Virginia (named for Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen) at first included in its lands the whole vast area of North America not held by the Spanish or French. The colony on Roanoke Island, organized by Sir Walter Raleigh, failed, but the English soon made another attempt slightly farther north. In 1606 James I granted a charter to the London Company (better known later as the Virginia Company), a group of merchants lured by the thought of easy profits in mining and trade. The company sent three ships and 144 men under captains Christopher Newport, Bartholomew Gosnold, and John Ratcliffe to establish a base, and the tiny force entered Chesapeake Bay in Apr., 1607. On a peninsula in the James River they founded (May 13, 1607) the first permanent English settlement in America, which they called Jamestown. It soon became clear that the company's original plans were unrealistic, and the Jamestown settlers began a long and unexpected struggle to live off the land.
By 1608, despite the firm and resourceful leadership of John Smith, hunger and disease had reduced their numbers to 38. The company responded by sending supplies and men as well as new leadership in the person of Sir Thomas Gates, who was to take charge as deputy governor under the authority of a new charter (1609). Gates arrived in 1610 to find that only a handful of settlers had survived the terrible winter (the "starving time") of 1609–10. He decided to take them back to England, but as they were about to abandon the colony in June, 1610, his superior, Governor Thomas West, Baron De la Warr, ordered them to reoccupy Jamestown. Although sickness and starvation continued to take a heavy toll, the settlement at last began to make headway under the harsh regimes of Sir Thomas Dale, De la Warr's successor in 1611, and later under that of Sir Samuel Argall.
Tobacco, first cultivated by John Rolfe in 1612, gave the company new hope of a profitable return on its investment. To encourage settlement and improve agricultural productivity it granted colonists (still technically employees and shareholders) the right to own private gardens, then, at the urging of Sir Edwin Sandys, promised to give 100 acres (40 hectares) of its land to purchasers of stock and 50 acres (20 hectares) to settlers who brought over other settlers at his own expense (the "head-right" system). The company also set up smaller joint-stock companies to settle vast tracts known as "colonies" or "hundreds." In 1619, at the instruction of the company, Governor George Yeardley provided additional incentives to settlers by forming a house of burgesses—the first representative assembly in the New World—and in 1620 by beginning to send women to the colony.
Although these various expedients did succeed in attracting new settlers and strengthening the colony, the company itself failed to prosper. Rolfe's marriage (1614) to Pocahontas, daughter of chief Powhatan, secured good relations with the Native Americans for a time, but in 1622 Powhatan's son Opechancanough led the Powhatan Confederacy in a surprise attack on the colony, killing 350 settlers (about one third of the total community). English retaliation effectively ended Native American resistance, except for a final uprising of the Confederacy in 1644. However, the 1622 attack had delivered a fatal blow to the company, and in 1624, beset by internal dissension, it surrendered its charter to the crown.
After almost two decades as a private enterprise, Virginia became a royal colony, the first in English history. Partly because the English kings were occupied with affairs at home, the Virginia house of burgesses was able to continue its functions and won formal recognition in the late 1630s. Thus representative government under royal domain was assured. By 1641, when Sir William Berkeley became governor, the colony was well established and extended on both sides of the James up to its falls.
Three fourths of the European settlers (about 7,500 in 1641) had come as indentured servants or apprentices, but many of them became freemen and small farmers. In 1641 there were also about 250 Africans (the first had arrived in 1619 on a Dutch ship), most of whom were indentured servants rather than slaves. The freeholders, together with the merchant class (from which were descended most of the "first families of Virginia"), controlled the government. Only white males were enfranchised, and property-owning qualifications for voting continued during and after the colonial period.
Most of the white settlers were Anglicans, and during the civil war in England, many well-to-do Englishmen (mainly Anglicans and supporters of Charles I, if not actually Cavaliers) came to Virginia. The colony was understandably loyal to the crown until 1652, when an expedition sent by Oliver Cromwell forced it to adhere to the Puritan Commonwealth. With the Commonwealth busy at home, Virginia was practically independent until 1660, engaging in free trade with foreigners, especially the Dutch, and enjoying the profits of the expanding tobacco and fur trade. This prosperous era came to an end with the Restoration in 1660.
The Navigation Acts forced the tobacco trade to use only English ships and English ports, which were at first insufficient to handle it; tobacco piled up in Virginia and in England, and prices plummeted. The wealthy planters weathered this depression, but the small farmers faced ruin. Serious discontent spread and was aggravated by Governor Berkeley's high-handed policies, by his favoritism toward the wealthy tidewater planters, and by his refusal to sanction a campaign against the Native Americans who had been attacking frontier settlements. These grievances brought the eruption of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. The unfortunate death of Nathaniel Bacon left the yeomen leaderless, and they were put down so ruthlessly that Berkeley was recalled to England.
Expansion of the plantation system was made possible only with the use of slave labor (first recognized in law in 1662), and tens of thousands of Africans were being imported every year by the end of the century. Small, independent cultivators, unable to compete with the plantation-slave system, formed the nucleus of a poor white class that drifted southward or pioneered to the west. Also contributing to westward settlement were the French Huguenots, who came to Virginia by the end of the 17th cent. and began to settle the Piedmont.
Westward movement was stimulated under Gov. Alexander Spotswood, who himself discovered (1716) the Swift Run Gap in the Blue Ridge Mts., leading into the Shenandoah valley. Spotswood also imported (1714–17) Germans to work his iron furnaces in the Piedmont area, and numerous others followed their countrymen. They helped settle the Shenandoah valley (beginning c.1730) as did many newcomers from Pennsylvania—German Lutherans, English Quakers, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and a lesser number of Welsh Baptists.
Soil exhaustion from continuous tobacco cultivation hastened the westward march, as did the settlement activities of land speculators like Spotswood and William Byrd (d. 1744). Many of these speculators were indebted eastern planters attempting to salvage their fortunes. The Ohio Company grant (1749) furthered exploration beyond the Allegheny Mts. but brought conflict with the French.
The activities and interests of the new frontier settlements contrasted sharply with the plantation life of the tidewater region, where the lavish material life of the planter aristocracy was complemented by high cultural accomplishments and by the spread of the ideas of the Enlightenment. The last of the French and Indian Wars, in which Virginians—notably Col. George Washington—were prominent, ended the French obstacle to westward migration. After the war many indebted planters were disturbed by England's own limitations on westward settlement.
Along with Massachusetts, Virginia was a leader in the movement that culminated in the American Revolution although, despite the burning oratory of Patrick Henry and the enlightened political writings of Thomas Jefferson and other brilliant native spokesmen, Virginia was never as politically discontent or radical as Massachusetts. In 1773 the burgesses at Williamsburg (the capital since 1699), led by Richard Henry Lee, formed an intercolonial committee of correspondence. The Virginia leaders proposed (May, 1774) a congress of all the colonies, delegates were chosen at the First Virginia Convention (Aug.), and in September Virginia's Peyton Randolph was elected president of the First Continental Congress. The next year, in June, George Washington was made commander in chief of the Continental Army.
After the patriots forced the royal governor, John Murray, earl of Dunmore, to flee, the Fifth Virginia Convention (May 6–June 29, 1776) declared the colony's independence, instructed the Virginia delegates to the Continental Congress to propose general colonial independence (resulting in the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson), and adopted a declaration of rights and the first constitution of a free American state, both drawn up by George Mason. Patrick Henry was elected the first governor.
Although the British had burned Norfolk in Jan., 1776, they did not invade the state in full force until 1779, when they took Portsmouth and Suffolk. Continentals under Lafayette came to Virginia in 1780, and the British cause was lost as American land forces and a French fleet combined to bring about Cornwallis's surrender (Oct. 19, 1781) in the Yorktown campaign. Meanwhile, George Rogers Clark and his Virginians had wrested (1779) the Northwest Territory from the British, and in 1784 Virginia yielded its claim to this area to the federal government.
During the Revolution a degree of religious freedom had been instituted in Virginia under the lead of Jefferson. Other reforms had removed entail and primogeniture from land tenure, liberalized the legal code, and abolished further importation of slaves. A liberal law for formal emancipation of slaves was passed in 1782 and remained in force for more than 20 years. In 1786 a statute for religious freedom, championed by James Madison, completed the disestablishment of the Anglican Church and established complete religious equality for all Virginians.
In replacing the unsatisfactory Articles of Confederation with the Constitution of the United States, Virginians, especially James Madison, again played leading roles. Other leaders such as Patrick Henry, Edmund Pendleton, and Edmund Randolph at various times opposed the document, but the state ratified it (June 26, 1788) with both tidewater and western support. Later, another Virginian, Chief Justice John Marshall, later gave the document much of its strength. The Old Dominion ceded (1789) a portion of its Potomac lands to the United States for the creation of the District of Columbia. In 1792, Kentucky, a Virginia county since 1776, was admitted to the Union as a separate state. After Madison and Jefferson raised an opposition to the financial program of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Virginia supported the emerging Democratic-Republican party's struggle against the Federalists and became a hotbed of states' rights sentiment (see Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions).
Of the first 12 Presidents of the United States, seven were Virginians—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, James Monroe (these four comprising the "Virginia Dynasty"), William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and Zachary Taylor. Later, in the 20th cent., the name of Woodrow Wilson was to further lengthen the generally distinguished list of Virginian presidents.
The native sons who led the country during the 1800s sometimes expanded national power and national development to an extent that many states' rights Virginians deemed unconstitutional. However, Virginia itself, stimulated by western complaints, embarked on a vigorous policy of internal improvements in the second and third decades of the 19th cent. The tidewater majority made few concessions to western demands for male suffrage and other reforms in the constitution of 1830. Economically, however, the whole state benefited from transportation improvements, from the growth of scientific agriculture and the spread of wheat cultivation, and from the growth of such industries as tobacco processing and iron manufacture.
As the cotton economy grew in the newer Southern states the tidewater became a breeding ground for the slaves they needed. Elsewhere in the state, especially in the west, antislavery sentiment was strong in the early 19th cent., and following the slave insurrection (1831) led by Nat Turner the house of delegates voted down a bill to abolish slavery by the narrow margin of seven votes. The insurrection did result in harsher laws and more conservative policies regarding African Americans. The constitution of 1851, granted suffrage to "every white male citizen," and thus effected reapportionment of representation.
For the most part Virginians labored to avert conflict between North and South. But "fire-eaters" such as Edmund Ruffin and abolitionists such as John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame, shaped the course that led to the Civil War. Secession came (Apr. 17, 1861) only after all attempts to keep peace had failed. Virginia joined the Confederacy, and Richmond became the Confederate capital. Robert E. Lee entered the military service of the South's new government, but not a few Virginians such as Winfield Scott, George H. Thomas, and David G. Farragut remained loyal to the Union. Most Virginians who lived west of the Appalachians also opposed secession, and on June 20, 1863, this section was admitted to the Union as the new state of West Virginia. As the conflict progressed, Virginia emerged as the chief battleground of the Civil War.
In the beginning the Union armies repeatedly suffered setbacks—at the first battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), in the Seven Days battles of the Peninsular campaign (April-July, 1862) after the Monitor and Merrimack had clashed in Hampton Roads, and in lesser but related campaigns such as the triumph of Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson in the Shenandoah valley. The second battle of Bull Run (Aug., 1862) was a smashing victory for Lee, but in the Antietam campaign (Sept., 1862) he fared no better than Union Gen. George B. McClellan in invading enemy country. However, in the battles of Fredericksburg (Dec. 13, 1862) and Chancellorsville (May 2–4, 1863), the Federals under Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside and then under Gen. Joseph Hooker were again repulsed.
Thus encouraged, Lee and his lieutenants—James Longstreet, R. S. Ewell, A. P. Hill, and J. E. B. Stuart—undertook another invasion of the North but failed against George G. Meade in the Gettysburg campaign (June–July, 1863). That campaign marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy, although it took considerable bloody pounding by Gen. U. S. Grant in the Wilderness campaign (May–June, 1864) and the siege of Petersburg (1864–65) before Lee surrendered what remained of his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse (see under Appomattox) on Apr. 9, 1865. President Jefferson Davis had already fled Richmond, and the Confederacy soon collapsed.
The war left its marks on the land and the people. The Shenandoah Valley was particularly desolate after the campaigns of Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early and Union Gen. Philip H. Sheridan in 1864. But poverty-stricken as it was after the war, the state, under Gov. Francis H. Pierpont, escaped the worst aspects of Reconstruction. Radical Republicans were but briefly in power. On the recommendation (1869) of President Ulysses S. Grant, Congress allowed Virginia to vote without coercion, and the state passed the essential clauses of a constitution that the Radicals had drafted (1868), providing for free public schools and heavy taxes on land. More importantly, Virginia was allowed to elect to office its own moderate party, the "white Republicans," led by Gen. William Mahone. Radical sway was ended. In 1870, after the Virginia assembly had ratified the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, the state was readmitted to the Union.
The abolition of slavery and the hard agricultural times of postwar decades ended the plantation system in Virginia and brought some increase in farm tenancy, but the economy benefited from diversification as fruit farming and the tobacco industry became important. To offset declines in demand for dark Virginia tobacco, the bright-leaf variety was increasingly grown.
In 1902 a new state constitution demanded rigorous literacy tests for voters, thus completing the long process of reducing the black electorate. During the years preceding World War I, Virginia's prosperity grew as dairy farming in particular gained importance. During the war agriculture boomed, as did industry. Especially prosperous were the important shipbuilding works at Hampton Roads.
In the mid-1920s, Harry Flood Byrd assumed direction of the state's powerful Democratic organization, formerly headed by U.S. Senator Thomas S. Martin and Methodist Episcopal Bishop James Cannon, Jr. Byrd, governor from 1926 to 1930 and U.S. Senator from 1933 until 1965, became the most influential figure in the state. As chief executive he initiated a sound reorganization of the state government, brought about the passage of the first antilynching law adopted by any state, and improved the highway system. However, the organization's chief boast was that the state was entirely free of debt due to a rigid "pay-as-you-go" policy. Liberals criticized this financial policy for scrimping on public education and welfare.
In the Great Depression of the 1930s Virginia fared better than many states. Its industries had not been overexpanded, and, more important, the state's economy was built around consumer goods—foods, textiles, and tobacco—that remained in relatively high demand. Farmers benefited from the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, but conservative Virginians resisted some of the economic policies of the New Deal. In World War II Virginia was the scene of much military training, and the shipyards at Hampton Roads and other industries again aided the war effort. In the prosperous postwar period the conservative Byrd organization maintained its power.
After the 1954 Supreme Court decision on public school integration, attempts at desegregating Virginia's schools proceeded slowly. After Virginia courts and federal courts ruled illegal the order by Gov. J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., to close public schools in nine counties, a lame compromise of "local option" was adopted. With the exception of Prince Edward County, where schools remained closed from 1959 until 1964, all parts of Virginia had accepted at least token integration by the mid-1960s. In 1989, L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, became the first African American elected governor in Virginia.
Virginia has benefited in recent decades from increased federal spending. In the 1980s the Hampton Roads area saw a naval shipbuilding boom. The greatest growth, however, has come in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where expanded federal offices and hundreds of quasi-official and private organizations engaged in lobbying, communications, and other businesses that owe their existence to proximity to the seat of the government have in turn spawned trade and service hubs like Dale City and Tysons Corner.