Powhatan likely inherited the leadership of six Indian groups: the Powhatans, the Pamunkeys, the Arrohatecks, the Appamattucks, the Youghtanunds, and the Mattaponi. Through a combination of violence and persuasion, he then expanded his territory so that by 1607 he controlled twenty-eight to thirty-two groups covering about 8,000 square miles. Each group (as anthropologists prefer) or tribe (as present-day Indians prefer) occupied one or more riverside towns and was ruled by its own weroance, or chief. Like the paramount chief Powhatan, these lesser chiefs inherited their positions through the female line. They accumulated wealth through tribute—usually in the form of deer skins, pearl and shell beads, corn, and copper—that they then redistributed. Accepting gifts from the weroance created obligations on the part of the receivers. These obligations were crucial to Indian political and economic relationships.
Like people everywhere, Indians married and divorced, cooked, played games, named their children, and educated their young. Boys were initiated into manhood through a frightening process called the huskanaw, which involved a ritual death and rebirth. And although there were no written laws, Virginia Indians punished wrongdoers according to their own traditions and customs.
Disregarding the Spanish, who had laid claim to the entire Atlantic coast of the
New World from present-day Florida to Maine, the English tried again in 1607. This
The Spanish eventually learned where the English had landed but declined to challenge or eliminate them. The Indians were equally cautious. Powhatan both feasted and fought the Englishmen, using these encounters to learn more about the tassantassas (foreigners). With Tsenacomoco in the midst of a terrible drought, the settlers took corn from the Indians at gunpoint. For a short time Powhatan cut them off from all food, leading to the Starving Time, the bloody First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614), and, in one instance at least, the revenge-killing of Indian women and children. Even the wreck of the supply vessel Sea Venture in 1609 did not deter the English. Sir Thomas Gates, William Strachey, John Rolfe, and others survived, and with them so did the starving colony. With Rolfe's marriage to Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas in 1614, the First Anglo-Powhatan War ended and the English emerged from the safety of James Fort to establish settlements such as Bermuda Hundred up and down the James River. The beginning of the end of Tsenacomoco was at hand.
During most of the 1600s, Virginia's labor force consisted primarily of white indentured servants and a handful of convict laborers, who in many cases were treated no better than slaves. Some Virginia Indians also worked as servants or, more often, were enslaved. In the 1670s, the ratio of white servants to enslaved Africans was four to one. But that changed dramatically during the next twenty years, so that by the early 1690s the ratio had reversed: there were now four times as many enslaved Africans as white servants in Virginia. By 1705, with the General Assembly's passage of "An act concerning Servants and Slaves" (also known as the Slave Code of 1705), slavery had become ensconced at all levels of Virginia society. Some historians explain this change by pointing to social shifts following Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677) that increased white Virginians' hostility toward non-whites. This early form of racism led white Englishmen to think of dark-skinned peoples as inferior. Other historians point out that the move to slavery only occurred when the flow of servants from England fell off dramatically around 1680. Still others suggest that only at this time did the English, having established the Royal African Company in 1660, become more involved in the Atlantic slave trade. As a result, enslaved Africans became less expensive. To wealthy planters and small farmers alike , slaves made better long-term economic sense than indentured servants.
Africans in Virginia resisted their enslavement. So many slaves and servants ran away from their masters that in 1669 the House of Burgesses admitted its laws had been ineffectual. Other slaves attempted to rebel. Some may have joined white servants in Gloucester County in the so-called Servants' Plot of 1663, while in Westmoreland County in 1687, a group of slaves conspired to kill whites and destroy property. The plot was discovered and the leaders of the insurrection were probably hanged.
A small number of blacks were able to live as free men and women. A few, like Anthony Johnson of Northampton County, even owned slaves themselves. Some enslaved Africans purchased their freedom. A few, like Elizabeth Key, were freed after proving to their owners that they were Christians. By 1705, the General Assembly had closed most of these paths to freedom. In 1723, the assembly went further and denied free blacks the right to vote, a move that even the Crown thought excessive.
Politics and Economy
For many years, the struggling Virginia colony operated under what historian Edmund S. Morgan has called a "semi-military dictatorship," but the discovery of tobacco as a money-making crop and the establishment of an elected legislature, the General Assembly, placed more and more political power in the hands of wealthy planters. The Virginia Company of London treasurer, Sir Edwin Sandys, worried that the colony was becoming too dependent on a single crop and in 1621 limited each colonist to growing 100 pounds of tobacco annually. The planters resisted, and a royal investigation of the company after Opechancanough's 1622 attack led to the revocation of its charter. The company dissolved in 1625 but, ironically, not before Sandys had secured for Virginia a monopoly on tobacco exports to England.
Powerful Virginians like James Blair, who cofounded the College of William and Mary in 1693, proved too obstinate for many governors to overcome. Blair had a hand in the removal of three of them: Sir Edmund Andros, Francis Nicholson, and Alexander Spotswood. Over time, however, the influence of the governor's Council waned while that of the House of Burgesses waxed. When Sir John Randolph became speaker of the House in 1734, he was arguably the most important political figure in Virginia.
For many years Robert "King" Carter was the richest man in Virginia. He owned the largest number of slaves and sat on the governor's Council. Tobacco, which was so important to the economy that it backed the colony's currency, accounted for most of Carter's fortune. But it was not his only profitable venture. As historian Emory G. Evans has written, Carter and his peers "operated stores, loaned money, served as agents and factors for English firms in both the tobacco and slave trades, managed estates for absentee owners, rented land, owned parts of vessels in the Atlantic trade, operated ferries and ironworks, and held a variety of remunerative public positions."
Several hundred Puritans
immigrated to Virginia in the 1620s and 1630s, looking for an opportunity to
practice a hard-nosed form of Protestantism that shed all remnants of Catholic
ritual. In the end, Maryland proved more
These new forms of Christianity at first attracted non-elite Virginians, but slowly they began to reach even the rich planters. King Carter's grandson, Robert Carter III, scandalized many of his peers when, in 1778, he became a Baptist. While Patrick Henry continued to support an established religion, he nevertheless helped James Madison draft the sixteenth article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, which assured dissenters their freedom of religion. In 1786, Virginia passed Thomas Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, ending the state's financial backing of churches.
When the English first arrived in Tsenacomoco, they brought no women with them, which the Indians found strange. Not until 1608 did the gentleman Thomas Forest bring his wife (name unknown) and her maid, Anne Burras. Burras later wed a carpenter, John Laydon, and their daughter Virginia was the first child born to English parents at Jamestown. Other women followed. Temperance Flowerdew arrived in 1609, survived the Starving Time, and later married two Virginia governors, George Yeardley and Francis West. Many women outlived their husbands and remarried several times. By combining the estates of past and present husbands, they sometimes became wealthy and, in certain ways, powerful. Frances Culpeper first married a governor of settlements in present-day North Carolina. When he died she married Sir William Berkeley, the long-serving governor of Virginia. After being widowed a second time, she married the colony's treasurer, Philip Ludwell.
Women faced some dangers that men did not. For instance, women servants and slaves were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and other kinds of exploitation. The widowed servant Jane Dickenson complained in 1624 that her master, Dr. John Pott, was unfairly holding her for both her own and her dead husband's term of service. Women whose behavior struck others as odd risked being accused of witchcraft. In Princess Anne County, Grace Sherwood faced such a charge. A trial in 1706 determined that she was, in fact, a witch, but instead of sentencing her to death, she was retried. The results of her new trial are not known, but Sherwood lived until 1740.
Conflict and confusion over women's roles actually helped to institutionalize slavery. In England, the government taxed households based on the amount of property owned. But in Virginia the General Assembly taxed individuals who contributed to the growing of tobacco. More people meant more tobacco and so a higher tax. Because white women were expected to be "good wives" and not work in the fields, they were not "tithable," or eligible to be taxed. Enslaved African women did work in the fields, however, and in March 1643, the General Assembly passed a law making all "negro women at the age of sixteen years" tithable. According to the historian Kathleen Brown, this was the first time the assembly distinguished between white and black laborers. By the end of the seventeenth century, that distinction would become the basis for the South's "peculiar institution."
The French and Indian War (1754–1763) caused further problems. Although the British and the Americans were victors, the war left the Crown deeply in debt. To help pay for that debt, Parliament and the new king George III approved a series of new regulations, including a Stamp Tax in 1765, that applied to all thirteen American colonies. Protests turned into riots as the Americans claimed that Parliament had no authority to tax; only the people's direct representatives, like the Virginia House of Burgesses, could impose taxes.
February 1571 - Paquiquineo (once Don Luís), a Virginia Indian who has lived in Spain and Mexico and has recently returned to the Chesapeake Bay as part of a Jesuit mission, leads a group of Paspaheghs in an ambush against the Jesuits. All the missionaries are killed, save a young boy.
1584–1587 - Under the aegis of Walter Raleigh, three voyages are made to Roanoke Island in the present-day Outer Banks of North Carolina to explore the area and attempt to establish an English colony. The attempts are unsuccessful, leading to the disappearance of the so-called Lost Colony.
May 13, 1607 - The Jamestown colonists select a marshy peninsula fifty miles up the James River on which to establish their settlement.
Winter 1609–1610 - While the English colonists starve in Virginia, the shipwrecked crew and passengers of the Sea Venture make camp in Bermuda. They build two new boats, the Patience and Deliverance, from Bermuda cedar and the scavenged remains of the Sea Venture.
May 24, 1610 - The party of Virginia colonists headed by Sir Thomas Gates, , now aboard the Patience and Deliverance, arrives at Jamestown. They find only sixty survivors of a winter famine. Gates decides to abandon the colony for Newfoundland.
July 1612 - By this date, John Rolfe is growing the Spanish tobacco Nicotiana tabacum, either at a farm at Jamestown or at Bermuda Hundred.
April 5, 1614 - On or about this day, Pocahontas and John Rolfe marry in a ceremony performed by Richard Bucke and assented to by Sir Thomas Dale and Powhatan, who sends one of her uncles to witness the ceremony. Powhatan also rescinds a standing order to attack the English wherever and whenever possible, ending the First Anglo-Powhatan War.
Late August 1619 - The White Lion, captained by John Colyn Jope, arrives at Point Comfort, where Jope sells "20. and odd Negroes" in exchange for food. These are the first Africans to enter the Virginia colony. Four days later, the Treasurer arrives and sells an unknown number of its slaves.
March 22, 1622 - Indians under Opechancanough unleash a series of attacks that start the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. The assault was originally planned for the fall of 1621, to coincide with the redisposition of Powhatan's bones, suggesting that the attack was to be part of the final mortuary celebration for the former chief.
May 24, 1624 - Following a yearlong investigation into mismanagement headed by Sir Richard Jones, justice of the Court of Common Pleas, the Crown revokes the Virginia Company of London's charter and assumes direct control of the Virginia colony.
March 1643 - The General Assembly passes a law clarifying the role of parish vestries and making all enslaved African women, sixteen or older, eligible to be taxed.
September 6, 1663 - A group of armed indentured servants meets in Gloucester County with plans to march on the governor's mansion. The men are ambushed and arrested. Some records indicate that the arrests actually take place a week later, on September 13.
July 30, 1676 - On about this day, Nathaniel Bacon issues the first of a series of declarations of grievance and complaint against Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley, together with justifications of his rebellious actions, which he signs as "General, by the consent of the people."
1677 - By the first weeks of the year, Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley has suppressed the last of Bacon’s Rebellion. He prosecutes and hangs several of the rebel leaders. Berkeley is replaced as governor by Herbert Jeffreys.
October 24, 1687 - Nicholas Spencer informs fellow members of the governor's Council, as well as Governor Francis Howard, baron Howard of Effingham, of a suspected slave conspiracy in Westmoreland County. Effingham creates an oyer and terminer court, with Spencer, Richard Lee II, and Isaac Allerton to serve as judges. The trial's results are unknown.
October 1705 - The General Assembly passes "An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves," which summarizes previous laws defining bound labor in Virginia. It makes distinctions between the treatment of white "christian" indentured servants and nonwhite, non-Christians, allowing for the killing of slaves in various situations without penalty.
July 10, 1706 - Grace Sherwood undergoes a water test to determine whether she is guilty of the charge of witchcraft. Sherwood floats, indicating her guilt, and once ashore is examined for witch's marks. A jury of women finds two marks. Sherwood is imprisoned and ordered to undergo another trial. It is unclear whether the second trial ever occurred.
May 1723 - As part of a long act devoted to "the better government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, bond or free," the General Assembly declares "That no free negro, mullatto, or indian whatsoever, hereafter have any vote at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever." The law also restricts a master's ability to free his slaves.
October 30, 1739 - The Anglican itinerant George Whitefield arrives at Lewes, Delaware, where he begins a preaching tour of America that sparks the Great Awakening.
November 8, 1755 - Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie signs the Two Penny Act, a law which permits obligations payable in tobacco to be discharged in money at a rate of two pence per pound of tobacco, into law on behalf of King George II.
October 12, 1758 - Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier signs the Two Penny Act, which fixes the rate of Anglican ministers' salaries at two pence per pound of tobacco. This effectively reduces their pay and earns Fauquier a rebuke from authorities in London.
August 10, 1759 - The Privy Council declares the Two Penny Acts of 1755 and 1758 "disallowed, void, and of none effect," opening the way for the series of lawsuits over clergy salaries known as the Parsons' Cause.
December 1, 1763 - Patrick Henry argues the defense in a Parsons' Cause case at Hanover Court House, challenging the British claim to authority over Virginia's laws. The jury accepts Henry's arguments and awards the plaintiff only one penny in damages.
May 29, 1765 - Patrick Henry persuades a sparsely attended House of Burgesses to adopt five resolutions condemning the Stamp Act as a violation of the ancient rights of Englishmen in Virginia, known as the "Virginia Resolves on the Stamp Act." Burgesses rescind one resolution and never formally propose or vote on two others.
March 18, 1766 - Parliament passes the Act Repealing the Stamp Act.
July 4, 1776 - The Second Continental Congress issues the Declaration of Independence, which labels King George III a tyrant and calls him "unfit to be the ruler of a free people."
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. Colonial Virginia. (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Colonial_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Colonial Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 22, 2012 | Last modified: May 30, 2014
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.