Colonial Virginia


The colonial period in Virginia began in 1607 with the landing of the first English settlers at Jamestown and ended in 1776 with the establishment of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Although a thriving Indian society had existed for thousands of years before the English arrived, war with the European settlers and the introduction of new diseases for which the Indians had no resistance spelled disaster for it. The English colonists, meanwhile, just barely survived, suffering through summer droughts and winter starvation. Salvation came to the colony in the form of smoking tobacco, or what King James I called a “vile and stinking custom,” when John Rolfe cultivated a variety of tobacco that sold well in England. In 1619, a General Assembly convened, bringing limited self-government to America. That same year brought the first enslaved Africans to Virginia. For most of the 1600s, white indentured servants worked the colony’s tobacco fields, but by 1705 the Virginia colony had become a slave society. Nearly all power was in the hands of white male landowners, who ran the government and, by law, belonged to the Church of England. Women who married and worked at home were considered “good wives”; those who refused such “proper” roles were considered troublesome. And while Virginia’s ruling men did not encourage women to be independent, they nevertheless fought for their own independence, taking full part in the American Revolution (1775–1783).

Virginia Indians

Map of Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom

In 1600, Tidewater Virginia was occupied by 15,000 Algonquian-speaking Indians. They lived mainly along the James, York, and Rappahannock rivers in a land they called Tsenacomoco. Led by a paramount chief named Powhatan (Wahunsonacock), 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 diets by diving for oysters, 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 Pamunkeys, the Arrohatecks, the Appamattucks, the Youghtanunds, and the Mattaponi. 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 riverside towns 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 gifts 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 priests, 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, Indians married and divorced, cooked, played games, named their children, and educated their young. Boys were initiated into manhood through a frightening process called the huskanaw, which involved a ritual death and rebirth. And although there were no written laws, Virginia Indians punished wrongdoers according to their own traditions and customs.

Lintrium conficiendorum ratio (A Method of Making Canoes)

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 houses; instead, they used fire. They had no domesticated animals 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.


Anglorum in Virginiam aduentus (The arrival of the Englishemen [sic] in Virginia)

The Spanish actually beat the English to the Chesapeake Bay. In 1570 Spanish monks, led by a converted Virginia Indian whose Catholic name was Don Luís, established a mission near the James River that they called Ajacán. The project ended in failure when Don Luís killed the Spaniards. The English, meanwhile, were only just beginning to look west across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1585, with permission from Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh bankrolled a colony at Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina. The settlement failed but nonetheless resulted in John White‘s vivid watercolors of Native Americans and, with the help of Thomas Hariot, 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 Lost Colonists.

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 John Smith, Captain Christopher Newport, and George Percylanded 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 articulated by Richard Hakluyt (the younger), 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 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 both feasted and fought the 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 Starving Time, the bloody First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614), and, in one instance at least, the revenge-killing of Indian women and children. Even the wreck of the supply vessel Sea Venture in 1609 did not deter the English. Sir Thomas Gates, William Strachey, John Rolfe, and others survived, and with them so did the starving colony. With Rolfe’s marriage to Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas in 1614, the First Anglo-Powhatan War ended and the English emerged from the safety of James Fort to establish settlements such as Bermuda Hundred up and down the James River. The beginning of the end of Tsenacomoco was at hand.

Tobacco Tamper

After Powhatan’s death his close relative, Opechancanough, led the Indians in a massive surprise attack against the English in 1622. The Second Anglo-Powhatan War (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 harsh punishments. Those who did survive helped to make a small number of elite white Virginians very wealthy. These members of the gentry class owned the land and reaped its profits. They established large plantations and, with permission from the Virginia Company of London, sent representatives to a General Assembly in Jamestown. Tobacco, in other words, helped bring self-government to Virginia. Before long, however, it also brought slavery.


The landing of the first Negroes

Virginia’s first Africans 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, arrived 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 sold again, probably into slavery.

During most of the 1600s, Virginia’s labor force consisted primarily of white indentured servants and a handful of convict laborers, who in many cases were treated no better than enslaved laborers. Some Virginia Indians also worked as servants or, more often, were enslaved. 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 “An act concerning Servants and Slaves” (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 Bacon’s Rebellion (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 note that only at this time did the English, having established the Royal African Company in 1660, become significantly 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.

Tobacco Wrapper

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, were forced to sleep where 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 Burgesses admitted its laws had been ineffectual. Other enslaved Blacks attempted to rebel. Some may have joined white servants in Gloucester County in the so-called Servants’ Plot of 1663, while in Westmoreland County in 1687, a group of enslaved people conspired to kill whites and destroy property. The plot was discovered and the leaders of the insurrection were probably hanged.

A small number of Blacks were able to live as free men and women. A few, like Anthony Johnson of Northampton County, owned slaves themselves. Some enslaved Africans purchased their freedom. A few, like Elizabeth Key, 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 denied free Blacks the right to vote, a move that even the Crown thought excessive.

Politics and Economy

Sir Walter Raleigh

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 company instructions. 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 second royal charter 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 Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, served as Virginia’s first two governors and in 1610 and 1611 issued a strict set of rules that were published as Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall.

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 an elected legislature, the General Assembly, placed more and more political power in the hands of wealthy planters. The Virginia Company of London treasurer, Sir Edwin Sandys, 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.

Sir William Berkeley

From then on, governors were appointed by the Crown. The only exceptions were four men who served after the English Civil Wars (1642–1648), when England was not a monarchy (1649–1660). Members of Virginia’s elite vied to serve on the governor’s Council, the influential advisory board that doubled as the colony’s General Court. After Nathaniel Bacon‘s unsuccessful rebellion against Governor Sir William Berkeley, the Crown attempted to exercise more control over the colony, but the planters on the governor’s Council again resisted. Governor Thomas Culpeper, second baron Culpeper of Thoresway, for instance, taxed tobacco exports but left the colony in crisis when a boom harvest sent prices falling.

Powerful Virginians like James Blair, who co-founded 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: Sir Edmund Andros, Francis Nicholson, and Alexander Spotswood. Over time, however, the influence of the governor’s Council waned while that of the House of Burgesses waxed. When Sir John Randolph became Speaker of the House in 1734, he was arguably the most important political figure in Virginia.

Invitation to a Williamsburg Entertainment

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. Dances, 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 years Robert “King” Carter was 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 Gunston Hall, Mount Vernon, and Westover, home to William Byrd II 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.


Parish Burial Record

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 parish, 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 hundred Puritans immigrated 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

Samuel Davies

hospitable for these dissenters. In fact, it was not until the Great Awakening arrived in Virginia in 1740 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, Methodists, and Presbyterians were loud, physical, and emotional. They sometimes spoke in tongues. Patrick Henry, whose own uncle was a staid Anglican (Church of England) preacher, reportedly described the Presbyterian pastor Samuel Davies 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, Robert Carter III, scandalized many of his peers when, in 1778, he became a Baptist. While Patrick Henry continued to support an established religion, he nevertheless helped James Madison draft the sixteenth article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, which assured dissenters their freedom of religion. In 1786, Virginia passed Thomas Jefferson‘s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, ending the state’s financial backing of churches.


Vt Matronae Dafamonquepeuc liberos geftant (How the Married Women of Dasamonquepeuc Carry Their Children)

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 as Cockacoeske and Ann 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, George Yeardley 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. Frances Culpeper 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.

Letter from Lady Berkeley

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 Jane Vobe and Christiana Campbell, ran taverns. Or, like Margaret Brent, 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 Sarah Harrison of Surry County, but during their wedding ceremony in 1687 she refused to agree to obey her husband.

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 Dickenson complained in 1624 that 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 witchcraft. In Princess Anne County, Grace Sherwood faced such a charge. A trial in 1706 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 Assembly passed a law making 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.”

Toward Revolution

Resolves of the House of Burgesses

As members of Virginia’s white ruling class carefully restricted the rights of Virginia Indians, ensalved Africans and African Americans, 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 small pistole fee on 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 king George III approved 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.

Stamp Act Spoon

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, George Washington, and Richard Henry Lee, 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.

February 1571
Paquiquineo (once Don Luís), a Virginia Indian who has lived in Spain and Mexico and has recently returned to the Chesapeake Bay as part of a Jesuit mission, leads a group of Paspaheghs in an ambush against the Jesuits. All the missionaries are killed, save a young boy.
Under the aegis of Walter Raleigh, three voyages are made to Roanoke Island in the present-day Outer Banks of North Carolina to explore the area and attempt to establish an English colony. The attempts are unsuccessful, leading to the disappearance of the so-called Lost Colony.
April 26, 1607
Jamestown colonists first drop anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, and after a brief skirmish with local Indians, begin to explore the James River.
May 13, 1607
The Jamestown colonists select a marshy peninsula fifty miles up the James River on which to establish their settlement.
June 2, 1609
The largest fleet England has ever amassed in the West—nine ships, 600 passengers, and livestock and provisions to last a year—leaves England for Virginia. Led by the flagship Sea Venture, the fleet's mission is to save the failing colony. Sir Thomas Gates heads the expedition.
November 1609
Powhatan Indians lay siege to Jamestown, denying colonists access to outside food sources. The Starving Time begins, and by spring 160 colonists, or about 75 percent of Jamestown's population, will be dead from hunger and disease. This action begins the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609—1614).
Winter 1609—1610
While the English colonists starve in Virginia, the shipwrecked crew and passengers of the Sea Venture make camp in Bermuda. They build two new boats, the Patience and Deliverance, from Bermuda cedar and the scavenged remains of the Sea Venture.
May 24, 1610
The party of Virginia colonists headed by Sir Thomas Gates, now aboard the Patience and Deliverance, arrives at Jamestown. They find only sixty survivors of a winter famine. Gates decides to abandon the colony for Newfoundland.
July 1612
By this date, John Rolfe is growing the Spanish tobacco Nicotiana tabacum, either at a farm at Jamestown or at Bermuda Hundred.
April 5, 1614
On or about this day, Pocahontas and John Rolfe marry in a ceremony assented to by Sir Thomas Dale and Powhatan, who sends one of her uncles to witness the ceremony. Powhatan also rescinds a standing order to attack the English wherever and whenever possible, ending the First Anglo-Powhatan War.
July 30, 1619
Twenty-two burgesses gather in Jamestown for the first meeting of the unicameral General Assembly.
Late August 1619
The White Lion, captained by John Colyn Jope, arrives at Point Comfort, where Jope sells "20. and odd Negroes" in exchange for food. These are the first Africans to enter the Virginia colony. Four days later, the Treasurer arrives and its captain, Daniel Elfrith, sells two or three of the enslaved Africans aboard.
March 22, 1622
Indians under Opechancanough unleash a series of attacks that start the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. The assault was originally planned for the fall of 1621, to coincide with the redisposition of Powhatan's bones, suggesting that the attack was to be part of the final mortuary celebration for the former chief.
May 24, 1624
Following a yearlong investigation into mismanagement headed by Sir Richard Jones, justice of the Court of Common Pleas, the Crown revokes the Virginia Company of London's charter and assumes direct control of the Virginia colony.
March 1643
The General Assembly passes a law clarifying the role of parish vestries and making all enslaved African women, sixteen or older, eligible to be taxed.
September 6, 1663
A group of armed indentured servants meets in Gloucester County with plans to march on the governor's mansion. The men are ambushed and arrested. Some records indicate that the arrests actually take place a week later, on September 13.
May 1676
Governor Sir William Berkeley expels Nathaniel Bacon from the Council and brands him a rebel. Bacon is the leader of militiamen in the upper reaches of the James River valley and is preparing, against the governor's instructions, to attack friendly Indians.
July 30, 1676
On about this day, Nathaniel Bacon issues the first of a series of declarations of grievance and complaint against Governor Sir William Berkeley, together with justifications of his rebellious actions, which he signs as "General, by the consent of the people."
By the first weeks of the year, Governor Sir William Berkeley has suppressed the last of Bacon's Rebellion. He prosecutes and hangs several of the rebel leaders. Berkeley is replaced as governor by Herbert Jeffreys.
October 24, 1687
Nicholas Spencer informs fellow members of the governor's Council, as well as Governor Francis Howard, baron Howard of Effingham, of a suspected slave conspiracy in Westmoreland County. Effingham creates an oyer and terminer court, with Spencer, Richard Lee II, and Isaac Allerton to serve as judges. The trial's results are unknown.
October 1705
The General Assembly passes "An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves," which summarizes previous laws defining bound labor in Virginia. It makes distinctions between the treatment of white "christian" indentured servants and nonwhite, non-Christians, allowing for the killing of slaves in various situations without penalty.
July 10, 1706
Grace Sherwood undergoes a water test to determine whether she is guilty of the charge of witchcraft. Sherwood floats, indicating her guilt, and once ashore is examined for witch's marks. A jury of women finds two marks. Sherwood is imprisoned and ordered to undergo another trial. It is unclear whether the second trial ever occurred.
May 1723
As part of a long act devoted to "the better government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, bond or free," the General Assembly declares "That no free negro, mullatto, or indian whatsoever, hereafter have any vote at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever." The law also restricts a master's ability to free his slaves.
October 30, 1739
The Anglican itinerant George Whitefield arrives at Lewes, Delaware, where he begins a preaching tour of America that sparks the Great Awakening.
November 8, 1755
Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie signs the Two Penny Act, a law which permits obligations payable in tobacco to be discharged in money at a rate of two pence per pound of tobacco, into law on behalf of King George II.
October 12, 1758
Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier signs the Two Penny Act, which fixes the rate of Anglican ministers' salaries at two pence per pound of tobacco. This effectively reduces their pay and earns Fauquier a rebuke from authorities in London.
August 10, 1759
The Privy Council declares the Two Penny Acts of 1755 and 1758 "disallowed, void, and of none effect," opening the way for the series of lawsuits over clergy salaries known as the Parsons' Cause.
February 10, 1763
Britain, France, and Spain sign the Peace of Paris, ending the Seven Years' War, a global conflict known in North America as the French and Indian War.
December 1, 1763
Patrick Henry argues the defense in a Parsons' Cause case at Hanover Court House, challenging the British claim to authority over Virginia's laws. The jury accepts Henry's arguments and awards the plaintiff only one penny in damages.
March 22, 1765
Parliament passes the "Duties in American Colonies Act 1765," better known as the Stamp Act, a piece of legislation introduced by George Grenville, the British prime minister. It requires all printed materials in the American colonies to be produced on specially stamped paper manufactured in London, England.
May 29, 1765
Patrick Henry persuades a sparsely attended House of Burgesses to adopt five resolutions condemning the Stamp Act as a violation of the ancient rights of Englishmen in Virginia, known as the "Virginia Resolves on the Stamp Act." Burgesses rescind one resolution and never formally propose or vote on two others.
March 18, 1766
Parliament passes the Act Repealing the Stamp Act.
April 19, 1776
Patrick Henry is elected to the Virginia Convention of 1776, where he helps draft the Virginia Constitution and Declaration of Rights.
July 4, 1776
The Second Continental Congress issues the Declaration of Independence, which labels King George III a tyrant and calls him "unfit to be the ruler of a free people."
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  • Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975.
  • Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. Colonial Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/colonial-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Colonial Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 15 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2023, February 06
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