50 States in 50 Days: Virginia — A Wealth of History and Diversity

Posted by:By James Wolfe, Press Attaché

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Virginia sign
Virginia sign, photo from en.wikipedia.org

At the time when the colonies established the United States of America, Virginia had the largest population and its leaders loomed large in the early days of the new country. Founding fathers from Virginia included General George Washington, who lead the Continental Army to win the War for Independence and served with distinction as the first President, and Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, served as Washington’s Secretary of State, became the country’s third President, and concluded the Louisiana Purchase, more than doubling the size of the country. In fact, four of the first five U.S. presidents were Virginians and no state has had more native sons become president than Virginia with 8 (Ohio’s 7 is a close second, followed by 4 each for Massachusetts and New York).

Louisiana Purchase, National Atlas
Louisiana Purchase, National Atlas

Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607, was the site of the first successful British attempt to found a permanent settlement on the North American continent. Roanoke Colony, also in Virginia, was settled in 1586, then abandoned, and resettled in 1587, after which its inhabitants simply disappeared, giving it the name “the Lost Colony.” (A fort and small sassafras plantation were established in 1602 on Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts, but were quickly abandoned.) Jamestown was settled on the shores of the James River, both named for King James I of England, and produced the first American manufactured exports to Europe after Captain John Smith recruited a few Polish and German glassblowers and shipbuilders to join the colony in 1608 (the Poles eventually conducted the first successful labor strike in the New World, demanding and receiving the right to vote, which was originally reserved for the English settlers). The Virginia Company ran the colony until King James revoked the royal charter in 1624, two years after what became known as the Indian Massacre of 1622 (by Powhattan Indians) wiped out nearly one third of the settlers. Jamestown served as the colonial capital from 1616 to 1699 (with a few interruptions) when the capital moved to nearby Williamsburg, where the College of William and Mary (the second oldest university in the United States after Harvard) was established in 1693. Both were named for King William III (and Queen Mary).

View of William and Mary College, Williamsburg, Virginia, circa 1902.
View of William and Mary College, Williamsburg, Virginia, circa 1902.

It was due to the College of William and Mary that I first became truly acquainted with Virginia (and Jamestown) – I transferred there after two years at UCLA to complete my undergraduate studies. The sense of the place’s history is one of the first impressions one has arriving in what is now referred to as “Colonial Williamsburg,” where the main downtown area and old part of the W&M campus look much as they would have in the early 18th century. One also learns quickly that Thomas Jefferson is only the most distinguished of the many famous alumni of the university (besides his other accomplishments, he also founded W&M’s cross-state rival the University of Virginia). William & Mary also educated U.S. Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler as well as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, and 16 signers of the Declaration of Independence (and George Washington received a surveyor’s certificate and later served as Chancellor). Notable graduates also include Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) founder William Barton Rogers, Daily Show star Jon Stewart and actress Glenn Close. Colonial Williamsburg has become a major tourist destination, famous for its open air museum with performers and artisans wearing colonial-era costumes and speaking in the manner of the day.

Virginia has much more to offer the visitor than this slice of its early history, of course. In the southeast, Hampton Roads, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach provide access to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and are home to a significant regional shipping port and U.S. military bases. In the west, the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley provide opportunities for skiing in the winter, rock climbing, and hiking on the Appalachian Trail. The beaches on the northeastern peninsula shared with Maryland and Delaware (DELMARVA Peninsula) feature the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague, where visitors can camp among the wild ponies that inhabit the islands (and steal unattended food).

Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery

The state capital Richmond was the capital of the secessionist Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Famous Civil War battle sites can be seen in many parts of the state, some of the more popular being Fredericksburg and Manassas. More battles were fought in Virginia than in any other state, including Bull Run, the Seven Days Battles, Chancellorsville, and the final Battle of Appomattox Court House where General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant. The old Lee family estate in northern Virginia was transformed into Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, and continues to serve as the country’s chief military cemetery.
The area known as Northern Virginia is more than just the western suburbs of Washington, DC. It is home to many federal agencies, including the Defense Department headquarters at the famous Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency Headquarters in Langley. A picturesque bike trail runs along the Potomac River from Arlington, through Old Town Alexandria, to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s family estate, which is now a museum with a tomb housing his remains. Northern Virginia is home to many internet and telecommunications businesses. While cotton and tobacco were once kings in Virginia, the largest export today is computer microchips.


3 thoughts on “50 States in 50 Days: Virginia — A Wealth of History and Diversity

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