The Capital Cities of Virginia

Richmond has not always been the capital of Virginia.

When the English colonists arrived in 1607, the paramount chief of the local tribes (Powhatan) ruled his territory (Tsenacommacah) from Werowocomoco, located on what we now call the York River. Powhatan's brother, Parahunt, ruled a subordinate town located at the base of the waterfalls on Powhatan's River (what we now call the James River).

In 1607, the English colonists established their official seat of government at Jamestown. That location was about 15 miles south of Parahunt's capital at Werowocomoco - but about 80 miles as a boat travels on the river.

the two capitals of Tsenacommacah and Virginia in 1607
the two capitals of Tsenacommacah and Virginia in 1607
(the "Powhatan" the top of the map is the location of Parahunt's town)
NOTE: on John Smith's map, north is to the right
(Source: Library of Congress, John Smith's 1624 map of Virginia)

The colonists shifted their capital in 1699 to Williamsburg, long after the remnants of the Algonquian-speaking natives had lost control over Tsenacommacah except for small reservations (including two that still remain, on the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers). In 1776, the rebellious Virginians declared Williamsburg to be the capital of an independent state (which the new state constitution labelled a "Commonwealth"). Independence changed the status, but not the location, of the capital in Williamsburg.

In 1780 the Virginians moved their state capital inland from Williamsburg to Richmond, in hopes that the rebellious Virginia government would be less vulnerable to British attack. Thomas Jefferson, governor at the time, later wrote:1

The seat of our government had been originally fixed in the peninsula of Jamestown, the first settlement of the colonists; and had been afterwards removed a few miles inland to Williamsburg. But this was at a time when our settlements had not extended beyond the tide water. Now they had crossed the Alleghany; and the center of population was very far removed from what it had been.

Yet Williamsburg was still the depository of our archives, the habitual residence of the Governor & many other of the public functionaries, the established place for the sessions of the legislature, and the magazine of our military stores: and it's situation was so exposed that it might be taken at any time in war, and, at this time particularly, an enemy might in the night run up either of the rivers between which it lies, land a force above, and take possession of the place, without the possibility of saving either persons or things. I had proposed it's removal so early as Octob. 76 but it did not prevail until the session of May. '79.

The tactic failed. The British successfully marched into Richmond twice in 1781 - but there were few state government buildings to destroy.

Virginia committed to a national government based on the Articles of Confederation, which the General Assembly ratified in 1778. The Articles finally went into effect after Maryland ratified them in 1781, creating the first version of the United States of America - but establishing the confederation had little impact on the status of Richmond. As the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Richmond remained the capital of an independent state that was loosely allied with 12 other independent states.

On June 26, 1788, Virginia ratified the new US Constitution. With the creation of the new Federal government based on that document, Richmond became the capital of just one state, a subordinate government in the new national union. Depending upon how you view the Civil War, that status has never changed - or you can claim that the state capital moved again in 1861, 1863, and 1865.

If you adopt the Union perspective on the Civil War and the official role of the Restored Government of Virginia, the capital of Virginia shifted to Wheeling in 1861 after Virginia voted to secede from the Union. In 1863, West Virginia joined the Union as an independent state, so the capital of Virginia moved again to Alexandria. The last move was back to Richmond in 1865, after the defeat of the Confederate armies and the dissolution of the Confederate government.

If you adopt the Confederate perspective, the capital of Virginia never moved in 1861-65. However, the retreating Confederate state officials met briefly in Danville between April 6-10, 1865. You could argue that the Sutherlin Mansion (now the home of the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History) was the last "capitol" in the last "capital" of the Confederacy.

NOTE: The state capitol is the building that houses the Virginia General Assembly. The capital (spelled with an "a" instead of an "o") is the city in which the General Assembly meets. At the Federal Level, Washington DC is the capital city and the US Congress meets in the Capitol building. Charlottesville (May/June, 1781), Staunton (June, 1781), and Lynchburg (April, 1865) could claim to have served briefly as the capital city of Virginia, since some form of the General Assembly met there officially.

Werowocomoco

Orapakes

Matchut

Jamestown - The First English Capital

Williamsburg

Richmond

Wheeling

Alexandria

last five locations of the capitals of Virginia
last five locations of the capitals of Virginia
Map source: USGS National Atlas

The National Capital

The District of Columbia was 100 square miles when established in 1800. The Virginia portion was "revested" in 1846, moving the boundary north to the low water mark of the Potomac River along the shoreline of Alexandria and what is today Arlington County.

In 1910, the District was in need of land for a prison. It initially purchased 1,500 acres downstream of Alexandria, but local objections forced the city to transfer the land to another "federal" jurisdiction, the Army. To supply water to Camp AA Humphreys (renamed Fort Belvoir in 1935), the Corps of Engineers built Lake Accotink in 1918, when the area was so rural that the camp could use Accotink Creek as an open pipeline.

Today, the lake is a Fairfax County park and it's no longer sufficient to open the dam gates when Fort Belvoir needs more water...

So the District purchased land at Lorton. Now that too is "inappropriate" to Fairfax residents, and the various prisons built by the District at Lorton are edging towards history. The house with the quirky sign out front, "Prison View Estates," will soon be facing a development and parkland known as Laurel Hill. Sic gloria transit.

County Seats

Political power is not concentrated exclusively in capitals. In Powhatan's day, each werowance had authority within his own town, though it was limited by the power of their paramount chief.

The English settled at Jamestown, and it was the initial center of government for the colony. John Smith sent some people to Kecoughtan in 1608, to spread out the colonists during a period of intense food shortage. The city now at that site, Hampton, claims to be the longest continuously-settled English speaking community in North America. [Henricus, the second town to be established by the colonists in 1610, was never re-settled after being destroyed in 1622 during a major attack by the Powhatans.]

After Lord de la Warre rescued the starving colonists in 1610, the population of Virginia remained concentrated along the James River. The London Company slightly decentralized the political authority in the colony with the initial creation of "hundreds," self-sufficient settlements that were required to be spaced several miles apart from each other.

The major decentralization of authority away from Jamestown started in 1618, when Governor Yeardley authorized local courts in Charles City and other "convenient places." In 1634, sixteen years later, the Generally Assembly created eight official "shires" (afterwards called "counties"). This established an official, but lower, level of colonial government outside of the capital.

County courthouses became key locations for executive, legislative, and judicial procedures. Colonial Virginians relied upon county courts for decisions that exceeded the authority of the landowners on individual plantations, but did not require the attention of the Governor, his Council, or the General Assembly. Colonial officials were all acting as proxies for the King, at least in theory. As power was decentralized throughout the colony, however, Virginia officials naturally responded more to the concerns of their neighbors than of a distant leader across the Atlantic.

The only officials elected by the local residents before 1776 were the two Burgesses to the General Assembly. The justices on the court were appointed by the Governor. If there was a vacancy, the local justices recommended possible replacements - but until 1851, the Governor decided who would be appointed. Justices with the highest social ranking were considered to be members of the "quorum," and all sessions had to include at least one member with that status.

The clerk of the court and the sheriff were appointed by the county court. They received no salary, but instead set fees for their services. The sheriff, for example, earned a fee for collecting taxes- and he earned nothing if he failed to collect...

The Governor also appointed the initial vestry of each Anglican parish. The vestry were members of the gentry, and they managed the construction of churches, paid the minister, and dealt with social welfare issues such as support of the indigent and education of orphans. However, the vestry selected its replacement members as necessary, though in rare occasions the Governor would dissolve a vestry and appoint a whole new set of leaders.

What happened at the county courthouse? Typically, once a month the community would assemble there for one day to hear the justices of the county court:

There was no separation of powers, no separation between executive, legislative, and judicial authorities, at the county court. Though the vestry and the county court were separate organizations, overlapping membership was common - the small percentage of the population that were Virginia gentry controlled all official forms of authority in colonial society. There was a geographic separation of powers, however. The General Court (which met every quarter) and the General Assembly (which met roughly once a year) assembled in the capital, while the county courts normally met each month at the county seats.

It was convenient to have the courthouse accessible to the general population. New counties were formed when it became too burdensome for a large percentage of the population to travel in one day by horseback to the courthouse, and courthouses were often moved to new locations as population centers changed.

In an agricultural society with few "central places," the county court days provided rare opportunities for farmers to assemble, buy or sell items, and break the monotony of rural living. Taverns supplied food, drink, and lodging... merchants opened stables and stores... and towns grew up around most of Virginia's courthouses.

Links

References

1. "Thomas Jefferson, July 27, 1821, Autobiography Draft Fragment, January 6 through July 27," The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes. Federal Edition. Collected and Edited by Paul Leicester Ford., published by The Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib024000 (last checked May 29, 2013)


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