Virginia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first of the original thirteen British North American colonies, Virginia began its existence as an immigrant society populated primarily by British settlers. After achieving statehood when the United States became independent, it received little significant new immigration for almost two centuries, until economic growth and a new national immigration policy brought waves of new, often nonwhite, residents during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Like many southern states, it had a growing population of Hispanics during the early twenty-first century.

As the site of the first permanent English colony in North America in 1607, Virginia was the first future state to receive a substantial stream of immigrants from Europe. The eastern part of Virginia was settled primarily by English immigrants–and these mostly from England’s Midland and southern counties. Many of Virginia’s seventeenth century immigrants were poor, young and single men who came as Indentured servitude;Virginiaindentured servants. Mortality rates were high through the colony’s first several decades, but by 1660, the colony’s population had achieved a degree of stability. During the governorship of Berkeley, WilliamWilliam Berkeley (1641-1676), many English royalists also immigrated to Virginia.VirginiaVirginia[cat]STATES;Virginia

Although the English were a majority of the settlers in Virginia’s seaboard settlement, they were not alone. As early as 1619, Huguenot immigrants;VirginiaFrench Huguenots arrived in the colony. During the eighteenth century, they were being joined by Welsh immigrants;VirginiaWelsh and others. During the same year in which the first Huguenots arrived, a Dutch ship unloaded at Jamestown, VirginiaJamestown the colony’s first contingent of Slavery;VirginiaAfrican slaves. The importation of involuntary immigrants from Africa gained increasing importance during the late seventeenth century. Members of many African cultures came to Virginia, but Ibos from what is now southeastern Nigeria and peoples from the Senegambia region were especially well represented in the colony.

Although people of English and other nationalities would also contribute large numbers to the settlement of western Virginia, German immigrants;VirginiaGermans, and Scotch-Irish immigrants[Scotch Irish immigrants];VirginiaScotch-Irish people played a pioneering role in peopling the colony’s backcountry. By the mid-eighteenth century, more members of both these groups were moving from Pennsylvania into the Great Valley of Virginia. From there they moved farther west into the extremities of the colony or into new western lands farther afield. Some went south into the Carolina backcountry, others east into the Virginia Piedmont.

Nineteenth Century Trends

Following the late eighteenth century American Revolution and throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, Virginia exported many more people than it imported. Large numbers of white Virginians moved to other states, and many of the state’s African slaves were sold to out-of-state buyers. Meanwhile, Virginia offered few economic inducements to potential foreign immigrants, and the very fact that it was a slave state deterred many Europeans from coming.

As elsewhere in the South, however, the exception to Virginia’s net emigration trend was its chief city. Indeed, the state capital of Richmond may have had the largest immigrant population in the entire region. By the end of the colonial period, it was already a fairly diverse society, with a mixture of European nationals, native-born whites, black slaves, and free blacks. Its development into the South’s major manufacturing center during the first half of the nineteenth century did little to lessen its demographic diversity. Even during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, when sociopolitical instability discouraged new immigration into many parts of the South, new arrivals poured into Richmond–German immigrants;VirginiaGermans and Irish immigrants;VirginiaIrish in particular. However, after Reconstruction ended in 1877, new immigration into Richmond slowed to a trickle, and the city became less cosmopolitan and more of a distinctively regional city, albeit a major one.

Twentieth Century

By the 1960’s Virginia was experiencing major urban growth–especially in the Hampton Roads cluster of cities by the mouth of the James River on Chesapeake Bay and in northern Virginia. Passage of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed restrictions on the immigration of many nationalities, permitting a flood of new immigrants to come into the United States from parts of the world that had not supplied many immigrants since the nineteenth century. Like most other states, Virginia then began receiving increased numbers of immigrants. In 1970, Virginia’s long-negligible foreign-born population was only 2 percent. By 2000, it had risen to 8 percent. Moreover, within only a few decades, Virginia’s almost entirely white and black population was undergoing visible changes: By the early twenty-first century, 4.3 percent of the state’s total population were Asians. That percentage exceeded the national average, and Virginia was the only state in the South that could make that claim.

Some of Virginia’s new Asian residents have been refugees. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, a number of Vietnamese immigrants;VirginiaVietnamese immigrants entered the state. Many of these people were professional and middle-class people who had had ties with the American-backed former government of South Vietnam. Most of Virginia’s Vietnamese immigrants chose to live in the rapidly developing northern part of the state, near the heart of American political power in nearby Washington, D.C.;Vietnamese immigrantsWashington, D.C. By the early twenty-first century, about 43,709 Vietnamese were residing in the greater District of Columbia area. As elsewhere in the South, Vietnamese Americans tend to be suburbanites and have a strong sense of community cohesion. Many work in education, scientific research and other specialized, white-collar professions.

By the year 2000, Virginia also had a substantial Korean community, with more than 45,000 Koreans living in the state. In contrast to the Vietnamese, the Koreans have been more evenly dispersed about the state. Most of them came after passage of the 1965 federal immigration law. They have also been joined by Korean Americans from western states. Most have gravitated toward Virginia’s urban areas because their occupations tend to be centered in urban-oriented professions and industries, support work, and sales and small-business enterprises.

One of the largest immigrant groups to enter Virginia since the early 1990’s has been Latinos, who by 2008 constituted about 35 percent of the state’s entire immigrant population. Most have come from Mexican immigrants;VirginiaMexico and Salvadoran immigrantsEl Salvador. Many are concentrated in heavily developed areas such as Hampton Roads and northern Virginia, where they tend to engage in construction trades, light fabrication and other manual labor. Many more work as agricultural laborers throughout the state, and others are routinely employed by the meat-packing and other agricultural industries. A large but unknown number of these Latino workers are undocumented. Although Virginia has seen less growth in its Latino population than some other southern states, Illegal immigration;Virginiaillegal immigration has become a hotly debated topic in Virginia.Virginia

Further Reading
  • Ayers, Edward, and John C. Willis, eds. The Edge of the South: Life in Nineteenth-Century Virginia. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991. Provides a fascinating glimpse of Virginia during the period from the Revolution to the Civil War.
  • Fischer, David Hackett, and James C. Kelly. Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. Study of three stages of historical migration to, from, and within the state.
  • Larson, Chiles. Virginia’s Past Today. Charlottesville, Va.: Howell Press, 1998. Examines the legacy and meaning of Virginia’s historic past.
  • Rubin, Louis D., Jr. Virginia: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. Solid history with excellent discussions of the colonial period, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and economic and cultural developments following 1900.
  • Steger, Werner H. “German Immigrants, the Revolution of 1848, and the Politics of Liberalism in Antebellum Richmond.” Yearbook of German-American Studies 34 (1999): 19-34. Study of the German community living in Virginia’s state capital.

British immigrants

Economic opportunities

European immigrants

German immigrants

Korean immigrants

Mexican immigrants

Salvadoran immigrants

Vietnamese immigrants

Washington, D.C.

Westward expansion

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