Virginia - An International Frontier

Roughly 15,000 years ago, Asian immigrants were probably the first humans to settle in Virginia. Their connection with Asia was severed as sea levels rose after the Ice Age ended, and North America had few international visitors for thousands of years.

About 1,000 years ago, Vikings may have explored the northeastern coastline. Odds are, the arrival of strange "aliens," in even stranger craft with new technology (billowing white sails), would have become a topic of conversation... Virginia natives may have heard of the Vikings, as trading partners shared the news. Some objects associated with the new visitors might have been carried south all the way to Virginia, but direct trade with sailors would not become an option in Virginia until the explorers arrived at the Virginia coast in the 1500's.

After Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, a wide variety of European nations competed to "discover" and claim portions of North America. Only five years after Columbus "sailed the ocean blue" and discovered the islands in the Caribbean, John Cabot travelled to North America. 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. They usurped the fur trade of the Susquahannocks, while the English colonies of Maryland and Virginia competed between themselves.

(After the northern part of the Chesapeake Bay was granted to Lord Baltimore, Maryland displaced William Claiborne of Virginia from his fur trading base on Kent Island, disrupting the English-Indian fur trade relationships. The Swedes brought that icon of the American frontier, the log cabin, to the New World - look at the reconstructed buildings at Jamestown and you'll see a log palisade surrounding the fort, but there are no log cabins there.)

New Netherland - Dutch settlements and claims between Virginia and New England in 1639
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

In New Sweden, Fort Christina (now Wilmington) was founded in 1638. The Swedes surrendered it to the Dutch in 1655. In the next stage of international competition nine years later, the Dutch were forced to surrender their North American colonies to the British in 1664. That's when New Amsterdam became New York. The Dutch recaptured it in 1673, but returned New York 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, then the ruler 15 years later.

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.

map from Spanish spy in London (Zuniga) used on modern interpretive sign at Jamestown
map from Spanish spy in London (Zuniga) used on modern interpretive sign at Jamestown

The Spanish did not challenge the English and try to occupy Virginia because they had no need of yet another colony in the New World. The Spanish worried about the potential of the Virginia colony to threaten the treasure fleet that sailed past Florida towards Spain, but after the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588 the Spanish leaders avoided direct military confrontation with England in the New World.

The French chose the same strategy, occupying lands along the St. Lawrence River starting 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.

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
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 Failure of the French

The Spanish in Virginia Before Jamestown

Was Virginia Destined To Be English?

Who Was The First European Child Born in "Virginia"?

References

1. Jones, Rev. Hugh, The Present State of Virginia. Giving a Particular and Short Account of the Indian, English, and Negroe Inhabitants of that Colony. Shewing their Religion, Manners, Government, Trade, Way of Living, &c., with a Description of the Country, quoted in Abernethy, Thomas Perkins, Three Virginia Frontiers, Peter Smith, Gloucester Massachusetts, 1962, p.8


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