Regions of Virginia (And Why Isn't There An East Virginia?)

regions of Virginia
Blue Ridge
Chesapeake Bay
Eastern Shore
Hampton Roads
Northern Neck
Northern Virginia
Outer Continental Shelf
Shenandoah Valley
Southwest Virginia

Until World War II, you could make an educated guess about a person's original home in Virginia by observing their distinctive accents, food preferences, and other patterns of behavior. Virginia's regions reflect transportation and population patterns established during the colonial era and prior to the Civil War. Physical geography shaped those patterns, and the modern regions of Virginia re still affected by features such as the Blue Ridge and the James River.

Regional boundaries are blurring, as radio/television/social media increase interaction at a national level. Today, bagels and Chinese take-out are common in Martinsville as well as Arlington, NASCAR is popular in Warrenton as well as Emporia, and Sunday afternoon football is watched in Grundy as well as Virginia Beach. In 2013, there was a Korean restaurant operating in Pembroke (Giles County) good enough to attract customers from Roanoke...

There are still differences between places and people in Virginia today. If you're in a Hardee's in South Boston, notice the iced tea. Odds are, it will be sweetened, unlike the iced tea in the Hardee's at Fredericksburg. The line separating unsweetened vs. sweetened ice tea could be used to define the sections of Virginia more influenced by north culture vs. southern traditions.

Fan preferences for sports teams can also define boundaries. The Washington Redskins football team opened a sothern training camp in Richmond in 2013, in part to generate more support from that region and peel away old allegiances to teams based in Atlanta (or, more recently, in Charlottee).

In Manassas, high school students track the success of the Virginia Tech football team, but Danville students follow the athletic successes of competing universities in North Carolina. Food and music preferences offer less reliable bases for drawing sectional boundaries (there are excellent Japanese restaurants in Roanoke and Garrison Keillor has presented Prairie Home Companion shows in the coliseum there), but a Middleburg or McLean address will still carry far more social cachet - except in the West End of Richmond, where your family name may carry more weight than even your bank account.

If you have a nostalgic First Family of Virginia (FFV) perspective, you can say there's Northern Virginia and then there's "real Virginia." Typically, folks drawing this line are long-term residents who make humorous references to Northern Virginia as an alien entity, occupied Virginia filled with Northerners and people with no long-term family ties to Virginia.

In the eyes of people living far south of the Rappahannock River, Northern Virginia has been "different" ever since Lord Fairfax established a land office issuing Northern Neck deeds independently from the colonial government in Williamsburg, or Arlington was incorporated into the District of Columbia between 1800-1847.

Referring to "old Virginny" or "real Virginia" may be taken as a quaint, archaic comment when made by an elderly and wistful FFV longing for a simpler past. In the 2008 presidential election campaign, however, Republican surrogates campaigning for John McCain discovered that when non-FFV's make comments about "real Virginia," the comments may be interpreted as a put-down of modern Virginia.1

Why the strong reaction? During massive resistance to school integration/civil rights in the 1950's, advocates of perpetual segregation adopted Confederate symbols and claimed to represent the "real Virginia heritage." Today, references to "real Virginia" may be interpreted as coded language intended not just as a joke, but to express opposition to the multi-cultural diversity that is now common in urban areas and Northern Virginia.

If you are a splitter rather than a lumper, you can can segment Virginia into many, smaller cultural regions. For example, the region of Hampton Roads can be split into the Eastern Shore, Gloucester, North Hampton Roads, and South Hampton Roads. Keep splitting, and North Hampton Roads could be split into Williamsburg/York County, Newport News, and Hampton. (Poquoson has its own demographic mix, and might appreciate being omitted...) Based on political patterns, South Hampton Roads could be divided into Suffolk/Sussex/Chesapeake, Norfolk/Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach.

if you were a Census enumerator, you would try to find every single person in your Census block. However, if you were doing direct mail advertising, you would use Zip Codes to split down further all the way to distinct neighborhoods. If you were a politician, you would split down to precincts - remember, all politics is local. In a get-out-the-vote effort on election day, you would be especially granular. Your campaign would seek out supporters and independents, but try to identify and bypass the individual houses of known opponents.

The boundaries of these regions of Virginia are permeable to migration of people and information. The boundaries shown on maps appear as clear lines, but in reality regions are poorly-defined, subject to debate, and likely to be outdated within a few decades.

Loudoun and Prince William became part of Northern Virginia long after Alexandria and Arlington, and Fauquier is not yet included in most references. It's not clear if Stafford/Fredericksburg will be added to Northern Virginia, or if the megalopolis will have distict sub-regions. In a decade, cars soth of Quantico might sport FXBG stickers to identify more with Fredericksburg than with Fairfax/DC.

Northern VA in 1895
Northern Virginia - 1895

Since 2004, the Council on Virginia's Future has assessed the success/failure of different state-supported initiatives and programs with its "Virginia Report" scorecard, and with other reports posted on the Virginia Performs website. Accounting for the impact of government actions and future trends is presented in a statewide How Is Virginia Doing? assessment, and also in regional perspectives. The boundaries of the regions used by the Council on Virginia's Future do not match the boundaries used by the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia; even the best analysts and demographers differ in their definitions of Virginia's regions.

the boundaries of every region of Virginia are different between Virginia Performs vs. Weldon Cooper Center
the boundaries of every region of Virginia are different between Virginia Performs vs. Weldon Cooper Center
Source: Council on Virginia's Future, Virginia's Eight Regions

regions of Virginia defined by Weldon Cooper Center at University of Virginia
regions of Virginia defined by Weldon Cooper Center at University of Virginia
Source: Weldon Cooper Center, Virginia's Regions

Even Virginia's political boundaries have been subject to change. The colonial claims to the Forks of the Ohio (Pittsburgh area) were dropped in the 1760's. Virginia's claims to the Northwest Territory (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois...) were relinquished in the 1780's. Kentucky became a separate state in the 1790's, and in the 1863 the western 33 counties of Virginia split off to become West Virginia.

George Washington considered the possibility that the United States would collapse, and split between the northern and southern states. If that had occurred, Washington planned to join the northern region.2

The two most distinctive regions of Virginia are Northern Virginia (NOVA) and Rest of Virginia (ROVA). Proposals for creating a separate State of Northern Virginia are not taken seriously today... but maybe tomorrow, sectionalism will spur another secession movement?

Boundaries of the southeastern region, known as Hampton Roads or more recently as Coastal Virginia, are also recognizable. Other efforts to define regions are less successful.

The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia produces some of the most astute assessments of modern Virginia, but Weldon Cooper placed the city/county of Roanoke in the Valley Region which stretched north to the Potomac River. Montgomery County (including Virginia Tech) was placed in the Southwest Region, extending south to Tennessee while Franklin County was placed in the Southside Region, extending eastward to Surry County. Bedford County was placed in the Central Region, centered on Richmond. An official with the primary economic development group in Roanoke noted that economic links to the New River Valley and Bedford had been obscured by that classification system, saying:3

The data just isn't meaningful from a Roanoke perspective... It is really only useful as a contrast between NoVa, Hampton Roads and the balance of the state. There is wide variation within these regions, which aren't really descriptive of anything.

A more granular way to evaluate locations is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator. It estimates the hourly earnings required to pay for basic expenses, in different locations with different costs of living. For Alleghany County in 2014, the number for an individual was $7.49/hour, in Roanoke city and county it was $8.49/hour, while in most of Northern Virginia it was $13.22/hour.4

where would you draw the lines, to define regions of Virginia?
where would you draw the lines, to define regions of Virginia?
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Reference and Outline Maps of the United States - Reference Map


pine regeneration at Hog Island Wildlife Management Area, north of Surry nuclear power plant
loblolly pine regeneration on sandy soil of Coastal Plain
(Hog Island Wildlife Management Area, north of Surry nuclear power plant)


1. "McCain Adviser Suggests NoVa Not 'Real Virginia'," Washington Post, October 18, 2008, (last checked August 6, 2014)
2. Henry Wiencek, "Elusive George Washington quotation," posting on VA-HIST listserver, May 29, 2003, (last checked August 6, 2014)
3. "S.W. Va. poorest and least diverse among state's regions," The Roanoke Times, July 30, 2014, (last checked August 6, 2014)
4. "Living Wage Calculator - Virginia," Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), (last checked August 6, 2014)

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