Virginia History

Historic Facts & Overview of Virginia History

Take a peek at Virginia history. Discover an overview of Virginia's rich history, heritage, historic events, and culture.

The Virginia Company founded the first permanent English colony at Jamestown in 1607. One of the original 13 states (it entered the Union in 1788), Virginia was named for Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen of England. Virginia holds an important place in American history, as it was home to many of the founding fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, and Patrick Henry. Four of America's first five presidents were Virginians. During the Civil War, Richmond, Virginia's capital, was the capital of the Confederacy. Today, Virginia is a popular tourist spot where people can visit historic places such as Alexandria, Williamsburg, and Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate. Dogwood is the state flower and the cardinal is the state bird of the "Old Dominion."

Overview of Virginia History and Heritage

When Spanish explorers entered the Virginia region in 1570, several Indian tribes inhabited the area. Missionaries built a settlement along the York River, but were killed only a few months later. English explorers also arrived in the late 1580s, but their expedition failed due to lack of supplies.

Colonization of Virginia

The history of America is closely tied to that of Virginia, particularly during the Colonial period. After the failure of several attempts by Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh to plant a settlement in Virginia and after Gilbert's death, Raleigh in 1606 transferred his interests to the Virginia Company of London. The first settlers, 144 in number, left England in December of that year in the "Susan Constant," the "Godspeed," and the "Discovery" and arrived at Jamestown on May 13, 1607. The colony was kept alive during the first years mainly through the efforts of Capt. John Smith, who secured food, made peace with the Indians, explored the country, wrote the first published book on Virginia (A True Relation, London, 1608), and drew a map of Virginia remarkable for its accuracy. After Smith left in 1609 the colonists experienced a year of great suffering-the "starving time."

Jamestown, founded in 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in North America which was reorganized and almost absolute control over the colony was placed in the hands of the governor. The first governor was Sir Thomas West, Lord De la Warr, whose arrival in 1610 saved the colony from being abandoned as a hopeless venture. Attempts to set up industries such as glassmaking, shipbuilding, and the production of naval stores failed. In 1622 there occurred an Indian massacre, followed by a siege of the plague.

Yet the colony survived. Settlements spread beyond Jamestown. A head right system was established for land. The New World's first English women and Africans came to Jamestown in 1619, the year and place where the Western Hemisphere's first representative legislature met. Virginia was the largest, most populous and prosperous of the original 13 colonies.

Royal Rule in Virginia

In 1624 the English government revoked the charter of the Virginia Company and organized in Virginia its first royal colony. During the century and a half that followed, the two outstanding factors in the colony's history were the northern and western expansion of the population and a growing political maturity that produced a strong representative lower house in the Assembly, an able group of leaders, and a spirit of independence.

The first serious attempts to explore the Trans-Allegheny region were made during Sir William Berkeley's administrations (1641-52; 1660-77). The Indian massacre of 1644, in which at least 500 colonists perished, delayed exploration, but trading routes soon led from the sites of Richmond and Petersburg to the Indians in the southwest.

Virginians remained loyal to Charles I during his struggle with Parliament, but in 1652 parliamentary commissioners with an overwhelming force assumed control of the colony. During the eight years of rule by Parliament, life in Virginia changed but little.

Berkeley's second administration was marked by difficulties: the establishment of proprietorships in Virginia, human and cattle plagues, wars, hurricanes, oppressive trade laws, threats from the Indians, who resented English encroachment, and, among the people, widespread discontent and growing distrust of those who governed the colony.

The climax came when the Indians, made desperate by English encroachment, began to war on the colonists. When in 1676 the people found Berkeley unable or, as they believed, unwilling to protect them, they chose young Nathaniel Bacon as their leader, compelled the governor to give him a commission, followed him against the Indians, and forced reforms through the assembly. When the governor threatened to use military force against them, Bacon and his men defied him. On the death of Bacon, however, Berkeley soon ended the struggle with a series of hangings that shocked the home government and brought his recall. From the end of Bacon's rebellion to the revolution of 1688 in England, Englishmen in Virginia, like their kinsmen in England, struggled to lessen the royal prerogative represented in the colony by a succession of autocratic governors.

During the remainder of the colonial period, Virginia generally had able and conscientious governors. But conflicts inevitably arose when the mother country failed to realize the growing independence of the colony and refused, in such matters as the use of veto, trade regulations, and taxation, to keep the promise of early charters that Virginians would "enjoy all liberties, franchises and all intents and purposes as if they had been abiding and borne within this our realm of England...".

Presbyterians gained a strong foothold in Virginia during the 1730s and 1740s and organized Hanover presbytery, and in the 1750s the Separate Baptists from New England entered the colony. Both denominations increased rapidly.

During the quarter-century before the Revolution, as Virginia grew in strength and political maturity, its House of Burgesses became increasingly active in opposing the royal prerogative in matters as the veto of the colony's laws, the Proclamation of 1763 restricting westward expansion, and taxes imposed by Parliament. Before 1776 leaders such as Richard Bland and Jefferson were formulating the constitutional and ethical bases for revolt, Patrick Henry was becoming an orator, and Washington was acquiring military and political experience.

Virginia in 1763 had an estimated total population of 121,022, almost evenly divided between whites and slaves. The population was increasing rapidly. The great planters were building substantial homes; the homes of lesser farmers were neat and well built.

Virginia Revolutionary Period

Virginians took the lead in the constitutional crises preceding the Revolutionary War. They passed the Stamp Act resolutions of 1765; started in 1769 the boycott of British goods in order to cause the repeal of the Townshend Acts; revived in 1773 the Committee of Correspondence of 1759 and brought about an intercolonial committee; called the first Continental Congress in 1774 and furnished its president, Peyton Randolph; set up a Revolutionary Committee of Safety and armed for defense in 1775; called on Congress on May 15, 1776, to declare independence; furnished the author, Thomas Jefferson, of the Declaration of Independence; and provided the leader of the Revolutionary Army, George Washington. The May 1776 convention, in addition to proposing that Congress declare independence, form a union, and make foreign alliances, also set up a commonwealth and chose Patrick Henry as its first governor. Meanwhile, in 1775, Gov. John Dunmore, fearful of the volunteer riflemen gathering in Williamsburg, had fled to the safety of the British fleet. On November 7 he declared martial law and waged war against Virginia until forced to leave the following July.

In 1778 George Rogers Clark led an army of Virginia and Kentucky riflemen in the conquest of the Northwest Territory; his campaign ended the Indian menace At Yorktown on Oct. 19, 1781, British forces under General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to the combined French and American forces serving under the command of General George Washington.

Virginia moved its capital from Williamsburg to Richmond  in 1780. Previously, it had set up 19 counties in the west (1776-82), abolished its African slave trade (1778), and reformed its code of laws (1779). The British captured Portsmouth (q.v.) in October 1780. In January 1781 Benedict Arnold took Richmond and set up headquarters at Portsmouth. Cornwallis brought his army into Virginia from the south that spring, and Jefferson, governor of the state, with inadequate forces, was unable to stop him. Cornwallis, after marching through Richmond, Williamsburg (near which, at Green Spring, he was attacked by Lafayette), and Portsmouth, came to Yorktown and fortified the place. There, trapped by the American and French armies under Washington and Rochambeau and by French naval forces under the comte de Grasse, he was forced to surrender on Oct. 19, 1781. This practically ended the war.

Post-Revolutionary Period of Virginia

For almost half a century after the Revolution, Virginia, impoverished by two wars and finding its soil depleted as a result of tobacco growing, suffered economically, and Virginians migrated to the west, northwest, and southwest. But the foundations for future progress were being laid.

Virginia began an efficient system of chartered banks in 1804. The state undertook, or aided in the building of roads, canals, and railroads, and Virginians began direct trade with Europe and South America. By 1860 Virginia was the leading manufacturing state in the South. A state university and several colleges had been founded before 1850, public schools were being established by local option in 1846, and numerous private schools were flourishing. The constitution of 1851 provided white manhood suffrage, popular election of many officials (including the governor), and ended sectional inequalities in representation.

Slavery, however, remained an unsolved evil. In January 1832, after Nat Turner's slave insurrection in Southampton the previous year, the Virginia Assembly tried in vain to find a solution; and Abolitionists' indiscriminate abuse almost silenced native reformers.

Civil War and Reconstruction in Virginia

In 1861 Virginia seceded from the Union. Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy, and Virginia was a battleground throughout the war that followed. In 1863 the state lost one-third of its territory to form West Virginia.

More major battles of the American Civil War were fought in Virginia from 1861 through 1865 than in any other state. Today, one-third of America's most important Civil War battlefields are in Virginia, and most are open to the public. In 1867 Congress placed the South under military rule, Virginia being Military District No. 1, with Gen. John M. Schofield in command.

Under the Reconstruction acts most Virginians with any experience in government were disfranchised. A constitutional convention drew up a new constitution, which included articles that would have excluded thousands of whites from voting and disqualified almost every native white citizen from holding office. A committee of nine citizens headed by Alexander H. H. Stuart, however, secured permission from the federal authorities to vote separately on these articles and they were rejected by the voters. The remainder of the constitution, including manhood suffrage, was adopted ( 1869), and Congress readmitted the state to the Union on Jan. 26, 1870.

Virginia escaped much of the punishment that Reconstruction inflicted on other states, but it had lost thousands of its young men and had been devastated by invading armies, its banks, had been closed, its labor force demoralized, and its territory occupied by its former enemy.

The Democratic Party was revived in 1883. Virginia adopted a new constitution in 1902.

20th Century Virginia

In 1926 Harry F. Byrd became governor of Virginia and within four years had revolutionized the governmental machinery. During the first 60 days of his administration, the General Assembly instituted a remarkable group of reforms through statutes or constitutional amendment. The years after World War I found the state's prosperity increasing as agriculture was diversified, manufacturing grew in importance in the economy, and the tourist business became a major enterprise.

The depression of the 1930s was less severe in Virginia than in many other states. Employment continued at a high rate after the war, with continued growth in the nonagricultural sector, including government. and agricultural production became more diversified.

The 1969 state elections resulted in Linwood Holton being elected the first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

America's first seven astronauts trained at NASA Langley Air Force Base in Hampton.

Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech, is renowned as one of the world's first electronic villages.

Newport News is the site of the nation's most powerful continuous electron beam accelerator, located at the Thomas Jefferson National Acceleration Facility.

Elizabeth Jordan Carr, the first test tube baby born in the US, was delivered Dec. 28, 1981, at Norfolk General Hospital.

Recently, pollution has become a problem in the Chesapeake Bay. State leaders area striving to protect the water and wildlife of the bay. Virginia continues to maintain a strong diversified economy. Industrial growth has expanded into many areas such as chemical, clothing, and computers.

Eight states were also formed in whole or in part from Virginia, including Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. The state is called the "Mother of Presidents" because eight US Presidents were born there. Virginia has produced more US presidents than any other state: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor and Woodrow Wilson.

Commonwealth of Virginia

You will often hear Virginia called the Commonwealth of Virginia. This doesn't mean Virginia has a different form of government than any other state." Commonwealth" is defined by Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary as a political unit or government

(1) "founded on law and united by compactor tacit agreement of the people for the common good," or

(2) "one in which supreme authority is vested in the people."

Using these definitions, it could be said that all 50 states, as well as our national government, are common-wealth's. Besides Virginia, three other states - Kentucky, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania - use the term common-wealth as part of their official names.

The first use of commonwealth in Virginia was early in its history. One reason given by Governor George Yeardley for authorizing the first General Assembly meeting at James-town in 1619 was "for the better establishing of a commonwealth here." From 1649 to 1660, England and Virginia did not have a king. Instead, the Puritans ruled under a Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. The government was called the Commonwealth of England. This commonwealth ended when King Charles II reclaimed the throne in 1660.

In Colonial times, Virginia was officially known as the Colony and Dominion of Virginia. When the 13 colonies broke ties with the British Crown during the Revolution, the old name was no longer suitable. The delegates to the convention in Williamsburg, when the first Constitution of Virginia was adopted on June 29, 1776, used common-wealth as the name for the new form of government. It is very likely they had in mind the Puritans' rebellion against the Crown in England more than 100years earlier. Pennsylvania and Massachusetts also chose to be called commonwealths after independence from Great Britain. The other 10 former colonies took the name "state," the term used in the Declaration of Independence. Kentucky was once part of Virginia. When Kentuckians joined the Union as the 15th state in 1792, it kept the name commonwealth.

There are several other uses of the word "commonwealth" in the world today The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is not a state, but a territory. In this case, commonwealth refers to the free association with the United States chosen by the Puerto Rican people. The Commonwealth of Nations is a voluntary association of Great Britain and about 50 countries that were once part of the British Empire. Some of these nations, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Bahamas, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, still recognize the British monarch as their official head of state. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia and other former Soviet republics formed the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose alliance set up to handle certain matters of mutual interest among these newly independent countries.

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