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Tobacco in America: Establishing our Nation's Roots - Celebrating the Life of Lunsford Lane

By: Michael Rhodes

Lunsford Lane began his life as an enslaved man, but died a free man by purchasing his freedom. Not only did he purchase his own freedom, he was also able to purchase the freedom of his wife and children, which he did with the leaves of tobacco. In order to understand Mr. Lane’s entrepreneurship and association with tobacco more fully, one only needs to look at the words written in his autobiography, The Narrative of Lunsford Lane, formerly of Raleigh, N.C.:

After this I lit upon a plan which proved of great advantage to me. My father suggested a mode of preparing smoking tobacco, different from any then or since employed. It had the double advantage of giving the tobacco a peculiarly pleasant flavor, and of enabling me to manufacture a good article out of a very indifferent material. I improved somewhat upon his suggestion, and commenced the manufacture, doing as I have before said, all my work in the night. The tobacco I put up in papers of about a quarter of a pound each, and sold them at fifteen cents. But the tobacco could not be smoked without a pipe, and as I had given the former a flavor peculiarly grateful, it occurred to me that I might so construct a pipe as to cool the smoke in passing through it, and thus meet the wishes of those who are more fond of smoke than heat. This I effected by means of a reed, which grows plentifully in that region; I made a passage through the reed with a hot wire, polished it, and attached a clay pipe to the end, so that the smoke should be cooled in flowing through the stem like whiskey or rum in passing from the boiler through the worm of the still. These pipes I sold at ten cents apiece. In the early part of the night I would sell my tobacco and pipes, and manufacture them in the latter part. As the Legislature sit in Raleigh every year, I sold these articles considerably to the members, so that I became known not only in the city, but in many parts of the State, as a tobacconist.

Even more empowering than this excerpt was Mr. Lane’s address to the American Anti-Slavery Society on May 11, 1842 where he detailed the purchasing of his wife and six children. In 1838, he made a deal with the man who owned his family to purchase their freedom for $2500. However, after paying $620, the laws were changed and required that he leave within twenty days even though he was a free man. Fortunately, he was encouraged by the help of a friend to get a petition signed and present it to the state legislature, which he did after going “boarding house to boarding house… and stood upon the steps of the state house” (National Anti-Slavery Standard, Whole Family Set Free). It was quickly determined that he was to be tried in court and returned to slavery for not leaving the state within the prescribed twenty days. However, he was able to get the order delayed for several months in which time he was able to acquire his daughter and go to Boston where he placed her in school in 1841. During his time in Boston, people donated a further $1500 to him, so he sent a request to his wife’s enslaver to write a letter to Governor Morehead to suspend the law for him. Although the governor was unable to do so, he allowed Mr. Lane to return to the state for twenty days to purchase his family.

Lunsford Lane. Image courtesy of

Unfortunately, upon his return to North Carolina, he was arrested by two constables for giving anti-slavery lectures while in Massachusetts. After testifying that he “went from house to house and store to store, and from church to church, and told the people a true story of what [his] heart felt” (National Anti-Slavery Standard, Whole Family Set Free), he was released. Upon his attempt to exit the city, Governor Morehead met with him and promised to assist. It was at this time an angry crowd met him and seized his belongings. Mr. Lane returned to jail, but this time it was for his safety rather than a crime he had supposedly committed. After fleeing the jail later that night, he was then captured by another crowd that tarred and feathered him but eventually let him go to conduct his business. He was finally able to complete a bill of sale for his wife and children. Subsequently, his mother’s owner agreed to release her without payment. Mr. Lane and his family arrived in Philadelphia on April 26: free.

Mr. Lane’s story presents a microhistory of the United States in terms of the value of tobacco as a cash crop in addition to the tenacity and entrepreneurship of a man. During the mid 19th century while Lunsford was in the process of attaining his family’s freedom, tobacco production more than doubled from 219,000,000 pounds in 1839 to 434,000,000 in 1859 according to the first U.S. census of agriculture. This growth in the tobacco industry and its importance to the American economy is highlighted by individual stories such as Mr. Lane’s. Eventually, the tobacco crop would grow to 1,508,000,000 in 1920 becoming “the largest crop ever raised in this or any other country” (Holmes, 397) to that point in history.

Read Lunsford Lane’s full address to the American Anti-Slavery Society on May 11, 1842 as published in the National Anti-Slavery Standard on June 9, 1842-

Works Cited

Child, L. Maria ed. “A Whole Family Set Free” from the New York Evangelist published in the National Anti-Slavery Standard, June 9, 1842.

HOLMES, GEORGE K. "SOME FEATURES OF TOBACCO HISTORY." Agricultural History Society Papers 2 (1923): 385-407. Accessed August 7, 2021.

Lunsford, Lane, The Narrative of Lunsford Lane, Formerly of Raleigh, N.C. (Boston: Lunsford Lane, 1842), 9-10.

This post is part of a series highlighting the history of tobacco farming prior to the museum's main interpretive time period of 1880-1950. You can find the prior posts in this series on our blog main page.

Mike's research was funded by a grant from Johnston County Unrestricted Endowment Fund and Cara Lee Powell Priest Endowment for Johnston County, component funds of the North Carolina Community Foundation.

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