Virginia History Encapsulated


The great migration from England in the 1600’s was based on several factors: religious persecution, a caste system that favored firstborn sons, and the simple dream of owning land in a vast wilderness of opportunity.  Early pioneers who came to America had no idea of the size of the country, or what awaited them upon arrival.  An encapsulated version of Virginia’s early history will help researchers understand the character and personalities of their early ascendants and the impact historical events would have had on their lives.

Virginia, one of our nation’s thirteen original colonies, was the site of the first permanent English settlement in America. Virginia’s history is colorful, and rooted in the concepts of freedom and adventure.  Becoming familiar with Virginia’s history is a necessity when searching for early ancestors.  It can also be an interesting trip back in time.

    At least 10,000 years ago, nomadic bands of hunters settled in what would one day be called the Northern Neck of VirginiaMuch later, Native American Indians created settlements in eastern Virginia that would eventually become known as the Tidewater region.  These first inhabitants of Virginia supplemented their diet of fish, game and berries by growing vegetables such as corn, potatoes, pumpkins, onions, peas, beans and squash.  An abundance of fish often clogged the smaller estuaries during spring migration.  Among the variety of fish were sturgeon, sheep head, white salmon, sole, mullet, perch, bass and flounder.  Crabs and oysters were large and plentiful.  Archeologists are still finding evidence of fire pits used by Indians to cook seafood.

Native Americans were also Virginia’s first tobacco farmers.  Tobacco became the colony’s major export and, in addition to cash, its legal tender.  The habit of smoking tobacco was more common in England than in the colonies.  And, despite the importance of tobacco to Virginia’s economy, the smoking and chewing of the product was more prevalent in the Carolinas, New York and Pennsylvania.

When the earliest English settlers arrived in Virginia, their first encounter with Native Americans was with the Powhatan Confederacy.  The Powhatan Indians were an Algonquian-speaking tribe who had settled along the coast of Virginia.  At one time, the area later known as Gloucester County./a> had become the heart of powerful Indian Chief Powhatan’s empire.  Powhatan had consolidated his eastern Virginia tribes and moved them from the James River where Richmond is today, to Werowocomoco on the banks of the York River in present day Gloucester County.  "Comoco" was an Indian word meaning ‘meeting place’ or ‘place of assembly’.  A "werowance" was a chief, thus "Werowocomoco" meant a place where the chiefs met.  The Indian village was nestled on the north side of the York, about twenty-five miles below the point where the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers join, forming the York.  Sir Thomas Dale burned Powhatan’s village in 1612.

In 1606, King James I of England granted the right to colonize America to two commercial companies, the London and the Plymouth.  The London Company dispatched a fleet of three ships, which headed for the general area of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, now in North Carolina.  After four months at sea, while exploring the coast north of the abandoned Roanoke site, the voyagers discovered the wide inlet of Chesapeake Bay.  The ships entered the bay and sailed up a river they named the "James".  In May 1607, the three ships belonging to the London Company landed on a swampy peninsula and established the settlement named Jamestown.

    Unfortunately, the settlers were not able to adapt to frontier conditions.  Of the 105 original colonists, only twelve were laborers.  The rest were looking for adventure and easy wealth.  Even if these gentlemen had known how to work, they believed labor of any kind was beneath their station in life.  Unable to support themselves agriculturally on the swampy land, starvation and disease took a terrible toll.  The situation was made worse when the settlers began attacking the Powhatans.  The Indians had at first been, if not friendly towards the settlers, at least accepting of them.  But the unprovoked attacks resulted in retaliation.  The Indians began harassing the Jamestown fort and ambushing foraging parties.  As the number of settlers diminished, the London Company became concerned about losing its investment.  As a result, they continually and determinedly replenished the colony with men, women and supplies.  The settlers somehow managed to survive, despite the hardships of ever-present starvation and disease, coupled with Indian attacks and poor governing.

Under the leadership of Captain John Smith, the colony began to prosper, albeit slowly.  But in 1609, Capt.  Smith was seriously injured when his powder flask exploded, and he was forced to return to England.  The 450 colonists left behind began to flounder.  Despite being abundantly supplied for the coming winter, without Capt.  Smith’s sensible leadership, most of the colonists squandered their resources.  Their wasteful ways soon depleted the accumulated supplies.  By the spring of 1610, only 70 colonists remained alive, although just barely.  Historians refer to this period as "the starving time".

When two English ships arrived at Jamestown that spring, the remaining colonists begged to be taken aboard and returned to EnglandIntending to set sail for Newfoundland, the two ships never made it out of the James River.  They were met by Lord Delaware’s three ships containing new settlers and sufficient provisions for everyone.  Convinced to return to Jamestown, the colonists settled in under the leadership of Lord Delaware and once again began to prosper. 

    In 1614, for the first time in the settlement’s history, men were permitted to farm for their own profit.  Before that year, all property of the small colony had been community-owned.  Gradually, Virginia’s wealth began to increase, due in large part to John Rolfe who, in 1612, had discovered a way to eliminate the strong, bitter taste of the native, small-leafed tobacco.  Rolfe managed to acquire seeds from the larger-leafed West Indies species of tobacco.  With those seeds, he cultivated a crop that was able to compete with the more successful tobacco varieties sold in EnglandTobacco became Virginia’s most profitable commodity.  Settlers began to grow the plants everywhere, even in the streets of Jamestown.  In the month of May, tobacco plants were placed in the ground between ever-present tree stumps, and when the plants bloomed, the blossoms were pinched off.  When the fall season arrived, the tobacco leaves were harvested and hung up to dry in large sheds or barns.  Just before the weather turned wet, the leaves were taken down and packed tightly in barrels called "hogsheads".  The barrels were rolled over the old Indian paths to tobacco warehouses where the leaves were inspected, graded and weighed.  A note (statement of account) was then given to the farmer or planter stating the value of his crop.  These notes were placed on account at trading posts (mercantile stores) operated by factors for English merchants to be used as payment for goods and services. 

As the colony’s financial security increased, so did the safety of its inhabitants.  In 1614, John Rolfe married Pocahontas, daughter of the Indian chief PowhatanPeace was assured, at least temporarily, between Native Americans and English settlers.

    Under the provisions of a new charter in 1618, the General Assembly of Virginia was created.  One chamber of the Assembly was the Council of State, appointed by the London Company, and the other was the House of Burgesses, the first democratically elected body in the western hemisphere.   

By 1622, Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas were both dead, and Powhatan’s successor, Opechancanough, was determined to annihilate the colonists.  On the morning of Good Friday, 22 Mar 1622, Obechancanough’s warriors attacked settlements throughout the Virginia colony, killing men, women and children wherever they were found.  Only black indentured servants were spared.  Out of an estimated 1200 settlers, 400 were massacred.  Six members of the Jamestown council, and possibly John Rolfe himself, lost their lives that day.  After the Great Massacre, the colonists began a war of extermination against Native Americans that lasted well into the last half of the 19th century.

The massacre of 1622 prompted the Virginia legislature to declare the 22nd of March as an annual day of thanksgiving and prayer to commemorate the horrendous loss of life in the colony.  In 1644, after the Second Great Massacre at Jamestown resulted in the deaths of 500 souls, the legislature also declared the 18th of April as an annual day of thanksgiving and prayer,.1

    The situation in Virginia grew worse that year.  Colonists spent so much time fighting Indians that little time was left over for planting crops.  Disease was taking a deadly toll on the settlers.  In the winter of 1622-23, more than 500 people died in an epidemic of disease and fevers complicated by malnutrition.  English ships continued to bring passengers to the colony, but more of these passengers were diseased than they were well, and there was barely enough food to sustain everyone.

    Poor and sporadic leadership, disease and Indian attacks brought an end to the London Company in 1624, and its charter was dissolved.  Virginia needed men and women who were willing to work and take responsibility for their survival.  Land was what finally attracted the better quality of immigrants to Virginia when the headright system was established.  For the most part, Virginians of the early and middle decades of the 1600’s were farmers, tradesmen, artisans, or lesser relations of prominent English families.  For the first time, they were able to own land in their own right, and were eager to achieve what was denied them in England.

    The new breed of settlers built small cabins, and as they prospered, added on or built larger homes.  They grew food for sustenance, but concentrated on tobacco crops because it was Virginia’s most profitable export.

    In that year of 1624, Virginia became a royal colony ruled by the king of EnglandVery little of the land Virginia encompassed was governed or explored.  Having no idea of the size of the new land, the English described Virginia as being as far north as present-day Pennsylvania, as far south as Florida, and running "from sea to sea", meaning all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

    At the time Opechancanough attacked Jamestown in 1644, he was so old he had to be carried into battle on a litter.  Eventually, he was captured and returned to Jamestown where an angry soldier shot him dead.  Opechancanough’s successor sued for peace and agreed to move his people to an area above the James and York rivers.  The area included the land that became Gloucester County.  The earliest grant of land north of the York River went to Augustine Warner in 1635.  Five years later, Argoll Yeardley patented 4,000 acres at Tyndall’s NeckOther tracts were granted between 1635 and 1649, but it is unlikely that any of the Englishmen actually lived on those wild, Indian-infested lands at the time of the grants.  Then, despite their agreement with the Powhatan Indians, the House of Burgesses decided "it would no longer be unlawful" for white people to settle in what became Gloucester and Lancaster counties.  On 1 Sep 1649, the area above the York River was opened for settlement, but it did not officially appear in records as Gloucester County until 1651.  As the English settlements grew, Native Americans were pushed westward and resentment among them festered.

    During the civil war in England, which began in 1642, Virginia remained loyal to the king.  At that time, an estimated 15,000 white settlers lived in the colony, along with 300 black slaves.  \(The first blacks brought to Virginia, twenty in number, were indentured servants, not slaves.) Hundreds of fugitive supporters of the monarchy, called Cavaliers, were given asylum in the Virginia colony.  When the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell collapsed in 1660, and King Charles II took the throne, he referred to Virginia as the "Old Dominion" for its loyalty to the crown.  "Old Dominion" became Virginia’s nickname.

Misfortune continued to pester the colony.  In 1674, a fleet of Dutch ships attacked and destroyed eleven ships of the Virginia tobacco fleet.  A plague killed half the cattle in the colony.  Shiploads of criminals were brought to Virginia from English prisons, although to be fair, not all the deportees were hardened criminals.  Records show that theft, vagrancy, "incorrigible vagabondage" and manslaughter convictions were reasons for being deported.  Runaway apprentices also made their way to Virginia.  Regardless of the character or degree of the crime, there was a sense of uneasiness throughout the settlements.  The deportees created another burden on the colony, which had to support them.  In addition to these problems, taxes remained high.

Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 had ramifications that affected our Coleman research.  During the rebellion, the first Gloucester County Abingdon Parish Register was destroyed.  Councilor Nathaniel Bacon and his followers had reason to rebel.  King Charles II’s colonial policy was severe.  He strictly enforced the Navigation Acts, which restricted colonial trade exclusively to England.  The resulting trade restriction created a financial hardship on the small tobacco farmers of VirginiaWorsening the situation, Governor Sir William Berkeley refused to call elections from 1661 to 1676.  His policy enabled a small, privileged group of older families to retain power without popular support.  But the issues that finally set off a rebellion were the continual Indian raids, and a lack of response to those raids by the governing body.

In 1675, the fierce Monacan Indians killed 500 settlers throughout the colony, but Berkeley refused to raise a militia against them.  A year later, hostilities again heated up, and Nathaniel Bacon’s overseer was among the colonists killed.  Farmers were fed up with Berkeley’s inaction, and formed their own militia under Nathaniel Bacon’s leadership.  Bacon formally applied to Berkeley for a commission to fight the Indians, but Berkeley procrastinated so long that Bacon eventually gave up his quest to lead a militia against the natives.  By June of 1676, the settlers’ long-seething resentment caused them to plead with Bacon to fight the Indians.  Berkeley’s inaction and the colonists’ growing desperation erupted into Bacon’s Rebellion.  Berkeley promptly denounced Bacon and his followers as traitors, and organized a militia to pursue them.

Bacon and his militia laid siege to Jamestown and forced Berkeley to flee.  Scattered similar acts of war affected many parts of the colony, including many on Gloucester County soil.  In 1667, a fort had been constructed at Tyndall’s PointSeveral times, Bacon crossed the York River to this fort while chasing Berkeley into Gloucester.  Ironically, Bacon contracted a fever while sleeping in the trenches, and died in Gloucester County.  A casket full of stones, marked with Bacon’s name, was buried at Poplar Springs Church in Petsworth Parish, five miles northwest of the Gloucester County courthouse.  Bacon’s body was buried secretly in an unmarked grave to prevent Berkeley from retrieving and dismembering his remains.  Nathaniel Bacon’s death effectively ended the rebellion.  Berkeley returned to power, confiscated the property of many of Bacon’s followers, and hanged them without a trial.  A number of governors who succeeded Berkeley were also staunch supporters of royal policy, which did not endear them to the general populace.  As far back as 1676, the seeds of rebellion against English tyranny were sown.

    By 1700, when Virginia’s capital was moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg, it was the largest English colony in America, with a population of about 58,000.  The tobacco industry flourished, particularly with the use of slave labor.  But tobacco exhausts the soil after several crops, and the need for new land was the beginning of a westward migration.  This movement was hastened by the arrival of new immigrants from Europe and the exodus of small tobacco farmers from the Tidewater area.  These farmers could not compete against large plantations supported by slave labor.

    The Treaty of Paris in 1763 marked the end of the nine-year French-Indian War.  In that same year, England officially banned white settlements beyond the Appalachian Mountains.  This was done in an attempt to prevent trouble between white settlers and the Indians who inhabited the westward land.  Not surprisingly, the prohibition was generally ignored, even by Virginia’s governor, John Murray, Earl of DunmoreRather than abide by the ban on westward white settlement, he retaliated against Indians who raided settlers in the prohibited area.  Lord Dunmore’s War ended on October 10, 1774 with a victory over the Shawnee at Point Pleasant (now West Virginia\).   

    When the colonists came to Virginia, they brought with them their love of horse racing, gambling and drinking.  Many of the larger plantations created their own racetracks, and horse races were a major social event.  Gambling was frowned upon, and often made illegal in many parts of the colony.  But games of chance were a favorite among the settlers, and if a law was passed against a specific game, the game was simply renamed rather than risk prosecution.  When expeditions were organized to explore wilderness areas, among the abundant supplies taken along were casks of rum and whiskey.  Many a historian has blamed sloppy survey work on those casks of spirits.  Militiamen were also given a daily ration of whiskey, and earned an extra portion for exceptional performance against the Indians or other enemies.  Drinking to excess was grounds for expulsion from church, but did not stop the practice.

    Although some people preferred stronger spirits as their choice of drink, the most commonly consumed liquid in the colony was cider.  Every planter and farmer maintained fruit orchards.  Between 1,000 and 6,000 gallons of cider were made annually, depending on the size of orchards and the rank and fortune of the grower. 

Colonial records reveal a thorough enjoyment of amateur and professional entertainment in Virginia’s settlements.  The first theater in America was built in Williamsburg in 1716.  Folk music dates back to Virginia’s earliest settlement, and centuries-old English ballads have survived, particularly in the southwestern hill country.  This region was the first to be known as the heart of country music.  Music of the Appalachian areas evolved into what we know as bluegrass, while folk music in the Tidewater area was composed mostly of black spirituals and work songs.

    The Church of England \(Episcopal\) was designated the colony’s established church, with the exception of dissenters such as Puritans and Quakers.  In the early 1700’s, German settlers brought with them Mennonite, River Brethren, Amish and Lutheran faiths.  A religious revival began in the 1740’s, during which Presbyterians and other groups practiced fundamentalist beliefs.  Before the dawn of the 19th century, Baptist and Methodist denominations grew.  During the two or three decades before the outbreak of the American Revolution, the Church of England had become extremely unpopular among the colonists.  They resented being required to attend church services or be punished, and rebelled against having to pay taxes to support a church not of their choosing.  In 1786, the General Assembly of Virginia passed legislation separating church and state.

    Education has always been a prime concern of Virginia’s leaders, from the earliest days of our country’s inception.  Compulsory education existed in the colony as early as 1656 \(Hening’s Statutes I, p. 336).  Children of pauper parents, or orphaned children, were apprenticed and taught to read and write with the goal of joining society able to earn a living without becoming a financial burden on a county.  In 1727, the education provision was broadened with a clause of morality \(Hening IV, p. 212).  Court commissioners (justices) were empowered to apprentice, at their discretion, the children of parents of immoral or dissolute character.  These were parents who did not provide sufficient care of their children, or did not teach them the Christian religion and the rudiments of learning.

While laws provided for the education of poor and orphaned children through the apprenticeship process, children of the wealthy were educated by private schools, tutors or endowed schools.  By 1648, there were twenty parishes in the Virginia colony, each of which had a minister.  In addition to their ministerial duties, these men also educated the children of their parish.  These "Parson’s schools", a tradition in England, were well established in early Virginia.

Education was so important to the colonists that they joined together to form small schools in their respective parishes.  "Little houses" were built, in which basics such as reading, writing, English and arithmetic were taught.  In 1711, William Stark of York County donated one-quarter acre of land for a schoolhouse, after which the men of the parish erected the building.  If a parish did not have its own schoolhouse, a room in the courthouse was often used.

Private schools, at which dancing was taught, were very popular among children of the wealthier planters.  Wyatt Coleman of Culpeper County, whose wife was Sarah Lindsay, was a dancing instructor for many years.

Between 1700-1740, tuition at a private school for one year was generally paid at the rate of one pound per student.  Private tutors were hired to teach specific subjects such as Latin, French, Greek, arts, sciences, history and classic literature.  Tutors lived with the family, often as an "indentured schoolmaster", for a specific time period.  They were required to be single males with good morals and sobriety. 

Country schools educated between ten and thirty students, depending on the size of a parish.  Private schools would generally accept between ten and fifteen children.  Although most teachers were males, a MrsJane Culley of York County taught in a private school in Charles Parish of that county.  An appraisement of her estate was ordered by the court on 19 Mar 1721.  The appraisement lists a few personal items, and monies due her for the schooling of several students.  Through education, the colonists seemed determined to lessen the distance between the upper and lower classes they had known in England.

Unmarried women of a certain social standing were called "Mrs." regardless of their age.  Mrs.  Jane Culley would have been a spinster.  If she were married, she would not have been allowed to teach school because her employment would have reflected poorly on her husband’s ability to financially support his family.  When a spinster schoolteacher married, she immediately lost her teaching position.  This custom did not end until the 20th century.

The first free school in America, founded in 1634, was the Syms Free School in Hampton, Virginia.  When Thomas Jefferson was Governor of Virginia in 1779, he proposed to the General Assembly that free education be made available to all children.  But it wasn’t until 1851, when a new state constitution was ratified, that taxes were levied for the first time in Virginia’s history in order to finance free primary schools.  The College of William and Mary, founded in Williamsburg in 1693, is Virginia’s oldest institution of higher education, and the second oldest in the United States.

The only libraries in colonial Virginia were privately owned collections.  These collections varied in size from half a dozen to hundreds of books.  During the early 19th century, historical societies began collecting local and regional materials and were called "historical libraries".  The Land-Grant Act of 1862 prompted the public funding of college and university libraries.  At that time, learning institutions emphasized agriculture and technology.  Gradually, those libraries evolved into our present day comprehensive research facilities.  Not until after the late 19th century, when Andrew Carnegie funded more than 1600 public libraries throughout America, did individual states become more active in providing library services.

Colonial wills and appraisals offer evidence of preferred reading material among our ancestors.  While the size of a family’s library was dependent upon their wealth, there is no doubt that nearly every household in colonial Virginia had at least one BiblePrivate libraries also contained other religious books, concordances, sermons, ecclesiastical laws, histories of the Church, books about the soul, the art of dying, and prayer books.  Dictionaries cross-referenced English with Latin, Greek, French and SpanishHistories of the world, Great Britain, France, Ireland and Spain might be found on the shelves.  There were also military histories, books on weaponry, the Reformation, laws of England and Virginia, mariners, farming, gardening, poetry, philosophy, English, grammar, French romances, travel books, comedies and tragedies, laws of New England, art, "Esops" Fables, anatomy, medical tomes, geographies and books on the dangers of witchcraft. 

    During the first half of the 19th century, eastern Virginia suffered an economic decline.  By switching from tobacco to general farming, planters hoped to rejuvenate the land’s depleted soil.  But many farmers eventually abandoned their fields, and the population of Virginia declined between 1800 and 1840.  The decline in population at the turn of the century can also be attributed to the granting of land in Kentucky in return for service during the American Revolution.  Hundreds of our Coleman ancestors left Virginia, eager to reap the benefits of new soil on the western frontier.  Of our Mobjack Bay ancestors who left Virginia, a majority migrated to Kentucky and Tennessee, although some did settle in the Carolinas and other parts of the south.  Unfortunately, few records exist to tell researchers from which Virginia counties those migratory ancestors came.

    Migration into other states may have bolstered the hopes and dreams of disheartened Virginia farmers, but it did little to ease the problem of the resulting slave surplus.  Cotton was becoming a huge industry in the Deep South, and cotton plantations required large labor forces.  Thus, one of Virginia’s most profitable enterprises became the selling of slaves into the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and LouisianaThis circumstance was the beginning of antislavery sentiment in western Virginia that ultimately led to that region seceding from Virginia and becoming the new State of West Virginia.

    Whatever their motivation may have been to migrate from England to the new colony of Virginia, the Colemans were a sturdy breed.  They learned to persevere against adversity in order to carve a place for themselves and their children in a new land.  Despite the hardships of frontier living, people of the early centuries of America were not much different from people today.  They may not have had the benefit of medical miracles, our ease of transportation, modern farming methods, an electronic age that educates and entertains, but they laughed and loved, believed in God and argued politics, just as the Colemans do today.

1William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, Vol. 23, No.  3, January 1915

Other sources:

William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, Vol. 5, No.  4, April 1897

William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, Vol. 6, No.  1, July 1897

William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Papers, Vol. 2, No.  3, January 1894