Virginia's recorded history began on April 26, 1607, when 104 English men and boys arrived at Cape Henry on the Virginia coast aboard the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. The expedition -- an attempt to compete with profitable Spanish encroachments in the New World -- was sponsored by the Virginia Company of London and supported by King James I.
A Modest Beginning
Although the colonists were heartened to find abundant fish and game, if not streets paved with gold, their optimism was short-lived, for American Indians attacked them on their first day in the New World. Fleeing Cape Henry, they settled on Jamestown Island, which offered greater protection from the Spanish and the Indians but was a lousy, mosquito-infested place to live. They also had arrived in the midst of an extended drought. As one on-the-scene chronicler described it, "a world of miseries ensued." Only 50 settlers survived the first year.
The Indians captured Capt. John Smith while he was exploring the Chickahominy River and carried him to Powhatan, the paramount chief of the tribes living on Virginia's three peninsulas and the Eastern Shore. According to legend, they would have killed him, but Powhatan's teenage daughter, the beautiful princess Pocahontas, interceded and saved his life. Or so Smith thought and later publicized; some experts believe it more likely that Smith misunderstood a tribal ritual.
But the colony survived that first year, and soon more men and women arrived, among them some of my ancestors. ("It's true we arrived at Jamestown in 1613," my late Aunt Ola Williford wisecracked, "and we have never amounted to anything since!")
Also in 1613, John Rolfe (who married Pocahontas) brought from the New World a new aromatic tobacco that proved popular in England. The settlers had discovered not the glittery gold they expected, but the "golden weed" that would be the foundation of Virginia's fortunes and its "First Families," including the Carters, the Hills, the Randolphs, the Lees, and the Harrisons. By mid-century, planter Robert "King" Carter of the Northern Neck was the richest man in North America.
In 1619, the Virginia Company sent a shipload of 90 women to suitors who had paid their transportation costs, and 22 burgesses were elected to set up the first legislative body in the New World. That same year, 20 Africans arrived in a Dutch ship to work as indentured servants, a precursor of slavery.
In 1699, the capital of the colony was moved from Jamestown, which had suffered a disastrous fire, to the planned town of Williamsburg. It was from Williamsburg that Colonial patriots launched some of the first strong protests against Parliament.
Pocahontas & the Real First Virginians -- The American Indians who attacked the Jamestown colonists upon their arrival at Cape Henry in 1607 were members of the Kecoughtan tribe, one of more than 32 Algonquian-speaking tribes consisting of some 20,000 people living in what is now eastern Virginia and organized under several paramount chiefs. One of them, Powhatan, ruled over the area around Jamestown and eventually made temporary peace with the colonists.
Powhatan's daughter, the bright and curious Pocahontas, allegedly convinced him not to kill Capt. John Smith. She later married tobacco millionaire John Rolfe, became a Christian, and changed her name to Rebecca. In 1616, the Rolfes took their young son, Thomas, to England, where Rebecca was presented to the royal court. She died in London the next year and is buried in Gravesend.
Although wars and disease decimated the native population, the commonwealth still recognizes eight official tribes: Chickahominy (www.chickahominytribe.org), Chickahominy Eastern Division (www.cied.org), Mattaponi, Monacan (www.monacannation.com), Nansemond (www.nansemond.org), Pamunkey (www.pamunkey.net), Rappahannock (www.rappahannocktribe.org), and Upper Mattaponi (www.uppermattaponi.org). The Mattaponi and Pamunkey have reservations with museums and cultural centers.
The Virginia Indian Heritage Program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 145 Ednam Dr., Charlottesville, VA 22903 (tel. 434/924-2396; www.virginiafoundation.org), publishes a terrific booklet, The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail, about the Indians of Virginia.
The French and Indian War in the 1750s proved to be a training ground for America's Revolutionary forces, including Col. George Washington. In the field Washington acquitted himself with honor, and after General Braddock's defeat, he was appointed commander in chief of Virginia's army on the frontier.
Expenses from the war and economic hardships led the British to increase taxes in the colonies, and protests in Virginia and Massachusetts escalated. The 1765 Stamp Act met with general resistance. Patrick Henry inspired the Virginia General Assembly to pass the Virginia Resolves, setting forth Colonial rights according to constitutional principles. The young orator exclaimed, "If this be treason, make the most of it." The Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, but the Revenue Acts of 1767, which included the hated tax on tea, exacerbated tensions.
Ties among the colonies were strengthened when Virginia's burgesses, led by Richard Henry Lee, created a committee to communicate their problems in dealing with England to similar committees in the other colonies. When the Boston Post Bill closed that harbor in punishment for the Boston Tea Party, the Virginia Assembly moved swiftly. Although Governor Dunmore had dissolved the legislature, they met at Raleigh Tavern and recommended that a general congress be held annually. Virginia sent seven representatives to the First Continental Congress in 1774, among them Lee, Patrick Henry, and George Washington.
The following year, Patrick Henry made a plea in Richmond for arming Virginia's militia. He concluded his argument with these immortal words, "Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but, as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"
Later in 1775, upon hearing news of the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia voted to make the conflict near Boston a colonywide confrontation and chose Washington as commander of the Continental Army. War had begun.
Birth of the Nation
Meeting in Williamsburg on June 12, 1776, the Virginia Convention adopted George Mason's Bill of Rights and instructed Virginia's delegates to the Continental Congress to propose independence for the colonies. Mason's document stated that "all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people," and that "all men are created free and independent, and have certain inherent rights . . . among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property . . ." He also firmly upheld the right of trial by jury, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.
The Congress meeting in Philadelphia adopted Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, based on Mason's bill, on July 4, 1776. The United States of America was born.
The Revolution was a bloody 7-year conflict marked by many staggering defeats for the patriots. Historians believe it was only the superb leadership and pertinacity of Gen. George Washington that inspired the Continental Army to continue so long in the face of overwhelming odds.
Victory at Yorktown
Virginia saw little military action until March 1781, when British Gen. Lord Cornwallis arrived with his army at Yorktown. At the end of a long and rather fruitless march through the Carolinas, Cornwallis waited for the British navy to evacuate him and his men to New York.
While Cornwallis waited, Washington received word from the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French troops in America, that a French fleet was heading to the Chesapeake and would be at Washington's disposal through October 15. Washington and Rochambeau marched their 17,000-man allied army 450 miles to Virginia in hopes of trapping Cornwallis.
On September 5, 1781, a fleet of 19 British ships under Adm. Thomas Graves appeared at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay to evacuate Cornwallis. By coincidence, the Adm. Comte de Grasse's 24 French ships arrived at the same time. The naval battle ended in a stalemate, but Graves was forced to return to New York without Cornwallis. The French remained to block further British reinforcements or their escape by water, while Washington and Rochambeau arrived at Yorktown. The trap had worked.
After 2 weeks of bombardment, Cornwallis waved the white flag. Although the war didn't officially end until the Treaty of Paris 2 years later, the colonists and their French allies had won.
Framing the Constitution -- At first the new country adopted the Articles of Confederation, which created a weak and ineffectual national government. To remedy the situation, a Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1781. Washington was elected the convention's president. He and fellow Virginian James Madison fought to have the new Constitution include a Bill of Rights and gradual abolition of the slave trade. Although both measures were defeated, the two Virginians voted to adopt the Constitution.
In 1788, Virginia became the 10th state to ratify the Constitution, and by 1791 the first 10 amendments -- the Bill of Rights -- had been added. Madison was author of the first nine amendments, Richard Henry Lee the tenth.
The Country's Early Virginian Presidents -- George Washington was elected the first president under the new Constitution and took office on April 30, 1789. Although he could have stayed in office, he stepped down after two terms, thus setting a precedent that ruled until Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to a third term in 1940.
As third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson nearly doubled the size of the country by purchasing the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon.
James Madison took office as president in 1809. Unable to maintain Jefferson's peacekeeping efforts in the face of continued provocations by England, Madison was swayed by popular demand for armed response, and in 1812, Congress declared war. Although British warships attacked some coastal plantations, the only suffering Virginia witnessed was the burning of nearby Washington, D.C.
James Monroe followed, and during his two terms, the nation pushed westward, and he faced the first struggle over slavery (which resulted in the Missouri Compromise), established the Monroe Doctrine, and settled the nation's boundary with Canada.
Mother of Presidents -- Virginia is known as the "Mother of Presidents" because eight U.S. presidents were born here: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson. Elected in 1912, Wilson was the first southern-born president since the Civil War.
The Civil War
It was not long before the United States became a nation divided. The issues were states' rights and the conflicting economic goals between an industrial North and an agricultural South that relied on slavery. In the election of 1860, the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, whom the South vowed it would not accept; but the Democrats split and Lincoln was elected. On April 12, 1861, guns sounded at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Secession had become war.
First Manassas -- In May 1861, the Confederate capital was transferred to Richmond, only 100 miles from Washington, dooming Virginia to be the major battleground of the Civil War. The Union strategy was to advance south and capture Richmond while at the same time taking the Shenandoah Valley to cut off the "breadbasket" of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The first of six attempts was decisively repulsed on July 21, 1861, at the battle of First Manassas (Bull Run), where a stonewall-like stand by the Virginia Brigade of Gen. Thomas J. Jackson swept Union forces back to Washington. In addition to the victory, the South had found a new hero: "Stonewall" Jackson. Total casualties in this first major engagement of the war -- 4,828 men -- made it apparent that this would be a long and bloody conflict.
The Peninsula Campaign -- The second major offensive against Richmond, the Peninsula Campaign, devised by Union Gen. George B. McClellan, was the setting for a famous naval engagement. On March 9, 1862, two ironclad vessels, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly the Merrimac) pounded each other with cannon. Although the battle was a draw, the advent of ironclad warships heralded a new era in naval history.
Yorktown was reduced to rubble 2 months later, and the Union army advanced up the Peninsula. The Confederates retreated until taking a stand only 9 miles from Richmond. The Confederate leader, Gen. Joseph Johnson, was badly wounded during the battle. Robert E. Lee, son of Revolutionary War hero Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, was appointed head of the Army of Northern Virginia. Personally opposed to secession, Lee had sadly resigned his commission in the U.S. Army when Virginia joined the Confederacy, saying, "My heart is broken, but I cannot raise my sword against Virginia." In a series of victories beginning on June 26, 1862, Lee defeated McClellan and Richmond was saved.
Second Manassas, Fredericksburg & Chancellorsville -- The third Union drive against Richmond was repulsed at the Second Battle of Manassas, where Lee's 55,000 men soundly defeated 70,000 Union troops under Gen. John Pope. On December 13, 1862, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, newly chosen head of the Army of the Potomac, crossed the Rappahannock and struck Fredericksburg while Lee's army was in northern Virginia. The Federal advance was so slow that by the time the Union armies moved, Lee's forces were entrenched on a hill. The result was a Union massacre, and the fourth Union drive against Richmond was turned back.
Gen. Joseph Hooker took command of the Union army early in 1863, and, once again, Federal forces crossed the Rappahannock. Fighting raged for 4 days at Chancellorsville. The Union army retreated, and the fifth drive on Richmond failed. Among the heavy casualties, Stonewall Jackson was wounded by his own troops and died of complications resulting from the amputation of his arm. Jackson's loss was costly, as Lee learned in July 1863 at the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
A War of Attrition -- In March 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was put in command of all Federal armies. His plan for victory called for total unrelenting warfare that would put constant pressure on all points of the Confederacy. The first great confrontation between Lee and Grant, the Battle of the Wilderness, resulted in a Confederate victory, but instead of retreating back to Maryland, Grant pushed on toward Richmond. The campaign was the heaviest fighting of the Civil War. Three times Grant tried and failed to interpose his forces between Lee and Richmond. More than 80,000 men were killed and wounded.
Laying Siege to Petersburg -- Lee's resistance strengthened at Richmond, and unable to capture the capital, Grant secretly moved his army across the James River toward Petersburg, an important rail junction south of Richmond and the city's main supply line. Improvised Southern forces managed to hold Petersburg until Lee arrived. Grant then resorted to ever-tightening siege operations. If he left his trenches, Lee would be abandoning Petersburg and Richmond. Subjected to hunger and exposure, the Confederate will began to wane and periodic skirmishes weakened Confederate morale.
Lee, hoping to divert Grant, dispatched a small army under Jubal Early to the menaced Shenandoah Valley. Grant instructed Union Gen. Philip Sheridan: "The Shenandoah is to be so devastated that crows flying across it for the balance of the season will have to bring their own provender." This second major valley campaign resulted in the destruction of Early's army and Lee's main source of food.
Lee's Retreat -- Back in Petersburg, Grant launched his inevitable onslaught on April 1, 1865, when Federal forces smashed through Confederate lines at Five Forks. Petersburg fell, and Richmond was soon occupied by Federal forces and visited by Lincoln and his young son, Todd. Lee's last hope was to rendezvous with Joe Johnson's army, which was retreating northward through North Carolina before Sherman's advance. However, on April 8, the vanguard of Grant's army succeeded in reaching Appomattox Court House ahead of Lee, thus blocking the Confederates' last escape route.
On April 9, 1865, the Civil War ended in Virginia at Appomattox in Wilbur McLean's farmhouse. Grant, uncompromising in war, proved compassionate in peace. Confederate soldiers were permitted to return home on parole, cavalrymen could keep their horses, and officers could retain their side arms. Rations were provided for the destitute Southerners. Speaking to his 28,000 soldiers, the remnants of the once-mighty Army of Northern Virginia, Lee said, "I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection. With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell."
Recovery, Renewal & Massive Resistance
To a state devastated by a conflict that pitted brother against brother, recovery was slow. Besides the physical and psychological damages of the conflict, the Reconstruction era brought Virginia under federal military control until 1870.
However, by the turn of the 20th century, new railroad lines connecting remote country areas in the west with urban centers characterized Virginia's economic growth. Factories were bringing more people to the cities, and the economy, once based entirely on agriculture, now had a growing industrial base. The Hampton Roads ports enjoyed growing importance as steamship traffic carried an increasing volume of commercial freight. (Today, it's the world's largest coal port.) During this period, the great scholar, author, and educator Booker T. Washington, who had been born in slavery, studied at Virginia's Hampton Institute and achieved fame as an advisor to presidents.
World War I brought prosperity to Virginia with new factories and munitions plants and the expansion of military-training camps throughout the state.
World War II saw a population explosion, with men and women of the armed forces flocking to northern Virginia suburbs near Washington, D.C., and the port area of Hampton Roads. Many of these people stayed after the war, and by 1955, the majority of Virginians were urban-dwelling. Today, the state's population is about seven million.
Prominent in Virginia Tidewater plantation society since the 1600s, the Byrd family dominated the state's politics from World War I until the 1980s. Under their conservative control, the "Mother of Presidents" virtually withdrew from national leadership.
Under a policy of "massive resistance" to federally mandated public school integration in the 1950s, the state closed the schoolhouse doors rather than admit African Americans to previously all-white institutions.
Although the old animosities still raise their ugly heads from time to time, in 1989 Virginians chose Democrat L. Douglas Wilder as the nation's first elected African-American governor (he is now serving as mayor of Richmond), and in 2008 we cast a majority of our votes for President Barack Obama.
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