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History of Virginia

The History of Virginia begins with documentation by the first Spanish explorers to reach the area in the 1500s, when it was occupied chiefly by AlgonquianIroquoian, and Siouan peoples. After a failed English attempt to settle Virginia in the 1580s by Sir Walter Raleigh, permanent English settlement began in Virginia with Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. The Virginia Company colony was looking for gold but failed and the colonists could barely feed themselves. The famine during the harsh winter of 1609 forced the colonists to eat leather from their clothes and boots and resort to cannibalism.The colony nearly failed until tobacco emerged as a profitable export. It was grown on plantations, using primarily indentured servants for the intensive hand labor involved. After 1662, the colony turned black slavery into a hereditary racial caste. By 1750, the primary cultivators of the cash crop were West African slaves. While the plantations thrived because of the high demand for tobacco, most white settlers raised their families on subsistence farms. Warfare with the Virginia Indian nations had been a factor in the 17th century; after 1700 there was continued conflict with natives east of the Alleghenies, especially in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), when the tribes were allied with the French.The westernmost counties including Wise and Washington only became safe with the death of Bob Benge in 1794.

The Virginia Colony became the wealthiest and most populated British colony in North America, with an elected General Assembly. The colony was dominated by rich planters who were also in control of the established Anglican ChurchBaptist and Methodist preachers brought the Great Awakening, welcoming black members and leading to many evangelical and racially integrated churches. Virginia planters had a major role in gaining independence and in the development of democratic-republican ideals of the United States. They were important in the Declaration of Independence, writing the Constitutional Convention (and preserving protection for the slave trade), and establishing the Bill of Rights. The state of Kentucky separated from Virginia in 1792. Four of the first five presidents were Virginians: George Washington, the "Father of his country"; and after 1800, "The Virginia Dynasty" of presidents for 24 years: Thomas JeffersonJames Madison, and James Monroe.

During the first half of the 19th century, tobacco prices declined and tobacco lands lost much of their fertility. Planters adopted mixed farming, with an emphasis on wheat and livestock, which required less labor. The Constitutions of 1830 and 1850 expanded suffrage but did not equalize white male apportionment statewide. The population grew slowly from 700,000 in 1790, to 1 million in 1830, to 1.2 million in 1860. Virginia was the largest state joining the Confederate States of America in 1861. It became the major theater of war in the American Civil War. Unionists in western Virginia created the separate state of West Virginia. Virginia's economy was devastated in the war and disrupted in Reconstruction, when it was administered as Military District Number One. The first signs of recovery were seen in tobacco cultivation and the related cigarette industry, followed by coal mining and increasing industrialization. In 1883 conservative white Democrats regained power in the state government, ending Reconstruction and implementing Jim Crow laws. The 1902 Constitution limited the number of white voters below 19th-century levels and effectively disfranchised blacks until federal civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, the state was dominated by the Byrd Organization, with dominance by rural counties aligned in a Democratic party machine, but their hold was broken over their failed Massive Resistance to school integration. After World War II, the state's economy thrived, with a new industrial and urban base. A statewide community college system was developed. The first U.S. African-American governor since Reconstruction was Virginia's Douglas Wilder in 1990. Since the late 20th century, the contemporary economy has become more diversified in high-tech industries and defense-related businesses. Virginia's changing demography makes for closely divided voting in national elections but it is still generally conservative in state politics.

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