BICYCLING THROUGH HISTORY
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Jamestown began as a business venture by wealthy investors from England. After several expeditions by explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, the decision was made to attempt establishment of a colony near the mouth of what is now known as the Chesapeake Bay. Jamestown was founded in May of 1607 with the landing of three ships
carrying one hundred men and four boys. They had first landed along the sandy cape near what is now Virginia Beach. The colonists, however, were looking for a more protected site with better access to timber for buildings. An island further in from the Atlantic coast was chosen for its access to the sea, but protection from local savages. As it turned out, the colonists became friendly with the native Americans and they began to exchange goods. The natives taught the new settlers about growing food in the area and effective techniques for fishing. Because homes were built on a marshy area and the inhabitants were not accustomed to the environment, the settlement had a very high death rate. It declined in population from 500 to 65 during the winter of 1609-10. Fortunately, new people and supplies arrived from Britain and the town once again began to grow. This was in large part because of the booming trade for tobacco, which was originally introduced to England by Sir Walter Raleigh. He is even quoted as saying about smoking tobacco that, "it is obviously bad for your health." That observation, however, did not deter people from buying it for pipes, snuff and chew. The original tobacco marketing tradition still lives in the Commonwealth of Virgina. Jamestown was named in honor of King James I of England.
The settlers at Jamestown also survived and prospered with the help of the local Indians. As the first British colonists moved off the island, they began to expand their claims to new territory. By 1634, the colony of Virginia was divided into eight counties or shires. The James River valley from the Falls to the Blue Ridge, belonged to the Monican Indians know as the Tuscaroras, one of six nations, whose headquarters were near Forks of the James. This area is now the town of Columbia. Another major permanent Indian village was located at present day Wingina. Both colonists and Indians used the waterways for transportation.
In 1607, Captain Christopher Newport first led explorers to the area they later named Richmond. The name was derived from a bend in the river similar to that of the Thames River in Richmond, England. By 1644, the
construction of a fort began there to attract new settlers. Soon, the
community grew into a popular trading post for furs, hides and tobacco.
Between 1650 and 1700, there were many expeditions to the land around that fort and beyond. The Appalachian Mountains posed a serious boundary. Only a handful of fur traders had explored that area. In 1669, Virginia Royal Governor, Sir William Berkeley, dispatched German physician, John Lederer, on a mission to explore western Virginia. No one knew how wide the American continent was, but many
believed the East India Sea (modern Pacific Ocean) lay on the other side of the Blue Ridge. If
Lederer could find his way across Virginia, English merchants could open a lucrative trade with the
Orient. John Lederer made three trips into the mountains but never found the sea. He did leave us
with the earliest published descriptions of the Virginia interiors. Among the many wild beasts he
described, were vast herds of buffalo that roamed central Virginia, evidenced in later years by
place names such as Buffalo River, Forks of Buffalo, Buffalo Spring and Buffalo Ridge. By 1700,
the numbers of traders dealing with the Indians greatly increased. They no longer called the
mountains by their long Indian names, instead the first range was known as "The
Blue Ledge", ledge being an old word for ridge. There were few, if any, regular settlers above the
mouth of the Rivanna River by 1730.
In the 1600's, Virginia was generally governed by men from the England whose primary
purpose was to "make their fortunes" at the expense of the colonists. The settlements were mostly confined to the tidewater region. Tobacco became the main source for revenue and was the crop that could be best used for trade with England. The early Jamestown colonists learned how to grow it from the Indians. It turned into the major vocation in the region and the profits enabled many of the planters to spend their winters in London or Glasgow and send their sons and daughters to the finishing
schools in the mother country. Plantations developed along all the major tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. The ones closest to the mouth of the Chesapeake were the most prosperous because trading ships had easy access to the Atlantic. Williamsburg, which had spread from the intial colony at Jamestown, became the focal point. The York River and the James River both provided excellent ports for the growing community.
Williamsburg was first settled in 1633 as Middle Plantation. The town stood within a six mile stockade to protect it from possible raids by angry natives. In 1699, it became the Virginia colony's capital after the burning of Jamestown. It was renamed to honor King William III of England. Williamsburg became home to the thirteen colonies second college (after Harvard). The College of William and Mary was chartered in 1693, and was attended by Presidents Thomas Jeffereson, James Monroe, and John Tyler. Patrick Henry gave his 1765 speech against the Stamp Act in Williamsburg. One of the largest plantations nearby was named Berkeley. Thirty-eight men from the Berkeley Parish in England, sailed to Virginia to seek their fortunes. They came ashore at Jamestown on December 4, 1619, just twelve years after the founding. They began to build the estate a short distance up the James River. Benjamin Harrison, who signed the Declaration of Independence, was born at Berkely, as was William Henry Harrison (aka "Tippecanoe"), our 9th President. Another significant plantation was the Shirley. It was settled in 1613 by Sir Thomas West. The Hill-Carter family built the main house in 1723. Since early colonial times, the Shirley was a well-known center of hospitality. The Hills and Carters entertained the Harrisons, Byrds, Lees, Washingtons, Tylers, and other prominent Virginians. The house features a square three-story flying stairway,
unique to North America, besides other 18th-century finery. Robert E. Lee's mother, Ann Hill Carter, was born and raised there.
In 1716, an expedition led by Governor Alexander Spotswood crossed the Blue Ridge at
Swift Run Gap, and soon advertised to the world the rich resources of the back country. That region is now known as the Shenandoah Valley of
Virginia. Another group of settlers soon followed from Pennsylvania, although they originally came from various parts of Europe. That migration industrialized the
province for that period. The settlers had brought valuable skills with them. This rapid western growth forced serious issues on the colony. There were 24 counties
and 100,000 people living in the Virginia colony. Between 1707 and 1740, many Scottish
immigrants came in the area as traders, teachers and tobacco growers and settled along the middle
James, a river named for King James I of England. The river stretched 300 miles from the Allegeheny
Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean and was a key route for transportation. By 1727, the population jumped to 150,000, of which, 50,000
were negro slaves. The capital Williamsburg was little more than a struggling village at that time and Richmond had yet to be founded.
Hugh Jones wrote in 1724, "If New England can be called the receptacle of dissenters, and
Amsterdam of religion, Pennsylvania, the nursery of Quakers, Maryland, the the retirement of
Roman Catholics, North Carolina, the refuge of runaways and South Carolina, the delight of
buccaneers and pirates, Virginia may be just esteemed the happy retreat of true Britons and true
churchmen and for the most part should merit the greater esteem and encouragement".
The colony was not quite so genteel or united as the original investors from England might have expected. Though the General Assembly was composed largely of the Tidewater
gentry, the vast majority of the population was anything but obedient. Very few could read or write, but they had skills. They merely cooperated with the established government to serve their own needs. Governor Gooch indicated the kind of people with whom he was surrounded by
his statement that "the gentlemen and ladies here are perfectly well bred, not an ill dancer in my
government". The Tidewater gentry, however, was being threatened by the more independent minded folks of the west. They
now extended all the way up the James River to present day Columbia and beyond. In order to repay debts to English agents, they produced more and more tobacco. This caused depletion of the soil and created other problems. Tobacco then became a problem as well as the most valuable commodity. It could mean dancing, riding, feasting and fine clothes, or in a bad year for crop yield could spell debt, anger and insolvency.
George Washington had traveled through much of Virginia. He knew the waterways and he understood how agricultural products needed to move to markets. After the Revolutionary War, he became involved with business ventures in addition to his role in government. At that time there was far less concern for "conflict of interest."
On October 10, 1784, George Washington wrote Benjamin Harrison outlining the importance of
improving transportation between the east and the west. His letter stated: "But smooth the road,
and make the way for them (the western settlers) and see what an influx of articles will be poured
upon us; how amazingly our exports will be increased by them, and how amply we shall be
compensated for any trouble and expense we may encounter to effect it." It was the dream of
Washington and other great leaders. While others dreamed, Washington acted.
In 1785, Washington appeared before the General Assembly in Virginia to further his plans for
internal improvements in the Commonwealth. At his insistence, the James River Company was
incorporated and he was voted the first president. Since George Washington had duties relative to
the C&O Canal along the Potomac River, Edmund Randolph became the acting president. The
trustees were authorized and empowered to take and receive subscriptions to carry out the purpose
of clearing the falls and construct canals, and build locks, if necessary.
The James River Company having successfully raised the necessary funds to begin their work.
They increased traffic by improving the riverbed, blasting through rock ledges, deepening the
channel, clearing downed trees and building a seven mile canal around the dangerous falls above
Richmond continuing up another twenty miles to Maiden's Adventure.
Virginia led in the adoption of the Constitution as it had in the revolution. George Washington
presided over the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. The "Virginia Plan for the Union" submitted by
its delegation became the basis of the convention's work, and James Madison was perhaps the most
effective member of the convention. Virginia's own ratification of the resulting document was,
however, bitterly contested by the western small farmers group under Patrick Henry's leadership,
and came through by only a narrow margin on June 25, 1788, after commitments had been made to submit a
bill of rights as a series of amendments. Jefferson's election in 1800 initiated a quarter century of
control of the presidency by the "Virginia dynasty" (Jefferson, Madison and Monroe) and fixed
their liberal agricultural programs firmly in American political tradition.
The people and policies of Tidewater Virginia allowed for rapid expansion of the new nation as well as recognition of business ventures to take advantage of available resources. Being at the center of thirteen colonies probably helped considerably. Trade, and information, passed through the key former colonial port towns. The community that began as Jamestown and grew into Williamsburg became the center of the nation for a time. It was not long before the ports further north on the Atlantic coast began to overshadow those of Virginia.
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