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Summer 2001
A Publication of the St. Louis Public Library

Vol. 1   No. 3


The Did You Know? section is designed to provide tips and research strategies and to  highlight a particular type of genealogical tool or resource.

The focus of the third Gateway Family Historian is Virginia resources. The Did You Know? section is designed to provide tips and research strategies, and highlight a particular type of tool or resource.

It’s always good to understand the history behind genealogy. Our ancestors did not operate in a vacuum. There is a historical reason for everything they did and everywhere they went. If we learn the history of the place and people we are researching, it can help us to understand where and why they immigrated. Knowing this background can also lead us to additional information in the "old country."

There are two issues we’re going to examine: who came to Virginia, and where, exactly, was Virginia? These may seem like silly questions, but they are both important points to consider. Once you understand who migrated to Virginia, and which states were created from the original Virginia colony, you will be better prepared to examine Virginia’s extensive genealogical records.

The first people to live in what would become Virginia were, of course, Native Americans. Although there was some intermarriage between the native peoples and both European and African settlers, little was left of the once-thriving native culture by the time of the American Revolution. Those Native Americans who remained were forced westward during the Early National period.

European settlement of what became the state of Virginia began under the auspices of the Virginia Company of London. This group intended to profit from trade and manufacturing in the new colony. They set up the village of Jamestown, which was the first permanent English settlement in North America. Starvation haunted these first settlers, and despite the arrival of new settlers from England, the population grew slowly. In 1619, the first African settlers arrived and were sold into indentured servitude. They were the first of many Africans who were enslaved on Virginia’s plantations.

Also in 1619, the headright system was instituted. This allowed anyone who could afford passage to bring new settlers to Virginia. The sponsor would receive fifty acres of land, while the emigrant received a trip to the colony. In some cases, these headrights were indentured servants, who then owed service to the patentee who sponsored him. In other cases, a patentee might sponsor a friend or family member in exchange for the land. Land grants based on headrights were made through the early 1730s.

Many of the early immigrants to Virginia were from the British Isles. These included the Scots-Irish, who moved down from Pennsylvania from around 1730 to the time of the Revolution. Some Irish and Scots also settled in Virginia.

More notable among the main group of European settlers were the Germans and French Huguenots who arrived in Virginia. Although a few Germans arrived with the very first settlers in 1607, the main German migration began with the establishment of the Germanna settlement in 1714. Many German families arrived here, and later moved into the Shenandoah Valley.

Huguenot settlement in Virginia also began in the early 1600s, but did not gain speed until after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685, denying freedom of worship to French Protestants. In 1700, a large group of Huguenot families arrived in Virginia. These and other Huguenots spread through Virginia and later into the Carolinas.

As previously mentioned, the first Africans to arrive in Virginia came in 1619. By the time slavery was established in 1660, the number of Africans in Virginia was still relatively low. However, their importation increased rapidly as tobacco became a valuable crop. Although importation of slaves to Virginia ended in 1778, approximately a third of Virginia’s population was African American by the time of the Civil War. This included a fairly large number of free blacks – approximately 55,000 by 1860.

Foreign immigration slowed down in the Early National period, as new immigrants headed for the states being created west of the Appalachians.

This brings us to the second part of the equation; namely, where was Virginia? When the Virginia Company of London was created, they considered Virginia to extend in an arc from what is now Maine to northern Florida. A rechartering in 1609 changed this to include parts of Canada and the future Northwest Territories, and extending out to the Pacific Ocean. The southern boundary in 1609 was moved to follow a line that ran through the future South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and on to the Pacific.

The first colonies to be formed from Virginia were Maryland in 1632 and Carolina in 1663. There were no major changes for nearly one hundred years. At the end of the French and Indian War, the western boundary of Virginia was set at the Mississippi River, and the lands west of the Mississippi were given to France. In 1774, the Quebec Act transferred all lands north of the Ohio River to Quebec. Virginia, as well as the newer colonies of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut challenged this act in 1776, as all thirteen colonies banded together to win independence from England.

As early as 1772, the British government had opened up settlement in the trans-Allegheny area of Virginia, which was referred to as Fincastle County. With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the government of Virginia renamed this area Kentucky County. New counties were created from Kentucky County, but distance made the area difficult to govern. It was ceded to the Federal government in 1789 and became the state of Kentucky in 1792.

In 1784, the newly formed state of Virginia ceded its land north of the Ohio River to the Federal Government of the United States. This was the Northwest Territories and became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and a small part of Minnesota.

The last major boundary change in Virginia did not take place until 1862. Several counties in northwest Virginia split over the issue of secession and formed the state of West Virginia.

As you can see, Virginia’s long and exciting history provides many challenges for genealogists.

Sources: Doran, Michael F. Atlas of County Boundary Changes in Virginia 1634 – 1895. Athens, GA: Iberian Publishing Co., 1987.

McGinnis, Carol. Virginia Genealogy Sources & Resources. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1993.

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