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One of the 13 original colonies, Virginia was the first part of the country permanently settled by the English, who established Jamestown on the banks of the James River in 1607. The home state of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers, Virginia played an important role in the American Revolution. During the Civil War, the city of Richmond, Virginia, became the capital of the Confederacy, and more than half of the conflict’s battles were fought in the state.

Today, many government institutions are headquartered in Virginia, particularly in Arlington, located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. In addition to eight presidents, famous Virginians include singer Ella Fitzgerald, tennis star Arthur Ashe, actress Shirley MacLaine, entertainers Missy Elliott and Pharrell Williams, and basketball legend Allen Iverson.

Virginia Native American History

Archeological evidence suggests people have been living in the area now known as Virginia for at least 18,000 years. Eastern Woodland hunter-gatherers began creating more permanent settlements starting in 1,200 B.C. and forming diverse tribes. Each tribe spoke a language from one of three language groups: Algonquian, Siouan or Iroquoian.

The largest tribe in Virginia was the Powhatan, a collective of at least 10,000 Algonquian people. In the early 17th century, Chief Powhatan ruled more than 32 Powhatan tribes and 150 villages along the rivers of the southern Chesapeake Bay.

When English colonists led by John Smith arrived at Jamestown in 1607, they traded with the Powhatan and became dependent on indigenous people for food, sometimes enslaving them and taking what they wanted. As the colonists encroached on their land, the Powhatans attacked settlers and killed their livestock. The colonists retaliated by raiding Native American settlements and burning their crops. They captured Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, who became the first Native American to marry a colonist when she wed John Rolfe in 1614.

In 1622, the Powhatan attacked Jamestown and killed 350 colonists, leading to recurrent battles between the two sides. By 1646, the Powhatan chiefdom had essentially disappeared, and native people were forced to pay the colonial government every year. A 1677 treaty took most of the Native Americans’ land, and numerous tribes were gone by 1722. Many remaining indigenous people converted to Christianity and spoke English.

Today, there are 11 federally-recognized tribes in Virginia, eight of which are of Powhatan descent. 

Virginia Colonial History

Spanish explorers first visited the area now known as Virginia in the 16th century, but it was the English who created the first permanent settlement. Sir Walter Raleigh named the area Virginia after Queen Elizabeth, who was known as the “Virgin Queen,” when she gave him permission to colonize the land in 1583.

A group of 104 English settlers led by explorer John Smith and backed by the Virginia Company arrived in Virginia in 1607. They founded Jamestown, named after King James I. Known as “the birthplace of a nation,” Jamestown was the first lasting English colony in North America. Up to 90 percent of its early settlers died of disease and famine. The colony likely survived thanks to gifts of food from the Powhatan Native American tribe, although their relationship soon soured.

The colony was saved by John Rolfe, who arrived in 1610 and was the first person to cultivate what became a wildly profitable tobacco crop for the Virginia Company. In 1619, the colony established the first representative government in what is now known as the United States. The colony’s charter was revoked by King James I in 1624, with governors thereafter chosen by the crown. Virginia remained a royal colony until the American Revolution. 

Virginia's Role in the American Revolution

Revolts against British taxation, including the 1765 Stamp Act, culminated with Patrick Henry delivering his famous “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech before the second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church (formerly Henrico Parish) in Richmond on March 23, 1775. The speech called for Virginia to raise a militia in defense against the British. In April of that year, the Revolutionary War began.

Thomas Jefferson, Virginia delegate to the Second Continental Congress, wrote the Declaration of Independence, which was ratified by the 13 colonies on July 4, 1776. That same year, Virginia became a commonwealth, with its own constitution and government. Another Virginia native and delegate to the Continental Congress, George Washington, was named commander in chief of the Continental Army.

The American Revolution essentially came to an end in Virginia on October 19, 1781. Following three weeks of continuous bombardment, British General Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington in the Battle of Yorktown.

Slavery and the Civil War

Many of the first laborers in Virginia who helped cultivate tobacco were white indentured servants. Their travel from England was paid for by the Virginia Company in return for what essentially amounted to seven years of slavery for a plantation on the colony. When enslaved people were brought to Virginia from Africa in 1619, many farmers continued to rely on indentured servants. But by the 17th century, Virginia’s economy began to rely on slave labor.

After the international slave trade was abolished by Congress in 1808, the slave trade became Virginia’s largest industry. By the 1860s, one-third of Virginia’s population was enslaved African Americans. Virginia’s slave codes, which among other rules set up harsh punishments for enslaved people and made it impossible for white people to be convicted of killing slaves, were copied throughout the other slave-owning colonies.

Enslaved people escaped and revolted against inhumane treatment by breaking equipment and stealing food. In 1831, Virginian Nat Turner led 19 fellow enslaved people to kill at least 55 white people in what became known as the Nat Turner Revolt, the bloodiest slave revolt in American history. White vigilantes killed 40 Black people in retaliation. The Virginia legislature considered abolishing slavery but eventually put in stricter slave codes, including rules that made it illegal to teach a Black person to read. In 1859, white abolitionist John Brown led a raid to steal weapons from Harper’s Ferry (now in West Virginia) in order to start a slave revolt, but most people in his party were captured or killed.

After much debate, Virginia succeeded from the Union in 1861. Rather than join the Confederacy, people living in the western part of Virginia—who did not own enslaved people due to the area’s terrain—created the state of West Virginia. Virginia became central to the Confederacy’s Civil War efforts. The state was a manufacturing hub with many railways, and Richmond was the Confederacy’s capital due to its proximity to the Union’s capital of Washington, D.C. Many Civil War battles were fought in Virginia, including the First Battle of Bull Run, in 1861; the Second Battle of Bull Run, in 1862; and the Battle of Appomattox Court House, which led to Confederate leader General Robert E. Lee’s surrender and the effective end of the Civil War in 1865.

From the start to the end of the Civil War, Virginia was occupied and ravaged by battles; 40 percent of all men who died in battle died within 150 miles of Richmond. During Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau helped newly emancipated slaves to rebuild their new lives. In 1869 Virginia ratified the 14th and 15th amendments, and in 1870 the state was readmitted into the Union. Virginia passed a Racial Integrity Act in 1924, barring interracial marriage, which was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967 with the case Loving vs. Virginia

Immigration and Economy

Between 1683 and 1776, Germans flooded Virginia, particularly the Shenandoah Valley, along with some Irish and Scottish immigrants. By 1800, tobacco production had depleted the soil in Virginia, and an exodus of farmers began to the west. Many plantation owners brought their enslaved people with them to the Deep South, where they began farming cotton in place of tobacco. Because food crops like corn were grown in the Shenandoah Valley, the area remained fertile and profitable and attracted Germans and Scots-Irish from Pennsylvania.

Until World War II, migration out from Virginia was greater than immigration. In the 1950s, the state became a commuter suburb for Washington, D.C. Over the next few decades, millions of people migrated into the state from neighboring and northeastern states. Immigration from outside the United States began picking up at the start of the 21st century, with most immigrants coming from Latin American and Asian countries.

Headquarters for many federal agencies, Virginia’s largest private industry today is agriculture, with tobacco, apples, grapes and peanuts among the most important crops.

Date of Statehood: June 25, 1788

Capital: Richmond

Population: 8,001,024 (2010)

Size: 42,775 square miles

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Nickname(s): Old Dominion; Mother of Presidents; Mother of States; Mother of Statesmen; Cavalier State

Motto: Sic Semper Tyrannis (“Thus Always to Tyrants”)

Tree: American Dogwood

Flower: American Dogwood

Bird: Northern Cardinal

Interesting Facts

  • Virginia’s borders have expanded and contracted numerous times since its inception as the first of the 13 original colonies. In 1792, nine counties known as the Kentucky District of Virginia entered the union as the state of Kentucky, and in 1863, western counties of Virginia were approved to enter the union as the state of West Virginia.
  • Arlington National Cemetery, one of America’s most renowned military cemeteries, was originally built in the early 19th century as a mansion by George Washington’s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. Robert E. Lee, who married Custis’ daughter, Mary Anna, lived in Arlington House at various periods until 1861, when Virginia seceded from the Union and the couple vacated the estate. On June 15, 1864, the property was established as a military cemetery.
  • The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg is the nation’s second-oldest institution of higher education, after Harvard; King William III and Queen Mary II of England signed a charter for its creation on February 8, 1693. At the persuasion of Thomas Jefferson, the first law school in America was established there in 1779.

Sources 

Influential Black Virginians, Virginia.org

Virginia's First People Past & Present, DOE.virginia.gov

"Introduction: A Powhatan Place of Power," NPS.gov

"Virginia's Early Relations with Native Americans," LOC.gov

"First People: The Early Indians of Virginia," DHR.virginia.gov

Monacan Indian Nation, DOE.virginia.gov

Virginia History, genuinesmithfieldva.com

Questions about Virginia, lva.virginia.gov

"The Founding of Virginia," ncpedia.org

Colonial Virginia, encyclopediavirginia.org

"Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death!," colonialwilliamsburg.org

Yorktown: Seige of Yorktown, battlefields.org

1825 to 1860: Slavery, virginiahistory.org

"American History: The Civil War and Reconstruction: Major Battles and Campaigns of the Civil War," guides.lib.jjay.cuny.edu

"The Story of Virginia's Reconstruction," reconstructingvirginia.richmond.edu

Letter announcing Virginia's readamission to the United States, 1870, edu.lva.virginia.gov

"Germany’s Journey to the New World," colonialwilliamsburg.org

1825 to 1860: Political Decline and Westward Migration, virginiahistory.org

Virginia Migration History 1850-2018, depts.washington.edu

Virginia Agriculture Facts & Figures, vdacs.virginia.gov

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