Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Colonial Virginia

A sketch of Byrd Plantation, Virginia, ca. 1700AD.

Today's post, for the fun of it, is an overview of colonial-era Virginia.  This draws upon sources used in both my theses:

  • Economy: Initially Virginia had several small village-like settlements, such as Jamestown, the capital, and Henricus, which was near present day Richmond.  These were short lived, however, and “[t]he little villages built in the days of the London Company crumbled into ruins, except for Jamestown, the capital.”  Later Norfolk and Williamsburg would be constructed, but these were small (Wmsbrg, 6,000 & Norfolk, 1,000).  Virginia was marked by a notably rural society, almost totally devoid of anything but the smallest towns.  Thomas Jefferson noted in 1785 that, “[o]ur country being much intersected with navigable waters, and trade brought generally to our doors, instead of our being obliged to go in quest of it, has probably been one of the causes why we have no towns of any consequence.”  As Jefferson observed, part of the reason behind this aversion to all things urban was the tendency of the widely scattered planters to trade directly with England for her goods.  These farmers traded directly with their mother country because, primarily, of the nature of the crop that they grew: tobacco.  It was tobacco that Virginia grew above all else so that “[b]y the middle of the eighteenth century, many people both in the colonies and the mother country had come to regard Virginia and tobacco as synonymous.”  The Virginia farmer could to grow tobacco on a particular field for some three years before depleting the soil.  He would then plant the field with corn for up to ten years, and he then “abandoned the field, allowing it to revert to pine forest.”  This was anything but the kind of farming known in England, for the farmer in the Old Dominion rarely used the plough, never used manure, and would usually till the ground with hoes alone.  This reckless manner of cultivation demanded much land, for the tobacco farmer was always in need of fresh soil.  This need of land was one major contributing factor to the scattered nature of Virginia’s citizens.  The other was the tobacco driven economy.  Tobacco was essentially the currency in the colony, for coins were rare in Virginia, and tobacco was used to pay for everything.  Even the royal governor of Virginia taxed in it.  The majority of this cash crop would be shipped to England, and, in return, the goods desired would be shipped back over to the planters in the Old Dominion. The farmers themselves grew enough food to subsist, and so they gained all of their other wants by means of the tobacco shipped to England.
  • Government:
    • Colonial: The main authority in Virginia after it became a crown colony in 1624 was the Royal Governor – or his Lieutenant Governor.  The governor and the colonial council were important in their role as the executive body of the colony.  It was these appointed men who exercised veto power over legislation produced by the House, appointed local officials in all of the counties, and even acted as a supreme court of appeals for the colony.  The Governor’s Council “had twelve members appointed for life by the king” from the prominent political families of Virginia.  It was this Executive Council that nominated the local officials of the county on the recommendation of the county court.  The House of Burgesses was the lower house of the colonial assembly, and was elected by the voters of the colony.  Each county would elect two Burgess, and each city one, to represent it in this lower house – begun 1619 – which was the first representative body in the English New World, and which became the Virginia House of Delegates.  The laws governing elections remained rather stable after the revision of 1736 and stipulated that freeholders, those eligible to vote, were to be defined as a white male over twenty-one years of age who possessed “one hundred acres of unimproved land or twenty-five acres with a house and plantation.” [Later lowered to 50 acres of unimproved]  Eligibility to vote in an election depended upon this land ownership, not physical residence in the county, and all voting took place when the governor dissolved the previous assembly, and in public at the local courthouse.  Prior to 1699, the capital city was Jamestown, and from 1699 to the Revolution, it would be in Williamsburg.
    • Local:
      • The basic form of local government was, and is, the county.  At the county level, the county had a court of Justices of the Peace who were both judges and supervisors.  Capital cases, you should now, were handled in the capitol city, by the executive council, unless you were a slave.  The county also had a clerk of the court, a sheriff [the sheriff was responsible for the upkeep of the jail and any prisoners, the collection of taxes, the overseeing of elections for the House of Burgesses, and generally being the “chief executive officer of the county,” which included a great deal of other “miscellaneous administration], a lieutenant [command the militia], and other minor officials, such as surveyor (who maintained roads) and inspectors (who looked at tobacco quality).  When the need arose for a new county – distance to court was inconvenient, a new county would be formed: For example, Prince William from Stafford in 1731, Fairfax from Prince William in 1742, and Fauquier from Prince William in 1756.
      • The other significant colonial body was the established parish.  Thomas Jefferson explained that: “The state, by another division, is formed into parishes, many of which are commensurate with the counties: but sometimes a county comprehends more than one parish, and sometimes a parish more than one county.  The division had relation to the religion of the state, a Parson of the Anglican church, with a fixed salary, having been heretofore established in each parish.  The care of the poor was another object of the parochial division” The church wardens and vestrymen oversaw a variety of duties, particularly focusing upon the administration and maintenance of the parish, the care of the poor, and the processioning of the lands. 
    • Proprietary: In Northern Virginia a unique arrangement existed: there was a proprietor within the colony, who “ruled” the region north of the Rappahannock River.  Charles II had given the rights, but they ended up falling to the sole control of one man by the 1700s: Lord Fairfax.  Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax, Baron Cameron was the proprietor of the “Northern Neck.”  If you lived in this part of the state, rents were paid to him, not the governor.  He also had rights to preside at any county court in the region, though his lived near Berryville, Va. at Greenway Court.  It is for him that the county & city are named, and he helped found places such as Alexandria, Va.  The Revolution ended his role.

Live well!

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