Colony of Virginia
British colony
Capital Jamestown
Williamsburg (from 1699)
Languages English
Religion Anglicanism
Political structure Colony
 -  1603–1625 James I (first)
 -  1760–1776 George III (last)
 -  1607 Edward Wingfield (first)
 -  1771–1775 Lord Dunmore (last)
Legislature House of Burgesses
 -  Founding 1607
 -  Independence 1783
Currency Pound sterling

The Colony of Virginia (also known frequently as the Virginia Colony, the Province of Virginia, and occasionally as the Dominion and Colony of Virginia) was the English colony in British America that existed briefly during the 16th century, and then continuously from 1607 until the American Revolution (as a British colony after 1707). The name Virginia was first applied by Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I in 1584. After the English Civil War in the mid 17th century, the Virginia Colony was nicknamed "The Old Dominion" by King Charles II for its perceived loyalty to the English monarchy during the era of the Commonwealth of England.

After independence from Great Britain in 1783 (Treaty of Paris), a southeastern portion of the original Virginia Colony became the Commonwealth of Virginia, one of the original thirteen states of the United States, adopting as its official slogan, "The Old Dominion." After the United States was formed, the entire states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, and portions of Ohio were all later created from the territory encompassed earlier by the Colony of Virginia.


Lines show legal treaty frontiers between Virginia Colony and Indian Nations in various years. Red: Treaty of 1646. Green: Treaty of Albany (1684). Blue: Treaty of Albany (1722). Orange: Proclamation of 1763. Black: Treaty of Camp Charlotte (1774). Area west of this line in present-day Southwest VA was ceded by the Cherokee in 1775.

The name "Virginia" is the oldest designation for English claims in North America. In 1584 Sir Walter Raleigh sent Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to explore what is now the North Carolina coast, and they returned with word of a regional "king" named Wingina, who ruled a land supposedly called Wingandacoa. The latter word was modified later that year by the Queen to "Virginia", noting her status as the "Virgin Queen."[1][2] On the next voyage, Raleigh was to learn that, while the chief of the Secotans was indeed called Wingina, the expression wingandacoa heard by the English upon arrival actually meant "What good clothes you wear!" in Carolina Algonquian, and was not the name of the country as previously misunderstood.

Initially, the term "Virginia" was applied to the entire eastern coast of North America from the 34th parallel (near Cape Fear) north to the 48th parallel, including the shorelines of Acadia and a large portion of inland Canada. Although Spain, France, Sweden, and the Netherlands all had competing claims to the region, none of these prevented the English from becoming the first European power to colonize the Mid-Atlantic coastline. To the south, Spain attempted to establish settlements at least as far north as South Carolina. The short-lived Ajacan Mission is believed to have been established on the shore of Chesapeake Bay. The Spanish colony of Spanish Florida, centered on St. Augustine, was established in 1565.

Settlements at Roanoke Island[]

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh sent his first colonization mission to the island of Roanoke (in present-day North Carolina). This was the first English settlement, although it did not survive, it was never intended to survive, it was a military research expedition with a very narrow focus. Joachim Gans was sequestered on Roanoke Island to research copper smelting techniques of the indigenous tribes in order to reduce European smelting times from 16 weeks to 4 days; giving the English a strategic advantage over other European nations in smelting and forging cannons for their warships.

In 1587, Raleigh sent another group to again attempt to establish a permanent settlement. The first English child born in the New World was named Virginia Dare. The expedition leader, John White returned to England for supplies that same year, but was unable to return to the colony due to war between England and Spain. When he finally did return in 1590, he found the colony abandoned. The houses were intact, but the colonists had completely disappeared. Although there are a number of theories about the fate of the colony, it remains a mystery and has come to be known as the "Lost Colony". Dare County was named in honor of the baby Virginia Dare, who was among those whose fate is unknown. The word Croatan was found carved into a tree, the name of a tribe on a nearby island.

Virginia Company: Plymouth and London branches[]

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, King James I ascended to the throne. England was financially pressed following years of war with Spain. Additionally, England's forests and other natural resources were nearly exhausted after centuries of supporting the population. In order to remedy these vital resources, they were supplemented in part by trade with other nations. The Muscovy Company in particular, had success importing goods such as lumber and pitch from the Dutch. However, the volatile and instable conditions of the various trade relationships throughout Europe, positioned England to consider other alternatives, in the New World. Investment capital was raised to bring back gold and other riches and seek the Northwest Passage to the Middle East and India. James granted a proprietary charter to two competing branches of the Virginia Company, which were supported by investors. These were the Plymouth Company and the London Company.

By the terms of the charter, the Plymouth Company was permitted to establish a colony of 100 miles (160 km) square between the 38th parallel and the 45th parallel (roughly between Chesapeake Bay and the current U.S.-Canada border). The London Company was permitted to establish between the 34th parallel and the 41st parallel (approximately between Cape Fear and Long Island Sound), and also owned a large portion of Atlantic and Inland Canada. In the area of overlap, the two companies were not permitted to establish colonies within one hundred miles of each other. During 1606, each company organized expeditions to establish settlements within the area of their rights.

Popham Colony[]

In August 1606, the first Plymouth Company ship, Richard, sailed for the New World. However, it was intercepted and captured by the Spanish near Florida in November 1606, and never reached Virginia. The next attempt was more successful. About 120 colonists left Plymouth on May 31, 1607 in two ships. Colony leader George Popham sailed aboard the Gift of God, while second-in-command Ralegh Gilbert traveled on the Mary and John, whose captain was Robert Davies. Captain Davies maintained a diary which is one of the modern sources of information about the Popham Colony.

Arriving in August 1607, these Plymouth Company colonists established their settlement, known as the Popham Colony, in the present-day town of Phippsburg, Maine near the mouth of the Kennebec River. They intended to trade precious metals, spices, furs, and show that the local forests could be used to build English ships. Half of the colonists returned to England in the fall of 1607 aboard the Gift of God; the other half stayed through the winter, spring, and summer, during which time they built a 30-ton ship, a pinnace they named Virginia. Late that summer, all the remaining colonists returned to England aboard the Virginia and the Mary and John. The short-lived colony had lasted about a year. Although not permanent, after Cuttyhunk in 1602, it was the second English colony in the region that would eventually become known as New England. The exact site of the Popham Colony had long been lost until its rediscovery in 1994.

Jamestown Settlement[]

The London Company hired Captain Christopher Newport to lead its expedition. On December 20, 1606, he set sail from England with his flagship, the Susan Constant, and two smaller ships, the Godspeed, and the Discovery, with 105 men and boys, plus 39 sailors.[3] After an unusually long voyage of 144 days, they arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and came ashore at the point where the southern side of the bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, an event which has come to be called the "First Landing". They erected a cross, and named the point of land Cape Henry, in honor of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King James.

Their instructions were to select a location inland along a waterway where they would be less vulnerable to the Spanish or other Europeans also seeking to establish colonies. They sailed westward into the Bay and reached the mouth of Hampton Roads, stopping at a location now known as Old Point Comfort. Keeping the shoreline to their right, they then ventured up the largest river, which they named the James, for their king. After exploring at least as far upriver as the confluence of the Appomattox River at present-day Hopewell, they returned downstream to Jamestown Island, which offered a favorable defensive position against enemy ships and deep water anchorage adjacent to the land. Within 2 weeks, they had constructed their first fort, and named their settlement Jamestown.

In addition to securing gold and other precious minerals to send back to the waiting investors in England, the survival plan for the Jamestown colonists depended upon regular supplies from England and trade with the Native Americans. The location they selected was largely cutoff from the mainland, and offered little game for hunting, no fresh drinking water, and very limited ground for farming. Captain Newport returned to England twice, delivering the First Supply and the Second Supply missions during 1608, and leaving the Discovery for the use of the colonists. However, death from disease and conflicts with the Natives Americans took a fearsome toll of the colonists. Despite attempts at mining minerals, growing silk, and exporting the native Virginia tobacco, no profitable exports had been identified, and it was unclear whether the settlement would survive financially.

The 1609 charter for the Virginia colony "from sea to sea"

In 1609, with the abandonment of the Plymouth Company settlement, the London Company's Virginia charter was adjusted to include the territory north of the 34th parallel and south of the 39th parallel, with its original coastal grant extended "from sea to sea". Thus, at least on paper, the Virginia Colony in its original sense extended to the coast of the Pacific Ocean, in what is now California, with all the states in between (Kentucky, Missouri, Colorado, Utah, etc.) belonging to Virginia. For practical purposes, though, the original Virginians rarely ventured far inland to what was then known as "The Virginia Wilderness", although the concept itself helped renew the interest of investors, and additional funds enabled an expanded effort, known as the Third Supply.

For the Third Supply, the London Company had a new ship built. The Sea Venture was specifically designed for emigration of additional colonists and transporting supplies. It became the flagship of the Admiral of the convoy, Sir George Somers. The Third Supply was the largest to date, with 8 other ships joining the Sea Venture. The new Captain of the Sea Venture was mission's Vice-Admiral, Christopher Newport. Hundreds of new colonists were aboard the ships. However, weather was to drastically affect the mission.

Bermuda: The Somers Isles[]

A few days out of London, the 9 ships of the Third Supply mission encountered a massive hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. They became separated during the three days the storm lasted. Admiral Sir George Somers had the new Sea Venture, carrying most of the supplies of the mission, deliberately driven aground onto the reefs of Bermuda to avoid sinking. However, while there was no loss of life, the ship was wrecked beyond repair, stranding its survivors on the uninhabited archipelago, to which they laid claim for England.

The survivors at Bermuda eventually built two smaller ships and most of them continued on to Jamestown, leaving a few on Bermuda to secure the claim. The Company's possession of Bermuda was made official in 1612, when the third and final charter extended the boundaries of 'Virginia' far enough out to sea to encompass Bermuda, which was also known, for a time, as Virgineola. Bermuda has since been known officially also as The Somers Isles (in commemoration of Admiral Somers). The shareholders of the Virginia Company spun off a second company, the Somers Isles Company, which administered Bermuda from 1615 til 1684.

However, upon their arrival at Jamestown, the survivors of the Sea Venture discovered that the 10 month delay had greatly aggravated other adverse conditions. Seven of the other ships had arrived carrying more colonists, but little in the way of food and supplies. Combined with a drought, and hostile relations with the Native Americans, the loss of the supplies which had been aboard the Sea Venture had resulted in the Starving Time in late 1609 to May 1610, during which over 80% of the colonists perished. The survivors from Bermuda had brought few supplies and food with them, and it appeared to all that Jamestown must be abandoned and it would be necessary to return to England.

A timely arrival: Lord De La Warr[]

"The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles", by Capt. John Smith

Samuel Argall was the captain of one of the seven ships of the Third Supply which had arrived at Jamestown in 1609 after becoming separated from the Sea Venture, whose fate was unknown. Depositing his passengers and limited supplies, he had returned to England with word of the plight of the colonists at Jamestown. The King had authorized another leader, Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, later better known as "Lord Delaware", to have greater powers, and the London Company had organized another Supply mission. They set sail from London on April 1, 1610.

Just after the survivors of the Starving Time and those who had joined them from Bermuda had abandoned Jamestown, the ships of the new supply mission sailed up the James River with food, supplies, a doctor, and more colonists. Lord Delaware was determined that the colony was to survive, and intercepted the departing ships about 10 miles (16 km) downstream of Jamestown. Among these individuals who had briefly abandoned Jamestown was a Sea Venture survivor who had lost his wife and son in Bermuda. He was a businessman from London who had some untried seeds for new, sweeter strains of tobacco with him, as well as some untried marketing ideas. His name was John Rolfe, and it was to turn out that he held the key to the Colony's economic success.

By 1612, Rolfe's new strains of tobacco had been successfully cultivated and exported. Finally, a cash crop to export had been identified, and plantations and new outposts sprung up, initially both upriver and downriver along the navigable portion of the James River, and thereafter along the other rivers and waterways of the area. The settlement at Jamestown could finally be considered permanently established.

For more details on this topic, see John Rolfe.


Colored version of 1612 John Smith map

Sylvester Jordain's "A Discovery of the Barmudas"

In 1620, a successor to the Plymouth Company sent colonists to the New World aboard the Mayflower. Known as pilgrims, they successfully established a settlement in what became Massachusetts. The portion of what had been Virginia north of the 40th parallel became known as New England, according to books written by Captain John Smith, who had made a voyage there.

In 1624, the Virginia Company's charter was revoked by King James I and the Virginia Colony was transferred to royal authority as a crown colony. Subsequent charters for the Maryland Colony in 1632 and the Carolina Colony in 1665 further reduced the Virginia Colony to coastal borders it held until the American Revolution.

Names and nicknames for Virginia[]

Charles II gave Virginia the title of "Old Dominion" in gratitude of Virginia's loyalty to the crown during the English Civil War; Virginia maintains "Old Dominion" as its state nickname. Accordingly, the University of Virginia's athletic teams are known as "Cavaliers", and one of the other state public universities is "Old Dominion University".

See also[]

  • History of Virginia
  • List of colonial governors of Virginia
  • Lost counties, cities, and towns of Virginia
  • Southern Colonies


  1. ^ Stewart, George (1945). Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States. New York: Random House. p. 22. 
  2. ^ Sams, Conway (1916). The Conquest of Virginia: the Forest Primeval; An Account Based on Original Documents. New York and London: G.P. Putnam's Sons. pp. 282–83. 
  3. ^ Prelude to Jamestown

External links[]


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