Roughly 15,000-25,000 years ago, Asian immigrants were probably the first humans to settle in Virginia in large numbers. If the Solutrian hypothesis is correct, some settlers reached North America from Europe about the same time, hunting marine mammals on the edge of the sea ice in the North Atlantic.
Their connection with Asia and possibly Europe was severed as sea levels rose. After the Ice Age ended, there were few international visitors reaching Virginia for thousands of years.
That changed about 1,000 years ago, when Vikings may have explored along the northeastern coastline. The arrival of strange "aliens," in even stranger craft with new technology resembling clouds (billowing white sails), would have become a topic of conversation. 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, most likely prestige goods made of glass or metal. Direct trade between Virginians and European sailors would not become an option until new explorers arrived on the Virginia coast in the 1500's.
The first visitors to the New World were Spanish, but that was not inevitable. Rulers in England, France, 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, and the entrepreneurial Italian cities like Genoa and Venice lacked sufficient assets as well.
King João of Portugal was the obvious candidate to support exploration westward, sailing directly to Japan, China, the Spice Islands, and India. However, Prince Henry the Navigator and other Portuguese leaders were looking south. Bartolomeu Dias navigated around the southern tip of Africa in 1488, demonstrating the ability to bypass the trade controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
Columbus was rejected by the Portuguese. The 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 using 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 laerge swaths of the New World.
In Mexico and Peru, pre-existing societies were looted of great wealth. Ponce de Leon named "Florida," that part of the North American continent closest to Cuba and Puert 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, so the Spanish focused on occupying other territories and largely ignored North America.
After opening trade with the Spice Islands and India, the Portuguese had little interest in the New World. According to their interpretation of international law, the Portuguese had no right to occupy any of what became Virginia.
Spanish monarchs negotiated zones of influence in the New World in the 1493 Treaty of Tordesillas and Pope Alexander VI validated their claims. The Portuguese got rights to Brazil, but if offered little beside a wood that produce a dye for cloth. They were slow to settle Brazil, and the Portuguese played no significant role in exploring or settling North America.
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 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 Havanna to northern Spain by catching the Gulf Stream and then westerly tradewinds (yellow line)
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
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.
The international context was critical to English settlements in the New World. 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 were not completely independent of the status of 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.
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.
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, "the Virginia Planters, and even the Native Negoes generally talk good English without Idiom or Tone."1
To Europeans, however, Virginia was certainly 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.
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 or the French settled Virginia, the colonial churches might have mirrored the missions in Florida and the population might have been concentrated in towns from the beginning - or the colony could have been based on fishing and fur trading, rather than tobacco.
The Spanish were the first European country to explore into the interior of North America, and to create settlements on the coast below Newfoundland. Hernando de Soto ventured through what today is North Carolina in 1540.
The de Soto expedition was not a success, but the Spanish knew 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, Chespeake Bay, and Cape Cod.
However, the Spanish crown offered little support for settlement north of the Caribbean. After the French tried to settle on the St. John's River in what today is Jacksonville, Florida, the Spanish were provoked enough to destroy that colony. Afterwards, the primary focus was defensive - protect the Spanish treasure fleet sailing home from the Caribbean to Seville.
King Philip II authorized colonization of Florida but did not provide substantial support from his own treasury. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés ventured his own capital, following the previous initiative of his father Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon (who in 1526 had tried to create the San Miguel de Guadelupe in nodern-day Georgia).
In 1565 Pedro Menéndez de Avilés built a base at St. Augustine. A year later he moved north to build another base, Santa Elena (near 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 returned to Hernando de Soto's camp at modern-day Morganton, North Carolina, and a military force sent on a raid from that base in 1540 may have been the first Europeans to cross the Blue Ridge.
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sent an expedition to the Chesapeake Bay in 1566, looking for the rumored Strait of Anian that 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 Seguera accompanied Paquiquino/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, all but one member of the party were killed in early 1571.
The Spanish base at Santa Elena was abandoned in 1587 and 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, and 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, when conflict over expansion by both nations into the Ohio River valley led to the French and Indian War.
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 brrief, 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; that is when 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 ruler over Virginia 15 years later was the same man.