Author: John Salmon

historian for Virginia Civil War Trails, and author of The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. He also helped author the National Park Service's Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail Feasibility Study and Environmental Assessment (2006)

Tsenacomoco (Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom)

Tsenacomoco, otherwise known as the Powhatan paramount chiefdom, was a political alliance of Algonquian-speaking Virginia Indians that occupied the area first settled by the English at Jamestown. The origins of Tsenacomoco date to the Late Woodland Period (AD 900–1650). By 1607, twenty-eight to thirty-two groups, each with its own chief, paid tribute to Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco. With boundaries that stretched from the James River to the Potomac and west to the fall line, Tsenacomoco had a population of around 15,000 people. The name of the paramount chiefdom was first reported by the early English settler William Strachey and, while some scholars disagree, it may be translated to mean “densely inhabited place.” Living in riverside towns, the Indians of Tsenacomoco cleared land for farming and used the forests for hunting. The wide, slow-moving rivers, meanwhile, provided means for travel, trade, and war. After the English arrived in 1607, Powhatan attempted to subsume them into Tsenacomoco, and, when that failed, he fought them in the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614), which ended only with the marriage of his daughter Pocahontas to John Rolfe. A successor to Powhatan, Opechancanough, fought two more wars, both of them unsuccessful. With Opechancanough’s death in 1646 came the end of Tsenacomoco.


Newport, Christopher (1561–after August 15, 1617)

Christopher Newport was an English privateer, ship captain, and adventurer who helped to establish the first permanent English colony in North America at Jamestown in 1607. Born the son of a shipmaster on the east coast of England, he worked in the commercial shipping trade and, beginning in 1585, as a privateer, or sanctioned pirate, in the war between England and Spain. His assistance in the capture of the Spanish ship Madre de Dios in 1592 won him such wealth and prestige that in 1606 the Virginia Company of London appointed him leader of the voyage to the newly chartered colony. In the first few months, he played a key role in negotiating between Virginia’s often-fractious leaders. He also sailed between the colony and England, carrying news and delivering precious supplies. In 1608, he participated in an unsuccessful “coronation” of the Indian chief Powhatan, who refused to submit himself to the English. In 1609, as captain of the Sea Venture, Newport was shipwrecked off the islands of Bermuda, arriving in Virginia the next spring. Newport left the Virginia Company’s employment in 1612 and entered the service of the East India Company. He died in Banten (Bantam), Java, sometime after August 15, 1617.


James Lafayette (ca. 1748–1830)

James Lafayette was a spy during the American Revolution (1775–1783). Born enslaved in about 1748, he was a body servant for his owner, William Armistead, of New Kent County, in the spring of 1781. At the time, Armistead served as state commissary of military supplies, and his position allowed Lafayette—then known only by his first name—access to the front lines of war. Lafayette’s race made it easy for him to pass between lines, and he began serving as a double agent, spying for the Americans while pretending to spy for the British. After the war, the marquis de Lafayette attested in writing to James Lafayette’s service, and the former spy petitioned the General Assembly for his freedom, which was granted in 1787. Around this time he took the surname Lafayette. Late in 1818 Lafayette petitioned for and won a military pension. He lived on forty acres of land he purchased in New Kent County, traveling to Richmond twice a year to collect his pension. He reportedly greeted the marquis de Lafayette on the Frenchman’s tour of Virginia in 1824. James Lafayette died in Baltimore in 1830.


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 enslaved laborers 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.


Richmond and Petersburg Railroad during the Civil War, The

The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad extended for twenty-two miles and linked the two central Virginia cities. The Virginia General Assembly chartered the company in 1836 and the line was completed two years later. Despite its name, however, the southern terminus of the railroad actually was in the suburb of Pocahontas, which lay on the north bank of the Appomattox River across from Petersburg. Goods and passengers had to be off-loaded and disembarked at the Pocahontas station and then transported by wagon and carriage across a bridge into Petersburg. Once in the city, there were several rail-transportation options. The Petersburg Railroad, also known as the Weldon Railroad, led south to North Carolina, while the South Side Railroad ran west to Lynchburg and the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad linked those two cities.


Nathaniel Herbert Claiborne (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.