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View series: The United States: a territorial history

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Virginia, the cradle of the United States

This map is part of a series of 20 animated maps showing the history of The United States: a territorial history.

During the 17th century, the English claimed the whole central area of the North American coast and named it ‘Virginia’.

In 1606, King James I issued a Colonization Charter for two limited liability companies: the London Company and the Plymouth Company.

The first three ships chartered by the London Company left the English coast at the end of 1606 with about 100 men on board and sailed to Chesapeake Bay.

The expedition’s commander, Christopher Newport, chose to establish the colony 70 kilometers inland on the banks of the James River. This site allowed the English to be hidden from Spanish ships which, from their bases in Florida, sought to prevent settlements by other European powers on the American continent.

During the following two years, several hundred settlers arrived in Virginia but these early attempts faced many difficulties. The site at Jamestown turned out to be unhealthy, and illness and famine led to a high number of deaths so that, by the end of winter in 1609-1610, the English presence in Virginia, now no more than 60 settlers, was about to disappear.

Fortunately, a settler named John Rolfe, introduced a new variety of tobacco, which had a better aroma than that cultivated locally by the Amerindians. This allowed the colony to survive economically. In addition, the marriage between John Rolfe and Pocahontas, daughter of the Chief of the Powhatan tribe, paved the way for a period of peace after the years of very tense relations between the English settlers and the native tribes.

Tobacco farming, often called ‘Virginia’s gold’, developed very quickly. Many settlers took up plots along the banks of the rivers flowing into the Bay, in order to facilitate the loading of ships exporting tobacco leaves to England.

Expansion of the land dedicated to tobacco farming led to increased confrontations between the English settlers and the Powhatans who had been dispossessed of their territories.

On 22 March 1622, 350 settlers were massacred during a surprise attack. This marked a point of no return in relations between the English and the Amerindians.

Following protests from the settlers, who felt that they were poorly protected, and dissensions within the Virginia Company, this company had to be dissolved and Virginia became a colony ruled directly by the English Crown.

By 1650, the number of settlers in Virginia was estimated at 5,000,while almost all the Powhatan villages had been destroyed.