"...for as Geography without History seemeth a carkasse without motion, so History without Geography, wandreth as a Vagrant without a certaine habitation..."1
Virginia's edges were defined initially in charters issued by the King of England as grants of land to private investors. The history of colonial land grants is confusing, but essential to understanding the location of those boundaries. The extended disputes over colonial boundary lines was driven by the primary motivation of colonial investors to get rich. There were nationalist, religious, and other motivations as well... but the potential to acquire land at a low price and sell it at a profit was the key factor in defining how the edges of Virginia were finally drawn.
The three ships that brought 104 colonists to Jamestown in 1607 (the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery) were financed by and filled with people who sought economic advantage. The desire for freedom of religion or increased individual liberties was not the driving factor in the initial settlement of Virginia in 1607. Instead, the goal of the initial colonists and their backers in London was to increase personal wealth.
The investors who financed the project to colonize Virginia were venture capitalists, "adventuring" or risking their wealth in the hope of getting even richer. The colonists who sailed to England were also seeking to increase their personal wealth, seeing opportunity in Virginia just like the founders of the company. (In their charters, Queen Elizabeth I and King James I was careful to reserve the rights for 1/5th of the gold/silver, just in case the English ran into the same wealth discovered by the Spaniards in Mexico and Peru.)
The investors incorporated as a joint stock company, the Virginia Company, with a coalition of capitalists based in London and Plymouth. The London-based investors focused on settling the Chesapeake Bay region. The capitalists based in Plymouth, who were more familiar with the fishing grounds off Newfoundland, focused on settling lands further north. Both the London and the Plymouth companies sent expeditions to settle in North America.
The First Virginia Charter issued by James I in 1606 gave the London Company the right to "begin theire plantacions and habitacions in some fitt and conveniente place between fower and thirtie and one and fortie degrees of the said latitude all alongest the coaste of Virginia and coastes of America. The area between 34 and 41 degrees latitude stretches from present-day South Carolina to New York City.
That 1606 charter created a potential overlap between the claims of the London Company ("Firste Colonie") and the rights of the Plymouth Company ("Seconde Colonie") to settle "betweene eighte and thirtie degrees and five and fortie degrees of the saide latitude." Each company's first settlement in Virginia was guaranteed exclusive control over territory with 50 miles to the north and south: "they shall have all the landes, soile, groundes, havens, ports, rivers, mines, mineralls, woods, marishes, waters, fishinges, commodities and hereditaments whatsoever, from the firste seate of theire plantacion and habitacion by the space of fiftie like Englishe miles."" In addition, the company was granted rights for 100 miles inland from the first settlement (totalling 100 square miles or 6.4 million acres of territory), and to islands within 100 miles of the shore.2
The Plymouth Company sent its first ship to the New World in August 1606, ahead of the London Company's 3-ship expedition that sailed from London in December 1606. However, the Plymouth Company's scouting ship, the Richard, was captured by the Spanish off the coast of Florida. A second expedition from the Plymouth Company sailed in 1607 and founded the Popham (or Sagadahoc) colony, at the mouth of what is now the Kennebec River in Maine. That colony survived a winter, but then a resupply ship in 1608 brought word that the leader, Rawleigh Gilbert, had come into an inheritance and was now a rich man back in England. Gilbert and all the colonists sailed home right away - some in the first English ship constructed in the New World, the Virginia. The Plymouth Company faded into history, until new colonists obtain charters and arrive in Massachusetts starting in 1620.3
The London Company survived until 1624. After the Popham colony was abandoned and the Plymouth Company failed, references to the "Virginia Company" are typically references to the surviving half - the London Company, with its settlement at Jamestown. When James I issued two additional charters to the Virginia Company in 1609 and 1612, he extended only the rights of the London Company in North America. The northern claims of the Plymouth Company would reappear in that new, 1620 grant for settlement in New England, defining the 40th degree of latitude as the southern boundary of that colony.
Two years after Jamestown was established and after John Smith had determined the extent of the Chesapeake Bay, King James I adjusted the Virginia Company's grant when he issued a Second Charter. While the 1606 First Charter had limited the London Company's rights to just the land within a 100-by-100 mile square (plus islands within 100 miles offshore from the initial settlement), the 1609 Second Charter granted rights to massive amounts of land stretching all the way across North America from Jamestown to the Pacific Ocean:4
Cape or Pointe Comfort is the southern tip of the city of Hampton, at the site of Fort Monroe now. It is the entrance to Hampton Roads, where the James River flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Pointe Comfort was named by Captain John Smith in 1608, because it was "comforting" for sailors to see the mainland after entering the Chesapeake after an ocean crossing. Known today as "Old" Point Comfort, it is slightly south of "New" Point Comfort at the eastern edge of Mathews County.
The Third Charter was issued on March 12, 1612 - or 1611, if dated by the Old Style calendar. (Until 1752, in England the new year started not on January 1 but on March 25, so March 12 was in 1661 by the Old Style Calendar and in 1612 under the New Style calendar now in use.) The Third Charter expanded Virginia's colonial boundaries further into the Atlantic Ocean, beyond the 100 miles authorized since the First Charter. The 1612 Third Charter gave the islands offshore to the "The Treasorer and Planters of the Cittie of London for the First Colonie in Virginia," stating:
Why did the Virginia Company investors obtain the territorial expansion by the king in 1612? The leaders of the Third Supply fleet, sailing to the colony in 1609, wrecked on Bermuda. They spent the winter of 1609-10 on the island, and it provided a surplus of food - in clear contrast to the starvation at Jamestown during that same winter.
The flagship vessel of the nine ships in the Third Supply fleet was the Sea Venture. It was separated from the other eight ships in a hurricane, and came close to sinking. The vessel was sailed onto the reef at Bermuda, and everyone escaped onto the dry land. The shipwrecked Englishmen spent ten months in 1609-10 salvaging the materials from the Sea Venture and building two new vessels in Bermuda, the Patience and the Deliverance.
The unplanned stay in Bermuda tested the authority of the colonial officials on their way to governing the Virginia colony in Jamestown. Some sailors considered their obligations to have been completed once the trip ended in Bermuda. One of Governor Gates' clerks, thought to be Stephen Hopkins, claimed that the governor's authority was valid only in Virginia and not on Bermuda. While most of those shipwrecked were busy building two smaller ships from the remains of the wrecked flagship, the Sea Venture, some rebelled. In the end, several rebels were executed - but the clerk survived.
The Patience and Deliverance both reached Jamestown in 1610, just before Lord de la Ware brought another relief fleet with essential food and supplies. Shakespeare may have incorporated stories about the Sea Venture shipwreck into his play "The Tempest," after Patience sailed back to England.
Bermuda is roughly 600 miles offshore from North Carolina, putting it outside the 100-mile limit of islands to be included in Virginia... according to the first two charters. The 1612 Third Charter extended the colonial boundary to include islands up to 300 leagues offshore, so after 1612 Virginia extended up to 1,000 miles eastward in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Bermuda colonization was very successful, but the size of the island limited the potential profits from either agriculture or selling land. The the Virginia Company venture capitalists in London "spun off" their investment. They arranged for James I to issue a separate charter for the island in 1615 and sold the rights to Bermuda to those investors who were most interested, splitting the island from the colony of Virginia.
Virginia, Bermuda, and the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620
When the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England in 1620, it was headed to Virginia. At that time, the Hudson River area fell within the boundaries of the colony of Virginia. The famous Pilgrims had arranged for permission to settle within the Virginia boundaries. The ship ended up at Cape Cod, and those on board chose to land there rather than fight storms to sail further south.
The Separatists who had organized the expedition had picked up a set of "Strangers" in London to help pay the cost of the trip. Both groups may have been concerned that a decision to go ashore in an unauthorized area could weaken the legitimacy of leadership in the new settlement. The Mayflower Compact documented how the colonists would govern themselves, and also documented the original destination of the ship that arrived in Massachusetts in 1620:6
It is possible that the Stephen Hopkins who is known to have been on the Mayflower might be the very same clerk who created confusion regarding the authority of Governor Gates in Bermuda in 1609-10. If so, his earlier experience might have stimulated those who landed outside the boundaries of any authorized colony in 1620 to clarify their approach to representative government, by writing a specific compact...
tip of Cape Cod, first landing spot of the Pilgrims in 1620
(outside the boundaries of the Third Charter, and 13 years after Jamestown was settled)
Those capitalists in England who "adventured" their funds in the Virginia colony received little return on their investment. King James I failed to renew the charter in 1624, making Virginia a royal rather than a proprietary (private) colony. By that decision, King James made the stock in the Virginia Company worthless, the equivalent of declaring the company to be bankrupt. Venture capitalists do not always make a profit on their investments, even when a king grants them free real estate.
When later kings chose to create new proprietary colonies in Maryland and Carolina to reward new friends, their grants of land diminished the ability of Virginia offficials to sell rights to vast amounts of land. The Stuart kings emphasized their power and marginalized the role of others, including Parliament (stimulating the English Civil war in 1642). After changing the boundaries of the Virginia colony, the kings did not compensate their subjects in Virginia or investors in England - and certainly did not compensate the Native American inhabitants.
Changes in the boundaries of the Virginia colony after 1612 did cause angst in Jamestown, when the king chartered new colonies within the area defined as Virginia in the Third Charter. The Virginia colonial officials lost authority to grant property deeds ("patents") to northern lands in New England (in 1620, with control over land north of the 40th parallel) and in what became Maryland (in 1632, north of the Potomac River).
Lands to the south became part of a separate Carolina colony. A 1629 charter to an ally of Charles I, Sir Robert Heath, included lands between 31-36 degrees of latitude. That grant was never implemented due to the English Civil War. When Charles II granted the same land to eight Lords Proprietors in 1663, Virginia's southern border was once again defined at 36 degrees of latitude. In 1665, the border was moved north a half-degree to 36 degrees, 30 minutes, giving the Carolina proprietors full control over the navigable parts of Albemarle Sound - plus land along the shoreline, whose settlers wanted to ship tobacco/lumber to England without paying export taxes to the Virginia colony.
In 1705, Robert Beverley described the extent of Virginia with specific limits on north, east, and south, but with the western edge extending all the way to the Pacific Ocean:7
The claim to political authority over the lands defined in the charters is still part of the Code of Virginia, along with the official release of the Virginia claim to some or all of Maryland, Pennsylvania, North and South Carolina. Title 1, Section 1-301. Extent of territory of the Commonwealth after the Constitution of 1776 says:8
During the Civil War, Virginia was carved up and 1/3 of its land area used to create the new state of West Virginia in 1863. The removal of the western counties was a significant alteration of the boundaries, but an even more dramatic change had been proposed by Secretary of War Simon Cameron in 1861.
Cameron suggested that creating a buffer of "safe" territory around Washington DC by transferring all of Virginia east of the Blue Ridge (except for the Eastern Shore) to Maryland, and realigning the boundaries of Maryland and Delaware based on natural boundaries:9
Cameron's plan would have made Virginia an inland state with no coastal waterfront, and reduced the potential of enemy forces controlling the heights of Arlington, by:
- adding the western edge of Maryland to Virginia, using the Blue Ridge to define the new state boundary
- transferring all territory east of the Chesapeake Bay to Delaware, using the Chesapeake Bay as a natural border on the east
- returning Virginia's Alexandria County to the District of Columbia, undoing the retrocession of 1846
Split Estate Property Rights: Who Owns Subsurface Minerals - Especially Coal and Coalbed Methane - in Virginia?
northern officials considered various ways of altering Virginia's boundaries to reduce the potential of hostile forces threatening Washington DC after the Civil War
Source: Harpers Weekly (digitized by "Son of the South), Chief Cook Cameron Divides The Virginia Goose Between Maryland And Delaware (December 21, 1861)