Long Island Cannabis Conversations, Part I: Hempstead to the Hamptons

[This story, the first in a four-part series for Anton Media Group, first appeared on Long Island Weekly]

As New York State continues to move forward into an era where cannabis will be a legal and taxed part of our economy, it’s important to know a little bit of the history of this plant that humans have been cultivating for likely tens of thousands of years.

Here on Long Island, where vestiges of that history remain in the form of street signs, city names and some local laws, it can be doubly important to keep an eye on our past if we hope to build a sustainable and equitable cannabis industry.

In short, humans and cannabis have demonstrated for thousands of years what is known as mutualistic coevolution, meaning that our two species have profited and excelled by sticking together. How we benefit from the nutrition of the cannabis plant (e.g. proteins and oils), its fibers (e.g. in ropes and fabrics) and its medicinal uses (e.g. anti-inflammatory, psychoactive, analgesic and antimicrobial properties, just to name a few ), as well as the plant known as cannabis sativa (whose modern cultivars include the “Sativa” and “Indica” plants we smoke, as well as low-THC hemp) have thrived by being intentionally transported and grown around the world.

The exact etymology of the word “cannabis” is still controversial, but what is clear is that cultures around the world have given names to this plant, sometimes known as hemp – also spelled, in various parts of the European continent, as “hennep”. . or “hamp”.

By the time Europeans began arriving on present-day Long Island, most societies and cultures around the world had a substantial appreciation for cannabis, including European royalty, doctors, scientists, and the military.

In the latter half of the last millennium, in fact, cannabis played a large role in both pre-US and early US history.

Given the plant’s usefulness, European settlers were eager to start growing it in the “New World” and did so all along the east coast. Along with tobacco and cotton, it was also one of the main crops that kidnapped and enslaved African Americans (and in some cases Native Americans) who were forced to farm on plantations. It is well known, for example, that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both plant advocates and grew personal crops of the plant on their own plantations using slave labor.

In the 1600s and 1700s, when ships roamed the seas in search of precious cargo in any form, cannabis was seen as a particularly important resource because it provided strong fibers used for fabrics, such as ship sails, and for rope, i.e. the rigging that supported the ships’ sails into place.

And so it was, centuries before New York State was dubbed the “Hempire State” because of its pro-hemp regulations, that Long Island became one of the main sources of rope in the colonized world.

Many aspects of the exact history of Long Island hemp cultivation remain unclear, as records of agricultural production as well as slave operations in our region are sparse.

What is clear, however, is that hemp was grown in abundance for at least 100 years by European settlers (and the workers they enslaved or, in some cases, paid) on Long Island. On the one hand, familiar place names make the connection: in Nassau County, we have Hempstead, which means “hemp farm”; to the east, in Suffolk County, we have the Hamptons, or “hemp towns.”

“That whole area of ​​Long Island was called the Hamptons, and ‘hamp’ is the northern European word for ‘hemp,’” entrepreneur and author John Roulac explained in an interview with Anton Media Group. “Essentially, Long Island was a supplier of hemp to make rope and sails for the shipping industry in the 1700s and 1800s.”

“Basically, with the advent of steam power, hemp was no longer a significant crop after, say, the 1870s,” Roulac said. In the early 20th century, the burgeoning US pharmaceutical industry also identified cannabis as a threat, in a word (among other things, which future parts of this series will discuss), and the country’s enthusiasm for hemp plummeted from boiling point to boiling point.

Looking at the region’s history, it is also clear that these vital colonial-era Long Island hemp plantations were cultivated, at least in part, by enslaved people of African descent.

According to Hofstra University’s earlier exhibit “Slavery on Long Island”: “After the English took over New Netherland (renaming it New York) in 1664, the colony became more deeply involved in the importation of slaves through the transatlantic slave trade. and the Caribbean. In order to satisfy the demands for labor in their colonies, the British actively sought to intensify their efforts to turn African men, women, and children into chattel.

“Census and fiscal data from the late 17th century indicate that approximately two out of every five households in Queens and Suffolk counties included one or more slaves,” the Hofstra researchers found. “By the mid-18th century, an inland slave trade was the predominant method of slave exchange and acquisition on Long Island, and it contributed greatly to the sevenfold increase in slave numbers in the early 19th century.”

And while historical records clearly indicate that this was happening, Long Island has comparatively few records of the transactions themselves. As the researchers noted: “Unlike New York City, with its public forums [and slave market/s]the buying and selling of slaves on the Island was typically a private matter during this period.”

Despite the slaveholders’ accounting problems, however, some researchers have managed to create a timeline from that time on the Island and even trace the family lines of people now living on Long Island whose ancestors were brought there by force.

The Plain Sight Project, for example, tracked records of hundreds of slaves who lived primarily on eastern Long Island, from Sag Harbor to East Hampton.

Meanwhile, as our next part of “Long Island Cannabis Conversations” will explore, some of the people who have been in this same region since long before European settlers arrived are now ready to embrace this plant and its potential for equity and positive change. , in a new era.

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