Prior to England's assertive attempts to colonize North America, land that extended from South Carolina all the way north to the Canadian Maritimes was named "Virginia," in honor of England's "Virgin Queen," Queen Elizabeth I.
In the middle of the 16th century the Spanish were the first outsiders to actually explore Virginia; all of their attempts to settle the area eventually failed due to Indian reprisals and inadequate supplies.
Sir Walter Raleigh, the fabled English explorer, and friends, sponsored (paid for) two attempts to establish a colony on Roanoke island - now part of North Carolina. The first colony quickly failed, and the second one, now referred to as the "Lost Colony" completely disappeared without a trace after critical supplies from England arrived three years late. Their fate is yet unknown.
King James I assumed England's throne in 1603, and in an effort to raise funds, granted a charter (for financial considerations) to the Virginia Company in 1606, a group of London based entrepreneurs. That company planned to successfully colonize this New World; find a water route to the Orient, and discover untold riches in gold. Well, in the end, there proved to be no gold in Virginia.
Regardless, in December of 1606 - with little preparation - a group of colonists (in three ships) left England bound for this New World. First coming ashore at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay; after some initial exploration of the landscape, they would later settle 40 miles inland on an island they named Jamestown in May of 1607.
The Jamestown settlement soon struggled to survive. At first, short on food and unable to grow their own crops, the colonists, with the help of Captain John Smith, were able to secure small amounts of food and an uneasy peace with the Native Americans.
For the next few years human suffering and tragedy were the order of the day; supply ships failed to arrive in a timely manner, disease and starvation killed many, and most of the remaining colonists were ready to abandon Jamestown, when Smith, seriously injured by a gunpowder burn, returned to England for treatment in Oct. 1609.
Then in 1610, Sir Thomas West (Baron De Lar Warr) arrived from England in an effort to salvage the colony. He brought 150 men, and much-needed food, tools and additional supplies. On his ship was a businessman named John Rolfe; he would later kidnap and marry Pocahontas, the daughter of a powerful Indian chief.
To that time, efforts to introduce profitable industries into the Virginia colony had all failed until (John Rolfe) introduced his new tobacco blend. The crop succeeded and the first shipments of this cash crop were exported to England in 1612; the colony survived and economic prosperity was now a possibility.
Settlements and plantation farms soon spread beyond Jamestown; in 1619, 90 women arrived from England, all destined to help populate those settlements as wives for the male colonists. That same year a few African servants arrived; they were put to work in the tobacco fields, thus marking the beginning of America's slavery years.
Upset with this expansion, the Powhatan Indians wanted their ancestral lands back. On "Good Friday," March 22, 1622, they suddenly began coordinated attacks on all of the settlements; almost 400 colonists (men, women and children) were killed in an event now remembered as the Indian Massacre of 1622.
Two-thirds of the colonists survived, and over the next twenty-some years the local power struggle continued. After years of Indian losses, the Powhatan leader, Chief Opechancanough, was tricked into capture; then murdered in prison. The Colonists continued to grow stronger and the remaining Powhatan tribes were greatly subdued.
In 1624, England's King revoked the Virginia Company's charter and the colony was transferred to royal authority as a crown colony; a governor was appointed and further inland expansion (north and west) began aggressively.
Over the next century the struggles of the Virginia Colony continued; land holdings escalated; population grew; disease, hurricanes and on-going Indian massacres killed hundreds; slave holdings multiplied; Jamestown statehouse was burned, rebuilt, then burned again; new cities and educational institutions were founded; governors came - governors went; the capital of the colony moved to Williamsburg; religious groups and factions increased their influence, and through it all, an accomplished, and now experienced group of leaders developed, and the spirit of independence flourished.
By the mid-18th century Virginia's population exceeded 100,000, and as the colony grew in strength and political maturity, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry and others were now poised to play major roles in the future of Virginia and a new country called America.
During this time frame, Great Britain and France continued to fight for dominance in North America. The subsequent French and Indian War (1754-1763) was the last, and conclusive battle. The British were victorious, but plunged into war debt. England's King, in a creative way to pay off that debt, decided to raise tax monies from his new colonies, and that decision was the genesis of the American Revolutionary War.
Especially offended by the Stamp Act, powerful land owners, merchants and political leaders in Virginia, and all of England's colonies rebelled. In June of 1776, a committee of the Second Continental Congress consisting of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut (the "Committee of Five") was formed to draft a declaration of independence from Britain.
Church bells rang out across Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.... signaling that the Declaration of Independence was approved and officially adopted and signed in Philadelphia's Independence Hall. 56 men representing varied factions throughout the colonies bravely signed that document, including Thomas Jefferson (its principal author) and 6 others from Virginia.
Throughout the bloody Revolutionary War, the British utilized their naval superiority to capture and occupy coastal cities, but control of the rural areas (where most of the population lived) proved daunting, and difficult. In Virginia, its militia and ordinary citizens fought the British with an unwavering desire for freedom.
After a series of inspiring American victories, France signed treaties with America in 1778, and declared war on Britain, its longtime enemy. The French naval involvement proved decisive, as the British army finally surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781 to the combined French and American forces under the command of Virginian, General George Washington.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, the states joined together, under the Articles of Confederation - a de facto form of government. As the United States Constitution was being drafted, a "Bill of Rights" was proposed. And because of that, a group led by George Mason and Patrick Henry opposed ratification of that new Constitution.
The opposition was based on fears of ending - the then legal importation of African slaves - an economic institution upon which the small farmers and plantation owners depended. Regardless, Virginia narrowly ratified the Constitution on June 25, 1788, and became the tenth state to join the Union.
On the victorious side at war's end, Virginia's economy was still suffering badly. Virginians by the thousands moved further inland looking for new opportunities and financial recovery. Helpful in the state's eventual recovery was the fact that from the end of the Revolutionary War, up to the mid-1850's, seven native sons of Virginia were elected President of the United States, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.
With the spotlight now shining on Virginia, and a long-series of friends (so to speak) in the Whitehouse, over time, in addition to the flourishing tobacco fields, agricultural, iron and textile industries developed, supported by new roads and the expanding railroad network across America. Trade with many of the states, and with Europe and South America soon propelled Virginia into an economic powerhouse.
On the negative side, much of Virginia's attitude toward slavery became a thorn in its side. The plight of black slaves in the southern states was a growing controversial issue, and that moral dispute between the northern and southern states finally peaked in early 1861, and America's Civil War was about to begin.
Slavery and state sovereignty, or States' Rights, fueled the desire for independence across the south. By February of 1861, six southern states had already seceded from the Union, and in Virginia a convention was staged to discuss the possibilties.
On April 12, 1861, Confederate batteries at Charleston, South Carolina, opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The small Union force surrendered the next day. The bombardment of Fort Sumter was the opening engagement of the American Civil War; the fire was now lite; President Lincoln called for a Union response, and on April 17, 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union.
On May 29, the Confederacy moved their capital (the southern White House) from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond. The following day, the Union army slid into northern Virginia and captured Alexandria without much of a fight. Virginia would shortly become the central battleground of the disastrous Civil War.
At that time the western regions of Virginia, politically and socially removed from the east, (mainly because of slavery) voted to secede from Virginia. West Virginia was admitted to the Union in 1863, and for the most part, suffered little during America's most disastrous conflict.
More major battles of the Civil War were fought in Virginia than in any other state. Ironically, the first and last significant battles were staged in Virginia; the battle of Manassas was the first, and the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse the last.
The war finally ended for a variety of reasons, but most historians seem to agree that the North's overwhelming force, Sherman's March to the Sea, and the fall of Atlanta played major roles. Robert E. Lee (born in Virginia), a brilliant soldier and the most celebrated general of the Confederate forces finally surrendered his army on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse.
At war's end, in their final hopeless act, the retreating Confederate Army set fire to Richmond. In short order the U.S. Congress placed all of the south under military rule and reconstruction began. Virginia was readmitted to the Union on January 26, 1870.
With much of its labor force dead, banks closed and infrastructure destroyed, the recovery effort was a turbulent process. At that time forces in Virginia actively worked to maintain legal and cultural racial segregation. The state's 1902 constitution actually prevented African-Americans from voting, a fact that remained mostly in force until the nationwide civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s.
On the productive side, Virginia's most important industry (tobacco) changed in 1911 with the government-forced breakup of the American Tobacco Company. That split created many smaller tobacco companies that significantly expanded the industry. Additionally, the popularity of cigarettes among the armed forces and the growth of cigarette popularity around the world fueled increased demand for tobacco.
Throughout World Wars I and II, and into the mid-20th century, Virginia's economy exploded and prosperity returned, Thousands of government related jobs were made available; nonagricultural businesses blossomed; large manufacturing industries opened factories across the state; employment skyrocketed; the tax base increased and Virginia never looked back.
Two recent major developments of note include Hampton Roads, one of the world's biggest and busiest harbors, and the restoration and recreation of Colonial Williamsburg, one of the largest historic restorations ever undertaken. Financed by the Rockefeller family, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, it celebrates the splendor of America's colonial era.
For those of us that love travel and historical points-of-interest, Virginia is a scrupulously maintained living history museum, and an on-going celebration of America's past and present. As the home state of eight U.S. Presidents, and the site of history-changing events, the state remains tightly woven into the fabric of America.
The state's official tourism slogan is, "Live Passionately. Virginia is for lovers!" Well, we couldn't agree more.