Sound in Colonial Virginia


Sound in colonial Virginia came from a variety of sources, including nature, instruments, weapons, and voices, and played a significant role in how people perceived their environment. Information on the subject is scarce, and conclusions are drawn from references in letters, diaries, and rare published accounts. Because Americans lived closer to natural noises than many Europeans, these sounds took on greater importance. The wilderness was unfamiliar and possibly dangerous, so its sounds were described carefully, and its warning signals attended to. Human-generated sounds such as bells regulated life on remote plantations, while gunfire marked ceremonial occasions as well as warfare. The performance of music was an important part of theater and a popular pastime among amateurs, while the singing of hymns served as a unifying force among worshipers. Sound performed communal functions, but in various ways for different groups. For Virginia Indians, silence aided both hunting and ambushes, while the sound of war cries made a strong and lasting impression on English colonists. For enslaved African Americans, music was an integral part of culture and identity. Often played on European instruments, it accompanied religious rites but on other occasions could also satirize white culture. Over time vision became the dominant sense by which people formed an understanding of their environment. This may have come with the advent of print culture or Enlightenment thinking, although there were regional differences both in the way in which sound was perceived and in the timing of changes that took place in the area of sensory perceptions.

Visual Culture


Historians have often concluded that vision eventually became the most important sense through which people interpreted their surroundings. This is thought to have come as a result of the advent of printing and the expansion of literacy, although some historians of America disagree with this timeline. They argue that the importance of sound persisted longer in America than in Europe. Another cultural change that may have contributed to the shift in focus is the Enlightenment, which stressed scientific causes for natural sounds that had previously been interpreted as the voice of God. Experimentation in the natural sciences increasingly relied on observable results, with hearing considered a less reliable source. The revivalistic religion of the Great Awakenings, on the other hand, stressed God’s intimate and personal communication, and the devotee’s aural response. All of these conditions must be considered in attempting to reconstruct how Virginians interpreted their sensory world.

Natural Sounds

The little Owl.

The French-American writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, writing ostensibly about the recently cultivated Pennsylvania frontier in the late eighteenth century, stated that in areas of open farmland “sight alone is sufficient to guard us from any unforeseen danger,” whereas in the woods “hearing has the pre-eminency, ’tis through that channel we receive every necessary idea …” One might expect the same to hold true in Virginia, at least in the early years. This is not the case, although part of the explanation must surely lie in the nature of the surviving evidence. Much of what comes to us from the seventeenth century in Virginia falls into the category of promotional literature, which by its nature downplayed such auditory occurrences as howling wolves, screeching owls, rattlesnakes, and thunder. In the eighteenth century, sources are still of a different nature from those in New England; Virginians were not given, as Puritans were, to committing their spiritual lives to paper. The few surviving diaries—including those of Thomas Jefferson, William Byrd II, and Landon Carter—are not representative of all Virginians but nevertheless have been valuable sources and help historians draw general patterns.

Early reports to England were effusive about the natural gifts Virginia had to offer, but these were framed in visual (or even olfactory or gustatory) terms. Auditory references (aside from those describing Indians) were often negative and saved almost entirely for English detractors of the Virginia project. John Smith, writing in A True Relation (1608), wished to retire from “the hateful hisse of the captious multitude” but felt obliged to tell his side of the story. Similarly, William Bullock, a landowner and onetime member of the governor’s Council, wrote in 1649 that his account of Virginia was meant to “take off that Odium that malitious tongues have thrown upon it.” In writing of Virginia, Bullock saved his greatest descriptive strength for the rivulets “imbroidered with meadows and marshes—all very delightfull to the prospect” along with the “exceeding sweet and pleasant” perfume the native plants gave to the air, and the native fruit, “of a most delicious taste.” In the eighteenth century, the Virginia native Robert Beverly, in his History of Virginia (1720), echoed this praise, declaring that “here all their senses are entertained,” and concluding that “naked nature” in Virginia ravished the eyes. There was thunder, he allowed, and the frogs (about which many visitors complained) were loud; but he passed these off as trifles since they did no harm. Thunder was certainly mentioned in some early accounts, but it seems to have taken on much less significance than it did in New England, where it was regarded as the voice of an angry God, and deaths attributable to it (rather than lightning) were examined for evidences of God’s displeasure.

William Byrd II

Indeed, in eighteenth-century Virginia, in the encounters with untamed nature for which narratives exist, there is a tendency to domesticate the sounds. The planter William Byrd II made his 1728 excursion with the surveyors of the Virginia–North Carolina boundary line, and he also made trips to undeveloped properties he owned. Although born in Virginia, he had been a longtime resident of Great Britain and was a fellow of the Royal Society, where Enlightenment thinking may have had an effect on how he ranked the senses. This may account for some of his reluctance to to give sound a dominant role in his descriptions of nature. Still, his silence seems particularly noticeable since he often commented on the difficulty of getting good lines of sight in the wilderness through which he traveled. The sound made by water was the one natural noise that Byrd consistently noted, even measuring distance by it. He explained the location of a friend’s house by saying he lived “within Hearing of the Falls of Appamatuck River.” Murmuring streams “almost made some of the Company Poetical,” in more than one instance. Another stream, this time clamoring, had been named Matrimony Creek, apparently by an unhappily married man. This was not the only instance in which Byrd used marital metaphors to describe natural sounds; by so doing, he further domesticated the natural surroundings.

Wolves were one feature of New World nature that normally frightened newcomers and travelers, but Byrd saw the wolves whose howls he heard as a natural train behind the company, scavenging the remains of game that the men had killed and eaten. He even introduced harmony into their howling by describing it as a chorus of distinct tenor, treble, and bass parts. Indeed, since they were feasting on the found bounty of the party’s leavings, Byrd suggested that the serenade was the wolves’ way of expressing their gratitude to Providence. Although a more colorful writer than some other observers, he was not alone in downplaying the role of natural sounds.

Instrumental Sounds

The term “instrumental” is used in this context to refer to human-generated non-speech sound, such as that produced by bells, guns, and musical instruments. While Virginians smoothed over the rougher sounds of nature to make a more secure and regular world, instrumental sounds were forefronted to produce the same effect. Most Virginians did not live within earshot of the town bells that called New Englanders to arms, to fight a fire, or to worship. The earliest settlers marked their choice of the site for Jamestown with a fanfare of trumpets; when Thomas Gates, the newly appointed governor, arrived in Jamestown in May 1610, he had the church bell rung calling all to assemble, after which his commission was read aloud. But this sort of auditory validation of community identity could not overcome the vast distances from a town’s center to the settlements that later developed along Virginia’s river systems.

House Bell to Summon Workers

Sound still played a role in creating smaller expressions of community. Bells on plantations predated the industrial revolution’s regulation of the work day, summoning whites as well as blacks to scheduled activities. Philip Vickers Fithian, the tutor for Robert Carter II’s children early in the 1770s, described being called for lessons and meals several times a day by a sixty-pound bell that could be heard for miles around the plantation house. Other instances of community being heralded came from traveling parties, which attached bells to their horses at night and let them forage. Wandering animals were tracked by listening for the bells, but on various occasions lost travelers were also able to find their way back to the camp by following the sounds made by the animals.

Instrumental sound remained a component of important communal occasions. Official public celebrations such as the king’s birthday, the arrival of a royal governor, the death or accession of a monarch, and the formalization of treaties were customarily accompanied by gunfire and cannonades from forts, ships, and the governor’s palace. While with the surveying commission, and far from settled society, Byrd noted on the king’s birthday that the party celebrated by putting canes in the fire, which exploded on being heated for, as Byrd wrote, “all Public Mirth shou’d be a little noisy.”

GROWN LADIES &c. taught to DANCE

Music was a prominent form of instrumental sound in Virginia. The 1702 death of King William and accession of Queen Anne was marked not just by artillery fire, but by a public display of buglers, oboists, and violinists. By the second third of the eighteenth century, spinets, organs, flutes, harpsichords, and guitars all appeared in newspaper ads, and an even wider array of instruments was being ordered directly from England. Williamsburg was graced by professional theater performances for a short period beginning in 1716, and on a permanent basis from 1751. Music played an especially important role in Virginia theater. Most of the music heard in colonial Virginia was made by amateurs, who played not only at home for their families, but also in regular small groups, for their own entertainment or occasionally to benefit charity. Popular songs and dances from Great Britain were most often played, and the latest publications in the Gentleman’s Magazine were soon heard in Virginia. In the eighteenth century, however, fewer were familiar with established European composers, such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. Outsiders visiting Virginia did not always speak highly of local musical accomplishments, although the critiques were often of women’s abilities. For Virginians, this may have been missing the point, since music making seemed to be less about performance and more about group bonding. Music naturally accompanied the dances that were a major component of plantation social life.


Music was vocal as well as instrumental. Hymns served different purposes in Anglican and evangelical churches, and the lateness of the arrival of the Great Awakening in Virginia perhaps reflects common attitudes toward the sonic world. Hymns were an integral part of the evangelical Anglican preacher George Whitefield’s missionary work. For evangelicals, newly composed hymns were intended to express the singer’s words to God, rather than God’s words to the worshipper, as voiced in the established psalmody. Traditional Anglican psalm singing was therefore more communal and less personal, and during the eighteenth century an effort was made to bring Anglican congregations even more into unison during the act of singing. Instead of each person singing the tune as he or she had memorized it, which could entail wide variations, hymnbooks with musical notation were introduced, so that some uniformity could be achieved.

Anglican services differed acoustically from other denominations in another way. Much of what Puritans had objected to in the Church of England was visual ritual; Puritan emphasis was on sermonizing. For this, clear articulation of individual words, not just corporate sound, was essential. Although all Protestant churches differed acoustically in this regard from Catholic ones, with less reverberation from vaulted ceilings and clearer sounds emanating from a repositioned pulpit, in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake Bay region there may have been a reversion back to an emphasis on corporate sound, as opposed to clear articulation. Pulpits were not always placed against a wall, so lacked that sounding board, and some of the testers above the pulpits seem to have been more decorative than functional. That sermons were downplayed is evident from the comments of the Presbyterian Philip Fithian, who noted at Anglican services short sermons, or even the entire omission of a sermon because it was too cold to ask the congregation to sit for one.

Virginians interpreted some speech in what the historian Richard Cullen Rath has referred to as a “paralinguistic” sense. That is, sound alone, and not the meaning of the words, is the focus for hearers; those whose expressions are rendered rationally meaningless are thereby relegated to the lower reaches of society, or even outside its borders. Early writers promoting Virginia exhibited this aspect of sound when referring to the “black mouths” or “hissing” of English detractors. Byrd likewise represents misinformation and repetition of shopworn stories as sound without meaning, as haranguing or gabbling, which came mostly from the backcountry settlers or from the Carolina commissioners. In his most extreme case of condescending toward the lower classes by robbing their speech of meaning, Byrd stated of the local inhabitants that they “live so much upon Swine’s flesh, that … many of them seem to Grunt rather than Speak in their ordinary conversation.”

Sound in Virginia Indian Culture

Both noise and silence were a part of Indian soundways. Stealth was an important tactic for hunting and ambush alike, but surprise attacks were initiated with war whoops. The visual and aural were not necessarily seen as oppositional in Indian culture, but rather reinforced each other. For example, treaties were formalized and committed to public memory both by repeating them aloud and by using wampum belts and “memory sticks” that acted as visual cues. Neither did Indians make a distinction between sounds they considered to be of natural and supernatural origins. Indian signals to other people normally mimicked natural sounds. This contrasted with Europeans’ use of manmade instruments such as trumpets and bells.

Oppidum Secota (The Town of Secota)

Although Europeans did depict the visual impact of Indians with painted faces and half-shaved heads, their emphasis often lay with the sounds that Indians made. In describing these, terms such as “howling,” “hellish outcries” and “foule noise” were employed. This speaks of the historian Richard Cullen Rath’s paralinguistic perception, and puts the Indians outside of what whites saw as the bounds of civilization. Whites assumed that sound was an essential part of Indian understanding, and accordingly used the noise, not just the lethal potential, of gunfire to impress them. Rath concludes that as white perceptions of the potency of sound diminished during the eighteenth century, earlier beliefs were projected onto Indians and African Americans, making them seem more primitive in white eyes. However, while white accounts of Indian behavior in Virginia stressed the importance of the aural to Indians early in the colonial period, this diminished in later accounts, and can be interpreted as a function of the quietude white Virginians increasingly formulated as a feature of their aural surroundings, although the possibility that Indian culture was changing as a result of contact with whites must also be considered.

Guerrier Iroquois.

Indians were less apparent in areas of white settlement by the eighteenth century, but even in instances where traveling parties of Iroquois were feared, any sounds attendant on Indian presence were muted. Byrd did give the Indians a more aural world than he himself seemed to have occupied, but the sounds he described did not connote danger, and were even treated humorously. For instance, in questioning his Indian guide about native notions of hell, he learned that it was a place where ugly women “talk much and exceedingly Shrill, giving exquisite Pain to the Drum of the Ear.” Perhaps Byrd’s companion had picked up on his notorious aversion to nagging wives. Robert Beverly, in his history of Virginia, said that he had relied at least in part on John Smith’s earlier descriptions of Indians, yet in Beverly’s account Indian events such as curing rituals were much quieter, and Indian singing even had “some wild notes that are agreeable.”

Sound among Enslaved People

The Old Plantation

Sound is one thing that can be transported during a forcible migration when all material evidence of the home culture has been left behind. Documentation for slave culture is more forthcoming for the nineteenth century, when oral and communal narratives such as trickster tales, riddles, and proverbs played an important role. These likely had roots in the colonial period, although concrete evidence is lacking for Virginia. This may in part be a result of the enduring existence of African languages and the relative inattention white people paid to these speechways. A variety of sources do attest to the importance of music to African Americans, however. Slaves in the Chesapeake region danced at their own assemblies, often to the accompaniment of drums, which, during the colonial period, were not as feared as they were in colonies where enslaved people formed a larger percentage of the population. But they most often seem to have used the banjo. In fact, slaves in this area took more readily than elsewhere to European instruments, most commonly playing the fiddle, but learning others as well. Enslaved musicians often provided the accompaniment at white dances. This did provide them the opportunity to observe white habits, and slaves’ music at least in part was used as a vehicle for satire against their masters.

Samuel Davies

Music was also an integral part of African American religion. The Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies wrote that “Negroes above all the human species … have an ear for Music, and a kind of exatic delight in Psalmody.” Although the majority of slaves were not converted to Christianity during the colonial period, those who were generally attended evangelical churches, whose reliance on active voicing of religious feelings could have been a draw for African Americans, since their own soundways were more attuned to this sort of worship. The historian Mechal Sobel has even suggested that white evangelicals were influenced in these practices by black fellow worshippers.


Ladies Whipping Girls.

In his book Listening to Nineteenth-Century America (2001), Mark Smith argued that in the United States, sectional differences between North and South became increasingly framed in aural terms beginning about 1830. Northern abolitionists emphasized their arguments about the cruelty of slavery by aural means, dwelling on the crack of the whip and the cries of the enslaved. Southerners, in response, emphasized the “quietude” of their environment, highlighting the regular, natural sounds of plantation life and contrasting them to the din of northern industrialism. Virginians during the colonial period surely relied more on the sense of sound than do inhabitants of the modern world. However, their downplaying of any danger that might be represented by their sound environment seems to have predated the nineteenth century, and been a tendency from the colonial period, putting it in contrast with the sensory world of the colonial North.

  • Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Low Country. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • Rath, Richard Cullen. How Early America Sounded. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.
  • Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Stoutamire, Albert. Music of the Old South. Teaneck, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1972.
APA Citation:
McGill, Kathy. Sound in Colonial Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/sound-in-colonial-virginia.
MLA Citation:
McGill, Kathy. "Sound in Colonial Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 29 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, April 26
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