How Virginia Became a State

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Map of the United States with Virginia highlighted

Now know as the “Old Dominion,” Virginia join the Union on June 25, 1788, the 10th of the original 13 states. Virginia was named after Queen Elizabeth I, who was called the “Virgin Queen” because she never married. Many of use are familiar with some of the folklore surrounding Virginia due to childhood stories of the legend of Pocahontas and John Smith. The state also had one of the first permanent colonies in North America.

In 1583, Sir Walter Raleigh received a charter from Queen Elizabeth I to establish a colony north of Florida. A year later, he explored the Atlantic coast, finding the area that would eventually be called Virginia, homage to the Queen. Jamestown, named after King James I, was founded in 1607 by Christopher Newport and John Smith and supported by the London Virginia Company. Two years later, many of the colonists died of starvation when the Third Supply’s flagship, the Sea Venture was lost. I remember reading in my college history book that the people, not accustomed to hunting, resorted to eating cats, rats, and dogs even though wildlife was readily available.

The Powhatan Confederacy, Cherokee, Susquehanna and Algonquians, lived in Virginia before the first Europeans came. They were divided into these three groups because of language differences. The Algonquians, lead by Chief Powhatan, was the largest group. Although they were strong enough to oust a Spanish mission established in 1570, the Indians allowed the English to settle the area, founding the Jamestown settlement. The Powhatans were unable to extricate the English despite two attempts in 1622 and 1644. Jamestown’s ability to overtake the Indians gave them the honor of being North American’s first permanent English colony.

Jamestown introduced elements to the New World that would become a permanent identify, positively or negatively, life in America. These include county government, an elected legislature called the House of Burgesses, tobacco farming, plantation life, and slavery, which would always be connected to early American history. Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619 and first treated like white indentured servants. That changed in 1670, when blacks were relegated to a lifetime of slavery and were forced to work on large tobacco plantations. County governments, introduced in 1634, were dominated by the rich families who owned large plantations and the most slaves.

After 1750, the British government levied taxes and tried controlling land policies. Along with other colonies, Virginia rebelled against British authority. On May 15, 1776, they declared their independence from England. Governor Thomas Jefferson moved the capital from Williamsburg to Richmond during the American Revolutionary War. He thought that Williamsburg’s location made it more susceptible to attack. In 1781, the combined forces of French and American troops under the leadership of General George Washington ambushed British troops on the Yorktown peninsula. In the Battle of Yorktown, as it would be called, they defeated General Cornwallis. The British eventually surrendered, making independence a reality for the colonists.

Virginian natives, such as George Washington, George Mason and James Madison, were the part of the Founding Fathers would usher America to independence. Virginia was the home of four of the first five presidents, Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Madison and James Monroe.

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