Exploring Land, Settling Frontiers

even after ceding the Northwest Territory beyond the Ohio River to the national government in 1780, Virginia still stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River
even after ceding the Northwest Territory beyond the Ohio River to the national government in 1780, Virginia still stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River
Source: US Geological Survey National Atlas

Land was explored, frontiers were advanced, and "backcountry" converted into settlements because colonists sought wealth in the New World. Native Americans who occupied the land which was key to the accumulation of colonial wealth were not willing partners in the transformation of North America. The paramount chiefdom of Powhatan was only the first of many to resist occupation by force, but to fail and have pre-existing societies dramatically disrupted.

After 1607, the English quickly extinguished (or finessed) the Native American land claims, and successfully prevented rival European nations from settling in the Chesapeake Bay. According to English law and custom, the king was able to grant a great swath of North America to the investors in the Virginia Company. The company tried to hold the land in common, but then began to grant it to groups and individuals in order to spur settlement. After the company charter was revoked, royal governors granted rights to tracts of Virginia in the name of the king.

For a century before Jamestown, Englishmen had been making a profit from the New World - but most profits before colonization came from fishing in the cold waters off the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.

After 1607, vast amounts of cheap land (after displacement of the Native Americans) was the Virginia colony's great asset. Through tobacco farming, initially with immigrant labor and later with slave labor, the European immigrants finally were able to profit from that land.

Land ownership was not available to the masses in England. Land was controlled by the hereditary aristocracy, and peasant farmers had little opportunity to climb the social ladder and join the aristocracy.

Roughly half of the English population owned no land, and had few means to acquire it no matter how hard they worked. In the days before the Industrial Revolution created a middle class and wealth could be acquired through manufacturing, land for producing crops, wool, meat, and wood products was the basis of English wealth.

The English social system fractured as population grew from 3 million in 1500 to 5 million in 1650, while wealth remained sequestered in just a few families. Unemployment was high, and social unrest erupted into the English Civil War in the mid-1650's.1

An alternative to a lifetime of frustrating, never-ending poverty in England was emmigration. Travel across the Atlantic Ocean was unpleasant and dangerous, and moving to the Virginia colony was a great risk. However, emmigration was the easiest way for many Englishmen to become landowners, and Virginia offered an opportunity for the minor gentry and even lower classes to climb into the upper ranks of wealth and power.

Speculation in land across the Atlantic Ocean spurred changes in traditional business practices in England. The Virginia Company was an early expression of a new economic approach, the joint stock company. It was a legal tool where investors could pool their capital and risk, then share the rewards as a "corporation" rather than as individuals. If the speculative colonization venture failed, the investors' funds disappeared... but only those funds were put at risk, not the entire wealth of the investor.

The intrusion of Europeans dramatically changed the native (Indian) culture that existed in the pre-contact period. In the process, the European patterns of the immigrants also changed. A new American culture emerged on the edge of European settlement, away from the "cultural hearths" of Europe and shaped in part by the Native American societies that were disrupted by European settlement.

The aristocratic society of Europe that was initially imported into Tidewater Virginia is still reflected in the mansions and brick Anglican churches east of the Fall Line, but a revolutionary political concept - democracy - developed in Virginia and elsewhere between 1600-1776, on the edge of the North American continent.

colonial boundaries were based on charters from English monarchs - but the French, Spanish, and especially Native American groups disputed those claims
colonial boundaries were based on charters from English monarchs - but the French, Spanish, and especially Native American groups disputed those claims
Map Source: Library of Congress, A map of the British and French dominions in North America (by John Mitchell, 1755)

At that time, in the long-settled regions of Europe, a person's social status, economic opportunities, and political rights were defined at birth. The original lifestyle in the Virginia colony reflected this approach - the first president of the council at Jamestown, for example, was accused by John Smith of hoarding food for his own benefit at the expense of the other, hungry colonists. After formation of the elected House of Burgesses, the governor and his appointed council still retained great authority - and:2

until the latter part of the seventeenth century, the members of the governor's council were exempt from taxation; and only they, according to an early statute, could wear gold braid on their clothes.

However, the shared difficulties of living on the American frontier (including the threat of Indian attack) helped to level the differences. The frontier provided the setting for a new culture to emerge, one based more on merit rather than on family heritage. Individuals can't change their genealogy - but the frontier led to an American society where a person could acquire wealth through initiative and accomplishment, if if their family connections were limited.

There was one factor on the frontier in America that reshaped the European patterns and led to a new way of life - vast amounts of cheap land. Even after the boundaries of the original Virginia colony were reduced by the establishment of Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania (and before the creation of Kentucky and West Virginia), Virginia alone had as much land as all of Great Britain.

two farthest western settlements in Virginia, 1755
two farthest western settlements in Virginia, 1755
Source: Lewis Evans, A general map of the middle British colonies, Library of Congress

The opportunity to acquire land in colonial Virginia led to a Virginian legal and social system that was substantially different from Europe. Indentured servants were lured to the colony through promises of land, and the system of headrights encouraged wealthy investors to acquire large tracts of land and "plant" them with settlers in order to gain title.

Frontiersmen like Daniel Boone may have worn deerskins rather than cloth coats, but many managed to acquire title to land and provide a substantial inheritance to their children that would have been impossible in Europe. At the start of the 18th Century, Virginia shifted from the headrights system and allowed individuals to purchase 50 acres for 5 shillings, substantially reducing the price of Virginia land.3

The availability of land on the frontier did not guarantee that Virginia society would be less aristocratic than in England. The most obvious example: plantation agriculture based on tobacco led to slavery. In England, the amount of land owned by a farmer was the limiting factor - but in Virginia, land was cheap. The availability of labor determined how much tobacco could be produced.

The Native Americans in Virginia were largely eliminated or expelled rather than converted into a subservient workforce, and the supply of indentured servants from Europe was inadequate by the 1660's. Virginia law evolved in the 17th Century to create the status of "permanently enslaved" for blacks imported from the Caribbean and Africa. To maximize the profit potential, England chartered the Royal African Company in 1672 to transport the slaves to Virginia and other colonies.

The political viewpoints of the rich and powerful were shaped by the unique conditions there. Virginia gentlemen were the revolutionaries who wrote the Declaration of Independence and shaped the Constitution, yet the same Virginia gentry depended upon slavery for their wealth. George Washington was the "indispensible man" in converting the democratic concepts into an operational government, one where various factions were able to resolve their conflicts through peaceful elections rather than intermittent revolutions, but he had no solution to the challenge of slavery.

A "frontier" is more than a boundary. It is more than an edge between two places, an edge that is often described from the point of view of the culture that is expanding and forcing another culture to surrender land.

in 1718, the Blue Ridge separated settlers on the east from various Native American groups on the west, including the Cherokee (Cheraqui), Yuchi (Tongoria), Miami, and Erie (Nation de Chat)
in 1718, the Blue Ridge separated settlers on the east from various Native American groups on the west, including the Cherokee (Cheraqui), Yuchi (Tongoria), Miami, and Erie (Nation de Chat)
Map Source: Library of Congress, Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississippi ... (by Guillaume De L'Isle, 1718)

Democracy as we know it today in the United States did not arrive full-blown on ships filled with colonists; it continues to evolve over time in America. Frederick Jackson Turner classified the frontier as the key place where a democratic America was created from a stratified English colonial society. In his harsh language, unsympathetic to the Native American nations being suppressed by the expansion of colonial and then American spheres of influence, the frontier was the "meeting point between savagery and civilization."4

The frontier experience was not a standard force dependent just upon the distance between two groups, comparable to gravity or magnetism. Life in the backcountry and on the frontier changed at different rates, in different places, as settlement moved inland. The impacts of colonization varied on the different Europeans who settled Virginia, who brought different cultural patterns with them.

In a 1940 speech, Thomas Perkins Abernethy articulated some key points regarding land settlement patterns in Virginia during the colonial era. Though topography and the navigability of rivers helped shape the migration inland, as population spread westward to the Ohio River, three other factors should be considered:5

Abernethy concluded that "frontier conditions do not necessarily produce democratic instititions, even when the lands are easily accessible to independent small farmers." The ability of the Virginia gentry to obtain ownership of large tracts of Virginia land at extremely low cost enabled them (and owners of large tracts in Carolina) to compete successfully with William Penn for colonists and delayed settlement of the upper Ohio River Valley. The willingness of the gentry to sell that land varied - Lord Fairfax was slow to market his properties, for example, so that delayed permanent European settlement within the boundaries of his proprietary grant.

Migration south through the Shenandoah Valley did not lead directly to Tennessee, with overflow spilling through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. Rather than follow the Roanoake River to its headwaters, early groups of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, Moravians, and Quakers cut through the Blue Ridge. The Smith Mountain Gap of the Roanoke River allowed easy passage to the Piedmont of Virginia and Carolina, east of the mountains. The virgin soil there was still fertile, and access to markets along the Fall Line were easier.

in the 1730's immigrants from Pennsylvania walked up the Shenandoah River and across the James River watershed (red) to the Roanoke River, where many moved southeast through a gap in the Blue Ridge to reach the Piedmont of Virginia/Carolina (green arrow) rather than follow the Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap (yellow circle) into Kentucky
in the 1730's immigrants from Pennsylvania walked up the Shenandoah River and across the James River watershed (red) to the Roanoke River, where many moved southeast through a gap in the Blue Ridge to reach the Piedmont of Virginia/Carolina (green arrow) rather than follow the Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap (yellow circle) into Kentucky
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

It took an additional 20-25 years after Thomas Walker explored the Cumberland Gap before the valley of the Yadkin River became "crowded" and the power of the Shawnee and Cherokee were diminished. Only then did Pennsylvanians float down the Ohio, and Virginians and Carolinians follow Daniel Boone and others into the bluegrass territory.

Abernethy summarized as follows:

The westward movement did not roll forward with an orderly and irresistable force like the waves of the sea. On the contrary, it was as fitful as a mountain stream, now swirling, now eddying, and its course was deflected by many crosscurrents.

The character of Virginia's immigrants west of the Blue Ridge was different when they arrived from Pennsylvania. Local architecture of colonial churches built by the Anglican English in Tidewater and by the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in the Shenandoah Valley reflect those difference physically, but patterns of speech, farming practices, and town development are also distinctive.

lands west of the Blue Ridge were initially occupied by Scotch-Irish and German immigrants who walked south from Pennylvania on the Great Wagon Road, rather than by English who migrated from Tidewater across the Blue Ridge
lands west of the Blue Ridge were initially occupied by Scotch-Irish and German immigrants who walked south from Pennylvania on the Great Wagon Road, rather than by English who migrated from Tidewater across the Blue Ridge
Source: Virginia Geographic Alliance, Virginia Colonial Settlements, 1700-1775 (derived from Map 31 in "An Atlas of Virginia")

West of the Blue Ridge, the challenge of transporting crops to market, together with the different cultural background of the original European settlers, led to a dramatically different agricultural economy. Shenandoah Valley farmers grew grain and livestock rather than tobacco, and had little interest in owning large gangs of slaves to work the fields.

The far southwestern counties of Virginia struggled with the distance from the capital in Tidewater, different priorities regarding the security threat from Native Americans still in the Ohio Country, and reliance upon the transportation channel of the Mississippi River vs. the Chesapeake Bay. Those differences led to a peaceful separation from the rest of Virginia and formation of the new state of Kentucky.

In the northwestern counties across the Eastern Continental Divide, the cultural and economic differences utlimately led to the political separation of the far western counties and creation of the state of West Virginia. As a result, modern Virginia boundaries no longer touch the Ohio River, despite all the efforts of the Tidewater-based elite to seize and then exploit that territory.

How the Fall Line Shaped Powhatan's Area of Control

Virginia - An International Frontier

Boundaries and Charters of Virginia

The Contact Period

Virginia and Bermuda

How Colonists Acquired Title to Land in Virginia

Surveying in Virginia

Exploring Westward

How the Fall Line Shaped Colonial Settlement in Virginia

Frontier Forts in Virginia

Early Settlement Up the... Rappahannock?

Encouraging Settlement and Land Grants West of the Blue Ridge

The Impact of the French and Indian War on Settlement West of the Blue Ridge

The Proclamation Line of 1763

Treaties Defining the Boundaries Separating English and Native American Territories

Virginia's Cession of the Northwest Territory

Virginians moved west into Kentucky and the Northwest Territory beyond the Ohio River, and those areas were organized as separate states after the Constitution was adopted in 1788
Virginians moved west into Kentucky and the Northwest Territory beyond the Ohio River, and those areas were organized as separate states after the Constitution was adopted in 1788
Source: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Claims and Cessions of Western Lands, 1776-1802, Virginia and Georgia (Plate 47d, digitized by University of Richmond)

Virginia vigourously asserted its claims to western lands beyond the Ohio River, including the state-supported George Rogers Clark expedition during the American Revolution that captured Kaskasia and Vincennes
Virginia vigourously asserted its claims to western lands beyond the Ohio River, including the state-supported George Rogers Clark expedition during the American Revolution that captured Kaskasia and Vincennes
Map Source: Library of Congress, A map of the British and French dominions in North America (by John Mitchell, 1755)

Links

English claims to land in the Ohio River watershed in the 1750's were based in part on supposed conquest of the Six Nations in New York, and in part on physical occupation of the waste land
English claims to land in the Ohio River watershed in the 1750's were based in part on supposed conquest of the Six Nations in New York, and in part on physical occupation of the "waste land"
Map Source: Library of Congress, A map of the British and French dominions in North America (by John Mitchell, 1755)

References

1. Collier, Christopher and Collier, James Lincoln, The Paradox of Jamestown, 1585-1700, Marshall Cavendish, New York, 1998, p.17, 21-23
2. Abernethy, Thomas Perkins, Three Virginia Frontiers, Peter Smith, Gloucester Massachusetts, 1962, p.10 (For more, see Colonial Taxes in Virginia)
3. Abernethy, p. 39 Also, John Fontaine reported in 1715 that Robert Beverley was trying to sell him 100 acres near the Falls of the Rappahannock River for 7 pounds, 10 shillings. He also offered a 500 acre tract on the Rappahannock, at 15 pounds per hundred acres. The price was higher because 100 acres was already cleared, and the land was waterfront property with a creek deep enough to be navigable. (Alexander, Edward Porter [editor], The Journal of John Fontaine, and Irish Huguenot Son in Spain and Virginia 1710-1719, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1972, p.87, 89)
4. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier In American History, Henry Holt, 1921, p.3, https://books.google.com/books?id=vtF1AAAAMAAJ (last checked December 24, 2015)
5. Abernethy, Thomas Perkins, Three Virginia Frontiers, Peter Smith, Gloucester Massachusetts, 1962, p.60-65, https://books.google.com/books?id=7E0SAAAAYAAJ (last checkedJanuary 4, 2016)
6. Abernethy, Thomas Perkins, Three Virginia Frontiers, Peter Smith, Gloucester Massachusetts, 1962, p.61, https://books.google.com/books?id=7E0SAAAAYAAJ (last checkedJanuary 4, 2016)

the venture capitalists who financed the first Spanish, French, and English colonies in North America planned to co-exist with Native Americans rather than displace the residents; the Manifest Destiny concept of inevitable expansion westward to build an American empire rationalized the purposeful displacement that began after the 1622 uprising led by Opechancanough in Virginia
the venture capitalists who financed the first Spanish, French, and English colonies in North America planned to co-exist with Native Americans rather than displace the residents; the Manifest Destiny concept of inevitable expansion westward to build an American empire rationalized the purposeful displacement that began after the 1622 uprising led by Opechancanough in Virginia
Source: Library of Congress, American Progress ("Westward the Course of Destiny")


Mapping Virginia
Surveying in Virginia
Virginia Places