Updated: Jan 17, 2019
Charles T. Ambrose is a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics at the University of Kentucky. However, in recent years he has published widely on medical history and has extensively researched the history of hemp.
Last Spring, Transylvania Treasures released an essay by Ambrose detailing the growing of hemp and production of hemp products, along with the purposes of the plant by virtue of its status as the major cash crop in Kentucky in the early nineteenth century. The crop was vital to Transylvania University's existence in those early years.
Transylvania Treasures, Volume VII, No. 1, Spring 2015
Below is the introduction to "Transylvania and its Hemp Connection." The essay is divided into two parts:
Early History & Finances
Which concerns the nascent history of Transylvania Seminary/University, its financial struggles, and the early history of hemp in America - particularly Kentucky. Five Transylvania trustees are highlighted because of their support of the university, which derived in part from their hemp-based wealth.
Hemp in Agriculture & Manufacturing
Discusses the agricultural and manufacturing aspects of hemp during the early 1800s in Kentucky, and notably in Lexington.
For the past 77 years, hemp has been a federally outlawed farm crop in the United States, but 200 years ago it was decisive in the economic development of Kentucky and the emergence of Transylvania Seminary, the first institution of higher learning west of the Allegheny Mountains.
The Virginia Assembly founded Transylvania in 1780 in its far western reaches, which in 1792 became Kentucky, the fifteenth state in the Union. The Seminary was eventually located in Lexington and was later renamed Transylvania University. It early financial solvency depended in great part on the local economy, which for many decades relied largely on both hemp and enslaved Africans recently introduced to the state. According to eminent historian Thomas D. Clark, "the crop was a mainstay of slavery in Kentucky and conversely slavery was a mainstay of hemp growing and processing."
Until the 1850s, Kentucky produced "most of the hemp grown in this country." During this period, it was "the leading cash crop.... in the Bluegrass" and accounted for much of Lexington's early farming and manufacturing-based prosperity. Local hemp-based wealth contributed to student tuition fees and the private bequests vital to Transylvania Seminary's early existence. This essay proposes that if hemp had not been the major cash crop in Kentucky during the early 1800s, the school might not have survived its fiscally uncertain initial decades.