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Virginia - History and Heritage

Virginia - History and Heritage

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Virginia's first residents lived about 16,000 years ago, long before the Chesapeake Bay existed. Most likely, they were hunter-gatherers who crafted tools and weapons to hunt the local bison, deer, elk and smaller mammals. Although colder than it is today, the area of Virginia was mild enough to provide a variety of edible plants.

Fast-forward 8,000 years to a warmer climate, one that sustained larger populations on plentiful nuts, plants and berries, as well as game and fish. Domesticated crops, such as amaranth and sunflowers appeared about 2,500 B.C. And by 900 A.D. people were living in large villages, growing crops that included corn and tobacco.

By the time Europeans first arrived, about 50,000 native people lived there, some 20,000 of them were Algonquin speakers who lived under the dominion of Wahunsenacawh, more commonly known as Powhatan. Iroquois and Siouan-speaking tribes and Cherokee also lived in the territory that would become Virginia.

In 1606, the Virginia Company of London sent three ships toward the Chesapeake Bay. The ships sailed to the bay and up a river they named the "James" for their king. Unlike many of the northern colonies, the British arrived in Virginia seeking not religious freedom, but wealth and the expansion of the protestant British realm. They landed on May 13, 1607 and called their new settlement Jamestown. Relations between the English colonists and the natives under Powhatan were tense from the beginning. And the early years were brutal for the settlers, particularly the winter of 1609-1610, when more than 80 percent of the settlers died. Meanwhile, smallpox, measles and other diseases the settlers had brought with them were weakening the Powhatans.

Although the marriage of Powhatan's daughter Pocohantas to a colonist promised to smooth relations between the groups, her early death at 22—in England—was followed by three Anglo-Powhatan wars. The natives did not fare well in subsequent years. Powhatan's empire was destroyed, and other tribes also lost their land to the settlers. By 1800, native culture in Virginia had all but vanished.

The native crop of tobacco, though, quickly rose to dominance in the colony, particularly a variety imported from the West Indies. Slavery came to Virginia not long after the settlers arrived in Jamestown, and by 1661, it was codified into law. With the rise of tobacco and slavery came the evolution of a gentry class among wealthier land-owning Virginians, the so-called Cavalier families. And the prosperity and still-abundant land in the colony attracted new settlers of German and Scots-Irish descent, who settled the Shenandoah Valley.

One of the 13 colonies to declare its independence from Britain, Virginia produced a lion's share of leaders in the newly formed nation, including four of the first five U.S. Presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. And George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights of June 1776 formed the basis of the U.S. Bill of Rights.

Between the Revolution and the Civil War, Cotton emerged as a primary cash crop for the state, and slavery continued unabated.

In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that essentially upheld the constitutionality of slavery in a case involving a Virginia slave who claimed freedom when his owner traveled with him to a free state. The slave's name was Dred Scott.

Two years later, abolitionist John Brown seized an armory in Harper's Ferry to arm a slave rebellion. Although Brown's plan failed, many northern sympathies were with him. On April 12, 1861, the first shots of the Civil War echoed over Fort Sumter, South Carolina, A few days later, Virginia voted to secede from the Union, and the Confederate capital relocated from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond. As a result of the move and because of Virginia's position as the northernmost confederate state, much of the war was fought on Virginia land. Tens of thousands of slaves escaped bondage during the war, many of them ending up working for the Union army or Federal government.

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