History of Virginia

History of Virginia
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Bronze medal with peace pipe atop, struck at behest of Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson and carried by Joseph Martin to give to Cherokee allies of the new United States, 1780

The History of Virginia begins with documentation by the first Spanish explorers to reach the area in the 1500s, when it was occupied chiefly by Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan peoples. After a failed English attempt to settle Virginia in the 1580s by Walter Raleigh[citation needed], permanent English settlement began in Virginia with Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. The Virginia Company colony was looking for gold but failed and the colonists could barely feed themselves. The famine during the harsh winter of 1609 forced the colonists to eat leather from their clothes and boots and resort to cannibalism.[1] The colony nearly failed until tobacco emerged as a profitable export. It was grown on plantations, using primarily indentured servants for the intensive hand labor involved. After 1662, the colony turned black slavery into a hereditary racial caste. By 1750, the primary cultivators of the cash crop were West African slaves. While the plantations thrived because of the high demand for tobacco, most white settlers raised their families on subsistence farms. Warfare with the Virginia Indian nations had been a factor in the 17th century; after 1700 there was continued conflict with natives east of the Alleghenies, especially in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), when the tribes were allied with the French.[2] The westernmost counties including Wise and Washington only became safe with the death of Bob Benge in 1794.

The Virginia Colony became the wealthiest and most populated British colony in North America, with an elected General Assembly. The colony was dominated by rich planters who were also in control of the established Anglican Church. Baptist and Methodist preachers brought the Great Awakening, welcoming black members and leading to many evangelical and racially integrated churches. Virginia planters had a major role in gaining independence and in the development of democratic-republican ideals of the United States. They were important in the Declaration of Independence, writing the Constitutional Convention (and preserving protection for the slave trade), and establishing the Bill of Rights. The state of Kentucky separated from Virginia in 1792. Four of the first five presidents were Virginians: George Washington, the "Father of his country"; and after 1800, "The Virginia Dynasty" of presidents for 24 years: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

During the first half of the 19th century, tobacco prices declined and tobacco lands lost much of their fertility. Planters adopted mixed farming, with an emphasis on wheat and livestock, which required less labor. The Constitutions of 1830 and 1850 expanded suffrage but did not equalize white male apportionment statewide. The population grew slowly from 700,000 in 1790, to 1 million in 1830, to 1.2 million in 1860. Virginia was the largest state joining the Confederate States of America in 1861. It became the major theater of war in the American Civil War. Unionists in western Virginia created the separate state of West Virginia. Virginia's economy was devastated in the war and disrupted in Reconstruction, when it was administered as Military District Number One. The first signs of recovery were seen in tobacco cultivation and the related cigarette industry, followed by coal mining and increasing industrialization. In 1883 conservative white Democrats regained power in the state government, ending Reconstruction and implementing Jim Crow laws. The 1902 Constitution limited the number of white voters below 19th-century levels and effectively disfranchised blacks until federal civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, the state was dominated by the Byrd Organization, with dominance by rural counties aligned in a Democratic party machine, but their hold was broken over their failed Massive Resistance to school integration. After World War II, the state's economy thrived, with a new industrial and urban base. A statewide community college system was developed. The first U.S. African-American governor since Reconstruction was Virginia's Douglas Wilder in 1990. Since the late 20th century, the contemporary economy has become more diversified in high-tech industries and defense-related businesses. Virginia's changing demography makes for closely divided voting in national elections but it is still generally conservative in state politics.


For thousands of years before the arrival of the English, various societies of indigenous peoples inhabited the portion of the New World later designated by the English as "Virginia". Archaeological and historical research by anthropologist Helen C. Rountree and others has established 3,000 years of settlement in much of the Tidewater. Even so, a historical marker dedicated in 2015 states that recent archaeological work at Pocahontas Island has revealed prehistoric habitation dating to about 6500 BCE.[3]

Virginia Indian chief in a deer hunting scene.[4]

Native Americans

As of the 16th Century, what is now the state of Virginia was occupied by three main culture groups—the Iroquoian, the Eastern Siouan & the Algonquian. The tip of the Delmarva Peninsula south of the Indian River was controlled by the Algonquian Nanticoke. Meanwhile, the Tidewater region along the Chesapeake Bay coastline appears to have been controlled by the Algonquian Piscataway (who lived around the Potomac River), the Powhatan & Chowanoke, or Roanoke (who lived between the James River & Neuse River.). Inland of them were two Iroquoian tribes known as the Nottoway, or Managog, & the Meherrin. The rest of Virginia was almost entirely Eastern Sioux, divided between the Monaghan & the Manahoac, who held lands from central West Virginia, through southern Virginia and up to the Maryland border (the region of the Shenandoah River Valley was controlled by a different people). Also, the lands peoples connected to the Mississippian Culture may have just barely crossed over into the state into its southwestern corner. Later, these tribes merged to form the Yuchi.[5][6]

  • Algonquian

Rountree has noted that "empire" more accurately describes the political structure of the Powhatan. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a chief named Wahunsunacock created this powerful empire by conquering or affiliating with approximately thirty tribes whose territories covered much of what is now eastern Virginia. Known as the Powhatan, or paramount chief, he called this area Tenakomakah ("densely inhabited Land").[7] The empire was advantageous to some tribes, who were periodically threatened by other groups, such as the Monacan. The first English colony, Jamestown, was allegedly allowed to be settled by Chief Powhatan as he wanted new military & economic advantages over the Siouans west of his people. The following chief, Opechancanough, succeeded him within only a couple of years after contact & had a much different view of the English. He led several failed uprisings, which caused his people to fracture, some tribes going south to live among the Chowanoke or north to live among the Piscataway. After that, one of his sons took several Powhatans and moved off to the northwest, becoming the Shawnee & took over former Susquehannock territories.[8] Recorded in the states of Maryland & Pennsylvania throughout the 17th century, they eventually made their way into the Ohio River Valley, where they are believed to have merged with a variety of other native peoples to form the powerful confederacy that controlled the area that is now West Virginia until the Shawnee Wars (1811-1813).[9] By only 1646, very few Powhatans remained and were policed harshly by the English, no longer even allowed to choose their own leaders. They were organized into the Pamunkey & Mattaponi tribes.[10] They eventually dissolved altogether and merged into Colonial society.

The Piscataway were pushed north on the Potomac River early in their history, coming to be cut off from the rest of their people. While some stayed, others chose to migrate west. Their movements are generally unrecorded in the historical record, but they reappear at Fort Detroit in modern day Michigan by the end of the 18th century. These Piscataways are said to have moved to Canada & probably merged with the Mississaugas, who had broken away from the Anishinaabeg & migrated southeast into that same region. Despite that, many Piscataway stayed in Virginia & Maryland until the modern day. Other members of the Piscataway also merged with the Nanticoke.

The Nanticoke seem to have been largely confined to Indian Towns,[11] but were later relocated to New York in 1778. Afterwards, they dissolved, with groups joining the Iroquois & Lenape.[12]

The Chowanoke were moved to reservation lands by the English in 1677, where they remained until the 19th century. By 1821, they had merged with other tribes and were generally dissolved, however the descendants of these peoples reformed in the 21st century and re-acquired much of their old reservation in 2014..

  • Eastern Siouan

Many of the Siouan peoples of the state seem to have originally been a collection of smaller tribes with uncertain affiliation. Names recorded throughout the 17th century were the Monahassanough, Rassawek, Mowhemencho, Monassukapanough, Massinacack, Akenatsi, Mahoc, Nuntaneuck, Nutaly, Nahyssan, Sapon, Monakin, Toteros, Keyauwees, Shakori, Eno, Sissipahaw, Monetons & Mohetons living & migrating throughout what is now West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina & South Carolina.[13][14][15][16][17] All were said to have spoken, at least two distinct languages—Saponi (which appears to be a missing link language existing between the Chiwere & Dhegihan variants) & Catawba (which is most closely related to Biloxi & the Gulf Coast Siouan languages).[18][19][20] John Smith was the first to note two groups in the Virginian interior—the Monaghans & the Monahoacs. The words came from the Powhatan [21] & translations are uncertain, however Monaghan seems similar to a known Lenape word, Monaquen, which means "to scalp." [22] They were also commonly referred to as the Eastern Blackfoot, which explains why some Saponi today identify as the Siouan-Blackfoot people,[13][23] and later still as the Christannas.

As far as can be assumed, however, it seems that they were arranged thusly—from east to west along the north shore of the James River, just inland of the Powhatan, would have been the Eno, Shakori & Saponi. Around the source of the river (& probably holding some of the river's islands a ways back east) should have been the Occaneechi, or Akenatsi. They were believed to have been the "grandfather" tribe of the region, a term among native peoples for any tribe highly respected & venerated for being the first or oldest people of their kind. West of the Occaneechi & primarily located in what is now West Virginia were, at least, two more tribes believed to have been related—the Moneton of the Kanawha River & the Tutelo of the Bluestone River, which separates West Virginia from Kentucky. About midway along the southern shores of the James River should have been the Sissipahaw. They were probably the only Eastern Siouan tribe in the state who would have spoken a form of Catawba language, rather than Saponi/ Tutelo. North of them were the Manahoac, or Mahock. The Keyauwee are also of note. It is difficult to say whether they were a subtribe of others mentioned, a newly formed tribe, or from somewhere else.

Originally existing along the entirety of the current western border of Virginia & up through some of the southwestern mountains of West Virginia & Kentucky, they seem to have first been driven east by the Iroquoian Westo during the Beaver Wars.[24][25] Historians have since come to note that the Westo were almost definitely the Erie & Neutrals/ Chonnonton, who had conquered wide swathes of what is now northern & eastern Ohio approximately during the 1630s & were subsequently conquered and driven out by the Iroquois Confederacy around 1650. The Tutelo of West Virginia first seem to be noted as living north of the Saponi, in northern Virginia in around 1670.[26] Later in the Beaver Wars, the Iroquois lost their new lands in Ohio & Michigan to the French & their new native allies around the western Great Lakes. Sometime during the 1680s-90s,[27] the Iroquois started pushing south and declared war on the Saponi related tribes, pushing them down into North Carolina. It is noted in 1701 that the Saponi, Tutelo, Occaneechi, Shakori & Keyauwee were then going to form a confederacy to take back their homeland. The writer assumes that all five tribes were driven south, but the Tutelos are noted as allies from the "western mountains." [28] This is the same year that the Iroquois surrendered to the French, but it appears that hostilities with the Saponi continued long term. The Iroquois were soon after convinced by the English to start selling off all their extended lands, which were nearly impossible for them to hold. All they kept was a string of territory along the Susquahanna River in Pennsylvania.

The Saponi attempted to return to their lands, but were unable to do so. Around 1702, the Governor of the Virginia Colony gave them reservation land & opened Fort Christanna nearby. All the tribes appear to have returned, sans the Keyauwee, who remained among the Catawba. They came to be known as the Christanna People at this time. This fort offered economic & educational aid to the locals, but after the fort closed in 1718, the Saponi dispersed. With continued conflicts between the Saponi & Iroquios in the region, the governors of Virginia, Pennsylvania & New York all stepped in together to organize a peace treaty, which did ultimately end the conflict. Sometime around 1722, the Tutelo & some other Saponis migrated to the Iroquoian held Pennsylvania territory and settled there, among many other refugees of local tribes who had been destroyed, absorbed into Colonial society, or simply moved on without them.[29][30] In 1753, the Iroquois reorganized them all into Tutelo, Delaware & Nanticoke Tribes, relocated them to New York & gave them full honors among the Confederacy, despite none of them being Iroquoian.[31] After the American Revolution, these tribes accompanied them to Canada. Later, the descendants of the Tutelos migrated again to Ohio, becoming the Saponi & Tutelo Tribes of Ohio. Many of the other Siouan peoples of Virginia were also noted to have merged with the Catawba & Yamasee tribes.[32]

  • Iroquoian

While mainly noted in Virginia, it appears that the Tuscarora migrated into the region from the Delmarva Peninsula early in the 17th century. John Smith noted them on an early map as the Kuskarawocks.[33] (They may have also absorbed the Tockwoghs, who also appear on the map & were most likely Iroquoian.) After an extended war with the English, the Tuscarora began leaving for New York & began merging with the Iroquois in groups around 1720, continuing approximately until the Iroquois were banished to Canada following the American Revolution.[34] Those who remained became a new tribe—the Coharie—and migrated south to live near the Meherrin.[35]

The Meherrin aided the Tuscarora in that war, but did not follow them north. In 1717, the English gave them a reservation just south of the North Carolina border. The North Carolina government contested their land rights and tried to take them away due to a surveyor's error that caused both Native & English settlers to claim parts of the reservation. However, they managed to, more or less, stay put well into the modern day. The Nottoway also managed to largely stay in the vicinity of Virginia until the modern day without much conflict or loss of heritage.

Although the Beaver Wars were primarily centered in Ohio, the Iroquois Confederacy of New York were also in a long strung conflict with the Susquehannocks of central Pennsylvania, as was the English colony of Maryland, although the two were not known to be allies themselves. Sometime around the 1650s or 1660s, Maryland made peace with & allied themselves to the Susquehannocks, thus the Iroquois labelled them an enemy as well, despite being allied with England by this time. After ending their war with the Susquehannocks in 1674, however, the Iroquois went on a more or less inexplicable rampage against Maryland and its remaining Native allies, which included the Piscataways and the Eastern Siouans tribes. The Eastern Siouans were forced out of the state during the 1680s. After the Beaver Wars officially ended in 1701, the Iroquois sold off their extended holdings—including their land in Virginia—to the English.[26]

In the mid 17th century, around 1655-6, an Iroquoian group known as the Westo invaded Virginia. While many theories abound as to their origins, they appear to have been the last of the Eries & Chonnontons who invaded Ohio at the start of the Beaver Wars.[36] The Westo seem to have pushed into southern West Virginia, then moved straight south to move on the smaller Siouan tribes of the Carolinas. In the 1680s, they were destroyed by a coalition of native warriors led by a tribe called the Sawanno.[37] Some have speculated that these were the Shawnee, however, the Shawnee should not have been anywhere near the region at the time & the word is a legitimate word from the Yuchi language, meaning this tribe may have been someone else. There is also a note from the Cherokee that a group of "Shawnee" were living among them in the 1660s (following the Westo invasion, but prior to their defeat), then migrated into southern West Virginia.

  • Other Tribes of Note

The first Spanish & English explorers appear to have greatly overestimated the size of the Cherokee, placing them as far north as Virginia. However, many historians now believe that there was a large, mixed race/ mixed language confederacy in the region, called the Coosa. The Spanish also gave them the nicknames Chalaques & Uchis during the 16th century & the English turned Chalaques into Cherokees.[38] The Cherokees we know today were among these people, but lived much further south & both the Cherokee language (of Iroquoian origin) & the Yuchi language (Muskogean) have been heavily modified by Siouan influence & carry many Siouan borrow words.[39][40] This nation would have existed throughout parts of the states of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North & South Carolina & Georgia, with cores of different culture groups organized at different extremes of the territory &, probably, speaking Yuchi as a common tongue.

After the Westo punched straight through them, they seem to have split along the line of the Tennessee River to create the Cherokee to the south & the Yuchi to the north.[41] Then, following the Yamasee War (1715–1717), the Yuchi were force across Appalachia [42] & split again, into the Coyaha & the Chisca. The French, seeing an opportunity for new allies, ingratiated themselves with the Chisca and had them relocated to the heart of the Illinois Colony to live among the Algonquian Ilinoweg. Later, as French influence along the Ohio River waned, the tribe seems to have split away again, taking many Ilinoweg tribes with them, and moved back to Kentucky, where they became the Kispoko. The Kispoko later became the fourth tribe of Shawnee.[43]

Meanwhile, the Coyaha reforged their alliance with the Cherokee & brought in many of the smaller Muskogean tribes of Alabama (often referred to as the Mobilians) to form the Creek Confederacy. While this tribe would go on to have great historical influence to the remaining Colonial Era & the early history of the United States, they never returned to Virginia.[44]

Furthermore, alike the Sawannos, it seems many splinter groups fractured off from the core group and moved into places like West Virginia & Kentucky. Afterwards, those lands seemed to be filled with native peoples who claimed "Cherokee" ancestry, yet had no organized tribal affiliation. The descendants of those people live throughout West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky & Ohio today. However, it also seems probable that these populations married into the surviving Monongahela & other Siouan groups, yet the populations must have been quite small on both sides to allow that these peoples never reformed a government & remained nomadic for a great deal of time afterwards.

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