Virginia History

The recorded History of Virginia began with settlement of the geographic region now known as the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States thousands of years ago by Native Americans. Permanent European settlement did not occur until the establishment of Jamestown in 1607, by English colonists. As tobacco emerged as a profitable export, Virginia imported more Africans to cultivate it and hardened boundaries of slavery. The Virginia Colony became the wealthiest and most populated British colony in North America.

Virginia was one of the original 13 colonies that won independence from Great Britain during the American Revolutionary War. The state produced more national leaders than any other, including four of the first five presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. In the roughly 20 years after the war, slaveholders manumitted numerous slaves, bringing the number of free blacks in the state from a few thousand before the Revolution up to 13,000 in 1790 and 20,000 in 1800.

When the issue of slavery divided the young nation, the slave state Virginia was reluctant to secede in 1861. After it did, Virginia became the major battlefield of the American Civil War. Virginia shared agricultural recession with other Southern states after the war and struggled to rebuild. As in other former Confederate states, when white Democrats regained power, they passed laws to segregate public facilities and a constitution to disfranchise blacks by the turn of the century. The long struggle by African Americans to gain the exercise of constitutional rights through education, litigation and nonviolent activism, lasted deep into the 1960s before they gained civil rights legislation that protected citizens from racial discrimination.

2007 was the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown. An 18-month-long celebration called Jamestown 2007 began in 2006. Events celebrated the Native American, European, and African contributions to the history of Virginia.

Native Americans

The portion of the New World designated Virginia had been inhabited for at least 3,000 years by many groups of Native Americans. Archaeological and historical research by anthropologist Helen Rountree and others established this. Recent archaeological work at Pocahontas Island has revealed prehistoric habitation dating to about 6500 B.C.E.

At the end of the 16th century, Native Americans living in what is now Virginia included the Cherokee, Chesepian, Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Meherrin, Monacan, Nansemond, Nottoway, Pamunkey, Pohick, Powhatan, Rappahannock, Saponi, and Tuscarora. The natives were divided into three groups, based chiefly on language differences. The largest group, known as the Algonquian, numbered over 10,000. The other groups were the Iroquoian (numbering 2,500) and the Siouan.

When the first English settlers arrived at Jamestown in 1607, Algonquian tribes controlled most of Virginia east of the fall line. Nearly all were united in what has been historically called the Powhatan Confederacy. Researcher Rountree has noted that empire more accurately describes their political structure. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a Chief named Wahunsunacock created this powerful empire by conquering or affiliating with approximately 30 tribes whose territories covered much of eastern Virginia. Wahunsunacock called this area Tenakomakah (“densely inhabited Land”). He was known as Chief Powhatan. The empire was advantageous to some tribes, who were periodically threatened by other Native Americans, such as the Monacans.

The Native Americans had a different culture than the English. Despite some successful interaction, issues of ownership and control of land, and trust between the peoples, became areas of conflict. Virginia has drought conditions an average of every three years. The colonists did not understand that the natives were ill-prepared to feed them during hard times. In the years after 1612, the colonists cleared land to farm export tobacco, their crucial cash crop. As tobacco exhausted the soil, the settlers continually needed to clear more land for replacement. This reduced wooded land which Native Americans could use for hunting to supplement their food crops. As more colonists arrived, they wanted more land.

The tribes tried to fight the encroachment by the colonists. Major conflicts took place with the Indian massacre of 1622 and another in 1644, both under the leadership of the late Chief Powhatan’s younger brother, Chief Opechancanough. By the mid-17th century, the Powhatans were in serious decline. The European colonists had expanded so that they controlled virtually all the land east of the fall line on the James River. Fifty years earlier, this territory had been the empire of the mighty Powhatan Confederacy.

Members of many tribes assimilated into the general population of the colony. Some retained their identity and heritage. In the 21st century, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi maintain reservations in King William County. Active groups of other tribes have preserved portions of their heritage. Some have renewed interest in seeking state and Federal recognition since the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007. State celebrations gave Native American tribes prominent formal roles to showcase their contributions to the state.

Colonial period

After their discovery of the New World in the 15th century, European states began trying to establish New World colonies. England, the Dutch Republic, France, Portugal, and Spain were the most active.

In 1584 Sir Walter Raleigh sent Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to lead an exploration of what is now the North Carolina coast, and they returned with word of a regional “king” named “Wingina.” This was modified later that year by the Queen to “Virginia”, perhaps in part noting her status as the “Virgin Queen.” It is the oldest surviving English place-name in the U.S. not wholly borrowed from a Native American word, and the fourth oldest surviving English place name, though it is Latin in form.

In the much smaller area now known as Virginia, the Spanish were the first to attempt to establish a colony, although they failed. More than 36 years later, the English established their first permanent settlement in the same area, at a swampy mosquito-infested island they named “Jamestown” in honor of their King, James I of England.

Spanish Mission

A Spanish exploration party had come to the lower Chesapeake Bay region of Virginia about 1560 and met the Native Americans living on the Virginia Peninsula. A 17-year-old Powhatan boy from the village of Chiskiack (located on the lands of the present-day U.S. Naval Weapons Station Yorktown), who was the son of a chief, agreed to leave with them. He was baptized and renamed Don Luis, in honor of his sponsor, Luis de Velasco. Don Luis was educated in Mexico and Madrid, Spain.

In the fall of 1570, ten years later, the native-convert Don Luis returned to Virginia to help as a guide and translator in the establishment of the Jesuits planned Ajacan Mission to be named for St. Mary on the lower peninsula. Shortly after they were left by a Spanish ship, Don Luis abandoned the group, returning to his people, where he became a Weroance. The following February, Don Luis and a group of Powhatans returned and killed the eight Jesuit missionaries, stealing their clothes and possessions, sparing only the life of a Spanish servant boy named Alonzo. This young boy escaped and made his way to a rival tribe, where he stayed until later rescued by another Spanish ship bringing supplies.

When told of the events by young Alonzo, in the early part of 1572, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the Spanish governor of Florida, returned to Virginia to retaliate. The Spanish ultimately captured and hanged some of the Indians believed responsible for the massacre, but they were unable to locate Don Luis. While this marked the end of Spanish efforts to colonize the area which became Virginia, there is some speculation over 400 years later that Don Luis and Opechancanough, who was later Chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, may have been the same individual. The name Opechancanough meant “He whose Soul is White” in the Algonquin language used by the Powhatan people.

Roanoke Island

The Roanoke Colony was the first English colony in the New World. It was founded at Roanoke Island in what was then Virginia, and is now part of Dare County in the state of North Carolina.

Between 1584 and 1587, there were two major groups of settlers sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh who attempted to establish a permanent settlement at Roanoke Island, and each failed. The final group disappeared completely after supplies from England were delayed three years by a war with Spain. Because they disappeared they were called “The Lost Colony,” but recent evidence suggests that the colonists abandoned their colony to live with local Native Americans.

Virginia Company

After the death of Queen Elizabeth I, in 1603 King James I assumed the throne of England. After years of war, England was strapped for funds, so he granted responsibility for England’s New World colonization to the Virginia Company, which became incorporated as a joint stock company by a proprietary charter drawn up on April 10, 1606. There were two competing branches of the Virginia Company and each hoped to establish a colony in Virginia in order to exploit gold (which the region did not actually have), to establish a base of support for English privateering against Spanish ships, and to spread Protestantism to the New World in competition with Spain’s spread of Catholicism.

Within the Virginia Company, the Plymouth Company branch was assigned a northern portion of the area known as Virginia, and the London Company area to the south. An overlapping portion in between was part of the competition.

In the late summer of 1607, the Plymouth Company established their Popham Colony in what is now the U.S. state of Maine. However, it only lasted a year, and was abandoned in 1608.

By the time a successor to the Plymouth Company sent Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower to establish a permanent settlement in what became Massachusetts in 1620, the area was no longer considered part of Virginia, but had been renamed New England. At that time, the competing London Company branch of the Virginia Company had already established a permanent settlement at Jamestown. However, these two colonies differed in purpose and plan; Plymouth colonists sought religious freedom and created their own local government in the form of the Mayflower Compact, while the Jamestown colonists sought gold, and eventually tobacco, to send back to England and retained both their British governance and loyalty to the crown as well as their commitment to evangelizing the native peoples to the Church of England.


First landing

In December, 1606, the London Company dispatched a group of 104 colonists in three ships: the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, under the command of Captain Christopher Newport. The voyage was a rough and lengthy one. After 144 days, the colonists finally arrived in Virginia on April 26, 1607 at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. They named the Virginia capes after the sons of their king, Cape Henry for Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Cape Charles for his younger brother, Charles, Duke of York. At Cape Henry, they went ashore, erected a cross, and did a small amount of exploring, an event which came to be called the “First Landing.”

Under orders from London to seek a more inland and ostensibly safer location ( primarily from ships of other Europeans, such as the Spanish), they explored the Hampton Roads area and sailed up the newly christened James River to the fall line at what would later became the cities of Richmond and Manchester.

Early years

After weeks of exploration, the colonists selected a location and founded Jamestown on May 14, 1607. It was named in honor of King James I (as was the river). However, while the location at Jamestown Island was favorable for defense against foreign ships, the low and marshy terrain was harsh and inhospitable for a settlement. It lacked drinking water, access to game for hunting, or much space for farming. While it seemed favorable that it was not inhabited by the Native Americans, within a short time, the colonists were attacked by members of the local Paspahegh tribe.

The colonists arrived ill-prepared to become self-sufficient. They had planned on trading with the Native Americans for food, were dependent upon periodic supplies from England, and had planned to spend some of their time seeking gold. Leaving the Discovery behind for their use, Captain Newport returned to England with the Susan Constant and the Godspeed, and came back twice during 1608 with the First Supply and Second Supply missions. Trading and relations with the Native Americans was tenuous at best, and many of the colonists died from disease, starvation, and conflicts with the Natives. After several failed leaders, Captain John Smith took charge of the settlement, and many credit him with sustaining the colony during its first years, as he had some success in trading for food and leading the discouraged colonists.

However, in August 1609, Smith was injured in an accident and forced to return to England a few months later for medical treatment. In one of history’s ironies, he left just as a drought was creating a shortage of food for the Native Americans and the English colonists, and as a weather disaster had disrupted the supply missions from England.

Starving time

After Smith’s departure, there was an interruption in the scheduled arrival of supplies due to the shipwreck on Bermuda of the Sea Venture, the new flagship of the Third Supply mission from England as a result of a massive three-day hurricane. The Sea Venture had become separated from the other ships of the Third Supply mission, seven of which had arrived at Jamestown with hundreds of additional colonists, but little in the way of food and supplies, which had been aboard the flagship.

During the winter of 1609-10 and continuing into the spring and early summer, no more ships arrived. The colonists faced what became known as the “starving time”. The leader who had replaced John Smith, Captain John Ratcliffe of the Discovery, was captured and killed by the Powhatans, who were much more aggressive after Smith’s departure. Only a small amount of food was traded, and at very high prices, as the colonists gave up valuable tools and equipment. The colonists had no way of knowing if help would ever come. However, they had not been forgotten, and separate events were underway at Bermuda and in England to re-supply them.

Shipwrecked on the uninhabited archipelago of Bermuda, over a period of 10 months, the leaders of the Third Supply and the survivors of the Sea Venture constructed two smaller ships, using many parts from their destroyed flagship. Leaving a few men on Bermuda to retain possession, they set sail again for Jamestown. (The Virginia Company remained in physical possession of Bermuda from the time of the Sea Venture wreck, and its Third Charter, in 1612, extended the boundaries of Virginia far enough out to sea to include Bermuda, also known as the Somers Isles, and Virgineola. A separate company, the Somers Isles Company, was formed by the same shareholders in 1615, administering Bermuda until 1684. Immigrants would continue to come from Bermuda in large numbers to Virginia, and other southern colonies, until US independence closed the door).

When Captain Newport, his Admiral, Sir George Somers, and the new governor, Sir Thomas Gates, finally arrived at Jamestown on May 23, 1610, they anticipated finding a thriving colony. Instead, they discovered something much different. Over 80% of the 500 colonists had perished, and many remaining alive were sick. On their two small ships, the Sea Venture survivors had brought few supplies from Bermuda. The stark reality was that the situation was only slightly improved at Jamestown with their arrival. It appeared that using the two ships to leave the hostile environment was the only viable option, one which the leaders were reluctant to embrace. Finally, they began to sail down the James River.

Meanwhile, back in England, the Virginia Company had been reorganized under its Second Charter, ratified on May 23, 1609, which gave most leadership authority of the colony to the governor, the newly-appointed Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr (known in modern times as “Lord Delaware”). Word had reached England through Samuel Argall, captain of one of the other ships of the Third Supply, that the Sea Venture (with most of the supplies of that mission) had not arrived at Jamestown, and that food and supplies there were quite low, despite an increased number of colonists.

Lord Delaware and John Rolfe

On April 1, 1610, De La Warr left for Jamestown with 150 men and additional food and supplies to rescue the colonists and assume leadership over the colony. Upon his arrival in June, as he sailed up the James River, he was met by two ships sailing downriver near Mulberry Island. There is little doubt that he was as surprised to learn of the fate of the Sea Venture and that its survivors had made it to Jamestown as they were to see English ships arriving.

Lord Delaware was likely less surprised to find them all preparing to abandon the colony. Instead, he required them to stay in Virginia and work with his fresh colonists and supplies to continue the settlement. The timing of Lord Delaware’s arrival must have been a disappointment to those who hoped to leave Jamestown forever. However, neither they, nor Lord Delaware, could have known that the man who held the key to Virginia’s economic future was also returning to Jamestown with them.

One of the Sea Venture survivors was a businessman named John Rolfe. Despite leaving England with great expectations aboard the beautiful new Sea Venture, his trip thus far with Captain Newport had not gone well at all. His wife and son had died in Bermuda. He himself had finally made it to Jamestown, only to discover the result of the “Starving Time.” Although he had some marketing ideas and some new seeds for sweeter strains of tobacco with him, both were as yet untried. That was about to change.

As he became established, De La Warr began a violent campaign, First Anglo-Powhatan War, against the natives. Under his leadership, Samuel Argall kidnapped Pocahontas, daughter of the Powhatan chief, and held her at Henricus. Attempts at ransom failed, however.

The economy of the Colony was another problem. Gold had never been found, and efforts to introduce profitable industries in the colony had all failed until Rolfe introduced his two foreign types of tobacco: Orinoco and Sweet Scented. These produced a better crop than the local variety and with the first shipment to England in 1612, the customers found the flavor to be favorable. This identification of a cash crop to export marked the beginning of Virginia’s economic viability.

While ransoming the chief’s daughter had not worked, the First Anglo-Powhatan War ended when John Rolfe married Pocahontas in 1614. The union seemed to create good feelings between the vastly different cultures. If only for a few years, a comparative peace was established. Their son, Thomas Rolfe, was born in 1615.

The Virginia Colony began to prosper with a thriving tobacco industry, but required more and more of the land the natives considered their own. Especially after the death of Pocahontas in 1617 during a trip to England and her father, Chief Powhatan in 1618, conflicts with the Powhatans escalated again. There were also conflicts among the colonists. De La Warr’s deputy, Samuel Argall, who had been left in charge of the colony, ran Jamestown as an autocrat. Responding to accusations of Argall’s abuses, De La Warr left to return to the colony in 1618 but died en route.

Plantation beginnings

The year 1619 was a watershed year for the Virginia Company. George Yeardley took over as Governor of Virginia in 1619. In the long view, the most important development was that he reformed the old autocratic system and created a more democratic one. He established the General Assembly, the first elected legislative assembly in the New World, which first met on July 30, 1619, in the Jamestown church.

Also in 1619, the Virginia Company sent 90 single women as potential wives for the male colonists to help populate the settlement. Prior to that time, the only females to arrive had been wives and children.

That same year the colony acquired a group of “twenty and odd” Angolans, brought by two English privateers. They were probably the first Africans in the colony. They, along with many European indentured servants helped to expand the growing tobacco industry which was already the colony’s primary product. Although these black men were treated as indentured servants, this marked the beginning of America’s history of slavery. Major importation of African slaves by both African and Europeans profiteers did not take place until much later in the century.

Also in 1619, the plantations and developments were divided into four “incorporations” or “citties” (sic), as they were called. These were Charles Cittie, Elizabeth Cittie, Henrico Cittie, and James Cittie, which included the relatively small seat of government for the colony at Jamestown Island. Each of the four “citties” (sic) extended across the James River, the main conduit of transportation of the era. Elizabeth Cittie, know initially as Kecoughtan (a Native word with many variations in spelling by the English), also included the areas now known as South Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore.

In some areas, individual rather than communal land ownership or leaseholds were established, providing families with motivation to increase production, improve standards of living, and gain wealth. Perhaps nowhere was this more progressive at than Sir Thomas Dale’s ill-fated Henricus, a westerly-lying development located along the south bank of the James River, where natives were also to be provided an education at the Colony’s first college.

About 6 miles south of the falls at present-day Richmond, in Henrico Cittie the Falling Creek Ironworks was established near the confluence of Falling Creek, using local ore deposits to make iron. It was the first in North America. Extant records indicate the production of iron had begun, but the events of March, 1622 interrupted continued operations.

Natives conflicts

While the developments of 1619 and continued growth in the several following years were seen as favorable by the English, many aspects, especially the continued need for more and more land to grow tobacco were the source of increasing concern to the Native Americans most affected, the Powhatans.

The central issue was who would be in charge. The Powhatans formally and ritually admitted Virginia into their political system in 1607 and 1608, and for years under the rule of Chief Powhatan, and even later, they fought to enforce the control they felt was rightfully theirs. The colonists, however, never recognized Powhatan authority, and they also acted to take control.

By this time, the remaining Powhatan Empire was led by Chief Opechancanough, chief of the Pamunkeys, and brother of Chief Powhatan. He had earned a reputation as a fierce warrior under his brother’s chiefdom. Soon, he gave up on hopes of diplomacy, and resolved to eradicate the English colonists.

On March 22, 1622, a Good Friday, about 400 colonists were killed in an event which came to be called the Indian Massacre of 1622. Coordinated attacks struck almost all the English settlements along the James River, on both shores, from Newport News Point on the east at Hampton Roads all the way west upriver to Falling Creek, a few miles above Henricus and John Rolfe’s plantation, Varina Farms.

At Jamestown itself, the death and destruction would have been worse had an Indian boy named Chanco not defied orders to kill his employer, Richard Pace, and instead warned him of the attack the night before. Pace secured his plantation, and rowed across the river during the night to alert Jamestown, allowing for some preparation. However, there had been no time to spread the warning to other English outposts. There were deaths and some colonists were captured at almost every outpost. Several entire communities were essentially wiped out, including Henricus and Wolstenholme Towne at Martin’s Hundred. At the Falling Creek Ironworks, which had been seen as so promising for the Colony, two women and three children were among the 27 killed, leaving only two colonists alive. The facilities were destroyed.

However, despite the losses, two thirds of the colonists survived that fateful day. After initially withdrawing to Jamestown, many of them returned to the outlying plantations, although some were abandoned. There were reprisals against the Powhatans by the English as well. The colonists and natives fought for about a year until a truce was struck.

Meeting at Jamestown, a toast of liquor was proposed. However, Dr. John Potts and some of the Jamestown leadership had poisoned the natives’ share of the liquor, which killed about 200 of them. Another 50 Indians were killed by hand.

The period between the coup of 1622 and another Powhatan attack on English colonists along the James River (see Jamestown) in 1644 marked a turning point in the relations between the Powhatans and the English, from a situation where both sides felt that they not only could dictate, but were dictating, the terms of the relationship, to the period after 1646, where the colony was clearly in control.

The colonists defined the 1644 coup as an “uprising”, but even at that late date, Chief Opechancanough expected the outcome would reflect what he considered the morally correct position that the colonists were violating their pledges to the Powhatans. During the 1644 event, Chief Opechancanough was captured. While imprisoned, he was murdered by one of his guards.

After the death of Opechancanough, and following the repeated colonial attacks in 1644 and 1645, the remaining Powhatan tribes had little alternative but to accede to the demands of the settlers.

Early demographics

The death rate from illness and attacks by Indians was high as can be seen in the following statistics:
Easter,1619 – about 1,000
Easter, 1620 – 866
From Easter 1620 to Easter 1621, ten ships brought 1051 colonists.
Easter, 1621 – 843
In four years 1620 to 1623, 4,000 people migrated to the colony.
February 1624 – 1,277
A Royal Council met to discover what had happened to “5,000” missing subjects of the King. They determined that they had died or been killed in the Indian massacre of 1622.

Royal colony

In 1624, the Virginia Company’s charter was revoked and the colony transferred to royal authority as a crown colony, but the elected representatives in Jamestown continued to exercise a fair amount of power. Under royal authority, the colony began to expand to the North and West with additional settlements. In 1630, under the governorship of John Harvey, the first settlement on the York River was founded. In 1632, the Virginia legislature voted to build a fort to link Jamestown and the York River settlement of Chiskiack and protect the colony from Indian attacks. This fort would become Middle Plantation and later Williamsburg, Virginia. In 1634, a palisade was built near Middle Plantation. This wall stretched across the peninsula between the York and James rivers and protected the settlements on the eastern side of the lower Peninsula from Indians. The wall also served to contain cattle.

Also in 1634, a new system of local government was created in the Virginia Colony by order of the King of England. Eight shires were designated, each with its own local officers. These shires were renamed as counties only a few years later. They were:

   •Accomac (now Northampton County)
   •Charles City Shire (now Charles City County)
   •Charles River Shire (now York County)
   •Elizabeth City Shire (existed as Elizabeth City County until 1952, when it was absorbed into the city of Hampton)
   •Henrico (now Henrico County)
   •James City Shire (now James City County)
   •Warwick River Shire (existed as Warwick County until 1952, then the city of Warwick until 1958 when it was absorbed into the  
    city of Newport News)
   •Warrosquyoake Shire (now Isle of Wight County)

Of these, as of 2007, five of the eight original shires of Virginia are considered still extant in essentially their same political form (county), although some boundaries have changed in almost 400 years. Also, including the earlier names of the cities (sic) in their names resulted in the source of some confusion, as that resulted in such seemingly contradictory names as “James City County” and “Charles City County”.

The first significant attempts at exploring the Trans-Allegheny region occurred under the administration of Governor William Berkeley. Efforts to explore farther into Virginia were hampered in 1644 when about 500 colonists were killed in another Indian massacre led, once again, by Opechancanough. Berkeley is credited with efforts to develop others sources of income for the colony besides tobacco such as cultivation of mulberry trees for silkworms and other crops at his large Green Spring Plantation, now a largely unexplored archaeological site maintained by the National Park Service near Jamestown and Williamsburg.

Most Virginia colonists were loyal to the crown (Charles I) during the English Civil War, but in 1652, Oliver Cromwell sent a force to remove and replace Gov. Berkeley with Governor Richard Bennett, who was loyal to the Commonwealth of England. This governor was a moderate Puritan who allowed the local legislature to exercise most controlling authority, and spent much of his time directing affairs in neighboring Maryland Colony. Bennett was followed by two more “Cromwellian” governors, Edward Digges and Samuel Matthews, although in fact all three of these men were not technically appointees, but were selected by the House of Burgesses, which was really in control of the colony during these years. There are conflicting sources as to whether the latter two were ever actual Puritans; indeed Matthews, though he did as governor maintain loyalty to Cromwell, had previously been known as a persecutor of the Puritan sect in the colony.

Many royalists fled to Virginia after their defeat in the English Civil War. Many of them established what would become the most important families in Virginia. After the Restoration, in recognition of Virginia’s loyalty to the crown, King Charles II of England bestowed Virginia with the nickname “The Old Dominion”, which it still bears today.

Berkeley, who remained popular after his first administration, returned to the governorship at the end of Commonwealth rule. However, Berkeley’s second administration was characterized with many problems. Disease, hurricanes, Indian hostilities, and economic difficulties all plagued Virginia at this time. Berkeley established autocratic authority over the colony. To protect this power, he refused to have new legislative elections for 14 years in order to protect a House of Burgesses that supported him. He only agreed to new elections when rebellion became a serious threat.

Berkeley finally did face a rebellion in 1676. Indians had begun attacking encroaching settlers as they expanded to the north and west. Serious fighting broke out when settlers responded to violence with a counter-attack against the wrong tribe, which further extended the violence. Berkeley did not assist the settlers in their fight. Many settlers and historians believe Berkeley’s refusal to fight the Indians stemmed from his investments in the fur trade. Large scale fighting would have cut off the Indian suppliers Berkeley’s investment relied on. Nathaniel Bacon of Henrico organized his own militia of settlers who retaliated against the Indians. Bacon became very popular as the primary opponent of Berkeley, not only on the issue of Indians, but on other issues as well. Berkeley condemned Bacon as a rebel, but pardoned him after Bacon won a seat in the House of Burgesses and accepted it peacefully. After a lack of reform, Bacon rebelled outright, captured Jamestown, and took control of the colony for several months. The incident became known as Bacon’s Rebellion. Berkeley returned himself to power with the help of the English militia. Bacon burned Jamestown before abandoning it and continued his rebellion, but died of disease. Berkeley severely crushed the remaining rebels. In response to Berkeley’s harsh repression of the rebels, the English government removed him from office. After the burning of Jamestown, the capital was temporarily moved to Middle Plantation, located on the high ground of the Virginia Peninsula equidistant from the James and York Rivers.

Following a failure at Henricus in 1622, Virginia’s first permanent institute of higher learning was founded under Governor Francis Nicholson. In 1691, with urging and support of the House of Burgesses, Reverend Dr. James Blair, the colony’s top religious leader, went back to England and in 1693, obtained a charter from King William and Queen Mary II of England. The college was named the College of William and Mary in honor of the two monarchs.

The rebuilt statehouse in Jamestown burned again in 1698. After that fire, upon suggestion of students of the College of William and Mary, the colonial capital was permanently moved to nearby Middle Plantation again, and the town was renamed Williamsburg, in honor of William of Orange, King William III.

Border dispute

The colony of Maryland and Virginia had a long series of border disputes of which one continues to this day. The dispute revolved around the boundary that King Charles I granted the charter to George Calvert the baron of Maryland in 1632. It granted him feudal rights of the region between lat. 40°N and the Potomac River which Virginia claimed. The disputes over the area were mostly resolved in 1930. However Maryland and Virginia still dispute the usage of the Potomac and water rights.


Alexander Spotswood became lieutenant governor, or acting royal governor, of Virginia in 1710, and in 1716 he led an expedition of westward exploration, later known as the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe Expedition. Spotswood’s party reached the top ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains at Swift Run Gap (elevation 2,365 feet (721 m)). Such was the English colonials understanding of the extent of the land, that they thought they had reached the continental divide. There was some expectation that, “like Balboa”, they would be overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Established Church

Church of England

When the English colony was established in Virginia, the role of the Church of England and its relationship to the government had been established by King Henry VIII some years earlier. The same relationship was established in the new colony.

At Jamestown, worship services and a primitive chapel were early priorities even as the first fort was built, with Robert Hunt as the spiritual leader. Hunt was the spiritual leader of the three ship expedition headed by Christopher Newport. He lit the candle for the Anglican Church in Virginia a few weeks earlier when he first prayed on April 29, 1607, when the settlers made their “First Landing” in the New World and planted a cross at Cape Henry, near the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. In his role as religious leader, he was a peacemaker, often bringing harmony to a quarreling group of men. In July 1610, Elizabeth City Parish Church was founded by The Reverend William Mease who was appointed by the Bishop of London to lead the church at Kecoughtan, Virginia, now part of Hampton. Renamed St. John’s Episcopal Church in 1830, after restoration from damages suffered during the War of 1812, it is the oldest English-speaking parish in the US today. The current church, the fourth, was built in 1728.


After five very difficult years, during which the majority of the continually arriving colonists also did not survive, the colony began to grow more successfully. As in England, the parish became a unit of local importance, equal in power and practical aspects to other entities, such as the courts and even the House of Burgesses and the Governor’s Council (the precursors of the Virginia General Assembly). (A parish was normally led spiritually by a rector and governed by a committee of members generally respected in the community which was known as the vestry). A typical parish contained three or four churches, as the parish churches needed to be close enough for people to travel to worship services, where attendance was expected of everyone. Virtually all parishes had a church farm (or “glebe”) to help support it financially.

Expansion and subdivision of the church parishes and, after 1634, the shires (or counties) followed population growth. The intention of the Virginia parish system was to place a church not more than six miles-easy riding distance-from every home in the colony. The shires, soon after initial establishment in 1634 known as “counties”, were planned to be not more than a day’s ride from all residents, so that court and other business could be attended to in a practical manner.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia published in 1781-82, Thomas Jefferson described the parish arrangement: “The state, by another division, is formed into parishes, many of which are commensurate with the counties: but sometimes a county comprehends more than one parish, and sometimes a parish more than one county. This division had relation to the religion of the state, a Parson of the Anglican church, with a fixed salary, having been heretofore established in each parish. The care of the poor was another object of the parochial division.”


Religious leaders in England felt they had a duty as missionaries to bring Christianity (or more specifically, the religious practices and beliefs of the Church of England), to the Native Americans. There was an assumption that their own “mistaken” spiritual beliefs were largely the result of a lack of education and literacy, since the Powhatan did not have a written language. Therefore, teaching them these skills would logically result in what the English saw as “enlightenment” in their religious practices, and bring them into the fold of the church, which was part of the government, and hence, a form of control.

The leaders of the Virginia Colony had long desired a school of higher education, for the sons of planters, and for educating the natives. An earlier attempt to establish a permanent university at Henricus for these purposes around 1618 had gotten off to a start, and had been promising, but failed after the Indian Massacre of 1622 wiped out the entire settlement, which was not rebuilt.

Almost 70 years later, with encouragement from the Colony’s House of Burgesses and other prominent individuals, Blair prepared a plan, believed by some historians to be modeled after the earlier one from Henricus, and returned to England in 1691 to petition the monarchy for a new college.

Control of the Powhatan was no longer a priority in the Colony, as they had been largely decimated and reduced to reservations after the last major conflict ended in 1646, but the religious principle of educating them in Christianity was nevertheless retained, perhaps as a moral incentive to help successfully gain support and approval in London for the new College of William and Mary, which received its Royal Charter in 1693. The efforts to educate and convert the natives there were minimal, though the Indian school remained open until the Revolution. Apart from the Nansemond tribe, which had converted in 1638, and a few isolated individuals over the years, the other Powhatan tribes as a whole did not fully convert to Christianity until c. 1791.

Another attempt at an Indian Christian school was made under Gov. Spotswood at Fort Christanna in 1714 for the Siouan Saponi and Tutelo tribes of Virginia, but it was shut down by the House of Burgesses after only four years.


Bruton Parish was located in the tiny community of Middle Plantation, on high ground midway across the Virginia Peninsula about 8 miles north of Jamestown. Colonel John Page, a merchant who had emigrated from Middlesex, England with his wife Alice Lucken Page in 1650, was chiefly responsible for developing Middle Plantation into a substantial town.

Bruton Parish Church, a fine but small brick church, was built there, financed mostly by Colonel Page, who also donated the land. Complete by November 29, 1683, the building was dedicated on Epiphany, January 6, 1684 by the first rector, the Reverend Rowland Jones.

The capital of the colony and the College of William and Mary were relocated to Middle Plantation in 1699. The community was renamed Williamsburg in honor of King William III). Plans were made to construct a capitol building and plat the new city according to the survey of Theodoric Bland.

Bruton Parish Church held a prominent location in the new plan. Historians from Colonial Williamsburg Foundation have noted that the brick church stood near the center of Williamsburg’s original survey map, suggesting the church’s importance to the colonial community’s life. During the colonial period, all those in public office were required to attend church. Government and college officials in the capital city of Williamsburg attended Bruton Parish Church. The influx of students, the governor and his entourage, and the legislature, as well as townspeople, overwhelmed the small church.

Bruton Parish Church

In 1706, the vestry of Bruton Parish began considering building a larger church. However, with only 110 families as late as almost 20 years later (in 1724), the parish vestry could only afford to plan a small church, and invited the colony’s government to finance an enlargement to accommodate the needs not arising from the local residents. Four years later the General Assembly agreed to fund pews for the governor, council, and burgesses. Royal Governor Alexander Spotswood drafted plans for the structure: a cruciform-shaped church (the first in Virginia) 75 feet long, 28 feet wide, with 19 foot long transepts (wings.)

Under the watchful eye of Reverend Dr. James Blair, who was rector from 1710 to 1743 (and also president of William and Mary from 1693 until his death), the construction of the new church got underway, with the first construction contract awarded in 1711. Finished in 1715, the church soon had all the required furnishings: Bible, prayer books, altar, font, cushions, surplice, bell, and reredos tablets.

In addition to the Royal Governors and officials of the college of William and Mary, prominent Virginians who attended Bruton Parish Church in the 18th century included George Washington, James Madison, John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson.

18th century clergy

In the 1740s, the established Anglican church had about 70 parish priests around the colony. There was no bishop, and indeed, there was fierce political opposition to having a bishop in the colony. The Anglican priests were supervised directly by the Bishop of London. Each county court gave tax money to the local vestry, composed of prominent layman. The vestry provided the priest a glebe of 200 or 300 acres, a house, and perhaps some livestock. The vestry paid him an annual salary of 16,000 lbs. of tobacco, plus 20 shillings for every wedding and funeral. While not poor, the priests’ living were modest and their opportunities for improvement were slim.

Civil War

Virginia began a convention about secession on February 13, 1861 after six states seceded to form the Confederate States of America on February 4. The convention deliberated for several months, but, on April 15 Lincoln called for troops from all states still in the Union in response to the firing on Fort Sumter. On April 17, 1861 the convention voted to secede. With the entry of Virginia into the Confederacy, the decision to move the Confederate capital from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond was made on May 6 and enacted on May 29. Virginians ratified the articles of secession on May 23. The following day, the Union army moved into northern Virginia and captured Alexandria without a fight.

The first major battle of the Civil War occurred on July 21, 1861. Union forces attempted to take control of the railroad junction at Manassas for use as a supply line, but the Confederate Army had moved its forces by train to meet the Union. The Confederates won the First Battle of Manassas (known as “Bull Run”in Northern naming convention) and the year went on without a major fight.

The first and last significant battles were held in Virginia. The first being the Battle of Manassas and the last being Battle of Appomattox Courthouse. During the American Civil War, Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States of America. The White House of the Confederacy, located a few blocks north of the State Capital, was home to the family of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

In April 1865, Richmond was burned by a retreating Confederate Army and was returned to Northern control. Due to the number of volunteers and generals from the state, Virginia was know as the “Might of the South” during the war. Virginia was administered as the “First Military District” during the Reconstruction period (1865-1870) under General John Schofield. The state formally rejoined the Union on January 26, 1870.


Various textile production was present prior to 1861 but nothing of great significance. A center of iron production during the civil war was located in Richmond at Tredegar Iron Works. Tredegar was run partially by slave labor, and it produced most of the artillery for the war, making Richmond an important point to defend. Petersburg became a manufacturing center, as well as a city where free black artisans and craftsmen could make a living. In 1860 half its population was black and of that, one-third were free blacks, the largest such population in the state. Richmond and Petersburg were linked by railroad before the Civil War, and the latter was an important shipping point for goods.

West Virginia split

At the Richmond secession convention on April 17, 1861, the final tally of votes from western Virginia delegates showed 17 in favor of the Ordinance of Secession, 30 against, and 2 abstentions. In the popular referendum on the Ordinance of Secession on May 23, 1861, the 50 counties of the future West Virginia voted approximately 34,677 to 19,121 against the Ordinance. From May to August 1861, a series of Unionist conventions met in Wheeling in opposition to Virginia’s secession from the United States. The Second Wheeling Convention (11 to 25 June and 6 to 21 August 1861) constituted itself as a legislative body called the Restored Government of Virginia. The members declared the state offices of Virginia vacant and elected a new governor, Francis H. Pierpont, and a lieutenant governor, Daniel Polsley. Though unelected at public polls, this body gained formal recognition by the Lincoln administration on July 4. On August 20 an ordinance for the creation of a new state was passed by a vote of 50 to 28. The ordinance was to be put to public vote on Oct. 24. Prominent among those who opposed the ordinance was Lieutenant Governor Polsley.

The October 24 vote had a low turnout. The 39 counties listed in the ordinance, and the 9 additional counties invited to vote, returned 18,408 votes in favor of a new state from a voting populace of 65,534.

In at least one county, Hampshire, the vote in favor of a new state was mostly cast by the Ohio soldiers who guarded the polls. The proposed boundaries of the new state fluctuated greatly, as it was not based on local sentiment but on the requirements of the Wheeling government. At one point it would have included all of the Shenandoah Valley.

The Wheeling legislators acknowledged the disappointing results, but the vote provided them with a basis for the writing of a state constitution and a petition to Congress for admission to statehood. Despite various setbacks, including the desertion of John S. Carlile, their efforts were successful. President Lincoln signed the statehood ordinance on Dec. 31, 1862 and, after providing for gradual emancipation of slaves in the new state constitution, West Virginia became the 35th state on June 20, 1863. After statehood was achieved the counties of Jefferson and Berkeley were annexed to the new state late in 1863. This resulted in an appeal to the Supreme Court by the state of Virginia for the return of these counties, but the court ruled in favor of West Virginia in 1871.

Virginia appointed a committee of three to discuss the rejoining of the two Virginias. The Wheeling government however was not amenable and the legislature in 1867 rejected the plan. The state government at this time faced great internal difficulties, some counties refused to pay taxes and outbreaks of violence caused Gov. Boreman to request Federal troops. Unable to enforce the voter’s test oath, the increased enrollment of formerly proscribed voters resulted in a loss of power in the 1870 elections. By 1872 Democrats were in control of the state government, and the Wheeling constitution was discarded. A new constitution was written that year under the chairmanship of former Virginia Lt. Gov. Samuel Price. The Democrats stayed in power for nearly a generation.

With the formation of West Virginia, Virginia no longer shared a border with Pennsylvania. However, even the Virginia-West Virginia border was subject to some fluctuation, with two Virginia counties electing to join West Virginia in 1866. Even in the 20th century, there were still some disputes about the precise location of the border in some of the northern mountain reaches of Virginia between Loudoun County and Jefferson County, West Virginia. In 1991, both state legislatures appropriated money for a boundary commission to look into 15 miles of the border area.


Virginia remained under military control until 1869, since the Union commander, General John M. Schofield, refused to authorize a vote on the constitution drafted by a Radical convention. President Ulysses S. Grant called for a vote in 1869 that included a vote on the Constitution, a separate one on its disfranchisement clause that would have stripped the vote from most former rebels, and a separate vote for state officials. The Radicals nominated Henry H. Wells, a former general and provisional governor who was close to Schofield. The leader of the Democrats was William Mahone, a Democrat who said it was time for a New Departure. That is, Democrats had to accept the results of the war, including civil rights and the vote for Freedmen. He denounced the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad railroad as too powerful, and called for new Virginia-based railroads that would lead the state to prosperity. He won over many moderate pro-business Republicans.

Mahone’s candidate for governor Gilbert C. Walker was elected and the disfranchisement clause defeated. The new Underwood Constitution was approved by a vote of 210,585 to 9,136, while the disfranchisement clauses were rejected by votes of 124,715 to 83,458 and 124,360 to 84,410 respectively. The state did not experience the corruption and race conflict that characterized the Reconstruction period in other southern states, yet white Virginians generally came to share the bitterness so typical of the southern attitudes. Virginia was thus the only southern state not to have a civilian Radical government.

Disfranchisement and New South

The Readjuster Party was a political faction formed in Virginia in the late 1870s during the turbulent period following Reconstruction. The so-called Readjusters aspired “to break the power of wealth and established privilege” and to promote public education. The Readjusters were led by Harrison H. Riddleberger of Woodstock, an attorney, and William Mahone, a former Confederate general who was president of several railroads. Mahone was a controlling force in Virginia politics from about 1870 until 1883, when the Readjusters lost control to the “Conservative Democrats.”

A division among Virginia politicians occurred in the 1870s, when those who supported a reduction of Virginia’s pre-war debt (“Readjusters”) opposed those who felt Virginia should repay its entire debt plus interest (“Funders”). Virginia’s pre-war debt was primarily for infrastructure improvements overseen by the Virginia Board of Public Works, largely in canals, roads, and railroads. Prior to 1861, the State had purchased a total of $48,000,000 worth of stock in turnpike, toll bridge, canal, and water and rail transportation enterprises. Many these improvements were heavily damaged or destroyed during the Civil War by Union forces. Much of those remaining were located in the portion of the state which became West Virginia and much of the debt was held by “northerners”, making the issue of debt repayment complex.

After his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1877, Mahone became the leader of the “Readjusters”, forming a coalition of conservative Democrats and white and black Republicans. They sought a reduction in Virginia’s prewar debt in order to protect funding for public education, newly established during Reconstruction. They also wanted an appropriate allocation of debt made to the former portion of the state that constituted the new State of West Virginia. For several decades thereafter, the two states disputed the new state’s share of the Virginian government’s debt. The issue was finally settled in 1915, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that West Virginia owed Virginia $12,393,929.50. The final installment of this sum was paid off in 1939.

The Readjuster Party promised to “readjust” the state debt. Its proposal to repeal the poll tax and increase funding for schools and other public facilities attracted biracial and cross-party support. The Readjuster Party was successful in electing its candidate, William E. Cameron as governor, and he served from 1882-1886. Mahone served as a Senator in the U.S. Congress from 1881 to 1887. However, in Congress, he became primarily aligned with the Republican Party, as did fellow Readjuster Harrison H. Riddleberger, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1883-1889. The Virginia legislature replaced both Mahone and Riddleberger in the U.S. Senate with Democrats.

Readjusters’ effective control of Virginia politics lasted until 1883, when they lost majority control in the state legislature, followed by the election of Democrat Fitzhugh Lee as governor in 1885. Mahone stayed active in politics, but lost his bid for reelection as U.S. Senator, as well as another bid for Governor (as a Republican). Riddleberger died in 1890, Mahone in 1895.

In 1888 the exception to Readjustor and Democratic control was John Mercer Langston, who was elected to Congress from the Petersburg area on the Republican ticket. He was the first black elected to Congress from the state, and the last for nearly a century. He served one term. A talented and vigorous politician, he was an Oberlin College graduate. He had long been active in the abolitionist cause in Ohio before the Civil War, had been president of the National Equal Rights League from 1864-1868, and had headed and created the law department at Howard University, and acted as president of the college. When elected, he was president of what became Virginia State University.

After the Readjuster Party disappeared, Virginia Democrats rapidly passed legislation and constitutional amendments that effectively disfranchised African Americans and many poor whites, through the use of poll taxes and literacy tests. They created white, one-party rule under the Democratic Party for the next 80 years. White state legislators passed statutes that restored white supremacy through imposition of Jim Crow segregation. In 1902 Virginia passed a new constitution that reduced voter registration. Despite the gains of freedmen since the war and the existence of thousands of educated free blacks before the war, the black voter turnout for the Presidential election of 1904 was reduced to zero. The disfranchisement was devastating and long lasting. Not until Federal civil rights legislation was passed in 1964 and 1965 did African Americans recover the power to vote and the protection of other basic constitutional civil rights.

War, Great Migration and Great Depression

Temperance became an issue in the early 20th century. In 1916, a statewide referendum passed to outlaw the consumption of alcohol. This was overturned in 1933.

After 1930, tourism began to grown exponentially with the development of Colonial Williamsburg, which helped the Historic Triangle area become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. The new U.S. Interstate highway system begun in the 1950s and the new Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in 1958 helped transform Virginia Beach from a tiny resort town into one of the state’s largest cities by 1963, and spurring the growth of the other Seven Cities of Hampton Roads linked by the Hampton Roads Beltway. In the western portion of the state, completion of north-south Interstate 81 brought better access and new businesses to dozens of counties over a distance of 300 miles.

The economic stimulus of [World War II] brought new prosperity to the state. The buildup for the war greatly increased the state’s naval and industrial economic base, as did the growth of federal government jobs in Northern Virginia. The Pentagon was built there as the largest office building in the world. In the early 1960s, an entirely new airport, Dulles International Airport, was built straddling the Fairfax County-Loudoun County border, another major stimulus. Virginia’s status as the northernmost right-to-work state along the east coast helped attract businesses relocating from other states or expanding.

Massive resistance and Civil Rights

The first black students attended the University of Virginia School of Law in 1950, and Virginia Tech in 1953.

Postmodern commonwealth

By the 1980s, Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads region had achieved the greatest growth and prosperity, chiefly because of employment related to Federal government agencies and defense, as well as an increase in technology in Northern Virginia. Shipping through the Port of Hampton Roads began expansion which continued into the early 21st century as new container facilities were opened. Coal piers in Newport News and Norfolk had recorded major gains in export shipments by August, 2008. The recent expansion of government programs in the areas near Washington has profoundly affected the economy of Northern Virginia. The subsequent growth of defense projects has also generated a local information technology industry. The Hampton Roads region has also experienced much growth.

On January 13, 1990, Douglas Wilder became the first African American to be elected as Governor of a US state since Reconstruction when he was elected Governor of Virginia.

Virginia was targeted in the September 11, 2001 attacks, as American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington County.

In 2006 former Governor of Virginia Mark Warner gave a speech and interview in the massively multiplayer online game Second Life, becoming the first politician to appear in a video game. In 2007 Virginia speedily passed the nation’s first spaceflight act by a vote of 99-0 in the House of Delegates. Northern Virginia company Space Adventures is currently the only company in the world offering space tourism. In 2008 Virginia became the first state to pass legislation on Internet safety, with mandatory educational courses for 11- to 16-year-olds.