The Capital Cities of Virginia

the four capitals of Powhatan, from his original inheritance at the Fall Line to Matchut
the four capitals of Powhatan, from his original inheritance of "Powhatan" at the Fall Line to Matchut
NOTE: on John Smith's map, north is to the right
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia (John Smith, 1624)

Richmond has not always been the capital of Virginia.

When the English colonists arrived in 1607, the paramount chief of the local tribes was Powhatan. He ruled his territory of Tsenacommacah from a seat of power at Werowocomoco, located on what we now call the York River.

Powhatan had been born in a town further west, and had originally assumed power while living at the base of the waterfalls on Powhatan's River (now called the James River). Powhatan extended his control eastward by conquering the Piantatank, Kiskiak, and Chesapeake tribes. He moved to Werowocomoco, which had a long tradition as a special spiritual place, sometime before the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery arrived and disrupted the balance of power.

In 1607, his brother Parahunt was werowance in that town. He ruled as a subordinate of Powhatan, sending tribute of corn and furs to his brother located in his second capital at Werowocomoco.

In 1607, the English colonists established their official seat of government at Jamestown. The English soon discovered that their first capital of Virginia was about 15 miles south of Powhatan's base at Werowocomoco.

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, Virginia (John Smith, 1624)

Powhatan shifted his capital twice before the Second Anglo-Powhatan war started in 1622. In 1609 he migrated westward from Werowocomoco to Orapakes, moving to the swamps at the headwaters of the Chickahominy River. Sometime between 1611-1614, he moved again to the north side of the Pamunkey River, to a location known at Matchut.

Long after the remnants of the Algonquian-speaking natives had lost control over Tsenacommacah, the English colonists abandoned Jamestown. Governor Nicholson and the General Assembly shifted the colonial capital to Williamsburg in 1699.

In 1776, the rebellious Virginians declared independence, breaking with authority in London. That changed the status of Williamsburg into the capital of an independent "Commonwealth" rather than of a colony.

In 1780 the Virginians moved their state capital from Williamsburg. According to traditional political lore, Thomas Jefferson left a blank spot in the bill that he introduced, allowing the legislators to determine the location of the new capital. Reportedly the General Assembly considered Newcastle on the Pamunkey River, not far downstream from Powhatan's last capital at Matchut, before choosing Richmond in a close vote.1

25 years before the capital was moved from Williamsburg, Newcastle - but not Richmond - was important enough to show on a map
25 years before the capital was moved from Williamsburg, Newcastle - but not Richmond - was important enough to show on a map
Source: Library of Congress, Carte des possessions angloises & françoises du continent de l'Amérique septentrionale. Kaart van de Engelsche en Fransche bezittingen in het vaste land van Noord America (1755)

The General Assembly chose to move furher inland from Williamsburg, but stay on a deepwater river. The new location was the small community of Richmond. It was chosen in hopes that the new center of the revolutionary state government would be less vulnerable to British attack. Thomas Jefferson, governor at the time, later wrote:2

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.

When Virginia joined the Confederacy in 1861, the capital of that government moved from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond.

the Confederate Congress met in the Virginia State Capitol building between 1861-1865
the Confederate Congress met in the Virginia State Capitol building between 1861-1865
Source: The Photographic History of the Civil War, The Goal - The Confederate Capitol (p.282)

From a Confederate perspective, Richmond's status as the state capital never changed during the 1861-65 Civil War. The government of the state of Virginia remained in Richmond, and the city was simultaneously home to the Confederate government.

From a Union perspective, Virginia's state capital moved in 1861, 1863, and 1865.

According to the Union perspective, the Restored Government of Virginia was the official state government of Virginia between 1861-65. The Restored Government of Virginia categorized Wheeling, Virginia to be the state capital 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 had to move. Governor Pierpont relocated to Alexandria. The last move of the Restored Government of Virginia was back to Richmond in 1865, after the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia and the dissolution of the Confederacy.

Confederate officials fled Richmond on April 2, 1865 after Robert E. Lee reported that the Union Army had broken through the defenses at Petersburg. The Confederate Cabinet met briefly in Danville between April 6-10, 1865. The move to Danville was a shift of the seat of the Confederate government, but not a shift of the Virginia state capital.

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. The Confederate Congress never assembled there, but it was the location where Jefferson Davis last hosted a cabinet meeting and from which he issued his last formal proclamation.

That history has made the mansion a modern tourist attraction, and also the center of controversy. The City of Danville acquired the building and made it into the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, and flew the Confederate flag in the front yard of the mansion. Residents in the city, in which half of the population was classified by the 2010 Census as "Black or African American alone," objected. When city officials removed the flag, the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued to have it restored as a war memorial.3

The dispute centered around how the Confederate government's last formal meeting would be recognized. Virginia's governor and General Assembly never tried to use Danville as a new center of state government. Richmond's business district was burned at the end of the Civil War, but the state government has stayed in that location ever since 1865.

the Confederate Congress last met in the Sutherlin Mansion, making Danville the last capital of the Confederacy - but Danville has never been the state capital
the Confederate Congress last met in the Sutherlin Mansion, making Danville the last capital of the Confederacy - but Danville has never been the state capital
Source: Wikipedia, Danville, Virginia

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 the General Assembly met there officially at least to do business. The state legislature has also convened in Williamsburg since 1865, but those were ceremonial sesions.

Werowocomoco

Orapakes

Matchut

Jamestown - The First English Capital

Williamsburg

Richmond

Wheeling

Alexandria

Virginia and the National Capital

State Capitol Buildings

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

Links

References

1. Alonzo T. Dill and Brent Tartar, "The 'hellish Scheme' to Move the Capital," Virginia Cavalcade, v.33, No.1, Summer 1980, pp.4-11, http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/cavalcade/volumes/v21_30/sum80.htm (last checked August 20, 2011)
2. "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)
3.

in 1865 the Capitol building in Richmond still resembled the original structure erected according to Thomas Jefferson's design, and a main entrance was on the west side rather than through the front (with the columns)
in 1865 the Capitol building in Richmond still resembled the original structure erected according to Thomas Jefferson's design, and a main entrance was on the west side rather than through the front (with the columns)
Source: Library of Congress, Capitol building


Virginia Cities and Towns
Virginia Places