Virginia Family History Research
This entry was originally written by Johni Cerny and Gareth L. Mark for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
History of Virginia
Virginia was established as an economic venture that got off to a very shaky start. In 1584 Queen Elizabeth I of England gave Sir Walter Ralegh (commonly misspelled Raleigh) permission to establish colonies in the New World. Gallantly, Ralegh named the area for the Virgin Queen, but his undersupplied colonies disappeared between one supply ship’s arrival and the next.
The second attempt began twenty years later. English entrepreneurs were looking for a financial opportunity that would return their investment on the fabulous scale of the six-year-old British East India Company. The endless lands of the new world appeared to contain such a golden promise.
In 1606 King James I chartered the Virginia Company of London (often called the London Company). In April 1607 the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery, commanded by Capt. Christopher Newport, made landfall at Point Comfort. Sealed orders appointing seven men to the Council were opened, and the Council elected Edward Maria Wingfield president. Under his direction, “gentlemen,” craftsmen, and laborers founded the first permanent English settlement on James Isle. Long on expectations but short on experience, they were struck with disaster. The struggle and hardships that decimated and discouraged the colonists are well known. So few of those who arrived on the first three ships survived that not many Americans living today can trace their ancestry to an original Jamestown settler. The Colony was nearly abandoned in 1610 and might not have survived but for one man—John Rolfe.
In 1612, John Rolfe began experiments in growing and processing tobacco. His export of tobacco to a London merchant in 1614 began a trade that made Virginia viable economically. Then he married Pocahontas, daughter of the great werowance, or sub-chief, Powhatan, which helped assure a few years of peaceful coexistence with the native tribes of Virginia.
The London Company was reorganized under the Great Charter of 1618, and by the end of 1619, several events occurred that had far-reaching impact. Free settlers were granted land, establishing property ownership. The House of Burgesses, America’s first representative assembly, was organized, setting an example for representative democracy. A program encouraging emigration of “Maides to make Wives” began in England, ensuring that the population of Virginia would be self-sustaining. Unexpectedly, a Dutch trader from the West Indies arrived in August 1619 with a cargo of African-American colonists who were sold into indentured servitude (slavery did not yet exist in Virginia). This event helped foreshadow slavery and the Civil War.
On Friday, 22 March 1622, disaster struck. The natives, led by Powhatan’s successor, Opechancanough, attacked the English settlements, massacred a quarter of the population, and nearly succeeded in driving the English out. However, disaster then struck the natives, for the English established policies that eventually led to the near-total extermination of the Native American people and forceful removal of the survivors to reservations.
In 1624 James I revoked the charter and made Virginia a royal colony, henceforth under the direction—not always peaceable—of crown-appointed governors. Between 1652 and 1660, while Oliver Cromwell was ruling in England, Virginia experimented with what amounted to self-government and was not pleased to relinquish that control again to a royal governor. The colony had an urgent need of merchants, skilled artisans, woodsmen, and a large labor force to cultivate the tobacco crops. Luring laborers to insect-ridden and swampy regions was a challenge, but this was aided by the English law of primogeniture, which preserved the estates of the landed gentry by transmitting the titles and property intact from eldest son to eldest son. Many younger sons saw Virginia as a prime opportunity. The London Company lured these people to Virginia with land.
The Company agreed to give anyone who paid his way to Virginia fifty acres “for his owne personal adventure.” Another fifty acres was offered for each person the adventurer transported “at his owne cost.” When Virginia became a royal colony, the headright system continued. Over the next century, thousands of settlers came because of Virginia’s headright system.
As the young colony expanded, it experienced growing pains. The difficulty of providing a labor force led to the formal establishment of slavery (1660), disagreements with crown-appointed governors led to Bacon’s Rebellion (1676), and a precipitous decline in tobacco prices resulted in the Plant-Cutting Revolt (1682). The end of the century was marked by the removal of the colony’s capital to Williamsburg in 1699.
Ironically, the eighteenth century saw both the establishment of the infamous Slave Code of 1705 and the headlong rush toward the American Revolution; each embodied different views of human rights. Even as the slaves’ plight grew worse, George Mason penned the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Adopted by the revolutionary convention on 12 June 1776, the Declaration was a model for the United States Bill of Rights.
It is perhaps appropriate that the first president of the United States was a native son of the first permanent English colony in North America. George Washington epitomized the upper-class Virginians of his time: a tobacco farmer, an ardent lover of freedom, and a slaveholder.
The eighteenth century also saw explosive expansion. The Shenandoah Valley and the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains were opened, and settlers poured down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania. In the second half of the century, the Cumberland Gap was discovered and settlers began filling what would become Kentucky and West Virginia. Both were initially part of Virginia; Kentucky became a separate state in 1792, and West Virginia in 1863.
Many of Virginia’s records have been lost to fire, war, and time. Jamestown, the original capital, was destroyed three times, and some counties lost records during the Revolutionary War. However, the greatest destruction of Virginia’s records occurred during the Civil War. Many courthouses were destroyed, but the most significant loss of records resulted from the burning of Richmond in 1865. Nevertheless, even with the loss of records, research in most Virginia counties remains richly rewarding.