City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Jan 5, 2011 12:22 PM
Discovering the Decades: 1609-1729
Points in Time
As a colony, Virginia's early history was inextricably tied to events in Great Britain. At such a distance on a sparsely settled continent however, its interests and development quickly diverged from those of its mother country.
Virginia grew increasingly self-governing. Complaints of restrictive rule by the Virginia Company led to the Company's 1618 approval of a Charter of Grants and Liberties, which made the colony's government subject to the popular will as expressed through a representative legislature, the House of Burgesses. It was far from universal suffrage, however, as women, African slaves and landless whites had no say in politics. As a royal colony after 1624, Virginia generally enjoyed benign neglect, except with regard to the collection of the King's revenues. Even the period of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth (1642-1660), which shook England to its foundations, left the Old Dominion relatively unscathed. In fact, most Virginians remained loyal to the monarchy during Cromwell 's rule (one reason why so many latter-day Virginians would claim descent from the Cavaliers).
War and Rebellion
Except for occasional scares and the depression of trade, England's numerous wars with France, Spain and Holland did not greatly affect the sparsely populated Virginia colony. Because of its distance from Canada and Florida, however, Virginia remained relatively uninvolved even during the colonial "King William's War" (1689-1697) and "Queen Anne's War" (1702-1713), the first two of the French and Indian Wars.
Virginia faced other threats that were familiar to her neighbor colonies. The colonists' often harsh treatment of the aboriginal inhabitants – not the least of which was the expropriation of their lands--engendered a great deal of resentment. About a third of the colonists were killed in 1622 during a widespread uprising by the Powhatans and their allies directed at the new plantations and towns. The Indians repeated this successful surprise attack strategy in 1644, killing 300 whites. Retaliations by the Susquehannocks for the murder of five of their leaders in 1676 led to a war between them and the Virginians. One response of the Virginia government was the erection of a string of forts on the frontier. One earthen fort was constructed near the Potomac south of Great Hunting Creek in the vicinity of present-day Belle Haven.
The 1676 war had major repercussions for Virginia politics. Expecting no help from faraway England, the colonists looked to Governor Berkeley. Dissatisfied with Berkeley's indecisive policy, however, and having other grievances, frontiersmen under Nathaniel Bacon carried out a successful campaign against the Indians, then turned their eyes to Jamestown. Bacon, a former member of the governor's council, demanded reforms and ultimately burned the capital. His death, however, led to the collapse of the revolt and a series of executions and confiscations and a repeal of reform measures.
Many Jamestown colonists realized their dreams of wealth, but in a way unexpected by the founders of the Virginia Company. Tobacco became the backbone of the Virginia economy and its main export soon after the first crop was harvested. To the chronically coin and specie poor colonists, tobacco was literally a cash crop; it became the common medium of exchange. An intricate system of credit increasingly pushed the colonists into debt to English merchants. The source of wealth, the land upon which the "weed" was grown, was not a liquid asset; a family might have extensive holdings, but no pocket money. And planters soon discovered that tobacco quickly exhausted the soil. Rather than take the trouble to rotate crops, many simply moved west toward the Piedmont seeking new, cheap, and fertile parcels, and left the old behind.
One of few whites to spend time along the Potomac in the decades after John Smith explored the area was Henry Fleet, a trader with the Indians, who met with some Iroquois at the falls of the Potomac in 1634. White settlement only began to occur a decade later because of the prominent Brent family. Margaret Brent became the first female barrister in America in 1640 and, as a substantial landholder, later unsuccessfully demanded the right to vote in the Maryland assembly (making her the first suffragette in the colonies and arguably the first feminist). After quarreling with Lord Baltimore, Margaret and her brother Giles, who had been an important Maryland official, decided that it would be prudent to move to Virginia. Giles settled on the south side of the Potomac near Aquia Creek, becoming the northernmost white resident of Virginia. In 1654, Margaret Brent received a grant of seven hundred acres around Great Hunting Creek, including the future site of Alexandria. While she did not move to this area, she probably "seated" the patent by having a tenant settle on the parcel.
With the chaos of the mid 1600s, conflicting patents were granted by Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, and Charles II – the latter often as a reward to royalists who had helped restore his throne. Mistress Brent's land was included in a six-thousand-acre grant to Welsh sea captain Robert Howson in 1669. Not knowing of Brent's prior claim, John Alexander, a Stafford County planter, bought out Howson the same year. In an ensuing suit, Alexander's heirs kept the land by indemnifying Brent's estate with 10,500 pounds of tobacco.
While there were probably settlers in the Alexandria area at mid-century (and a temporary fort in the 1670s), the first permanent settlement was established by Simon Pearson on Daingerfield Island (current location of the Washington Sailing Marina, north of Alexandria) in 1696. Indians still inhabited the area at the end of the century. Coarse English earthenwares dating to the last quarter of the seventeenth century, however, have been discovered by Alexandria Archaeology under lower Cameron Street.
By about 1715, much of the area had been cleared and was under tobacco cultivation. At that time, John Summers built a house at Lincolnia, just beyond Alexandria's current western boundary. The Summers family cemetery is located near the intersection of Beauregard Street and Barnum Lane. Summers, who died at the age of 104 in 1790, was a hardy and religious farmer who, with his long recollection of local events, was often later called upon to settle land disputes. In 1719 Edward Chubb, a tenant of Robert Alexander, built a grist mill on Four Mile Run, the first known industrial structure in the area and evidence of significant grain cultivation here at the time. By about 1730, at least four tenants of the Alexanders lived below Four Mile Run in what is now Alexandria.
Buildings of the seventeenth century were essentially medieval in construction techniques, plan and massing. The British colonists of the Tidewater generally built timber frame houses on a linear, one-room-deep plan. The most common type of house, known as the "hall and parlor" plan, consisted of only two rooms usually with a loft above. Virginians began to build with brick earlier than the New England colonists, possibly because of the wide availability of suitable clay or because wood frame structures (particularly earth-fast ones) were more susceptible to rot and termite damage in the more humid climate.
Settlers brought Old World diseases. The Indians were hit the hardest; thousands died before laying eyes on the whites. The year 1686 was a hard one for native and settler alike; a dreadful epidemic of diphtheria spread through the colony. The new land countered with periodically severe outbreaks of malaria, as in 1687. The year 1667 showed how precarious an agrarian life could be on the margins of empire. That growing season began with "'a most prodigious storme of haile, many of them as bigg as turkey eggs,' which destroyed most of the grain and even killed hogs and cattle," followed by an exceedingly wet summer and a devastating hurricane which tore apart hundreds of homes and much of the fall harvest of corn and tobacco.
Travelers Accounts of the Alexandria Waterfront provides additional information on Alexandria’s early history.
Discovering the Decades was created as a series in Alexandria Archaeology's newsletter, in honor of the City's 250th Birthday in 1999. A number of City staff contributed to this project, including Al Cox, Pamela J. Cressey, Timothy J. Dennee,T. Michael Miller, and Peter Smith. Some of the original articles have been updated based on new research.