How did the Virginia colony continue to grow?

1622 Powhatan Uprising, de Bry

1622 Powhatan Uprising, de Bry

During the Virginia Company period (1606-1624) English settlements in Virginia focused on lands along the lower James River. A small number of colonists also established themselves on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. After Virginia became a royal colony in 1624, the limits of English settlement at first expanded very slowly. The war with the Powhatan Indians that began with an uprising in 1622 put frontier communities at risk. Colonial authorities preferred to strengthen existing settlements rather than create new ones.

Once peace with the Indians came again in 1632, the English rapidly began to establish new plantations. Colonists moved northward, claiming land between the James and York Rivers, and then towards the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers as well. This expansion triggered another war with the Indians. The 1644-1646 Anglo-Powhatan war ended with the defeat of the Indians, opening up most of Tidewater Virginia to English settlement. Settlement then progressed west to just beyond the fall line.

After their defeat, the Indian tribes of the coastal plain region accepted the domination of the English, and their chiefs ruled under the authority of the English royal governor. A series of small reservations were set aside by the English authorities for the various Powhatan tribes, but colonists paid little heed, encroaching on these lands as they moved farther north and west. Laws of this period reflected the strained relations between Indians and colonists. A 1656 law required Indians to carry a pass when they hunted, fished or foraged within specified areas. A 1662 law made them wear silver or copper badges, inscribed with their tribe’s name when they entered these areas. Special markets for Indian trade were established, although some trading probably occurred at Jamestown when the Indians came to pay their annual tribute to the English. In the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation the Indians acknowledged they were subjects of the King of England.

Copper Indian badge, 1662

Copper Indian badge, 1662

As English settlement moved west and north, colonists encountered Indian tribes who had never been part of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom. These non-Powhatan groups often resisted English expansion, sparking a new series of conflicts on the frontier. In the late 17th century the Virginia English came into contact with the Iroquois Confederacy, five very large and powerful tribes based in Pennsylvania and New York. Colonists living on the frontier thought the Virginia government did too little to protect them from Indian attacks, and sometimes carried out unauthorized and unjustified attacks against Virginia Indians. Virginia’s governor, Sir William Berkeley, did little to protect the farmers on the frontier.

In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon formed his own small unofficial militia. This militia mistakenly killed some friendly Indians, sparking native retaliation and Governor Berkeley’s anger. Conflict developed between Bacon, poor whites and discontented servants and slaves on the one hand, and Berkeley and the wealthy landowners on the other. Bacon’s group wanted to drive all the Indians from the colony. Berkeley wanted to preserve the important fur trade with some Indian groups, and he blamed Bacon for causing trouble. Bacon’s rebellion had begun.

In September 1676, the two men and their armies fought at Jamestown over who would control the government. Rather than give up, Bacon and his men set fire to the town. Bacon soon died, and Berkeley returned to power. The fire destroyed an estimated 16 to 18 houses, along with the church and the statehouse.

Virginia’s English population grew dramatically during the later half of the 17th century, but the rural nature of Virginia’s society remained unchanged. Several royally appointed governors tried to develop towns, and laws passed in 1680, and again in 1691, officially created over twenty towns in Virginia. Most of these towns were failures. Two that did flourish as important ports were Yorktown and Norfolk. Except for Jamestown, Yorktown and Norfolk, the vast majority of people in Virginia continued to live on scattered plantations and farms.