Virginia State History

Virginia State collage of images.

Select a topic
General State History
Historic Figures

General Virginia State History

The history of America is closely tied to that of Virginia, particularly in the Colonial period. Jamestown, founded in 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in North America and slavery was introduced there in 1619. The surrenders ending both the American Revolution (Yorktown) and the Civil War (Appomattox) occurred in Virginia. The state is called the "Mother of Presidents" because eight chief executives of the United States were born there.
Virginia Historic Figures

William H. Harrison
1773-1841: Ninth U.S. president; born in Charles City County, Va. Wellborn and well-educated, Harrison opted for the army and in the 1790s fought Indians in the Northwest Territory under Anthony Wayne. As governor of the new Indian Territory (1800--12), he extracted millions of acres from the Indians and fought Tecumseh's rebels in the battle of Tippecanoe (November 1811); though the battle was inconclusive, it made Harrison a hero. Commanding regular army forces in the Northwest during the War of 1812, he reoccupied Detroit in 1813 and soundly defeated the British and Indians at the Thames River in Ontario, Canada (October 1813). He went on to serve Ohio in the U.S. House of Representatives (1817--19) and in the U.S. Senate (1825--28). After an unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1836, Harrison won (as a Whig) with Tyler as vice-president in 1840, on a campaign of ballyhoo and mudslinging, with its slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler too." An exhausted Harrison caught a cold at the inauguration and he died of pneumonia a month later.


Sam Houston
1793-1863: Texas leader, public official; born near Lexington, Va. He received little schooling and lived for three years among the Cherokee Indians (1809-12). He served in the War of 1812 (1813-14) and studied law. He served in the House of Representatives (Dem., Tenn.; 1823-27) and was governor of Tennessee (1827-29). He resigned the governorship and again lived among the Cherokee Indians. Attracted to the struggle for Texan independence, he led the Texan army at the battle of San Jacinto (1836) and became the first president of the Republic of Texas (1836-38, second term 1841-44). After the admission of Texas as a state, he became a senator (Dem., Texas; 1846-59). He was the governor of Texas (1859-61) but was deposed (1861) when he refused to swear allegiance to the Confederate States of America.


Patrick Henry
1736-99: Orator, political leader; born in Hanover County, Va. He took up law in 1760 after failures in business and farming. He vigorously opposed the Stamp Act (1765). He was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses. In 1775, he proposed revolutionary motions to the Virginia assembly, including one for the arming and training of militiamen. He carried the day with a speech that included "I do not know what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death." He was governor of Virginia (1776-79, 1784-86) and he opposed the new Constitution (1787) because he felt it endangered individuals' and states' rights. He retired from public life in 1788 and refused several offers of posts in the federal government. He was influential in the creation of the Bill of Rights (1791). Although he became reactionary in his later years, his dramatic presence was considered to be integral to the early patriot cause.


Robert E. Lee
1807-70: Soldier; born in Westmoreland County, Va. (son of Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee). His father, a Revolutionary War hero, had fallen into debt and Robert grew up in modest circumstances in Alexandria, Va. Graduating second in his West Point class of 1829 (and without a single demerit), he married a great-granddaughter of Martha Custis Washington and seems to have consciously emulated George Washington in several respects. He held assignments with the Army Corps of Engineers and then distinguished himself in combat during the Mexican War (1846--47) where he fought alongside many of the officers he would later fight against in the Civil War. He returned to duty as an engineer, served as superintendent of West Point (1852--55), transferred to the cavalry and served on the Texas frontier, and commanded the troops that put down John Brown's raid in Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859. Lee opposed secession in 1861, but resigned from the U.S. Army in order to fight with his state of Virginia, having turned down Lincoln's offer to command U.S. forces in the field. He held a variety of posts with Confederate forces until July 1, 1862, when he succeeded Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in command of the troops soon known as the Army of Northern Virginia. He then proceeded on a series of campaigns and battles that--because of their sheer boldness, dynamism, flexibility--continue to be admired by all students of military history: the Seven Days' battles that forced the federals to retreat down the Virginia peninsula; the victory at the Second Bull Run (August 1862); the invasion of Maryland that ended in the standoff Battle of Antietam (September 1862); the great defensive victory of Fredericksburg (December 1862); and the battle known as his masterpiece, Chancellorsville (May 1863). After the latter victory he resolved upon a bold gamble, a second invasion of the North that he hoped would end the war; after three days of savage fighting at Gettysburg (July 1863), he conceded the gamble had failed and led his badly damaged army back to Virginia. With diminishing resources, Lee fought Ulysses S. Grant's forces in a series of brilliant but costly defensive struggles; these continued through the winter of 1864--65, and by the beginning of Grant's spring offensive, Lee commanded an army doomed by the overwhelming numbers and resources of the Union; finally trapped at Appomattox Courthouse, Va., Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the Confederacy's fight. Although indicted for treason, he was never tried, and he urged all Southerners to take the oath of allegiance to the United States and get on with the rebuilding of one nation. Decisive and willing to run large risks to get at "those people," as Lee called his opponents, he ranks among the greatest of battlefield commanders, although he has been faulted for a strategic short-sightedness that placed his native Virginia at the center of importance. After Appomattox he became president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee) in Lexington, Va. He died there of a heart ailment, already an object, as he would remain, of his countrymen's veneration; because of the way he conducted himself in defeat as well as in victory, he became many Americans' ideal of the gentleman Christian soldier. Among his many notable words were those as he looked over the forces at Fredericksburg before the carnage: "It is well that war is so terrible-we would grow too fond of it."


Thomas Jefferson
1743-1826: Third U.S. president; born in Albermarle County, Va. Son of a surveyor-landowner and a mother who was a member of the distinguished Randolph family of Virginia, he graduated from the College of William and Mary (1762) and read law under George Wythe. After several years of law practice, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses (1769-75) and sided with the revolutionary faction, writing an influential tract, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774). In 1770 he began designing and building Monticello, which would occupy him on and off for some 35 years. Here in 1772 he brought his new wife, Martha Wyles Skelton; together they had six children, only two of whom survived into maturity; she herself died in 1782. Jefferson was among those who called the First Continental Congress in 1774; as a delegate to the Second Congress (1775-77), he was the principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4, 1776, which embodied some of his ideas on the natural rights of certain people. Jefferson then returned to Virginia, where as a member of its legislature (1776-79), he took the lead in creating a state constitution and then served as governor (1779-81); during this time he proposed that Virginia abolish the slave trade and assure religious freedom, but he did not achieve this. He was not very successful in organizing Virginian resistance to the British military operations there and would come under criticism for his lack of leadership. Returning to the Continental Congress in 1783, Jefferson drafted the policy organizing the Northwest Territory and secured the adoption of the decimal system of coinage. He was sent to France in 1784 with Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams to negotiate commercial treaties and the next year succeeded Franklin as ambassador there. In 1789 George Washington appointed Jefferson secretary of state. In that position he became head of the liberal Democratic-Republican faction--as it was then called--and worked against the more conservative Federalist policies of Hamilton, Madison, and Washington. Jefferson resigned as secretary of state at the end of 1793 to devote himself to his estate at Monticello. (There is no denying, either, that he retained about 150 slaves there, selling or "giving" them to others, treating them as property; he could accept this along with his high ideals because he regarded Africans as inferior beings.) In 1796 Jefferson was elected vice-president under Federalist John Adams. After four troubled years in that position (1797-1801), he beat Adams and, barely, Aaron Burr for the presidency, thanks in large part to the fact that his arch rival, Hamilton, supported him when the Electoral College vote was tied. Among the events of his triumphant first term (1801-05) were the successful war against Barbary pirates, the Louisiana Purchase (which more than doubled the size of the U.S.A.), and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. His second term (1805--09), however, was marred by vice-president Burr's trial for treason and Jefferson's highly unpopular embargo on trade with England and France. In 1809 he retired to his estate at Monticello, continuing his scholarly and scientific interests and helping to found the University of Virginia (1825). The campus he designed for the latter, the masterpiece of his periodic architectural endeavors, ushered in the Classical Revival in the United States; he also designed the Virginia state capitol and several fine homes. In 1813 he began what became an extended and remarkable exchange of letters with his old political adversary, John Adams; both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. A complex man, happier when at intellectual pursuits than as an elected politician (he made no reference to his presidency on his tombstone), Jefferson was more admired abroad in his day than at home, where he was charged by some with everything from godlessness to fathering a child with his black servant girl. (This last charge has never been proved.) In the 20th century he has assumed the status of one of the greatest of all Americans, respected for his many achievements, from pioneering work in several disciplines to prophetic insights into such issues as freedom of the press.