Virginia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the most historic of all the fifty United States, Virginia played pivotal roles during the colonial period, the American Revolution, and the Civil War.

History of Virginia

One of the most historic of all the fifty United States, Virginia played pivotal roles during the colonial period, the American Revolution, and the Civil War. Following the adoption of the Constitution, Virginians had a major influence in shaping the direction and destiny of the early nation, and four of the first five American presidents, from George Washington through James Monroe, were from Virginia. In fact, a Virginian held the presidency for twenty-four out of the first twenty-eight years of the United States.

Early Inhabitants and European Settlement

Compared to other portions of the East Coast, Native Americans seem to have arrived fairly late in the Virginia area, settling there after 8000 b.c.e. In the Piedmont area to the west, the tribes of the Sioux language family included Manahoac, Monacan, and Tutelo. In the southwestern portion were the Cherokee, while the Nottoway were found in the southeast; both of these were part of the Iroquoian language community. To the north, along the upper portions of Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna had migrated into the region from the area which is now Pennsylvania. These were also Iroquoian speakers. Along the lower portions of the Chesapeake Bay coast itself, including the area where the first English settlers arrived, the dominant Native Americans were the Algonquian speaking members of the group known as the Powhatan Confederacy, named after its powerful chieftain.

In addition to hunting and fishing, especially along the bountiful coastal waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the tribes turned to agriculture, which flourished in the excellent soil and long, warm growing season of the area. One of their major innovations was the growth and cultivation of tobacco, which the Native Americans passed on to English settlers shortly after their arrival in 1607.

The English colony of Jamestown, founded on a peninsula jutting into the Chesapeake Bay, was part of a grandiose land grant from the English King James I which stretched from what is now southern Maine to California and included both the island of Bermuda and the modern Canadian province of Ontario. However, despite the imperial designs, during its early days Jamestown was hard pressed to simply survive and barely weathered internal division, attacks by the Native Americans, disease, and near starvation. Under the leadership of Captain John Smith, the new colony endured and by the 1620’s was exporting tobacco to England as a cash crop. The cultivation of tobacco and other crops was transformed in 1619 when the first Africans arrived in the colony as indentured servants; by the 1630’s slavery had been introduced, and in 1661 it was legalized. Slavery was to remain an essential part of Virginia’s plantation economy until the end of the American Civil War.

A Rich Colony Leads a Revolution

The first legislative assembly in the English colonies gathered in Jamestown in 1619. Even though Virginia became a royal colony in 1624, the House of Burgesses, as the assembly was known, remained a potent force in colonial affairs, including encouraging growth and development, including expansion beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. In eastern Virginia, especially along the rich lands of the tidewater, tobacco farming brought enormous wealth to planters, merchants, and traders. By the middle of the 1700’s, Virginia was among the richest of the American colonies.

It was also among the most independently minded. In 1676 Virginian Nathaniel Bacon led a popular revolt against despotic colonial governor Sir William Berkeley. As early as 1765 the Virginia House of Burgesses had officially opposed the Stamp Act, and in 1769 Virginia launched a boycott of all British goods to protest additional taxes which the colonists regarded as unfair and illegal. It was at the Virginia Convention of 1775 that Patrick Henry delivered the speech which included his famous words, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” Henry’s sentiment was given more practical form in June, 1776, when Virginia officially declared itself independent from Great Britain. On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence, largely written by Virginian Thomas Jefferson, extended this freedom to all thirteen colonies.

Virginia provided both leaders and a battleground for the American Revolution. George Washington was named commander of the Continental army, while other military leaders included George Rogers Clark, Daniel Morgan, and “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, father of Robert E. Lee. The founder of the American navy, John Paul Jones, was a Virginian, although born in Scotland. The climactic battle of the Revolution came with the combined American and French defeat of British forces under Lord Cornwallis at the siege of Yorktown. This victory ensured final victory for the American cause.

A New Nation and Civil War

Virginians were active in the creation and growth of the new United States. The Constitution, which replaced the ineffective Articles of Confederation, was largely drafted by James Madison, who later became the fourth president of the United States. He shared that office with a number of others from his state, including George Washington, the country’s first president; Thomas Jefferson, the third; and James Monroe, the fifth. In all, Virginians held the position of president for twenty-four of the first twenty-eight years of the new nation. In addition, the most influential chief justice of the United States, John Marshall, was a Virginian. He served from 1801 through 1835 and established the independent judiciary as an essential branch of the American federal government.

Although a southern, slaveholding state, Virginia had not taken the radical position held by others such as South Carolina during the intense national debate over slavery. The seizure of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859 by abolitionist John Brown, who hoped to spark a slave revolt, was put down by Colonel Robert E. Lee of the U.S. Army. When the first seven states seceded from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Virginia refrained from action. It did not leave the Union until April, 1861, after Lincoln had called up volunteers to suppress the rebellion. Richmond, less than a hundred miles from Washington, D.C., was named capital of the Confederacy, ensuring that the major battles of the Civil War would be fought in Virginia.

Over the next four years, Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia repulsed repeated attacks by federal forces. Aided by generals such as Jeb Stuart and “Stonewall” Jackson, Lee defeated Union forces that greatly outnumbered his home. In his classic 1863 victory at Chancellorsville, however, Lee lost his best lieutenant when Stonewall Jackson was accidentally killed by his own troops, and later that summer Lee and his army were defeated at Gettysburg. During the bloody campaigns of 1864 Union general Ulysses S. Grant wore down Lee’s troops and brought about the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War.

A Modern State

During the Civil, War Virginia had lost the western part of its territory when counties beyond the mountains loyal to the Union formed a new state, West Virginia, which entered the Union in 1863. Following the Civil War, Virginia went through the harsh period of Reconstruction imposed on the other states of the defeated Confederacy. During this time, Robert E. Lee lost his U.S. citizenship and Jefferson Davis was imprisoned at Fort Monroe on Chesapeake Bay. Virginia was readmitted to the Union on January 26, 1870.

Prior to the war, Virginia had been an industrial and manufacturing leader in the South. Its Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond, for example, was the Confederacy’s most important supplier of metal and weapons. However, following the devastation brought by the war, Virginia reverted to a primarily agricultural economy, based largely on crops such as tobacco, cotton, peanuts, and forestry products. It was not until the early years of the twentieth century that the state began to recover its industrial and manufacturing capabilities. By the middle of the century, thanks in large part to the stimulus of production during World War II, these again had become important aspects of the state’s economic base.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s Virginia, in cooperation with Maryland and other neighboring states, made a concentrated effort to clean up and restore Chesapeake Bay, whose environment had been severely damaged by decades of neglect and pollution. More than one hundred rivers flow into the Bay, some of them originating as far away as New York and West Virginia, but many of them rising in Virginia itself. Excess nutrients from agricultural fertilizer and organic chemicals have been two of the major elements damaging conditions in the Bay. However, by 1992 efforts at environmental stewardship had reached the point where more than three-quarters of Chesapeake Bay (78 percent) was reported as being in “excellent” condition. This was good news for Virginia’s seafood industry, in particular for the fishers who harvest world-famous Virginia oysters and blue crabs.

Fishing is indeed important to the state, but the modern Virginia economy is a diverse one. Agriculture, much of it located in the fertile Shenandoah Valley and in the southwestern portion of the state, remains a mainstay, with tobacco, corn, and other grains as significant crops. Shipbuilding and ship repair remain important along the coast, especially in the Hampton-Norfolk-Portsmouth area, which also is the site of a major U.S. naval base. Manufacturing, including electronic equipment and other technologically sophisticated products, is important; Virginia is one of the nation’s major producers of synthetic fibers. In northern Virginia, many residents are employed by the federal government. Because of the state’s great natural beauty and multitude of historical sites, Virginia’s tourism industry is a key part of its economy. This economic diversity means that the state retains a position it has long held in its history–that of being one of the leading states in the nation.

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