We all know that Virginia’s history is complex, and for the Unites States, it’s the longest in existence. There are the basics we’ve learned in school – and few facts we’ve gathered over the years. But, as with most things, there’s always more to the story. Here are just a few facts that you may not know about the people and places that got Virginia started…
1. In the beginning we were all "Virginians."
In 1584, as the New World was first being "discovered", Queen Elizabeth I gave Sir Walter Raleigh free reign to colonize all new British territory, which included everything north of Florida (Spanish territory) and south Canada (French territory). So, naturally, he named it all "Virginia" after "The Virgin Queen." It wasn't until later, as the population grew, that colonies were formed for easier governance.
2. The first colonists came to Jamestown, not as planters, but with the intent of taking gold, silver and other natural resources from the natives.
The original Virginia Company of London, led by Captain John Smith, were wealthy gentlemen, not planters. Historians believe that they had heard stories of the Spanish conquests, many of which centered around taking gold, silver and other natural resources from Native Americans. They intended to survive by hunting, gathering and trading or taking food from local Indians while finding easy spoils in Virginia. What they found instead was a strong Native American community led by Chief Powhatan. As it turns out, he was unwilling to give up land and resources so easily.
3. Jamestown colonists resorted to cannibalism when times got tough.
Known as "The Starving Time," the winter of 1609-1610 harsh in Jamestown, food was scarce and trouble with Indians prevented hunting and foraging. By spring, nearly 80% of the colonists had died. In 2013, archaeologists recovered part of a fractured skull and a shinbone belonging to a teenage girl from a trash deposit in the cellar of an excavated building. Saw and chop marks found on the skeleton indicate that she had been "butchered." The girl, dubbed "Jane," provides the first solid evidence of European cannibalism in the New World - and shows just how desperately the colonists clung to life that winter.
4. It wasn't until 1613 that John Rolfe (who married Pocahontas) introduced tobacco to Virginia. It became the colony's first successful agricultural crop.
When pillaging and plundering didn't work out as planned, the colonists turned to planting. While tobacco was a success, it required a great deal of labor and land to grow, so colonists began bringing indentured servants, and later African slaves, to the new colony. Soon, planters were exporting their crops back to England.
5. As the Virginia colony grew, it was divided into shires. Yep, just like the Hobbits.
In 1634, 8 "shires" were formed, according to English tradition. They included Accomac, Charles City, Charles River, Elizabeth City, Henrico, James City, Warwick River, and Warrosquyoke. Only later were they renamed "Counties."
6. Virginia had the first public theater in the U.S.
We may not have Broadway, but we set the stage for future generations. In 1716, the first public theater in the New World was built on the Palace Green in the colonial capital of Williamsburg.
7. The Virginia House of Burgesses was the first democratically elected governing body in the New World.
With the first meeting of the Virginia General Assembly at Jamestown in July 1619, the Virginia House of Burgesses became the first democratically elected legislative body in the colonies. Today, the Virginia General Assembly remains the oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere.
8. A young George Washington won his first House of Burgesses seat by getting his voters drunk.
In colonial times, it was common for politicians to hand out drinks as "incentive" on election day. When a young, naïve 23-year old George Washington first ran for a Virginia House of Burgesses seat, he kept his election day campaign dry – and lost. An older, wiser Washington came back three years later and doled out nearly a ½ gallon of booze per voter. Washington won in a landslide – but unless they had better hangover cures back then, I’m guessing it was a few days before he could really enjoy it.
9. And speaking of politicians…
George Crump, the first recorded streaker in U.S. history, made his birthday suit debut at Washington College (now Washington and Lee) in 1804. Crump, a Powhatan County native, was arrested for his exposing exploit and suspended for the remainder of the semester. He went on to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates and the U.S. Congress. Go figure.
10. After being settled in 1610, Hampton remains the oldest continuously inhabited English speaking settlement in North America.
Established in 1610 after settlers came to Jamestown, Hampton has remained continuously settled, thriving, and speaking English – despite being burnt down during the Civil War. Just goes to show you how tough those Hampton-ers are!
11. Virginia established America's first mental hospital in 1773.
"The Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds" was built in Williamsburg in 1773 as the first hospital in America specifically for treatment of the mentally ill. At the time, mental illness was determined by a jury-like group of 12 citizens who gave a verdict of “criminal, lunatic or idiot”. Francis Fauquier, Royal Governor of the colony of Virginia, advocated for proper care of those with mental illness, resulting in the hospital, which has been restored in Colonial Williamsburg and is now known simply as "The Public Hospital."
12. Virginia was the most populated of the colonies, and eventually states, until finally getting passed by New York in the 1820 census.
With the first census in 1790, Virginia was ranked #1 for population with just over 821,000 people. At the time, that was about 21% of the total U.S. population and nearly double Pennsylvania, the runner-up.
13. Pocahontas Island (Petersburg) is the oldest free black community in the nation.
Pocahontas Island, a peninsula located on the Appomattox River in what is now Petersburg, shows evidence of prehistoric life as far back as 6500 B.C. But by the late 1700's, it had become Virginia's first free black settlement. By the start of the Civil War, Pocahontas was home to the the largest free black population of the time and included several stops on the Underground Railroad. Today, Pocahontas is on the National Register of Historic Places.
With a history as fascinating as ours, there’s always more to learn and discover. We would love to hear some of your lesser known Virginia history facts. Tell us about them in the comments below!