In 1600, Tidewater Virginia was occupied by 15,000Indians. They lived mainly along the James, York, and Rappahannock rivers in a land they called . Led by a paramount chief named , they farmed in small villages during the summer and, during the winter, traveled deep into the forests to hunt deer and gather nuts. They supplemented their by , fishing for sturgeon, and wading into the freshwater marshes to pull tuckahoe, a carbohydrate-rich edible plant.
Powhatan likely inherited the leadership of six Indian groups: the Powhatans, the, the Arrohatecks, the Appamattucks, the Youghtanunds, and the . Through a combination of violence and persuasion, he then expanded his territory so that by 1607 he controlled twenty-eight to thirty-two groups covering about 8,000 square miles. Each group (as anthropologists prefer) or tribe (as present-day Indians prefer) occupied one or more and was ruled by its own weroance, or chief. Like the paramount chief Powhatan, these lesser chiefs inherited their positions through the female line. They accumulated wealth through tribute—usually in the form of deer skins, pearl and shell beads, corn, and copper—that they then redistributed. Accepting from the weroance created obligations on the part of the receivers. These obligations were crucial to Indian political and economic relationships.
Powhatan traveled with a bodyguard of Tsenacomoco’s fifty tallest men and kept his capital in a town called Werowocomoco. He was the wealthiest and most powerful of all the chiefs, but he was not an absolute ruler. He made few decisions without the advice of his council, and many important actions, such as making war, required the approval of his, called kwiocosuk. These were the most important men in Powhatan society because they communicated with spirits, usually by way of a trance. They divined the spirits’ intentions and advised the chief or paramount chief accordingly. With their bodies painted black and their heads shaved except for a tuft of hair in the front and a Mohawk-style crest, the priests resided in temples and cared for the remains of dead chiefs. The kwiocosuk also sometimes acted as physicians.
Like people everywhere, Indiansand , , , , and educated their young. Boys were initiated into manhood through a frightening process called the , which involved a . And although there were no written , Virginia Indians wrongdoers according to their own traditions and customs.
When the English arrived in 1607, they encountered a people whose lives were completely different from their own. For instance, the English did not fully understand how hard the Indians worked. Powhatan’s people had no metal tools to help them chop down trees for building; instead, they used fire. They had no to help them drag large tree trunks and to plow fields; instead, they used their own muscle power. Without horses, news spread much more slowly, and war was much more personal. Land, meanwhile, was not fenced in, which led the English to assume that the Indians made no claim to it. Such misunderstandings, while perhaps inevitable, were tragic and, for the Indians, ultimately proved to be disastrous.
The Spanish actually beat the English to the Chesapeake Bay. In 1570 Spanish monks, led by a converted Virginia Indian whose Catholic name was, established a near the James River that they called Ajacán. The project ended in failure when Don Luís the Spaniards. The English, meanwhile, were only just beginning to look west across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1585, with from , bankrolled a colony at off the coast of present-day North Carolina. The settlement failed but nonetheless resulted in ‘s vivid watercolors of Native Americans and, with the help of , his accurate maps of the land Raleigh had dubbed Virginia for his virgin queen. Another attempt to settle Roanoke, this one led by White, failed in 1587, leaving behind the so-called .
Disregarding the Spanish, who had laid claim to the entire Atlantic coast of the New World from present-day Florida to Maine, the English tried again in 1607. This time a hundred or so men—including Captain, Captain , and — not far from the ill-fated Ajacán, erecting a fort on a marshy piece of land jutting out into the James River. They called their settlement Jamestown, in honor of their king, James I. Their goals, best by , were to convert the Indians to Protestantism and to convert the land into profit. In particular, the English hoped to find gold, but failing that, they would settle for more obviously abundant resources, such as timber. (They took so much of it that the Indians thought England must be treeless.) The English planned, in other words, to ruthlessly claim Tsenacomoco as their own.
The Spanish eventually learned where the English had landed but declined to challenge or eliminate them. The Indians were equally cautious. Powhatan boththe Englishmen, using these encounters to learn more about the tassantassas (foreigners). With Tsenacomoco in the midst of a terrible drought, the settlers took corn from the Indians at gunpoint. For a short time Powhatan cut them off from all food, leading to the , the bloody (1609–1614), and, in one instance at least, the revenge-killing of . Even the wreck of the supply vessel in 1609 did not deter the English. , , John Rolfe, and others survived, and with them so did the starving colony. With Rolfe’s to Powhatan’s daughter in 1614, the First Anglo-Powhatan War ended and the English emerged from the safety of James Fort to establish settlements such as up and down the James River. The beginning of the end of Tsenacomoco was at hand.
After Powhatan’s death his close relative,, led the Indians in a against the English in 1622. The (1622–1632) ended in the Indians’ defeat. In the meantime, John Rolfe had begun to cultivate a variety of Spanish tobacco from the West Indies, and found that it sold well in England. In order to thrive, the colony needed a staple crop, one that could be exported for profit and thus fuel Virginia’s economy. Rolfe discovered such a crop in tobacco. Soon indentured servants began to flood Virginia. Most of them were poor Englishmen who contracted to work in the tobacco fields for several years, and they often died of disease, overwork, or . Those who did survive helped to make a small number of elite white Virginians very wealthy. These members of the class owned the land and reaped its profits. They established large plantations and, with from the , sent to a General Assembly in Jamestown. Tobacco, in other words, helped bring self-government to Virginia. Before long, however, it also brought slavery.
were originally purchased by Portuguese slave traders from other Africans in Angola and then, en route to Mexico, stolen by two English corsairs. (A corsair was a merchant ship licensed by a government to attack certain other ships and steal their cargoes.) The captives, likely Kimbundu-speaking people from the kingdom of Ndongo, at Point Comfort, on the James River, late in August 1619. There, they were sold in exchange for food and some were transported to Jamestown, where they were , probably into slavery.
During most of the 1600s, Virginia’s labor force consisted primarily of white indentured servants and a handful of, who in many cases were treated no better than enslaved laborers. Some Virginia Indians also worked as servants or, more often, were . In the 1670s, the ratio of white servants to enslaved Africans was four to one. But that changed dramatically during the next twenty years, so that by the early 1690s the ratio had reversed: there were now four times as many enslaved Africans as white servants in Virginia. By 1705, with the General Assembly’s passage of (also known as the Slave Code of 1705), slavery had become ensconced at all levels of Virginia society. Some historians explain this change by pointing to social shifts following (1676–1677) that increased white Virginians’ hostility toward non-whites. This early form of racism led white Englishmen to think of dark-skinned peoples as inferior. Other historians point out that the move to slavery only occurred when the flow of servants from England fell off dramatically around 1680. Still others suggest that only at this time did the English, having established the Royal African Company in 1660, become more involved in the Atlantic slave trade. As a result, enslaved Africans became less expensive. To wealthy planters and small farmers alike, enslaved laborers made better long-term economic sense than indentured servants.
Enslaved Blacks in Virginia lived both in rural and urban areas. Agricultural slaves mostly cultivated tobacco and wheat and, unlike the large-plantation enslaved populations of South Carolina, tended to live on small farms in areas that were more integrated with whites. In 1710, most enslaved Blacks in Virginia had been born in Africa; many had come from a region on the west coast of Africa called the Bight of Biafra. Over time, especially as the African enslaved population included more women, the number of enslaved individuals in Virginia began to grow naturally through childbirth. By 1770, 91 percent of Virginia’s enslaved Blacks were born in America. As a group, they began to develop distinctive modes of language, storytelling, and music. Some enslaved laborers, especially in the city and on small farms, werewhere they worked. Others lived in barracks or crude cabins, where they were allowed to tend small gardens and raise poultry.
Africans in Virginia resisted their enslavement. So many enslaved laborers and servants ran away from their masters that in 1669 the House of Burgessesits laws had been ineffectual. Other enslaved Blacks attempted to rebel. Some may have joined white servants in Gloucester County in the so-called of 1663, while in Westmoreland County in 1687, a group of enslaved people to kill whites and destroy property. The plot was and the leaders of the insurrection were probably hanged.
A small number of Blacks were able to live as. A few, like Anthony Johnson of Northampton County, owned slaves themselves. Some enslaved Africans purchased their freedom. A few, like , were freed after proving to their owners that they were Christians. By 1705, the General Assembly had closed most of these paths to freedom. In 1723, the assembly went further and the right to vote, a move that even the Crown .
Politics and Economy
The Virginia colony was founded and, at first, run by the Virginia Company of London. Sir Walter Raleigh had paid for his colonial ventures himself, and so assumed nearly all of the risk. By contrast, the Virginia Company sold shares to Englishmen so that risk would be dispersed in the likely event that the colony failed. (In neither case did the Crown assume much, if any, risk.) A council in England, appointed by the king, appointed another council that made decisions in Virginia based on. The local council voted for a president from among its seven members, but that position remained weak. Sensing that the colony suffered from a lack of leadership, James I issued a in 1609 that transferred ultimate political control from the Crown to private investors, who were then authorized to appoint a strong governor. Sir Thomas Gates and , served as Virginia’s first two governors and in 1610 and 1611 issued a strict set of rules that were published as .
For many years, the struggling Virginia colony operated under what historian Edmund S. Morgan has called a “semi-military dictatorship,” but the discovery of tobacco as a money-making crop and the establishment of anlegislature, the General Assembly, placed more and more political power in the hands of wealthy planters. The Virginia Company of London treasurer, , worried that the colony was becoming too dependent on a single crop and in 1621 limited each colonist to growing 100 pounds of tobacco annually. The planters resisted, and a royal investigation of the company after Opechancanough’s 1622 attack led to the revocation of its charter. The company dissolved in 1625 but, ironically, not before Sandys had secured for Virginia a monopoly on tobacco exports to England.
From then on, governors were appointed by the Crown. The only exceptions were four men who served after the(1642–1648), when England was not a monarchy (1649–1660). Members of Virginia’s elite vied to serve on the , the influential advisory board that doubled as the colony’s General Court. After ‘s unsuccessful rebellion against Governor , the Crown attempted to exercise more control over the colony, but the planters on the governor’s Council again resisted. Governor , for instance, taxed tobacco exports but left the colony in crisis when a boom harvest sent prices falling.
Powerful Virginians like, who cofounded the College of William and Mary in 1693, proved too obstinate for many governors to overcome. Blair had a hand in the removal of three of them: , , and . Over time, however, the influence of the governor’s Council waned while that of the waxed. When Sir John Randolph became Speaker of the House in 1734, he was arguably the most important political figure in Virginia.
Virginia’s economy, meanwhile, continued to be dominated by a handful of elite families, most of whom lived on isolated rural plantations. Colonial Virginia had few towns and instead relied on family ties to forge community and economic relationships., rather than visits to town, were an important way for young people to court one another and for older people to discuss business. At the same time, as in the royal houses of Europe, intermarriage became a key strategy for families to preserve, and often increase, their wealth and prestige.
For many yearswas the richest man in Virginia. He owned the largest number of enslaved laborers and sat on the governor’s Council. Tobacco, which was so important to the economy that it backed the colony’s currency, accounted for most of Carter’s fortune. But it was not his only profitable venture. As historian Emory G. Evans has written, Carter and his peers “operated stores, loaned money, served as agents and factors for English firms in both the tobacco and slave trades, managed estates for absentee owners, rented land, owned parts of vessels in the Atlantic trade, operated ferries and ironworks, and held a variety of remunerative public positions.”
While tobacco fueled the economy, Virginia’s dependence on the crop created periodic crises, especially when unexpectedly large yields lowered prices. Another danger to the economy was the planters’ practice of running up large debts to British merchants. These men’s social standing—which was intimately connected to their political power—relied on spending lavishly on everything, from fancy clothing to beautiful homes such as, Mount Vernon, and Westover, home to and his heirs. In fact, these debts and the resulting power such merchants held over Virginia’s elite helped fuel their discontent with British rule.
Religion and politics were intimately linked in colonial Virginia. The Church of England practiced a form of Protestant Christianity that in some ways resembled Catholicism. Because the Church of England was the established church, colonists were legally required to attend its services and, through taxes, to financially support its ministers. The, meanwhile, served as the basic unit of both religious and civil authority. It provided social welfare and delivered moral offenders to the courts. Attending church became another important means for people to make social, political, and economic connections. As the authors of Old Dominion, New Commonwealth (2007) have written, when colonists gathered for church each Sunday, they “came together not only to worship but to exchange business documents, discuss tobacco prices, argue over the quality of horses, catch up on local gossip, and share news of the wider world.”
Several hundredimmigrated to Virginia in the 1620s and 1630s, looking for an opportunity to practice a hard-nosed form of Protestantism that shed all remnants of Catholic ritual. In the end, Maryland proved more
hospitable for these dissenters. In fact, it was not until thearrived in Virginia that religious reform began to occur. The Great Awakening was a period of religious change during which different styles of Protestant worship emerged. The Baptists, , and Presbyterians were loud, physical, and emotional. They sometimes spoke in tongues. , whose own uncle was a staid Anglican (Church of England) preacher, reportedly described the Presbyterian pastor as the greatest orator he had ever heard.
These new forms of Christianity at first attracted non-elite Virginians, but slowly they began to reach even the rich planters. King Carter’s grandson,, scandalized many of his peers when, in 1778, he became a Baptist. While Patrick Henry continued to support an established religion, he nevertheless helped draft the sixteenth article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, which assured dissenters their freedom of religion. In 1786, Virginia passed ‘s , ending the state’s financial backing of churches.
Women played critical, though differing, roles in Virginia’s Indian, English, and African societies in colonial Virginia. The Indians of Tsenacomoco lived in a matrilineal society, meaning that power was inherited through the female line. Powhatan’s heirs were his brothers, sisters, and sisters’ children, but not his own children. Women such asand became chiefs in this way. But this custom also meant that Pocahontas was not a princess in the European sense. She may have been Powhatan’s “dearest daughter,” in the words of John Smith, but she had no special privileges, obligations or responsibilities other than those that pertained to all women. She gathered plants for food, cooked, helped to build houses, and—to the Englishmen’s surprise—worked the farms. Because the English believed that farming was men’s work, they assumed that Indian men must be lazy.
When the English first arrived in Tsenacomoco, they brought no women with them, which the Indians found strange. Not until 1608 did the gentleman Thomas Forest bring his wife (name unknown) and her maid, Anne Burras. Burras later wed a carpenter, John Laydon, and their daughter Virginia was the first child born to English parents at Jamestown. Other women followed. Temperance Flowerdew arrived in 1609, survived the Starving Time, and later married two Virginia governors,and Francis West. Many women outlived their husbands and remarried several times. By combining the estates of past and present husbands, they sometimes became wealthy and, in certain ways, powerful. first married a governor of settlements in present-day North Carolina. When he died she married Sir William Berkeley, the long-serving governor of Virginia. After being widowed a second time, she married the colony’s treasurer, Philip Ludwell.
Although sometimes involved in politics, Lady Berkeley, as she was known, nevertheless fit the English definition of a “good wife.” Legally, the concept of coverture applied to her and to all wives: while married they were “covered” by their husbands, who were undisputed heads of the household, managing the wife’s land and representing the entire family in court. As a result, Lady Berkeley and others like her mostly worked inside the home—cooking, cleaning, raising children, and entertaining—or supervised those who did. Not all women aspired to be good wives, however. Out of necessity, some helped their husbands and servants cultivate tobacco, a labor that many believed to be unbecoming of an Englishwoman. Others, like Sarah Harrison of Surry County, but during their wedding ceremony in 1687 she refused to agree to obey her husband.and , ran taverns. Or, like , they declined to marry and instead bought land and ran a plantation. Some white women resisted their traditional roles in other ways. The irascible James Blair chose as his bride seventeen-year-old
Women faced some dangers that men did not. For instance, women servants and slaves were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and other kinds of exploitation. The widowed servant Jane Dickensonthat her master, Dr. John Pott, was unfairly holding her for both her own and her dead husband’s term of service. Women whose behavior struck others as odd risked being accused of . In Princess Anne County, faced such a charge. A determined that she was, in fact, a witch, but instead of sentencing her to death, she was retried. The results of her new trial are not known, but Sherwood lived until 1740.
Conflict and confusion over women’s roles helped to institutionalize slavery. In England, the government taxed households based on the amount of property owned. But in Virginia the General Assembly taxed individuals who contributed to the growing of tobacco. More people meant more tobacco and so a higher tax. Because white women were expected to be “good wives” and not work in the fields, they were not “tithable,” or eligible to be taxed. Enslaved African women did work in the fields, however, and in March 1643, the General Assemblymaking all “negro women at the age of sixteen years” tithable. According to the historian Kathleen Brown, this was the first time the assembly distinguished between white and black laborers. By the end of the seventeenth century, that distinction would become the basis for the South’s “peculiar institution.”
As members of Virginia’s white ruling class carefully restricted the rights of Virginia Indians, Africans, and women, they chafed against restrictions to their own freedom. The key issue was who in the British Empire—the English Parliament or local colonial legislatures—had the ultimate authority. When Britain objected to a revised Virginia law code in 1751 and upheld the governor’s right to collect a smallon land grants a few years later, members of the House of Burgesses felt their right to govern their own internal affairs was being trampled.
The French and Indian War (1754–1763) caused further problems. Although the British and the Americans were victors, the war left the Crown deeply in debt. To help pay for that debt, Parliament and the new kingapproved a series of new regulations, including a Stamp Tax in 1765, that applied to all thirteen American colonies. Protests turned into riots as the Americans claimed that Parliament had no authority to tax; only the people’s direct representatives, like the Virginia House of Burgesses, could impose taxes.
In 1766, Parliament gave in to the pressure by repealing the Stamp Act. But at the same time it passed the Declaratory Act, giving itself the right to pass laws for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” Led by the fiery oratory of Patrick Henry and the more thoughtful behind-the-scenes work of Thomas Jefferson,, and , many Virginians decided that the colonies should be independent of Great Britain. War erupted in 1775, and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, in 1776, made it official. In the same year, and well before the fighting ended at Yorktown in 1781, Virginia became a commonwealth, with its own constitution, bicameral legislature, and governor. Its colonial days were over.