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Psychoactive plants Project Psychoactive Plants

Tobacco in Western North America

Biology and Taxonomy

<em>N. quadrivalvis</em> drawing
Nicotiana quadrivalvis (Indian tobacco). Courtesy of the artist, Emily Hull.

Tobacco is the name commonly given to members of the genus Nicotiana, a part of the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Species of tobacco are valued by cultures throughout the world for their narcotic effects when smoked, chewed, or eaten. These, usually mildly intoxicating, effects are caused by the presence of the psychoactive alkaloid nicotine in the leaves of tobaccos. While one species, N. tabacum, dominates modern commercial production and consumption, a number of others can be found throughout North America. N. rustica (strong tobacco, or thuốc lào in Vietnam) was cultivated throughout Mesoamerica and eastern North America thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans (Rafferty 2006). In western North America a patchwork of tobacco species grow from the deserts of the southwestern states to the cold, wet environments of Haida Gwaii and the northern British Columbia coast, often with the aid of humans. The Psychoactive Plants Project has primarily focused on detecting past use of N. attenuata (coyote tobacco) and N. quadrivalvis (Indian tobacco) in the Pacific Northwest of North America, but other important western species include N. glauca (tree tobacco), N. clevelandii (Cleveland’s tobacco), and N. trigonophylla (desert tobacco), among others (Winter 2000).

Historic and Ethnographic Accounts

Early Euroamerican arrivals to western North America quickly noted the importance of tobacco to the Native peoples that they encountered. David Douglas, for example, made note of gardens of tobacco being tended by Native individuals during his travels in the Pacific Northwest in the 1820s. In fact, Douglas found himself in trouble when he was caught with botanical samples that he had pilfered from one such garden while attempting to pilfer a sample from one such garden in northern Oregon. The owner of the plot was satisfied only when Douglas offered him a length of trade tobacco. By the early twentieth century anthropologists recorded tobacco use among indigenous groups throughout the American west, including cultivation as far north as the Columbia River, with isolated cultivation further north by the Haida and Tlingit of the Northern Northwest Coast (Kroeber 1941). Later research showed the tobacco grown in the northern limits of the Northwest Coast to be a variety of N. quadrivalvis—whose “natural” range ends in southern Oregon—the same species that Douglas observed being cultivated by the peoples of the Inland Northwest.

Pipe Artifact Array
These stone smoking pipes and pipe fragments come from several sites in central and southeastern Washington State and range in age from c. 4,500 years before present to c. 1,000. Note the variety of material types and styles represented.

Evidence from Chemical Residue Analysis

In order to explore the antiquity of the smoking practices and the important relationship with tobacco of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, researchers associated with the Psychoactive Plants Project have examined stone smoking pipes from around the region. The simple presence of smoking pipes is taken as evidence of past smoking practices and by considering the distribution of such artifacts across the region we have been able to build a picture of the past distribution of smoking. Pipes and pipe fragments, made of steatite, basalt, and sandstones, appear in archaeological sites throughout the Inland Pacific Northwest, most frequently along the Upper Snake and Lower Columbia Rivers but on the British Columbia Plateau as well along the Fraser and Thompson Rivers. These artifacts date from as long as c. 4,500 years ago until the time of the arrival of Euroamericans in the region, showing an impressive time depth to the Native practice of smoking. Analysis of the chemical residues trapped in these artifacts has shed light on what was being smoked in the past. Nicotine, taken as an indicator for tobacco use, has been identified in seven artifacts from sites along the Upper Snake and Lower Columbia (Tushingham et al. 2018) and a single artifact from a site on Moses Lake in central Washington (Damitio 2018) demonstrating that people indigenous to the Inland Northwest were smoking tobacco as long ago as c. 1,500 years before present. It is also worth noting the pipes and pipe fragments that tested negative for nicotine. Pipes from other sites in central Washington and in British Columbia were all found to not contain nicotine, a finding that may show that central Washington was the northern limit for tobacco use and range extension in the pre-Contact era.


Damitio, William J.
2018Pipes and Smoking in Precontact Pacific Northwest Societies. Unpublished Master's thesis, Department of Anthropology Washington State University, Pullman.
Kroeber, A. L.
1941Culture Element Distributions: XV: Salt, Dogs, Tobacco. Anthropological Records 6(1).
Rafferty, Sean M.
2006Evidence of Early Tobacco in Northeastern North America? Journal of Archaeological Science 33(4):453–458. DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2005.08.006.
Tushingham, Shannon, Charles M. Snyder, Korey J. Brownstein, William J. Damitio, and David R. Gang
2018Biomolecular Archaeology Reveals Ancient Origins of Indigenous Tobacco Smoking in North American Plateau. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(46):11742–11747. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1813796115.
Winter, Joseph C.
2000Botanical Description of the North American Tobacco Species. In Tobacco Use by Native North Americans: Sacred Smoke and Silent Killer, edited by Joseph C. Winter, pp. 87–127. The Civilization of the American Indian Series 236. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.