The History of Virginia, USA Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The History of Virginia, USA

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The Commonwealth of Virginia1 has the longest written history of any US state.

Pre-European Settlement

It was believed that the first peoples to arrive in Virginia were the Clovis peoples2, who arrived around 11,000 years ago. The Clovis peoples were thought to have arrived from Asia via Alaska, but the oldest Clovis artefacts were found in the south east of the United States, lending support to the theory that they arrived from Europe. However, discoveries in Cactus Hills show that 5,000 years earlier another group had settled in that area. North America had a large covering of glaciers which, although they didn't reach Virginia, did make the climate much cooler than it is currently. Tribes roamed the area, hunting large mammals.

Gradually the climate grew warmer and drier, by 6,000 BC there were oak and chestnut forests and the people relied more on plants, nuts, fruit and small animals. By 2,500 BC the tribes were less mobile, learning to gather food from the flood plains of Virginia's rivers, building up surpluses which they traded. These peoples, known as the Woodland peoples, lived in large villages with a complex economic, political and social structure.

By the time of the Europeans arriving in Virginia, the Woodland peoples had a population of around 50,000. Almost 20,000 belonged to the Powhatan empire of Eastern Virginia; these were the best documented natives of Virginia, mainly because of their conflicts with the English.

The Powhatan Empire had a complex religious belief system which made the English believe they were devil worshipers. This made it easier for the English to justify robbing them of their lands.

Here Come the English

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, and when Raleigh came back in 1590 he found it abandoned with just a cryptic message 'CROATOAN' carved into a tree providing any clue to the fate of the colonists.

The English dream of a new empire where they could seek riches, trade with China and Asia, raid Spanish Galleons and spread Protestantism in the face of Catholicism - was not extinguished with the failure of the colony on Roanoke Island.

Two companies were set up, with claims for all land between the Carolinas and Maine that wasn't already occupied by the French or the Spanish. In 1606, the Virginia Company of London sent out three ships3 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. The two capes on either side of the bay were named Cape Henry and Cape Charles after the sons of James I who had recently been crowned. After spending a few days at Cape Henry, they headed off to settle on a river. They set up camp on the newly named James River, out of sight of any wandering Spanish patrols. To get even more favour with their king, they called their new camp Jamestown.

The supply boat was loaded up with what they thought was gold, and it was sent back. Following instructions from the company, Edward Wingfield was made president of the Council, however by the time the supply boat returned, Wingfield had been booted out by John Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe had also imprisoned John Smith, one of the colony's leading citizens, and sentenced him to death.

When the supply boat returned in 1608, only 32 of the original settlers were still alive. The boat went away again, laden with even more gold. It was probably around the time that they landed back in England that they found out they were not shipping gold, but mica, a worthless mineral.

This was not the biggest problem however - the colony was not at all self-sufficient, and relied on supplies from England. More settlers were needed, and the colony's charter was rewritten to give more power to the settlement.

In 1609, a fleet set out from Plymouth that included the colony's deputy governor, Sir Thomas Gates as well as 800 settlers and all their provisions. Two of the ships were lost near the island of Bermuda and although everybody survived, much of the supplies were lost. The surviving ships under Ratcliffe got to Jamestown. Things then went from bad to worse. Ratcliffe got back into his favourite pastime of arguing with Smith, and was probably delighted when Smith almost blew himself up playing with gunpowder and returned to England. Those settlers who had not died of disease or gone off to live with the natives were so stuck for food that they started eating rats, horses and even their own wives.

With what little food that was left and almost a year after he had been shipwrecked, Gates arrived with more colonists and boats made from the wreckage of their ships. He had thought that the colony would be thriving, so hadn't got more supplies from Bermuda.

Having only enough food to last a fortnight, the colonists agreed to pack up and head back. They boarded four ships on 7 July, 1610 with the intention of heading back to England. However they met the fleet of Governor Thomas West, Baron De La Warr which had 300 men, munitions and supplies. They turned around again. The Governor set about getting everybody to start working the land and fishing the rivers and soon the colony started to function.

The colonists began trading tools for food, and soon the Powhatan tribe were more dependent on the English than the English were on them. The English decided that aside from the land with villages on it, the rest was for the taking, and planted West Indian tobacco4 on it. This obviously annoyed the natives who were coming to realise that the English were out to invade.

Pocahontas has to be mentioned at this point; she was 12 or 13 when she stopped Captain John Smith being killed by her father, and also had warned the English of incoming attacks. The English kidnapped her in 1613 and she married John Rolfe5 and moved to England to live as Rebecca Rolfe. The couple played a valuable role in encouraging people to move to Virginia.

Within 40 years the Powhatan tribe was defeated, due partly to the English's greater firepower, but mostly to the European and African diseases to which the Natives had no immunity.

Tobacco was a difficult crop to cultivate, so more and more servants, then slaves were brought to Virginia and soon the economy was booming, but all was not well. Out of the 8,500 colonists sent to Jamestown, only 1,218 were left by 1624 from the effects of oppression, incursions and disease. King James revoked the charter and made Virginia Britain's first royal colony. It had an appointed royal governor, and elected legislature, the House of Burgesses, and an established church. This was then the model for all the British New World colonies.

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 totally opposed to the idea that everybody was equal, he wanted a colony run by and for the ruling elite, with a small group of yeomen farmers, a larger group of tenet farmers and an even bigger group of servants and slaves. Under Berkeley, America was not a haven for the outcast, he persecuted political and religious dissent.

Berkeley 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. They needed people to rule, so Berkeley gave 50 acres of land to each settler, or rather to the person who paid for each settler to come to Virginia. This was a great deal for the rich, they got a servant for five to seven years and another 50 acres of tobacco.

Virginia expanded further and further west as more and more land was given to the gentry. The capital was moved to Williamsburg at the end of the 17th Century, which had the advantage over Jamestown that it was not surrounded by a swamp and its associated diseases.

More People Arrive

Virginia attracted many Germans from Pennsylvania to occupy the Shenandoah Valley in the first half of the 18th Century. They were opposed to slavery and were strong supporters of communities and a less intrusive government.

The Scotch-Irish arrived in Virginia about a decade after the Germans. They came from unstable areas of The British Isles and were rather rough-and-ready people. They were not welcomed in the East and made their way West, where their culture was suited to the harsher conditions. The Scotch-Irish culture is still seen today as the Appalachian culture that is prominent in bluegrass and country music. One of the leaders of the Scotch Irish was Col. James Patten, an ancestor of General George S. Patton, who established a Scotch-Irish community in South West Virginia.

It is War

Virginia was fed up with being governed from a distance. Most of the New World was more successful than the Old Country and felt that it could run its own affairs. On 15 May 1776, The Commonwealth of Virginia declared itself independent. 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.

The war lasted six years, and although the North had contributed as much to bringing it about, 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.

One of the fallouts from the Revolution, the First Families lost some of their power and deference; from now on it was money that talked.

Kentucky, which was the south west part of Virginia beyond the Appalachian Mountains, became a separate state in 1792.

The Slave Trade

In 1778, Virginia banned the African slave trade, however slaves were part of Virginia's culture. At the start of the 19th Century there were a number of revolts, but none were successful.

More and more settlers left Virginia for other parts of the continent where the soil was less exhausted and conditions were better; land values fell dramatically. During the years between Independence and the Civil War, over a million people left Virginia, and it fell from being the most populous state to the seventh. This exodus meant that the culture, laws and political ideas of Virginia were spread across the South. Virginians were everywhere in the US, from booting the British out of Illinois to make sure it did not become part of Canada, to settling in Ohio and Texas, they played a huge role in the early life of the colonies.

Slaves were becoming too expensive to own in Virginia, however they were still highly sellable to the southern states who were getting into the cotton trade. In 1832 the Assembly voted against emancipation.

With Free States to the North and Slave States to the South, Virginia's position was difficult. It became all too involved with returning escaped slaves. 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.

More War

In 1860, for the first time in its history, Virginia didn't vote Democrat6, voting for the Constitutional Unionist Party. This allowed a Republican, Abraham Lincoln, to take power. Over that winter, seven southern states seceded from the union. Virginia was caught in the middle, it was proud to be in America, but its population didn't want to fight fellow southerners. Virginia left the Union in 1861, and the American Civil War eventually began.

Virginian Robert E. Lee was offered command of the US army by another Virginian General, Winfield Scott; however Lee, although not believing in the state's rights of succession or in slavery, refused to participate in an invasion of the southern states. He believed he was defending his home state.

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 much nearer to Washington DC and the Union forces was a large 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. These are counties in the hills where life revolved around coal mining rather than farming, so had no need of slaves. They also wanted more representation on a national level.

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.

By 1865, the Union was besieging Richmond, which fell on 3 April. A few days later Lee surrendered at Appomattox. 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.

Smoking a way to Recovery

As the industrial revolution hit, Virginia made a lot of money out of wood and its new-found coal fields. The Hampton Roads area became one of the biggest coal ports in the world. With loads of rich industrialists in the North managing quickly expanding businesses, the need for tobacco meant that Virginia's cash crop was even more in demand than usual, this helped increase the fortunes of the state.

After the war, the blacks were given many more rights, however soon the former Confederate politicians took power in the Southern States, introducing a 'separate but equal' policy, restricting the rights of poorer whites and blacks. From 1893 to 1919 Virginia's political scene was dominated by Thomas S Martin, and for the next 40 years by the Byrd machine, a veritable dictatorship that held power by keeping a stranglehold on voter registration. In 1924 Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act, on which Hitler later modelled his Nuremburg laws.

Let's Have a few More Wars

A Virginian, Woodrow Wilson led the US into WWI. The war lead to more jobs in Virginia with a huge Naval Base in Norfolk and an explosive plant in Hopewell. It hastened industrialisation in the state and also, like in the UK, led to equal suffrage.

Virginia was key in the build up to WWII, the Naval Base was expanded, training camps were built, and the world's largest building, The Pentagon, was built in Arlington, just outside of Washington. The 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.

After the War

The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s finally saw the blacks of Virginia getting equal rights. In 1954 the Supreme Court case 'Brown v. Board of Education' banned segregated schools, however Virginia governors, Thomas B. Stanley and J. Lindsay Almond fought against them, with US Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr leading resistance to segregation. It is truly sad that in the later half of the 20th Century elected officials and state figureheads were so opposed to equal rights for their citizens.

Now Virginia is losing its dependence on agriculture and tobacco7 with high tech companies moving in. Half the world's Internet traffic passes through the state, the cities in Hampton Roads are merging into the chain of cities and conurbations that run from Boston through New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.

1The state of Virginia is officially called the Commonwealth of Virginia.2Named after Clovis, New Mexico where archaeological remains were found.3The Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery.4Nicotiana tabacum, rather than native Virginian Tobacco.5Who introduced the West Indian tobacco to Virginia.6This is when the US Democratic Party were the pro-slavery right wingers.7Although the current low taxes on tobacco products are aiming to encourage its farming.

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