Spanish explorers reached the Piedmont and Blue Ridge over six decades before Jamestown was settled
Source: National Atlas, Exploration and Settlement (before 1675)
Roughly 20,000 years ago, Asian immigrants were the first humans to settle in Virginia in large numbers. If the Solutrean hypothesis is correct, some settlers may have reached North America from Europe about the same time by hunting marine mammals on the edge of the sea ice in the North Atlantic.
The immigrant connection with Asia (and possibly Europe) was severed. After the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, sea levels rose and there were few international visitors reaching Virginia for thousands of years.
Vikings may have explored along the northeastern coastline about 1,000 years ago. The arrival of strange "aliens," in even stranger craft with new technology resembling clouds (billowing white sails), would have become a topic of conversation among those already living in North America. Metal and glass objects obtained from the Europeans would have been valued as prestige goods. As traders carried them inland, news of the visitors would have spread far from where Vikings were seen in person.
As inland trading partners shared stories, Virginia natives would have learned about the Vikings even if the Vikings never got to Virginia itself. Some objects associated with the new visitors would have been carried south to Virginia as prestige goods. Direct trade between Virginians and Europeans would not become an option until sailors began to arrive regularly on the Virginia coast in the 1500's.
Most of those early European visitors to the New World were Spanish. Rulers in England, France, the Netherlands, and the German states had not established sufficient control over their societies to amass fortunes large enough to fund speculative explorations across the Atlantic Ocean. The entrepreneurial Italian cities like Genoa and Venice lacked sufficient assets to sponsor expensive expeditions into the unknown, with no immediate return on investment.
King John of Portugal could have sponsored expeditions westward, seeking whatever might be on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The Portuguese did sail to India, the Spice Islands, Japan, and China. However, Prince Henry the Navigator and other Portuguese leaders were looking south, not westwards. Bartolomeu Dias navigated around the southern tip of Africa in 1488, demonstrating the ability to bypass the land trade controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
However, Columbus was rejected by the Portuguese. Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille took the gamble. They financed the trip in 1492 that led to European colonization of the New World. After Columbus "sailed the ocean blue" in 1492, Spain dominated the transformation of cultures in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and South America.
Columbus was not expecting to find cultures with less-advanced technology than his own. He hoped to meet Japanese or Chinese with silks to trade, or "Indians" with rare spices that would be of high value in Europe. After finding Arawak people such as the Taino, the Spanish created a pattern of discovery, conquest, and settlement that enriched Seville and other Spanish towns while impoverishing large swaths of the New World.
after Columbus arrived in the Caribbean and "discovered Indians," Spaniards sought to enslave them to mine gold and provide food
Source: Osher Map Library, The Basle 1494 Columbus Letter
In Mexico and Peru, pre-existing societies were looted of great wealth. Ponce de Leon was the first Spanish explorer in "Florida," that part of the North American continent closest to Cuba and Puerto Rico and therefore of greatest interest to the Spanish. He and other explorers such as Hernando de Soto found no stockpiles of metals, no jewels, and only a few pearls.
Most significantly, there were few concentrations of Native Americans that could be exploited for their labor. The Spanish focused on occupying other territories and largely ignored North America.
The Portuguese had little interest in the New World, after opening trade with the Spice Islands and India. According to their interpretation of international law, the Portuguese had no right to occupy any of what became Virginia. Spanish monarchs had negotiated zones of influence in the New World in the 1493 Treaty of Tordesillas and Pope Alexander VI validated their claims.
The Portuguese got the Pope's authorization to settle Brazil, but that land initially offered little beside a wood that produced a dye for cloth. The Portuguese were slow to settle Brazil, deferred to the Spanish in the Caribbean, and played no significant role in exploring or settling North America.
in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries, Spanish fleets sailed from Seville south towards the Cape Verde Islands and then caught the northeasterly tradewinds to reach the Caribbean (white line), returning home from Havana to northern Spain by catching the Gulf Stream and then westerly tradewinds (yellow line)
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The Pope's authority was useful for just Spain and Portugal. The Treaty of Tordesillas did not prevent other nations from exploring and establishing their own settlements in the Western Hemisphere. A wide variety of European nations competed to discover and then claim portions of North America, and portions of South America as well. All of the European nations used the "Right of Discovery" as a legal basis for ignoring the obvious fact that the land was already discovered and occupied.
Only five years after Columbus found islands in the Caribbean, John Cabot traveled to North America for King Henry VII of England. At various times, the Chesapeake Bay and the Virginia coastline was explored by the Spanish, French, and Dutch as well as the English. Even the Swedes established a colony nearby in what is now Delaware. The Swedes usurped the fur trade of the Susquehannocks, while the English colonies of Maryland and Virginia competed between themselves.
Virginia saw few Spaniards, and few French even during the French and Indian War. As a frontier, Virginia was primarily on the edge between English and Native American societies. Immigrants came from France and the German states, but accepted the authority of British colonial governments.
New Netherland - Dutch settlements and claims between Virginia and New England in 1639
Source: Library of Congress, Pascaert van Nieuw Nederlandt Virginia,
ende Nieuw-Engelandt verthonendt alles wat van die landin by See, oft by land is ondect oft Bekent
Jamestown and the small plantations scattered across Tidewater Virginia were international seaports from their very beginning. The plantations in Tidewater reflected an English culture transplanted and modified by experiences in the New World, but these plantations were not isolated from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Cultural diversity on the ships visiting plantation wharfs throughout Tidewater was high, reflecting the wide variety of ports from which sailors were recruited. Early Virginia was not an "English-only" culture, especially after the massive importation of slaves started in the early 1700's and Virginia was transformed into a tobacco-centered economy.
The mix of cultures in Virginia was not independent of the national rivalries in Europe. Tensions between European powers competing for wealth and military control in the New World created tensions in the early settlements of Virginia. Though the Jamestown colony was desperate for settlers in its early years, rivalries were intense enough to permit hanging one of the members of the council as a Spanish spy.
map of Jamestown fort (used on modern interpretive sign) originally obtained through a spy by Spanish Ambassador Zuniga in London
Still, Virginia welcomed most immigrants, no matter what alliances England was joining or fighting. At various times, Virginia landowners struggled to recruit Huguenots, Puritans, Royalists, refugees from the Palatinate, and virtually every other Northern European group that faced economic distress or persecution at home - even Catholics.
The international context was always a factor in the defense and the economy of Virginia. Currency used in the colonial era shows how Virginia was tightly connected to foreign lands. Less is known about the variety of languages spoken on the wharfs, but according to one writer in 1724:1
To potential European immigrants, Virginia was not home. It was somewhere else, way out there in the wilderness. In such a place, new riches could be discovered and adventurers could get a second chance at life. People who could never afford land in their native country could create an inheritance of value for their children.
Early exploration by Cabot and others gave the English monarchs an opportunity to claim the continent by Right of Discovery. However, it was the permanent settlement starting in 1607 that determined Virginia would be based on an English model. Had the Spanish settled Virginia, the colonial churches might have mirrored the missions in Florida. The population might have been concentrated in towns with a Catholic church at the center. If the French had occupied the Chesapeake Bay, the colony could have been based on fishing and fur trading rather than tobacco.
The English were late-comers to North America.
The Spanish were the first European country to explore into the interior of North America, and to create settlements on the coast below Newfoundland. Ponce de Leon made the first attempt to create a permanent colony in North America when he brought seeds and livestock in 1521 to a site near modern-day Tampa. Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon tried in 1526 to create a settlement called San Miguel de Guadalupe in modern-day Georgia.
Hernando de Soto ventured through what today is North Carolina in 1540. The de Soto expedition was not a success, but the Spanish learned the coastline and southeastern interior of North America better than any European rival. They could have moved north along the Atlantic Ocean edge from their base at Havana and established the first colonies on the Outer Banks, Chesapeake Bay, and Cape Cod.
Hernando de Soto stayed at Xuala (near modern-day Morganton, NC, 60 miles south of North Carolina/Virginia border) in 1540, and Juan Pardo returned in 1567
Source: Library of Congress, Peruuiae avriferae regionis typus / Didaco Mendezio auctore. La Florida / auctore Hieron. Chiaues. Guastecan reg. (1584)
The Spanish crown offered little support for settlement north of the Caribbean. The priority in Madrid was to protect the Spanish treasure fleet sailing home from the Caribbean to Seville, not to expand Spanish settlement north along the Atlantic shoreline.
King Philip II did authorize colonization of La Florida, but did not provide substantial support from his own treasury. Pedro Menendez de Aviles had to risk his own wealth to establish a base.
The French sought wealth initially by trading for furs along the St. Lawrence River. The French built Fort Caroline on the St. John's River in 1564, in what today is Jacksonville, Florida, but the Spanish were provoked enough to send a fleet to destroy the fort. The French tried to attack first, but a storm wrecked their ships. The Spanish then captured and executed the survivors, destroyed the French fort, and established St. Augustine in 1565.
The Spanish did try to defend the southeastern coastline, and build an overland supply line connect it to the settlements in Mexico.
In 1566 Pedro Menendez de Aviles moved north of St. Augustine to build another military base called Santa Elena, at modern-day Parris Island in South Carolina. In 1567 Juan Pardo left Santa Elena on an attempt to define an overland path to the mines in Mexico.
Pardo explored inland into North Carolina, and he returned to Hernando de Soto's camp at modern-day Morganton, North Carolina. A combined Spanish-Native American military force sent on a raid from that base in 1540 across the Blue Ridge may have brought the first Europeans into a part of Virginia away from the Chesapeake Bay.
Pedro Menendez de Aviles did send an expedition to the Chesapeake Bay in 1566, the same year he founded Santa Elena. The Spanish looked for the rumored Strait of Anian, which in theory would provide a direct water route to the Pacific Ocean. The ship failed to find the bay's entrance, but in 1570 another Spanish initiative started the first colonial settlement in Virginia.
Jesuit missionaries led by Father Juan Baptista de Segura accompanied Paquiquineo/Don Luis on his second expedition to the Chesapeake Bay. The Jesuits went onshore on the northern bank of the James River, but walked across the peninsula to the Native American community at Kiskiak. That hike may have been triggered by a desire to live close to the religious center of the Native Americans and challenge the spiritual leaders at Werowocomoco. The Jesuits failed to make friends, and all but one member of the party were killed in early 1571.
possible route of Father Juan Baptista de Segura and his Jesuits to Kiskiack in 1570
Map Source: US Geological Survey, National Atlas
Sir Francis Drake burned St. Augustine in 1586. The Spanish base at Santa Elena was abandoned in 1587, with Spanish forces concentrated at St. Augustine. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Spanish never again to establish another colony north of St. Augustine. They also failed to use military force to expel the English who settled at Jamestown in 1607.
The French started occupying lands along the St. Lawrence River in 1605. Those settlements provided access to the fishing grounds of the Great Banks, and being north of the English colonies reduced but did not eliminate conflict. Virginia colonists destroyed Port Royal in 1613, and an English force under a former governor of Virginia - Francis Nicholson - captured it in 1710.
The French also chose to create settlements along the Gulf of Mexico in order to control traffic on the Mississippi River and claim that watershed. The dance between the French and English lasted until the mid-1700's. Conflict over expansion by both nations into the Ohio River valley led to the French and Indian War, starting with what the French described as the "assassination" at Jumonville Glen of the leader of the French detachment.
Virginians triggered that conflict with their efforts to grant the Loyal Company control over the region at the forks of the Ohio (today's Pittsburgh) and lands north of the Ohio River. That war ended with expulsion of the French from North America, except for two small islands at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.
before longitude could be measured accurately, mapmakers suggested the Pacific Ocean was only a 10-day march from the headwaters of Virginia's rivers - increasing the perception of colonial leaders that French settlements in the Ohio River watershed were a serious military threat
Source: Library of Congress, A mapp of Virginia discovered to ye hills, and in it's latt. from 35 deg. & 1/2 neer Florida to 41 deg. bounds of New England, by John Ferrar (published c. 1667)
The life of the New Sweden colony was brief, but it created two significant impacts on the English colony of Virginia. Fort Christina (now Wilmington) was founded in 1638. By then Lord Baltimore had displaced William Claiborne of Virginia from his fur trading base on Kent Island, disrupting the Virginia-Susquehannock fur trade.
The Susquehannocks traded instead with the Swedes and the Marylanders. That disruption created an opening for Gov. William Berkeley, who arrived in Virginia in 1641, to establish control over Virginia's trade with Native Americans.
By 1676, colonists were upset about Berkeley's efforts to maintain peaceful relations with Native Americans. The governor's desire for private profits from the fur trade were seen as interfering with his responsibility to protect settlers moving north and west into territory previously controlled by Native American. The failure of the colonial government to respond to attacks on settlers in the borderlands led to Bacon's Rebellion in 1676.
The Swedes also brought that icon of the American frontier, the log cabin, to the New World. It was a new style of housing for the Virginia colonists. There were no log cabins built at Jamestown; that form of housing arrived with the Swedes. The Virginia colonists came originally from England, where trees from forests were too valuable for constructing cabins.
The Swedes surrendered their claims near the Delaware River to the Dutch in 1655. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, Dutch raiders sailed into the Chesapeake Bay to seize/burn the tobacco fleet.
The Dutch were forced to surrender their North American colonies to the British in 1664, and New Amsterdam became New York. The Dutch recaptured Manhattan Island in 1673, but returned it to the English in 1674.
Ironically, the Dutch leader in 1674 was crowned king of England in 1688 after the Glorious Revolution. William III (half of "William and Mary"), was the enemy of the English during the Third Anglo-Dutch War, but became the king who ruled over Virginia 15 years later.
south of Virginia were Spanish and French settlements in what became South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida
Source: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Virginiae Item et Floridae, Americae Provinciarum, nova Descriptio (published c. 1609)