In the colonial era, English settlers in tidewater Maryland—like their neighbors in Virginia—grew tobacco knowing that Europe had boundless demand for their crop. Growing and harvesting tobacco, however, demanded an enormous amount of labor. The planters who gained a large profit did so by using enslaved workers. By the time of the Revolution, tobacco grew on half of the colony’s arable soil and dominated Maryland’s economy.
While the crop grew best in the Chesapeake region rather than in Baltimore, the city acted as Maryland’s main point of export. In 1763, a “tobacco code” called for the inspection of all tobacco crops and established two points of inspection in Baltimore Town. Individuals were appointed to build and maintain the inspection facilities along the piers of Fells Point, receiving one dollar per hogshead of tobacco inspected there as well as an additional fee for crops stored there for over a year. State-appointed inspectors assigned values to crops based on their quality and earned a salary of 9,600 pounds of tobacco per year for their work in Baltimore. These warehouses stored the tobacco before exporters purchased the product and carried it European port cities such as Bremen, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Trieste. Tobacco processors also started operating in Baltimore as early as 1766, transforming the raw plant into a product that could be smoked or chewed.
In 1803, the General Assembly authorized the construction of two new fireproof warehouses in Baltimore west of the Jones Falls with a new “Tobacco Fund.” Instead of relying solely upon warehouses built and operated by individuals, the state government itself ventured into this business in the 1830s. By 1832, two warehouses had opened at the Southern end of Dugan’s Wharf and a third stood at Light and Conaway Streets. Maryland exported up to 20,000 hogsheads (or barrels, weighing an average of 800-900 pounds each) of tobacco annually from the Revolutionary War through the early 19th century; the estimated value of this industry was $900,000 per year. By 1881, the state had invested over $1,682,000 to purchase land and erect tobacco inspection warehouses.
Although tobacco played a central role in Maryland well into the 19th century, some planters began transitioning to wheat around the same time as the War of 1812. Tobacco took a heavy toll on the soil, quickly draining it of nutrients and requiring several years before cultivation could begin again. Because wheat required far less work to grow than tobacco, many planters-turned-farmers sold or manumitted their enslaved laborers in the early 19th century. As a result, many newly freed African Americans migrated from rural Maryland farmland into the city to look for work and find a home among Baltimore’s vibrant free black community.