Governor William Berkeley: Virginia’s First Economic Developer

Governor William Berkeley

Berkeley was a true “cavalier”, a junior member of the British aristocracy, with a heritage that extended to William the Conqueror. In England, the Berkeley family had their ancestral seat at Berkeley Castle built in the 1200’s; “the Berkeleys’ were among the richest and strongest families in England. It was said that at one time the Earl of Berkeley could ride from his castle …to Berkeley square in Westminster [the King’s London government district] without leaving his own land[1a] Oxford educated, thirty-seven years of age in 1642, with a previous career in the military, law, arts and politics, William Berkeley purchased the Virginia governorship in the same year as the English Civil War began. His tenure of nearly thirty-five years, 1642-1677, overlapped the chaos of the English Civil War, the Cromwell interregnum and the Restoration of Charles II. He stirred things up sufficiently to be nearly overthrown by a combination of a Dutch naval invasion, Bacon’s Rebellion, and generally cantankerous autocratic administration that prompted his recall in 1677.

Until the final defeat, and subsequent execution of Charles I in 1649, Berkeley personally was a royalist in the true sense of the word, loyal to Charles I and his son Charles II. As Cromwell’s Puritans gathered momentum, Berkeley allowed Virginia to declare itself neutral. During the Cromwell period (1650’s) Berkeley was forced out of office, and retired to his Virginia plantation. He did not abandon his royalist inclinations, which were shared among many major Virginia planters. Out of office on his Virginia plantation he pursued his many interests, foremost of which were private economic development projects. During that period, the powerful Virginia planter oligarchy assumed direct control over the colony policy system, electing its own governor, and in general ran the colony’s affairs with an indifferent Cromwell administration lurking in the background. In anticipation of the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, Burgesses reappointed Berkeley as governor. Charles II in 1661 formally reappointed Berkeley to the governorship; in that communication Charles II referred to Virginia as his “Old Dominion“. Upon Berkeley’s return to power he navigated a tricky “foreign policy” that substituted Virginia economic development goals instead of Crown and English mercantile objectives–with decidedly mixed results.

Berkeley, post-Restoration, ruled rather autocratically, suspending House of Burgesses’ elections. His “Long Assembly”, elected in 1662, served without subsequent election until 1676–when he was “fired”, and literally sent packing. It was Berkeley who, in this controversial and tumultous period, changed the long-standing Virginia freeholder election franchise (1670, 1676) to require property ownership–effectively disenfranchising the great majority of Virginia adult males, and unofficially establishing the plantation oligopoly as Virginia’s ruling elite. Berkeley was nearly overthrown in Bacon’s 1676 Rebellion–but survived the insurrection in large part due to the tolerance of the traditional planter elite to his rule. Bacon died in mid-1776 from dysentery (which nearly killed Berkeley as well), and the timely arrival of a British frigate with marines crushed the Rebellion. Berkeley’s subsequent cruel repression of the movement prompted Charles II to recall him in dishonor in 1677. Still he had “ruled”, officially and unofficially, for thirty-five years. He died and was buried in England in 1677.


Perhaps the key to understanding how Berkeley navigated these treacherous waters, particularly during the Interregnum period when he was out of power, was the deal he seems to have made with Virginia’s emerging planter class, which as we described in the previous module, dominated not only the economic base, but local county government–which in its turn, co-opted the colony-level decision-making bodies, the Royal Council the upper house, and the lower House of Burgesses. In return for the planter deference in the colony’s foreign and economic policy-making, Berkeley turned over the critical policy area of land development to the Royal Council. Berkeley seems to have genuinely fallen in love with Virginia “at first sight”; in essence he seems to have gone “native” and while still governor became a plantation owner himself becoming “one of them”. Leaving local county government to the planter elite and the House of Burgesses, he opened the door for the local planter oligopoly to cement its dominance, develop its own distinctive political ideology and culture, and incrementally establish on its plantations, a way of life that mirrored the pre-Civil War English aristocratic manor.

That “deal” came early in Berkeley’s tenure. In 1643 he formally made the previously advisory Royal Council the upper chamber of a General Assembly in its capacity as Council of State, with the lower chamber, the House of Burgesses. In effect, he set in motion an overlapping Parliament and Cabinet Administration in a coherent, multi-goal whole. From that point on, Virginia’s planter elites thought themselves as much the legitimate government of Virginia, as any Crown-appoint [Lieutenant] Governor. While Berkeley until the mid-1670’s made this workable, the tension between Crown, Governor and the General Assembly, dominated by its Royal Council/Council of State remained through 1776. In a look forward into the future, that chronic tension between the two laid the basis for the Virginia elites fear and despising of gubernatorial authority. After 1776, Virginia’s post-Revolutionary War state constitution created one of the most weak governors in the Early Republic United States.

Berkeley’s Civil War Agenda

William Berkeley, one of the Virginia’s most controversial figures, arguably Virginia’s earliest founder (excepting John Smith). He pursued a genuine economic development agenda throughout his entire administration–even in his so-called retirement period. Perhaps half in jest I have called him Virginia’s chief colonial economic developer, but he was a firm economic developer. Economic development was foremost, robust and multi-faceted, and pursued at great personal cost to the Berkeley through his long administration. Sometimes arrogant, and in his later years a despot, Berkeley implemented a remarkable variety of sophisticated ED strategies and initiatives. As a precondition for his ED agenda, Berkeley personally “pacified” in a military campaign against hostile Indian tribes in 1644 launched a “Holy Thursday attack”, which wiped out large numbers of white settlers and ruined many plantations and adjoining villages. Berkeley successfully concluded a treaty in 1646 that effectively secured “site control” over the coastal Tidewater through to the the Appalachian Fall Lines (to Richmond, Petersburg, Fredericksburg), thus ending what had been nearly forty years of chronic Indian raids and warfare. To sustain that new “conquest”Berkeley personally constructed a fort at what is today Petersburg and delegated to new planter elites from England the construction of a system of forts along the Fall Line (William Byrd I, arriving in 1649, built and founded what became Richmond).

Although extremely controversial today, Berkeley’s site control and removal of Native Americas from these contested coastal Tidewater lands necessarily meant white European hegemony. Without effective site control, lacking to this point, economic growth, English agriculture, plantation or yeoman, could not “take root”.  As we shall see with the Puritans in New England, and the Dutch in New Amsterdam, establishing site control from Native Americans was a de facto precondition for successful economic development–placing ED square in the middle of one of America’s greatest moral complexities. Needless to say, our earlier-described planter willingness to use black slaves as low wage workforce, also meant that economic development could not separate itself from that stain on America’s history. No attempt will be made in this history to defend or justify ED’s involvement in these moral complexities. It is a reality that the two stains were interwoven with economic development in colonial America–and would continue to be so through the entire of American history.

As had happened back in 1634, the conquest of new lands from Native Americans generated yet another land grab, a land rush into new Tidewater territories, stretching to the Fall Line. Berkeley’s site control also had the intended effect of creating an opportunity to cross the Fall Line and enter into the Piedmont central plain. Tobacco, a crop that rapidly exhausts the soil’s nutrients, combined with the normal succession of generations/cohorts, combined to compelled plantation elites to continually find virgin land to form new manors/tobacco plantations. The family-clans responded (especially after 1680 by first completing the settlement of the coastal Tidewater, then crossing into Virginia’s interior over the Appalachian Fall Line into the Piedmont plateau. While Berkeley started the initial movement himself, at Petersburg/Fort Henry, it was plantation elites that followed up after his removal. The Piedmont, including Fort Henry, became settled by the more aggressive clan leaders such as William Byrd, and the Randolphs.

In 1649, this land rush got very complicated as Charles I, on the verge of defeat and capture by the Puritans, made as one of his last acts, a massive land grant to a group of loyal aristocrats and the their families. That land grant, the Northern Neck, embraced over a million acres between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, was legally a “baronical estate”, whose administration and legal identity was outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia colony. It was an legal “proprietary” apart from the the authority of the Governor and the General Assembly. The Northern Neck initially included a goodly number of aristocratic families, and its initial governance was a matter of negotiation among the families. When Charles II was restored to power in 1661, he restored that grant, but gave Berkeley personal authority to “manage” its day-to-day affairs on behalf of the aristocrats. Berkeley’s abrupt departure ended that tenuous relationship, and from that point on the Northern Neck became a quasi-independent huge mass of land that extended from the Potomac into today’s West Virginia–almost all of present day Virginia’s northern counties. The Northern Neck will play a significant role in our Virginia story as we go forward in future modules.

Free Trade with the Dutch–Perhaps more controversially Berkeley over two decades tried to break the stranglehold of English merchants, trading factors, and shippers over the transport and sale of Virginia tobacco. Required by English law and regulation to trade exclusively with London, using British shipping, Virginia planters were seemingly locked into a trade that cut their profits dramatically, and made them dependent on England. Berkeley, determined to weaken this artificial monopoly, made several deals with the Dutch, in West Indies and New Amsterdam, that challenged the British mercantile system by attempting a 17th century version of free trade. In 1647 he negotiated “most favored nation status” for Dutch merchants opening up Virginia to Dutch trade and the West Indies and New England to Virginian trade. This could have been a huge innovation, disruption if one prefers, in the tobacco economic mono-culture that Virginia was at that time.

During this time, as we shall discuss in a future module, the Crown, and Berkeley passed legislation to develop cities, and particularly a port city through which export and commercial trade could be made. Hotly contested in London and among powerful British merchants, Berkeley pursued his policy successfully until 1649 when Charles was captured, tried, and executed. Berkeley continued his resistance, even threatening to oppose Cromwell militarily (he was after all 3000,nautical miles away), but Cromwell’s 1651 Navigation Act which (a colonial era Jones Act) required that English ships be used in English trade) and the Treaty of Jamestown in 1652 which required Virginia join the English/Puritan mercantile “commonwealth” put an end to Berkeley’s Dutch “free trade” flirtation. . Berkeley, in essence forced out of office, retired to his farm. Domestic Virginia elites simply replaced Berkeley during the interregnum having the unintended effect of both solidifying the political position of Virginia’s plantation oligopoly, and allowing it to continue its royalist inclinations–infused as we shall see below by refugee royalist immigration

Diversification of the Virginia economic base–Whatever the origins of his beliefs, likely a derivative of his precocious rejection of protectionist mercantilism in favor of comparative advantage and free trade, Berkeley from 1642 on believed, and acted, aggressively to diversify Virginia’s economic base away from tobacco. Upon arrival in the colony, he established his own private plantation, Green Spring House near Williamsburg. At Green Spring House he constantly experimented in the planting of about anything he thought might grow. . Flax, fruits, liquor, rice, potash, and even silk (he imported the worms) achieved sufficient success that he attempted their export, and importantly convinced the General Assembly to pass supportive legislation and subsidy of costs to export for these crops.  His object  attract the interest of the tobacco planters. Eventually, on the advice of his black slaves, he adopted rice and that was very successful. N one of these crops, however, produced wealth competitive with the wealth generated through tobacco, and the taxes levied to support Berkeley’s economic diversification program irked the plantation owners.  and his efforts never dented the near monopoly of tobacco. Berkeley was not the only royal governor that attempted to diversify the economic base. All that tried, however, got no where. It was not until mid-18th century that Virginia planters felt the need to diversify away from tobacco.

Berkeley’s economic diversification was not limited to agriculture. Adding yet another dimension, Berkeley engaged in what today would be labeled as cluster-building. Berkeley, in 1644, secured from the House of Burgesses a corporate charter to a group of land speculators who promised to open up the Piedmont frontier and found a settlement in an area with potential lead and ore mines. According to the charter they would then be tasked with opening up the mines for production. The corporation received an abatement from any land sales profits, but was required to pay “the royal fifth” on the profits from the mines. For Virginia this was a pioneering major innovative initiative into economic development and its use of a state corporate charter for this type of goal was a first. Despite its good intentions, the venture did not fare well–especially for the corporate entrepreneurs. They were all killed, to a man, by Indians. The state-chartered corporation, however, that they were awarded proved to be Virginia’s first economic development organization (EDO). From this mine corporation award, state-chartered corporations were off and running (literally from the Indians); they would be the standard structural vehicle for public-private partnerships through to the American Revolution. George Washington’s Patowmack Company was a 1784 version.

Workforce-Indentured Servant Legislation–Berkeley’s “workforce” initiatives are far and away hugely controversial today, but again he was involved in these initiatives, and they cannot avoid mention simply because they make many uncomfortable, deservedly so. One could legitimately say these workforce initiatives were critical to the structure of that policy system and therefore need be understood. There are two sets of initiatives, the first regarding indentured servants, and the second, alluding to the transition among Virginia planters away from indentured servants to the importation and use of black slaves.

Expanded tobacco growing logically meant an increased use of indentured servants. A virtual industry developed around their “recruitment”, travel, and subsequent employment in Virginia. By mid-17th century an estimated 50% of male Virginians were indentured servants [1]. While many servants were recruited by disreputable means, many others willingly signed on, not unaware of the pitfalls. Sadly, their economic plight, desperate by any description, made the risk attendant on being an indentured servant seemingly preferable to their personal status quo. Also as we shall see, many got caught up in what turned out as an enormous “bait and switch” as the terms of indentured servitude were altered considerably during, and after, the Berkeley period.

Over the years, the preference for willing and compliant workers by the planters increased, and women, children, and the desperate Irish intensified. The terms of the standard indenture contract were altered to the favor of the “owner”. Planters could sell their contract to others–and did. Provisions in the contract allowed for punishment for “bad behavior”, which besides the more normal bad behavior included dating and marriage. Master’s consent was required. It also included severe penalties, both personal and civil for “running away”. The Virginia government was complicit in all these; in 1696, for example, legislation imposed a fine of 500 pounds of tobacco on any minister who married an indentured servant without master’s permission. As early as 1658, servants were required to spend an additional year under contract if they were responsible for a child born in or out of wedlock. There was also the potential for public flogging for these and other offenses. Children produced by indentured servants upon workable age were subject to the parent’s contract–and they could be sold away (1646). I could go on.

Perhaps it was mostly the change in awarding of land after servitude that really spelled the end of indentured servitude in Virginia. Future land ownership was always the key attraction to a prospective indentured servant. The awarding of land at the end of the contract, however, eroded after 1624; by Berkeley’s time it was usually not honored, if indeed it was still part of the contract. Discharged servants got corn, a few coins, a set of clothes, maybe some tools–and sent on their way. As politics and economy changed in England, the attractiveness of indenture declined. During the English Civil War indentured servant importation declined significantly, and the victory of the Puritans meant they discouraged further importation. By the 1680’s, the end of Berkeley’s tenure, English law prosecuted merchants who used indentured servant contracts. By that point, an estimated 4 out of 5 Virginia residents were actual or former indentured servants [2]. Virginia planters were opening up the Piedmont, still not “pacified” and subject to Indian attacks (Peter Jefferson’s first claim to fame was as an Indian-fighter); former indentured servants would not work as sharecroppers on the new Piedmont plantations. Moreover, indentured servants increasingly became “surly”, hard-to-manage, and increasingly non-productive.

So a new workforce needs be recruited.

Virginia planters turned to using black, at first Caribbean slaves. “After 1670, most Africans entering Virginia would be enslaved under the cover of international law as non-Christian war captives[3]. In 1662, legislation made children born of slaves, slaves themselves. Fatherhood by planter masters was not punished by Virginia law. When a white woman bore a child of mixed ancestry, she was fined 15 pounds month for the support of that child, or she could herself be bound and sold as an indentured servant. Her child was bound for indenture for a period of thirty years. In 1691, the law required all manumitted (freed) slaves be transported from Virginia. In 1670 there were an estimated 3,000 slaves in Virginia (out of a population of 35,000, or 8.5%). With the Restoration, Charles II authorized royal-chartered corporations (for example, the “Royal Adventurers Into Africa”) and an active English slave trade developed. Others followed.By 1700 Virginia’s slave population ranged somewhere between 6,00 and 12,000–out of an overall 65,000 (10 to 18.5%) [4]. In 1705, all these laws and much more were aggregated and compiled into the legal “Virginia slave code”–which, for all practical purposes serves as the best single date for the legal and formal institutionalization of slavery in Virginia.

Berkeley’s Post 1660 Restoration Agenda–Amazingly, Berkeley’s first initiatives upon returning to office in 1660 was to reopen his trade initiatives with the Dutch Governor, Peter Stuyvesant. He negotiated a comprehensive treaty that restored relations and trade, provided a remedy for debt collection in Virginia’s courts, and return of any runaway servants from either colony. In no time at all, a restored Charles II issued his own version of Cromwell’s Navigation Act which excluded the Dutch from the tobacco trade. The net effect was that Virginia planters would pay more to trade and receive a lower price for their product. Berkeley was incensed and (1) immediately traveled to London to argue his free trade position, and (2) wrote his defense of Virginia economic interests vis-a-vis the English mercantile commonwealth: “A Discourse and View of Virginia“.

Once again he argued for a diversified Virginian economic base. He also concentrated fire on the adverse effects of the Navigation Act on Virginia, and concentrating on tobacco production and export. In England, however, Berkeley was ill-treated; essentially told to go back to Virginia and mind his own business. The King himself, while sympathetic to a diversified economic base wanted no reduction in taxes and any pressure from disadvantaged England merchants and shippers who also paid his taxes. In early 1663, Charles II promulgated his third Navigation Act which made things even worse–requiring the Virginia tobacco to be sent to English ports, and from there to be sent to their ultimate destination. This was ruinous in its effect on Virginia prices, and in short order Virginia went into a recession induced by tobacco prices. If that were not bad enough, the Dutch, unhappy at being excluded from the tobacco trade, began to pirate the English shippers, and in 1665 war erupted between England and Holland. Caught in a recession and now a war, tensions in Virginia were high, autocratic Berkeley got himself squarely in the midst of a restive western planter and lumpen proletariat insurgency that transformed itself into Bacon’s Rebellion.

When relations between Britain and Holland erupted into war, Virginia was successfully raided by a Dutch fleet, destroying some of its annual exports. When peace was restored (New York City finally became English) Berkeley returned to his old habits and established trading ties in NYC with low-cost exporters while on his own version of trade mission. At one point, Berkeley, personally traveled to London to argue his trading position with the British Trade Bureau–he was immediately sent home again and told to mind his own business . Upon returning home, he minded his own business and turned a blind eye to others engaged in such transactions. Over time an alternative, if illegal trade with New York and the West Indies developed. Never really successful in reversing the British control, he nevertheless put himself on the line and endeavored to free Virginia’s economy from English restrictions, regulations and imposed costs.

His lack of success, however, left behind a tobacco export nexus that drained profit from the Virginia planters, and put it in the hands of intermediaries, and London merchant “factors”. In time they would be supplemented by a Highland Scot merchants who traversed up and down the Tidewater making individual deals with plantation owners–usually to the added disadvantage of the plantation owner. Given an unwillingness to cut back on personal expenditures, this export finance system pulverized the pocketbook of the Virginia planter class–leaving them tobacco rich and cash deprived. Forever in debt, the Virginia tobacco plantation exporters were early on aware of the costs of a close, but extractive, union with Great Britain. It is no surprise they were first to the line of American merchants and exporters to the potential profitability of a war of independence.

The more aggressive planters organized the tobacco assignment trade as agents of London syndicates … They [the Virginia consignment planters] were able to secure credit and obtain manufactured goods and other merchandise from English firms. Acting in the dual role of planters and merchants [i.e. they sold domestically these manufactured goods] , these men parlayed their earnings [potential investment capital] into landholdings situated on the major rivers. They managed the hinterland from their riverside wharves and warehouses, dominating the commerce within a twenty-five mile radius … they purchased tobacco from the smaller planters and sold them English goods. They speculated on land, breaking it into smaller farms, which they either leased or sold to small planters, including  … freed servants [5].

Berkeley Imports a Policy System and Future Political Culture 

During and even after the end of the English Civil War, Berkeley developed carried out a determined and sophisticated “people-attraction” economic development strategy. It was very much a personal initiative, for which he drew upon his powers as governor, and his substantial influence among English royalists lords and gentry. Using in particular his authority to administer the colonial headright system and to make land grants (including after 1649 land grants in the proprietary Northern Neck), Berkeley developed a semi-formal campaign to lure worried English royalists to immigrate to the safe haven Virginia offered. “As the rump of the New Model Army mopped up the war for the victorious Puritan legislature, England got hotter still for the scions of the Royalist upper class. Throughout these years, Sir William waved the flag for King and Colony. He actively recruited a Royalist elite for emigration to Virginia. In a time of great insecurity for Royalist landed gentry, Virginia became a beacon of safety, comradeship and opportunity[6].

Berkeley had his greatest influence on Virginia … More than any other person, he shaped the process of immigration to the colony during a critical period in its history. That process in turn defined Virginia’s culture, and largely determined the main lines of development for generations to come [6a].

Berkeley’s  targeted people-attraction initiative involved personal contact, letter-writing, personal invitation to targeted candidate, a trip to England in which he spoke and made individual appeals. Many were friends, family and among his voluminous contacts, acquaintances, and from time to time a pamphlet. The initiative continued from the middle 1640’s to the early to mid 1660’s. After that royalist migration continued on its own momentum. In addition to refugee recruitment, in earlier years Berkeley also actively promoted a “younger sons immigration” by publishing pamphlets which he mailed directly to the younger sons of English nobles. In an English system centered on primogeniture, such a campaign was attractive and successful. Berkeley, himself a younger son, knew his audience. In that both campaigns Berkeley primarily attracted “men of good families” [Albion’s Seed, p.219] “many persons of condition and good officers of war” (Bound Away, p. 4) English lower noble, or gentry, rather than highly-ranked aristocratic families; one can sense the aspirational backdrop of the attraction campaign. The latter had a more intense attraction to the traditions of nobility, and used it in an equally intense manner to provide legitimacy to their influence and status to their social standings. In any case, they shared an upper class perspective, education, wealth and family connections, Anglican Church membership, and usually attachment to the King.

No doubt waged with mixed motivations, Berkeley’s people attraction initiative was quite successful, and continued while Berkeley was retired on his estate-plantation at Green Springs. With the return of Charles II after 1660, Royalist elites also returned to English power and influence, and those family members who in the interim had taken residence in Virginia were able to resume their relationships with their English family resident in England. Conversely, resident English families had plentiful contacts with Virginia royalists so they could use the latter’s assistance in matters of family succession (second sons in a primogeniture-dominant succession), marriage of daughters, and recourse to trade, finance, and political influence). Sons, sometimes daughters, of Virginia plantation owners were sent for their education to England, returning home upon completion. Berkeley had imported 17th century Downtown Abbey to Virginia.

What started as a sort of political refugee program, Berkeley’s targeted people-attraction strategy became much more over the decades that followed. Whatever its perceived social status, Virginia royalist elites became an offshoot residence for many great families of the English aristocracy and gentry. As Virginia royalist elites themselves intermarried with domestic ( Jamestown Company era) Virginia elites, bloodlines and family clans–alliances developed. In essence, Berkeley, consciously or not, had also initiated what turned out to be an importation of the English royalist (Cavalier) political culture. This, as shall be argued, is the major element in the development of the Tidewater elite political culture. The uniqueness of Berkeley’s targeted people attraction strategy was it imported an elite, and subsidized their workforce.

[The Royalist immigrants] expected to find and accepted the the hierarchical English society they left behind. Privilege, liberty and economic comfort went hand-in-hand with social status … simply accepted as the ordering of fate or God … [as] had evolved organically in England. It was the social legacy of feudal Norman England. In Virginia, however, this rigid class distinction was draconically imposed on the colony by Governor Berkeley and the like-minded landed aristocracy … From the upper ranks of English society, they came: Culpeper and Fairfax, Throckmorton and Digges, Byrd, Spencer and Gage. Starting with a score of aristocratic families and a hundred families of the landed gentry and burghers, the Virginia elite intermarried quickly  and formed an interlocking directorate … from 1660 to the American Revolution [7]

Draconian, I am not sure, but autocratically, and for the most part legally, implemented by Berkeley, these royalist emigrants were granted titles to land in large to huge quantities as an incentive to relocate. This incentives Berkeley provided to his imported elite were the cutting edge of his implanting these immigrants as Virginia’s new elite. In effect he gave them a golden key into the patriarchy, and entry points into its policy system. Moreover, the headright system was the incentive that incentive that kept on giving, subsidizing the enlargement of the initial estate once established. The headright system (the royalist landholders could advertise in England  that indentured servants could upon completion of their contract be awarded fifty acres of additional colony-owned land transferred to the plantation owner (and held by him) upon their arrival in Virginia. As discussed previously, the terms of this land transfer to eligible former indentured servants changed fairly radically over the next fifty years, and the practical consequence of the headright system in the post-Berkeley period especially was to augment the land grants to plantation owners. His emerging planter class was drawn to Virginia by a sophisticated marketing campaign, collateral materials, and aggressive subsidies.

Most arrived in the decade following 1655. As royalist refugees arrived during the post-Restoration period. Recruited aristocratic families included the former “holder of the keys” to London Tower, and to a son of a Puritan-displaced don at Oxford College (John Washington–guess who is descended from him?). Heinemann asserts this amounted to a “land grab”involving more than a million acres in the period between 1650 and 1665. Royalist recruits in that period, he further suggests, were highly ambitious men on the make … [with] expectations of wealth-producing plantations Their land grab was made possible by the headright system. Taking out fifty acre patents [land grants] on [future import of ] indentures  [servants], they secured almost a million acres from 1650 to 1665, making windfall profits fifty to one hundred times the cost of their investment by renting or selling lands to ex-servants. Many of these newcomers became part of the provincial gentry by marrying wealthy widows. They created large estates by patenting land and building plantations with indentured and enslaved labor and diversifying their commercial activities. [8]

These noble and gentry immigrants, once ensconced in America, “continued to intermarry on both sides of the Atlantic, and moved freely back and forth across the ocean. the result was tightly integrated colonial elite which literally became a single cousinage by the beginning of the eighteenth century.  The families, originally based in Northampton, Kent, Bristol and Gloucestershire and Somerset carried over to Virginia. The overlap with the names of Virginia counties during this period is significant [9]. Succinctly summarized by Hackett-Fischer, Berkeley “encouraged the cavaliers to come over in large numbers. When they arrived he promoted them to high office, granted them large estates, and created the ruling oligopoly that ran the colony for many generations” [10]. Hackett-Fischer based his assertion on the demographic and biographical history of Phillip A. Bruce Social Life of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century (Richmond, 1907).

Berkeley. for example, appointed Richard Lee, a chief lieutenant of the former governor, as his second-in-command (Attorney-General). During his tenure under Berkeley Lee personally accumulated about 13,000 Tidewater acres on which he planted tobacco, was a huge importer of indentured servants, and traded slaves and furs. Upon his death in 1664 Richard Lee was reputed to be Virginia’s richest man. After his death several of his parcels were sold, including what became Washington’s Mount Vernon. His grandson, Thomas Lee melded a political dynasty through marriage, land ownership and executive management of Lord Fairfax’s Northern Neck grant. He was the principal founder and first president of the Ohio Land Company (Lawrence Washington, the President’s older half-brother, succeeded him). He held during the course of his career just about every political office, including House of Burgesses and Royal Council. His children included several sons that featured heavily in the Revolution and the Articles of Confederation, the most notable being Richard Henry Lee, signer of the Declaration of Independence, President of the Articles, and Virginia’s first Federalist Senator to the Early Republic–considered as a Founding Father. The descendant, Richard Henry Lee was great-grandfather of Robert E. Lee.

Berkeley also set up post-Restoration royalists immigrant in western Tidewater/Fall Line areas which he had stabilized during the 1650’s by a series of forts that ran along rivers at the Fall Line. Entrusting the initial 1649 Petersburg fort project to Colonel Abraham Wood, a former indentured servant, Wood established a trading relationship with the Tribes, and conducted a series of expeditions into Virginia’s interior. “The commanders of Berkeley’s forts were favored with land grants so large they were measure not by the acre, but by the mile.” When he arrived in 1669 William Byrd I inherited three square miles from [Fort Henry] … he took command of the fort and agreed to recruit 250 settlers i.e indentured servants]. For his trouble Byrd was given [an additional] eleven square miles. … [Byrd] referred to himself as a ‘forester’ … [and] maintained their manners as a gentleman. They were as much at home in a London salon as in the American wilderness[11]. From Byrd, of course, will evolve Virginia’s famous 19th and 20th century Byrd dynasty-machine.

The Berkeley initiated expansion into the Piedmont, extended Virginia’s territorial footprint to the Fall Line, and made Virginia the largest, most powerful, British colony in America. To provide context for the above assertion, Massachusetts’ estimated population in 1640, just previous to Berkeley’s arrival, was about 14,000, Virginia’s around 7,650. Toward the end of Berkeley’s administration, 1670, Massachusetts held about 30,000 and Virginia 40,000. In 1640, Massachusetts and Virginia constituted in excess of three-quarters of the entire population in British North America. In 1670, the two states, still the largest, constituted slightly in excess of 60 percent. In that year, Tidewater Maryland was 15,000, and Connecticut held 10,000, New York 9,000. Penn’s Pennsylvania, had not yet commenced settlement until later that decade [12]. [Warning: State boundaries do not precisely compare to contemporary boundaries].

It might be noted that I have not discussed Thomas Jefferson. He claimed a Welsh background, others have claimed a lower nobility-gentry ancestry from Suffolk County in eastern England. In either case, his family subsequently emigrated to St Kitts in the Barbados, and a generation later from Barbados to Henrico County Virginia sometime during the 1670’s. Whatever were his fraternal ancestry, his maternal ancestry were the Randolph’s, indisputably royalist [13]. His father was Peter Jefferson, a frontiersmen-plantation owner who shall be mentioned several times in our discussion of colonial Virginia’s economic development policy system.

We are not yet done!

As the astute reader might wonder–how many such noble/gentry elites flooded into Virginia during this period? Could they have possibly accounted for the dramatic volume of immigrants during these years? No they didn’t. “The great mass of Virginia’s immigrants [during this period] were humble people of lower rank. More than 75 percent came as indentured servants [14].

In 1611 Virginia’s governor Thomas Dale requested he be sent “all offenders of the [jails] condemned to die” –but that was Jamestown First Migration. Hackett-Fischer believes many did not originate from the poorest segments of English society–but rather a step or two above . Probably most were former, i.e. displaced yeoman farmer households. Overwhelmingly male (3 of 4), and teenage, young men, and even children. Still some were criminals, which, of course, was a rather low bar to achieve in English criminal justice [15]. Whatever their original background, the Virginia experience over time reduced most of them to the lumpen proletariat created earlier by the Jamestown Company.

Before the end of Governor Berkeley’s administration [tenant farming/sharecropping} was well-established in tidewater Virginia … As late as 1724, the word ‘farming’ in Virginia still meant tenant farming in the English sense–a meaning it had already lost in Massachusetts. … this … system produced a degraded caste of poor whites [as well as] an exploited black [slave] proletariat. There were large numbers of desperately poor farm workers in seventeenth-century Virginia. Some were indentured servants, others were tenants, a few ere free laborers who wandered from job to job. The condition of the working poor in the Chesapeake was as harrowing as it had been in England. [16] 

By the time these folk became non-indentured residents of Virginia, the franchise had been restricted to those who owned property, and so likely most never were able to vote. They became an agricultural lumpen-proletariat, and while anecdotal evidence is bountiful no firm statistical description of their post-indenture is available. But one must remember, these are large volumes of people, relative to the population size. Likely they were mobile, especially prone to migration as a young generational cohort. We are going to see these folk in our discussion of trans-Piedmont and Appalachian migrations. We will certainly see them in the first manifestation, the 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion.

Edmund S. Morgan concluded: Virginia’s freemen were  ‘an unruly and discontented lot’, and he suggests the problems, actual and anticipated with this growing and dangerous class, were one of the reasons, that Virginian [plantation owners] switched from using unfree European immigrants to using unfree Africans toward the end of the [seventeenth] century [17] . Hackett-Fischer observes that Virginia second migration immigrants were vastly different from those of Massachusetts with Virginia’s being “highly stratified [i.e. dependent on higher classes] more male-dominant, more rural, more agrarian, less highly skilled, and less literate. Many came from the south and west of England; few from East Anglia… These patterns did not develop from chance. Virginia’s great migration was the product of policy and social planning. [Through it] the royalist elite succeeded in shaping the social history of an American region by regulating the process of migration [18]. Through these indentured servants the royalist plantation owners were able to manage their economic system, and most importantly set in place an extremely hierarchical society–from which non elites were effectively disqualified.

Make no mistake, Berkeley did not see this class of indentured servants as disenfranchised or even victims of a cruel fate. His classic quote solidifies his personal commitment to the hierarchical and unequal society and economy he fostered. “I thank God we have not free schools nor printing; and I hope we shall not have these for a hundred years. For learning has brought disobedience with heresy and sects into this world; and printing his divulged them and libels against the government. God keep us from both[19].

The indentured servants were, by and large, not part of this Tidewater political culture. Their political culture, repressed and excluded from the Tidewater elite oligopolistic system, would wait for another day, with the arrival of allies in the western counties of Virginia. In time, many will be identified with what we call the Scots-Irish.



[1a] D. Huntley, “the Cavalier Flight to Virginia” (British Heritage, Jul 13, 2016)

[1] Ronald L. Heine, et al., Old Dominion, New Commonwealth, p. 49

[2] Ronald L. Heine, et al., Old Dominion, New Commonwealth, p.51

[3]Ronald L. Heine, et al., Old Dominion, New Commonwealth, p.52

[4] Ronald L. Heine, et al., Old Dominion, New Commonwealth, p. 54

[5] Ronald L. Heine, et al., Old Dominion, New Commonwealth, p. 47

[6] D. Huntley, “the Cavalier Flight to Virginia” (British Heritage, Jul 13, 2016)

[6a] David Hackett-Fischer and James C. Kelly, Bound Away, p. 35

[7] D. Huntley, “the Cavalier Flight to Virginia” (British Heritage, Jul 13, 2016)

[8] Ronald L. Heine, et al., Old Dominion, New Commonwealth, p. 47

[9] David Hackett-Fischer, Albion’s Seed, pp. 217-22, p. 238

[10] David Hackett-Fischer, Albion’s Seed, p. 212

[11] David Hackett-Fischer and James C. Kelly, Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement (University of Virginia Press, 2000), pp. 81-2



[14] David Hackett-Fischer, Albion’s Seed, p. 227, and Wesley Frank Craven, White, Red and Black: the Seventeenth Century Virginian (Charlottesville, 1971, p. 5

[15]  David Hackett-Fischer, Albion’s Seed, p. 228)

[16] David Hackett-Fischer, Albion’s Seed, pp. 379-80

[17] Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: the Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (Virginia, 1975)

[18] David Hackett-Fischer, Albion’s Seed, pp 231-2

[19] D. Huntley, “the Cavalier Flight to Virginia” (British Heritage, Jul 13, 2016)


Colonial Tidewater ED Policy-Making: Ports and Cities: the Other Part of the Urban Story

[8] David Hackett-Fischer and James C. Kelly, Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement, p. 42

[9] David Hackett-Fischer, Albion’s Seed, p. 222

[10] Warren M. Billings, “the Growth of Political Institutions in Virginia, 1634-1676“, p. 236, p. 238-9

[11] Virginius Dabney, Virginia: the New Dominion, p. 42-3

[12] Ronald L. Heinemann, John G. Kolp. Anthony S. Parent, Jr., William G. Shade, Old Dominion, New Commonwealth, p. 75.

[13] Ronald L. Heinemann, John G. Kolp. Anthony S. Parent, Jr., William G. Shade, Old Dominion, New Commonwealth,  p. 74

See Reps, p. 93 Big Book

The temptation to explain the Tidewater’s disinclination to urbanization has been to link it to the nature and effects of plantation agriculture economic base is persuasive, but not absolutely compelling. Agriculture was the dominant economic base of every colony in colonial America and that proved little impediment to the formation of coastal ports, and even several secondary hinterland centers. Also, New York and even Pennsylvania possessed a sizable manor-plantation based agriculture, and both developed spectacular port cities. Finally, Maryland, a Tidewater tobacco-export plantation-based policy system did not inhibit Baltimore from becoming a major North American port. Something more is afoot. I suggest it is the dynamics of Virginia’s state and local policy-making that distinguished it from the other colonies. The character and behavior of Virginia policy systems presented a significant obstacle to a colony-level economic development strategy to encourage urbanization and ports. One could make the argument that every county wanted its port. One could also assert London merchants, Parliament and the King himself pressed hard for towns for reasons unappealing to Virginia plantation owners: greater regulation and taxes, and a loss of planter autonomy.

The prevailing literature on Virginia elites, clearly dominant in Virginia’s 17th century policy system, was that they “were to the manor born”. This was particularly true after Berkeley’s infusion of royalist refugees and second sons/daughters into the plantation elites. Planter Hugh Jones commented in 1721 that “Virginians had neither the interest, nor inclinations … to cohabit in towns … every plantation affording the owner the provision of a little market[11]. In short, planters seemingly had little attraction for creating towns which threatened their symbiotic settlements on the plantation periphery, or the county capital. This, however, does not preclude the development of a small activist planter constituency, likely larger planters, who were not averse to a larger urban center for culture, entertainment and other diversions. Charleston and Savannah functioned well serving such planter needs. Also urban centers conferred status and and offered the possibly of domestic production of manufactured goods, and the development of domestic export factors, shippers, and finance/investment from other sources. In 1705, a noted plantation owner. Robert Beverley (our Knight of the Golden Horseshoe who will opened the Shenandoah Valley for settlement) noted that Virginia lacked urban centers; it “had not any one Place of any Cohabitation among them that may reasonably bear the Name of a Town“. His explanation for this sad state of affairs was “the Advantage of many Rivers which afforded a commodious Road for shipping at every Man’s door[12].

True, Virginia and Maryland enjoyed a goodly number of rivers and a coastline indented with inlets from which they flowed to the sea. This likely created a double-edge effect on port initiatives. If every plantation could be its own port, under the master’s control than a major port or two obviously threatened that autonomy by allowing the external world to penetrate his manorial bubble. On the other hand, if one-on-one plantation exporting did not offer economies of scale sufficient to reduce the costs of exporting, than a port offered the potential for competitive pricing. The other edge of having a goodly number of ports, one for each county for instance is this minimized the external intrusion into the plantation bubble, and may well have offered county planters an opportunity to invest and with other county planters create infrastructure and scale that could affect pricing of finance and logistics. This surplus of potential sites, however, frustrated the preference and development of any particular one. If county ports were approved by a compliant House of Burgesses, it would result in no single major coast port.





As Virginia grew over the 17th and 18th centuries, the link between towns and plantations weakened–logically because as plantations were established in the interior, even if close to, or on rivers, the willingness and capacity of ships to move deep upriver and use widely disparate plantation wharves strengthened the formation of towns. Settlement beyond the Fall Line was literally impassable for coastal shipping. In addition. Tobacco export competitiveness meant the quality of English tobacco figured greatly into its price, and so the need to inspect and certify tobacco exports, while quite controversial, developed a small planter constituency. Tobacco regulation became a serious colony-level concern, but typically divided the planter constituency.

By the 17th century, most plantations harvested a number of different crops than tobacco, and domestic trade within Virginia and adjoining colonies became possible. Moreover, the needs of the Crown increased, in particular the need to inspect and regulate the tobacco export, and most importantly collect any taxes due on its export, and on imports. As early as the 1640’s, but certainly after the Restoration of Charles II (1660’s) some planters and the certainly the Crown actively promoted the formation of towns/ports (see below).

A series of “Town/Warehouse Acts”, lobbied for by the Crown, were approved by the Burgesses. All were eventually either repealed or died an inglorious death when few towns actually resulted. Norfolk, it should be mentioned was an exception to this, but its rise was very gradual, and did not compare to that of its Maryland rival, Baltimore. A major reason why the formal creation of towns was so unsuccessful is their linkage to tax payments and Crown revenues, and to the costs associated with warehousing. It was those more economic concerns, not the alleged anti-urbanization bias of Virginia plantation elites that frustrated Virginia’s colonial urbanization

Still, as the link between strong plantations and weak towns diminished, growth of the Virginia colony in physical size, population dispersal, and economy generated their own pressures toward town formation. A constituency grew to successfully support transforming the small town of Williamsburg into the Colony’s capital, and to make that town/city the site of governance, commercial trade, and after 1693 the site of the colony’s only institute of higher education, the College of William and Mary. Despite a town plan of some pretense, and the erection of a governor’s “palace”, Williamsburg was an indifferent, dull, and less than robust commercial center, populated chiefly by legislators when the Burgesses was in session. Even a colony capital was not able to withstand the negative dynamics associated with Virginia urbanization.

The breakthrough in town formation came only in the southern Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley when German, French and Scots-Irish poured in and set up their town centers, deep in the state’s Appalachian Valley interior. There the hold of tobacco, export, and plantation owners was appreciably more limited, and the need for migrants, especially German to service their yeoman farm households and preserve their culture and ethnicity prompted the formation of settlement/towns.

By the 1750’s settlers moved West into the Piedmont and the Valley regions of Virginia, establishing county courthouse towns as they went; along the rivers warehouse towns served the interior farmlands, and towns further East, such as Falmouth, Dumfries, and Alexandria, supplied the major needs of the new settlers. With the exception of Norfolk, all types of towns in colonial Virginia were roughly the same size containing scarcely more than a few hundred inhabitants … But these small settlements carried out the commercial and governmental functions associated with urban centers and played an important role in the colony’s economic and political life [7] David R. Goldfield and Blaine A. Brownell, Urban America: a History (2nd Ed) (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 24.

. Berkeley’s commanding presence, his singular determination to pursue his own agenda required it seems, that Berkeley reach some kind of accommodation with the Royal Council and its swashbuckling members. He did so as we will remember by formally renaming, and empowering the Royal Council into the Council of State, and making it in addition to all other activities and responsibilities as the upper, and dominant chamber of Virginia’s General Assembly. The House of Burgesses, a secondary power at this point, was largely ignored, and the dynamics of its takeover by county court elites continued uninterrupted–with the full cooperation of Berkeley when needed. Berkeley could appoint to the Council of State, but Burgesses was elected.

Given the shredded communities and the newly-established county government set up in the newly-settled areas populated by Berkeley’s new royalist elite, entry into county government and the hierarchy of offices which led to the county court, was almost effortless. Berkeley helped this along by appointing royalist immigrants to positions that supported him at the colony-level. He was not adverse if they entered the Royal Council, nor the House of Burgesses. They occupied offices as Berkeley’s principal bureaucrats; many, such as William Byrd I, became his equivalent to English frontier marsh wardens, holding down the tempestuous borderlands above and beyond the Fall Line. It is probably less important in determining how conscious this strategy was than simply acknowledging that it poured the foundations for a local planter oligopoly to dominate local county institutions and economic base, and from their the higher colony-level political and policy-making bodies. First the Royal Council, with Berkeley institutionalized as the Council of State:

Virginia’s Cavalier elite gained control of [the Royal Council] during the mid-seventeenth century, and held it until the American Revolution. As early as 1660 every councilor was related to another member by blood or marriage.  As late as 1775 every member was descended from a councilor who had served in 1660 … This small body functioned simultaneously as the governor’s cabinet, the upper house of the legislature, and the colony’s Supreme Court. It controlled the distribution of land, and the lion’s share went to a group of twenty-five families who monopolized two-thirds of the Council’s seats from 1680 to 1775 [8].

This small body functioned as the Governor’s cabinet, the upper house of the [Virginia] legislature and the colony’s supreme court. It controlled the distribution of land, and the lion’s share went to twenty-five families who held two-thirds of the seats in that body from 1680 to 1775. The same families also controlled other offices of power and profit: secretary, treasurer, auditor-general, receiver-general, surveyor-general … and governors of William and Mary College [the only college south of the Mason-Dixon line in that period]. … This elite gained control of the Council during the mid-seventeenth century, and retained it through the Revolution. As early as 1660, every seat on the Council was filled by members of the five related [family-networks]. As late as 1775, every member of that august body was descended from a councilor who had served in 1660 [9]