Author: Emily Jones Salmon

retired senior editor in the Education and Outreach Division of the Library of Virginia, co-editor of The Hornbook of Virginia History (3rd—5th editions: 1983, 1994, and 2010), and co-author with John S. Salmon of Franklin County, Virginia, 1786—1986: A Bicentennial History (1993)
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Tobacco in Colonial Virginia

Tobacco was colonial Virginia‘s most successful cash crop. The tobacco that the first English settlers encountered in Virginia—the Virginia Indians’ Nicotiana rustica—tasted dark and bitter to the English palate; it was John Rolfe who in 1612 obtained Spanish seeds, or Nicotiana tabacum, from the Orinoco River valley—seeds that, when planted in the relatively rich bottomland of the James River, produced a milder, yet still dark leaf that soon became the European standard. Over the next 160 years, tobacco production spread from the Tidewater area to the Blue Ridge Mountains, especially dominating the agriculture of the Chesapeake region. Beginning in 1619 the General Assembly put in place requirements for the inspection of tobacco and mandated the creation of port towns and warehouses. This system assisted in the development of major settlements at Norfolk, Alexandria, and Richmond. Tobacco formed the basis of the colony’s economy: it was used to purchase the indentured servants and slaves to cultivate it, to pay local taxes and tithes, and to buy manufactured goods from England. Promissory notes payable in tobacco were even used as currency, with the cost of almost every commodity, from servants to wives, given in pounds of tobacco. Large planters usually shipped their tobacco directly to England, where consignment agents sold it in exchange for a cut of the profits, while smaller planters worked with local agents who bought their tobacco and supplied them with manufactured goods. In the mid-seventeenth century, overproduction and shipping disruptions related to a series of British wars caused the price of tobacco to fluctuate wildly. Prices stabilized again in the 1740s and 1750s, but the financial standings of small and large planters alike deteriorated throughout the 1760s and into the 1770s. By the advent of the American Revolution (1775–1783), some planters had switched to growing food crops, particularly wheat; many more began to farm these crops to support the war effort. In the first year of fighting, tobacco production in Virginia dropped to less than 25 percent of its annual prewar output.

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Rolfe, John (d. 1622)

John Rolfe served as secretary and recorder general of Virginia (1614–1619) and as a member of the governor’s Council (1614–1622). He is best known for having married Pocahontas in 1614 and for being the first to cultivate marketable tobacco in Virginia. Joined by his first wife, whose name is unknown, Rolfe sailed on the Sea Venture, a Virginia-bound ship that wrecked off the islands of Bermuda in 1609. There his wife gave birth to a daughter, but mother and child soon died. In Virginia, Rolfe turned to experimenting with tobacco, a plant first brought to England from Florida. The Virginia Indians planted a variety that was harsh to English smokers, so Rolfe developed a Spanish West Indies seed, Nicotiana tabacum, that became profitable and, indeed, transformed the colony’s economy. In 1614, Rolfe married Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco. The marriage helped bring an end to the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614), but Pocahontas died in 1617 while visiting England with Rolfe and their son, Thomas. While in England, Rolfe penned A True Relation of the state of Virginia Lefte by Sir Thomas Dale Knight in May Last 1616 (1617), promoting the interests of the Virginia Company of London. Back in Virginia, he married Joane Peirce about 1619 and had a daughter, Elizabeth. He died in 1622.

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Riddleberger, Harrison H. (1843–1890)

Harrison H. Riddleberger was a Confederate veteran from Shenandoah County who helped settle Virginia’s controversial prewar debt crisis in the 1880s. After the American Civil War (1861–1865), he became a newspaper publisher and a politician. He served in the House of Delegates for two terms as a Conservative (1871–1875) before entering the Senate of Virginia in 1879 as a Readjuster. In 1882 the assembly passed the Riddleberger Act and two other bills that refinanced two-thirds of the public debt (West Virginia was allocated the remaining one-third) with new lower-interest bonds and helped convert a treasury deficit into a $1.5 million surplus. Although subsequent legislation modified Riddleberger’s law in detail, the act ended a decade of divisive politics about the public debt. Taking a seat in the U.S. Senate the next year, he caucused with the Republicans. While he was serving in Washington, the Readjusters splintered and Riddleberger later became a Democrat. Prone to depression and excessive drinking, he held a reputation as an eccentric and even engaged in two duels on the same day. He died in his home less than a year after his Senate term ended.

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Lyons, Isaiah L. (1843–1871)

Isaiah L. Lyons served in the Senate of Virginia (1869–1871) and was one of the first African American members of the General Assembly. Born in New Jersey, Lyons was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and worked as a clerk. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), he served in Virginia with the United States Colored Troops, finally settling in Hampton. In 1869 Lyons, who by then worked as a druggist, won election to the Senate by handily defeating a white candidate, Martin McDevitt. He then became the only African American member to vote against ratifying the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Although in the minority, Lyons reasoned that the assembly itself was illegitimate because most of its white members could not take the required oath stating they had been loyal to the United States during the war. He also voted against a provision that required racial segregation in the state’s new public schools but eventually supported the bill. Lyons died at his home in Hampton in 1871 from the effects of illnesses acquired during the war.

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Holmes, Joseph R. (ca. 1838–1869)

Joseph R. Holmes was a member of the Convention of 1867–1868. Born into slavery in Charlotte County, he learned to read and write and became a shoemaker. After the American Civil War (1861–1865), Holmes supported reforms proposed by the radical wing of the Republican Party and was elected a delegate to the constitutional convention called as a necessary condition for Virginia to be readmitted to the United States. At the convention, Holmes was described as a radical and a “bad character” by the military commander of Virginia and was mocked by the state’s white newspapers. In 1869, John Marshall, the son of Holmes’s former owner, reportedly threatened to kill Holmes for his political activities. Holmes sought an arrest warrant at the county courthouse where a scuffle broke out and he was shot and killed. The court ordered Marshall’s arrest but he was never apprehended.

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Harris, J. D. (ca. 1833–1884)

J. D. Harris, a free-born physician, ran as the lieutenant gubernatorial candidate for the Republican Party‘s radical faction in the election of 1869. Harris entered public life late in the 1850s, advocating African American repatriation to the Caribbean. His interest in tropical diseases led him into medicine, and he became a doctor in 1864. Harris’s medical work for the U.S. Army settled him in Virginia. Politically active and known for his intelligence, he received the Republicans’ nomination for lieutenant governor in the first statewide election under the Constitution of 1869. His multiracial background played a role in splitting the party that year. A breakaway group known as the True Republicans received the tacit support of the Conservative Party and carried the election. Harris remained active in medicine and civil rights, living in South Carolina and Virginia, until a mental breakdown in 1876. He died in Washington, D.C., in 1884.

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County Formation during the Colonial Period

While it has traditionally been held that Virginia’s first counties were not formed until 1634, when the “country [was] divided into 8 shires,” subsequent research has shown that progress toward county formation had begun at least by 1622. An act passed early in that year provided for lower courts to be held in the various settlements throughout the colony to help relieve the governor and Council “from [their] vast Burthen of Business, and to render Justice the more cheap and accessible.” Although a large-scale attack on the English colonists by a group of Powhatan Indians in March 1622 halted progress for a while, an emergency system of military commanders set up a quasi-military structure over the local populations that included monthly courts. By 1634, when the eight original shires, or counties, were enumerated, five localities were already named for five of the shires and were sending burgesses to the General Assembly at Jamestown. In 1642, the assembly passed a law to call the monthly courts “countie courts,” thus concluding a twenty-year progression toward county government in Virginia. At the close of the colonial period, Virginia was home to a total of sixty-one counties, its population growth having moved north, south, and west from the original eastern settlements around Jamestown.

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Convict Labor during the Colonial Period

In 1615, English courts began to send convicts to the colonies as a way of alleviating England’s large criminal population. This practice was unpopular in the colonies and by 1697 colonial ports refused to accept convict ships. In response, Parliament passed the Transportation Act of 1718 to create a more systematic way to export convicts. Instead of relying on merchants to make arrangements on their own to ship felons to the colonies, the British government subsidized the shipment of convicts through a network of merchants, giving a contract for the service to one individual at a time. Between 1700 and 1775, approximately 52,200 convicts sailed for the colonies, more than 20,000 of them to Virginia. Most of these convicts landed and were settled along the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. Although many were unskilled and thus put to work in agriculture, particularly tobacco production, others with skills were sold to tradesmen, shipbuilders, and iron manufacturers, and for other similar occupations. Convict laborers could be purchased for a lower price than indentured white or enslaved African laborers, and because they already existed outside society’s rules, they could be more easily exploited. Nevertheless, Virginia tried repeatedly to pass laws to prevent England from sending convicts, though those laws were overturned by the Crown. At the beginning of the American Revolution (1775–1783), colonial ports virtually ceased accepting convict ships. By 1776, when the last boatload of convicts arrived on the James River, many of the convicts had served their seven- to fourteen-year terms and returned to Great Britain, while a few who had become honest citizens moved to distant parts of the colony with the hope of blending in.

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Claiborne, Nathaniel Herbert (1775–1859)

Nathaniel Herbert Claiborne was a member of the House of Delegates (1810–1812), the Council of State (1812–1817), the Senate of Virginia (1821–1825), and the U.S. House of Representatives (1825–1837). Claiborne also served as a member of the Rockfish Gap Commission, which chose Charlottesville as the site of the University of Virginia, and as commonwealth’s attorney for Franklin County. As a U.S. representative, he generally supported the policies of President Andrew Jackson until 1832, when he began to vote with the anti-Jackson faction. After losing reelection in 1836, Claiborne retired from politics and spent his remaining years on his farm near Rocky Mount.

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Carrington, Isaac H. (1827–1887)

Isaac H. Carrington served as provost marshal of Richmond during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Born in Richmond to an influential family, Carrington practiced law in Pittsylvania County before the war. He served in various staff and administrative positions in the Confederate army before, in 1863, the Confederate Congress appointed him a commissioner of prisoners in Richmond. The next year the secretary of war named him Richmond’s provost marshal with responsibility for issuing passports to all persons leaving the city. Just prior to the Union occupation of Richmond in 1865, Carrington set fire to military stores in the city, but despite taking precautions, the fire spread and destroyed much of the capital. He was later exonerated on charges of misappropriating funds sent by the U.S. government for prisoner relief. After the war Carrington practiced corporate law, served on the University of Virginia board of visitors (1873–1875), and served as president of the Richmond Bar Association (1886–1887). He died in 1887.

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