would be many years before 20th century medicine confirmed the harmful effects of tobacco smoke on pregnant women and young children.

Present-day anthropologists searching for remnants of old Native American villages keep an eye open for surviving patches of their original tobacco.

Source: Todd, Donn L., and Nan Hannon. "Indian Tobacco." Southern Oregon Heritage Today, Aug. 2000, p. 14.

Alice Mullaly is a graduate of Oregon State and Stanford University, and taught mathematics for 42 years in high schools in Nyack, New York; Mill Valley, California; and Hedrick Junior High School in Medford. Alice has been an Southern Oregon Historical Society volunteer for nearly 30 years, the source of many of her “As It Was” stories.