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A Brief History of the Commonwealth of Virginia, USA

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Re-enactors on a break at Colonial Williamsburg

Updated in August 2020

The Commonwealth of Virginia1 has the longest written history of any US state. It was the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America, and has provided the United States with eight of its presidents, including the first five.

Pre-European Settlement

Indigenous peoples have been living in Virginia for at least 12,000 years. By the time of European settlement, those living in the region belonged to the Eastern Woodland tribes. There were three major language groups represented in the area: Algonquian, Souian, and Iroquoian. These people built towns with a variety of different housing structures, hunted, fished, and farmed. Their political lives were sophisticated, involving negotiated treaty agreements between groups. They had complex religious beliefs, too.

In 1607 the Woodland peoples had a population of around 50,000. Around 14,000 belonged to the Powhatan nation, which was made up of 30 or so tribal groups, who lived closest to where the English came to settle. The overall leader was called Wahunsonacock, who was sometimes referred to as Powhatan. The arrival of uninvited foreigners in ships provided the Powhatan with potential allies, and also a potential threat. Especially as the first colonists had poor negotiating skills.

How Tobacco Became King

Sir Walter Raleigh arrived in 1585 and made a military base on Roanoke Island just off what is now North Carolina. He called this new colony Virginia after his Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. It was meant to be a self-sustaining colony, but contact with the colony was lost during the time of the Spanish Armada. When Raleigh came back in 1590, he found it abandoned, with just a cryptic message 'CROATOAN' carved into a tree. No trace was ever found of the colonists.

In 1606, the Virginia Company of London sent out three ships2 with 105 settlers including 29 gentlemen, 12 labourers, four boys, four carpenters, a clergyman, a blacksmith, a bricklayer, a mason and a surgeon, to set up a new colony. They arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in 1607. They set up camp on the newly-named James River, out of sight of any wandering Spanish patrols. The new colony was named Jamestown, after James VI and I.

The early Jamestown colony was beset by problems. At first, the mortality rate was high: in the first winter alone, approximately half the colonists died of disease and famine. Even worse was the winter of 1609, when only 60 out of 500 colonists survived 'the starving time'. Attacks from the Powhatan, disease spread by poor sanitation – such as dumping waste into a tidal river – and lack of knowledge about what they could eat in this new country contributed to the death toll. When the apple trees they planted had begun to produce, the colonists began to get better: they drank cider instead of the polluted water from the James River. Better organisation of defences by military leader John Smith helped stave off Native American attacks. Slowly, the colony began to prosper.

Colonies like Virginia were commercial ventures: they were expected to turn a profit. At first, the colonists were at a loss for a viable crop – but then, John Rolfe arrived after a forced layover in Bermuda. He brought the colony's new cash crop: tobacco. Tobacco fetched huge prices in England, even though King James deplored the habit, and even wrote a pamphlet against it. Soon, they were planting tobacco everywhere, even in the streets.

Tobacco is a labour-intensive crop. The settlers needed more workers, but how to get them? They tried advertising. Volunteers who agreed to work for nothing for seven years were guaranteed their own land parcels at the end of this indentured servitude. When this incentive didn't produce enough labour, they persuaded authorities in England to send them criminals, sentenced to indentures. Those who survived the harsh working conditions got land. When that wasn't enough, they emptied orphanages and almshouses, arrested vagrants, and shanghaied drunks.

Trouble in... Not Exactly Paradise

But I thank God, there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!
– Sir William Berkeley, Governor, 1671

William Berkeley was appointed Royal Governor in 1642, and in was in charge for 27 years over two spells. Berkeley was known as an autocratic governor. He attracted the younger sons of English nobles and many of the Royalists who were fleeing Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth. These were the First Families of Virginia, Berkeley's ruling class.

In 1676, a popular uprising took place, called Bacon's Rebellion. It was led by the governor's cousin by marriage, Nathaniel Bacon. Bacon's followers accused the governor of being unfair to working colonists and 'soft on Indians'. They burned Jamestown down. The rebellion ended with the hanging of 23 of the insurrectionists. Bacon himself died of the 'bloody flux' and 'lousey disease', and his body was never found. A popular rhyme stated:

Bacon is Dead I am sorry at my hart That lice and flux should take the hangman's part.

The capital of Virginia moved to Williamsburg in 1705. The House of Burgesses and Council of State, the two houses of the legislature, were located there until 1780, when the capital was moved to Richmond. In the 1930s, Williamsburg was reconstructed. It is now a (dignified) historical theme park with live re-enactors.

The Invention of Chattel Slavery

Things settled down after Bacon's death, but the rich landowners became nervous at the thought of workers organising against them. What really worried Governor Berkeley was that in Bacon's Rebellion, both black and white indentured servants had worked together to oppose his authority. The Virginia leaders decided on a policy of 'divide and conquer' by inventing a two-tiered privilege system based on skin colour.

During the late 17th Century, Virginia made laws limiting the civil rights of people of African ancestry. At first, Black servants were indentured for a limited time, the same as white servants. In 1640, a court sentenced John Punch, a Black man, to servitude for life. In the next few decades, all African and African American servants became slaves. White indentured servants who ran away were punished more harshly if they 'ran away with Negroes'. In 1662, a law was passed that any children born to a mixed marriage took on 'the condition of the mother', meaning children of slave mothers were themselves slaves.

And so it went. By the early 18th Century, Africans, or people of African ancestry, had no rights at all in Virginia. White indentured servants, on the other hand, could put up with seven years of bad treatment and then move on. They could even go to a friendlier colony, or head up into the western mountains, which they did in droves. In this way, racism served as a tool for those in power to drive a wedge between two groups in the working class.

More People Arrive

The tobacco plantations of Virginia occupied the rolling country across the centre of the state, while the coastal area, called the Tidewater, provided fishing and trading opportunities. Beginning in the early 18th Century, the west of Virginia, which is mountainous, became populated by Germans and Scots Irish. These settlers, political and economic refugees, usually started in Philadelphia and headed south down the Great Wagon Road. Here is a road map from 1755:

Great Wagon Road

At any given time, up to 10,000 immigrants were travelling down that road, in covered wagons, on horseback, or on foot. Many kept going to the Carolinas or Georgia. Others stayed in western Virginia. They had little tolerance for the airs and graces of the upperclass Virginians, and absolutely no desire to join their workforce. Instead, they took up subsistence farming in what seemed to impoverished Europeans a fertile paradise (if you didn't mind a few bears and panthers). Their relations with the Native Americans were mostly good and often involved intermarriage. They will be heard from again in this story.

War: What Did It Accomplish?

On 15 May, 1776, the Commonwealth of Virginia declared itself independent from Great Britain. Virginian Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution of national independence at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, drafted the Declaration of Independence.

Virginians of all classes participated in what they called the American Revolution. The Commonwealth demanded of all its male citizens that they sign an oath of allegiance to Virginia – or leave the state. A new constitution was adopted.

The war lasted seven years, and gave birth to a new country, of which Virginia was a prominent part. The politicians of Virginia dominated the early United States. George Washington was the nation's first President, with eight of the first nine presidents coming from Virginia.

The Internal Slave Trade

In 1778, Virginia banned the African slave trade. This stopped the transatlantic trade, but didn't put an end to human trafficking. Instead, an internal slave trade began. Virginian slaveholders sold their slaves to businesspeople trading with the cotton planters in the newly-settled Deep South. Families were torn apart, as African Americans were force-marched to wildernesses in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi to hew out plantations on land taken from the Native Americans. The Native Americans, in turn, were forced to migrate across the Mississippi River to Oklahoma. A lot of suffering resulted, while fortunes were made by unscrupulous slave traders.

Virginia, still a slave state, not only supplied the internal slave trade, but continued to base much of its agricultural economy on slavery. In the meantime, northern states had abolished slavery. Tensions between the free states and the slave-state economy grew – especially when federal law demanded the return of escaped slaves from the free states. In October 1859 abolitionist John Brown seized the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in northern Virginia to arm the slave rebellion that he thought would happen. Brown's plan failed, and he was executed – becoming a hero to abolitionists and a villain to defenders of slavery.

Another War

In 1860, for the first time in its history, Virginia didn't vote Democrat3, voting for the Constitutional Unionist Party. This multi-candidate election ended with victory for Abraham Lincoln and the anti-slavery Republicans. Over that winter, seven southern states seceded from the union4. Virginia left the Union in 1861, and the American Civil War began. It lasted for five years, killed over 600,000 people, and caused major turmoil.

Virginian Robert E. Lee was offered command of the US army by another Virginian General, Winfield Scott; Lee refused, and became a general in the Confederate army, and eventually, an iconic figure. The Confederacy voted to move its capital from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia. Virginia was still the most high-profile and populous of the southern states, and it had a psychological association with the War of Independence. In hindsight, moving the capital to a location only 100 miles from Washington DC and the Union forces was a huge mistake.

More than half of the major battles were fought in Virginia, and the northern counties were occupied by the Unionists for the entire conflict. Meanwhile, 50 counties in the west left Virginia to form West Virginia. (We told you those Scots Irish and Germans in the mountains would be heard from again.) West Virginia became a state of the Union in 1863, while the war was still going on. The West Virginia mountaineers were not alone among Appalachian farmers in opposing the Confederacy, but they were strategically located to do something about it.

By 1863, the economy was in such a state that hungry women were rioting in Richmond. Cotton exports were being blocked, causing mass inflation. Around 38,000 slaves had escaped from Virginia.

In 1865, the Union besieged Richmond, which fell on 3 April. A few days later, Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse. Over 40,000 Virginian soldiers were killed in the war, with more than half a million people in total having been killed or captured in Virginia. With the slaves gone and the state in ruins, Virginia was left in such an impoverished state that it took over a century to recover.

Tobacco Is Still King

With loads of rich industrialists in the North managing quickly expanding businesses, the demand for tobacco meant that Virginia's cash crop was as valuable as ever; this helped increase the fortunes of the state. Tobacco manufacturers had to pay their workers now, but they didn't have to pay well. Battles for union representation were long and hard. Finally, in 1937, the Tobacco Stemmers' and Laborers' Industrial Union (TSLIU) was formed in Richmond to fight against child labour and for better pay and working conditions in what was still a back-breaking and difficult job. Jamestown's indentured servants would have applauded.

After the Civil War, the national policy of Reconstruction attempted to aid newly-freed African Americans to achieve civil rights and integrate into American society. These attempts were foiled by political machines in Virginia and other Southern states, which enacted legislation segregating its citizens by race. In 1924 Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act, which forbade intermarriage among races. This law wasn't overturned until 1967, in the Supreme Court decision of Loving v Virginia. Also in 1924, Virginia passed the Eugenics Sterilization Act, a law which permitted the state to forcibly sterilise its citizens if it felt they were harmful to the gene pool. Virginia hadn't come a long way since 1607.

Throughout the states of the former Confederacy, an organisation called the United Daughters of the Confederacy began to promote the erection of monuments that glorified the leaders of that rebellion, now known as the Lost Cause. The UDC put up statues of Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Stonewall Jackson's horse, Jefferson Davis, and many others. So many went up on one street in Richmond that it's named Monument Avenue.

A Few More Wars

Virginian Woodrow Wilson led the US into the First World War, after being re-elected on the promise that he wouldn't. The war led to more jobs in Virginia, with a huge naval base in Norfolk and an explosives plant in Hopewell. This development hastened industrialisation in the state.

Virginia also played a key role in industrial production for the Second World War. The naval base was expanded, training camps were built, and the world's largest building, the Pentagon, was erected in Arlington, just outside of Washington. Hampton Roads ports also saw a huge increase in shipbuilding for the expanding US Navy. This massive build-up gave Virginia unprecedented levels of prosperity and employment.

Postwar Developments and Issues

The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were milestone decades for civil rights. In 1954 the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education banned segregated schools. Predictably, leaders in Virginia opposed this change. Virginia governors Thomas B. Stanley and J. Lindsay Almond fought against integration, with US Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr leading resistance to segregation.

Increased immigration from the industrial north led to a much more diverse population in the late 20th Century. Ideas and opinions about such things as racial equality and commemoration of the Lost Cause now differ. In the early 21st Century, there were clashes over the appropriateness of Confederate monuments, with Governor Ralph Northam ordering them to be removed from Monument Avenue.

Virginia began to lose its dependence on agriculture and tobacco in the early 21st Century. Tech companies began moving in. The world's Internet traffic began moving through the state. Virginia's coastal cities began to merge into the chain of cities and conurbations that run from Boston through New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington – the so-called Northeast Corridor. Spill-over from Washington, DC has made the old Confederate capital much more like a satellite of the nation's capital. In the meantime, the Shenandoah Valley still beckons to the occasional tourist with some of the beauty that once attracted travellers along the Great Wagon Road.

Photo and map courtesy of the Library of Congress. Photo by Carol M Highsmith.

1The state of Virginia is officially called the Commonwealth of Virginia.2The Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery.3This is when the US Democratic Party were the pro-slavery agrarian party.4And others attempted to secede, as well.

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