Virginia’s Demographic Change (Population Movement) and Challenge to is Tidewater Policy System

While Virginia’s specific demographic, cultural and economic configurations were not identical by any means to many other colonies, when the French and Indian War erupted, each colony felt its impact differently as well–and upon victory over the French in 1763, each defined and valued its contributions to that victory. Virginia, geographically, was caught in the whirlwind of population and demographic change that arguably was a huge and key factor affecting the the colonies drive to independence and revolution. Borrowing from Gordon Wood, the middle decades of the 18th century (1740-1775) were characterized as “extraordinary demographic and economic developments [that] reshaped the contours of the society … eroding the order of the monarchical world of dependency“. That demographic and economic development change resulted from “the basic fact that [this] … early American history was the growth and movement of people[1].

Wood’s demographic and economic development driver was this movement that we explored in our module on land development companies in Virginia. Segments of the planter oligopoly, chiefly but far from exclusively, from the Northern Neck saw at a critical time in the evolution of Virginia tobacco economics that settlement of Virginia’s western counties represented not only economic opportunity, but a new path for Virginia’s elites–a path that in very serious ways required them to depart from the cornerstone of the Tidewater culture, and make common cause with the general population–as a consumer, the purchaser of land, purchased and developed by entrepreneurial, risk-taking planters who left their plantations to explore, buy and develop land in the hostile interior. Young Washington was caught in the vortex of that great population movement, he rode if through his life and died as our former First President and allegedly America’s richest man.

The full extent of that great mid-18th century American population movement has not been a central feature of how we look at the pre-Revolutionary (and post for that matter) period of our history. We have focused more on political theory, constitution-writing, national politics, and popular books, documentaries and plays on various Founding Fathers. The real drama, spread throughout each of the thirteen colonies, was in the movement of peoples in their western hinterlands (mostly). Again, as described by Wood:

From the beginning of the eighteenth century … the colonial population had been virtually exploding; in fact through their high birthrates and low mortality rates, the North American colonists, were multiplying more rapidly than any other people in the western world. Between 1750 and 1770 [in the midst of French and Indian War] they grew from one million to over two million … During the same middle decades  … immigrants poured into the New World by the tens of thousands–Englishmen, Scots and Protestant Irish from the British Isles, and Germans from the Rhine Valley. Between 1764 and 1776 alone, 125,000 entered the American colonies from the home islands. … Men dreamed of landed empires in the West, founded land companies … received grandiose grants from colonial and imperial authorities, and threatened the French in the Ohio Valley, and Indians up and down the continent. The growth and settlement was phenomenal. In Pennsylvania twenty-nine new localities were created between 1756 and 1765–more in a single decade than in the entire previous three quarters of a century… Between 1750 and 1775 North Carolina increased its population sixfold to emerge  from insignificance to become the fourth-largest colony. .. Even tiny Georgia grew from 2,300 in 1751 to 33,000 by 1773 [2]

In these great migrations, down the Great Wagon Road were my populists. Settling in the western counties of Virginia, the Shenandoah and what would become West Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and central Kentucky–not to mention the most promising, central and southern, Ohio Valley Ohio–were the hordes of young and new Americans seeking their vision of the American dream–and entrepreneurs like Washington were going to provide it to them. In the years leading to the American Revolution, we were in the midst of arguably our first major land rush, a land rush that saturated the western geographies of every colony. It was in this period that Vermont was settled, roughly carved out of New York and New Hampshire, and when western Massachusetts was infused with new settlers. When the battle of Lexington was fought in 1775 Massachusetts, who could imagine that when news came a couple of months later to isolated frontier settlement in then eastern Virginia, they would name their settlement “Lexington” (Kentucky).

Dissimilar in key respects from the original migration which founded the first colony’s policy system, these new entrants at least potentially threatened or disruption of the established colony-level policy system–but not in 1750. In that a great deal of these migrant populations flowed to the western interior of each state, into unsettled and hostile land contested by Native Americans and the French and/or Spanish, migration and western settlement became linked with Indian fighting and a potential for European war or settlement competition. Viewed from contemporary hindsight, the disruption of the period before the Revolution is more muted than it obviously was for those who lived it. Times were “a’changing’–and in Virginia change was most felt in western Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley, where new ethnic groups were settling in great numbers, seemingly without end. Land sales opportunity, Indian resistance, and the “great game” of French and Spanish counter resistance to stop further English and migrant migration toward the Mississippi. The Ohio River Valley in particular became the hot spot– and there the principal aggressor was Virginia, and behind Virginia, the Ohio Company.

These ethic/religious immigrants were newcomers, and lodged in frontier isolated western peripheries of each state, they were in this early period somewhat apart from the geographies settled by the colony’s original founding groups. Lodged in coastal urban areas, with established policy systems (local and colony) and economic bases, the elites and electorate of the original policy system were miles apart from the expensive and often bloody turmoil on their western interior. In these areas an isolated and rudimentary “frontier economic base” developed, and security from Indian/French attack was paramount and the first item on their policy agenda. In those fast-settling geographies,  what we call land development was the primary economic activity, and town-building, was the first stage in establishing an agricultural economic base and local policy system. That elites from the coast and the initial policy system would play a role in these western periphery economic development strategies should not be surprising.

The French and Indian War erupted before this frontier opportunity and disruption could “play out” on its own terms.


the Challenge of Land Ownership: Economic Base and the Elite versus Mass Definition of the Pre-Revolution American Dream

They traveled down the Great Wagon Road, and were physically isolated from the traditional East policy system by mountains. Newly settled over a half-century by peoples significantly different from the coastal East policy system, the Virginia West contained potential cultural and political rivals, when settled. From the new migrants point of view, the East was home to their landlords, the source of their necessary goods and to the extent they exported (mostly to Philadelphia) their sales. Their taxes flowed East, to the pockets of Willamsburg or to their landlord directly. Government authority and regulation flowed unevenly from East to West, and for the most part was extractive. “Freeman farms promised a cherished independence from a landlord, employer or master” said Benjamin Franklin, confirmed by another observer who asserted “the hopes of having land of their own & becoming independent of the Landlords is what chiefly induces people into America’ [3] . Land, and the ownership dynamics and development associated with land, are central to the distinctiveness of East and West.

As we edge closer to the Revolution, Virginia and North Carolina were in many ways two peas in the same pod–with the two simultaneously experience sustained migration, serious fighting with Native Americans, and a West that was exceedingly hard to get to from the East. On the other hand each colony had in effect two frontiers: one which settled new areas adjacent to the east of the Appalachian, and one over the Appalachian on the a very fluid boundary on its west–after that was the “frontier” the no-man’s-land of Indian, French, Spanish and American. The East “was an articulation of a historical plantation society, Anglo-Virginia culture, tobacco production and African-American slavery. while the other (the West) was set apart by its more egalitarian social composition, ethnic diversity, religious pluralism, and small-farm, mixed grain-livestock economy that was dependent neither on tobacco nor slavery[4]

Indeed, colonial Williamsburg, especially its royal governors, looked at the West as a buffer zone from Native Americans and the French. Settlements were more forts, and citizens more candidates for the militia and sources of quitrents to pay for the forts and the protection. Both Virginia and North Carolina were very much similar in their Tidewater royalist structure of government and policy system. Both relied on counties as their electoral district, and malapportionment between the East and West, with the East enjoying huge advantage in its political representation that dwarfed the inch by inch more populous West. Both were chiefly dependent on tobacco export as their principal economic base, and eastern planters dominated to the point of controlling the colony-level policy system–and most critically the local community policy system. The dominance of the East over the West is best explained by the former’s dominance over the dynamics of land and land ownership. Heretofore in our history we have contented ourselves with describing land grants, the dominance of the elites in acquiring these grants, and the elite’s patterns in using and disposing of these acquired, but looked at from the renter’s perspective, which is how they were seen in the West we see things from the customers point of view”

Common settlers sought freehold farms, but frontier land was not free, for speculators demanded payments for title to the terrain. wealthy men with political connections procured thousands of acres from friendly governors and their councils. Paying only modest fees speculators profited by retailing smaller parcels to the families whose labor made farms in the forest. In granting lands, governors and councilors favored one another, and leading assemblymen who cooperated in politics. Once procured these large land grants enjoyed legal protection from judges and lawyers who were related to, or worked for the great landed families [5].

Viewed from this standpoint, law, the public-private partnerships through which the land grants were infused with public purposes, and the simple achievement of “progress” through conquering nature and creating settlements and civilization do not come without their consequences and implications. Once again we might be seeing the seeds of Mainstream and Community Development sprouting from the virgin soil of “the West”. Though these landed elites may dominate the policy systems of these geographies, it may also be true they are “renting” that domination, until the day comes when its owners are able to take ownership.

At least one consequence of the bimodal policy systems of East and West is the drift to Revolution, the War of Independence and the hopes, fears and expectations regarding War and Independence would be different in important ways from each other. This is lost in our histories which are usually concerned with other topics and dynamics. For us, tasked with understanding of how and why states and communities differ yet share share common patterns, we can see the onset of sub-state regionalism even before the Revolution, and we can taste the distinctiveness that will occur as western migration spills over into geographies that will become a totally new state. The vast bulk of migration into new territories will come from settlers originating in the West, not East. The nature and status of eastern immigrants into the new territories, however, is that higher status, more wealthy and powerful migrants will come from the East, and the horde of less powerful from the West. Here we can begin to see the brewings of what will lead to our definition of populism. We shall also see the tensions arising from constitution-writing which is key to the establishment of a new state policy system.

The war for independence meant two different things to Eastern elites and Western egalitarians. It will also greatly affect the politics and the political cultures of states in the Early American Republic that will shortly be formed. The reader may now realize I am setting the stage for a play that will unfold after the American Revolution.


Bifurcation of the Colonial Policy System: East and West

Shall the Twain ever Meet

As the colonies and Great Britain drew closer to the Revolutionary War it was apparent to me that arguably the most unappreciated impactful dynamic was that each colony had evolved a bimodal policy system, with a core older established initial policy system populated and controlled by coastal-bound elites, and a geographically defined western periphery, within the boundaries of the colony, but on the margins of core policy system. That western periphery was barely integrated with the core policy system–a reality dictated by topography, modes of transportation, sheer distance, and the reality it was still contested ground in the war of conquest against Native Americans. Before the Revolution and after 1763, it was not clear even where colony boundaries ended, but it was clear that anything that lay beyond those boundaries was the preserve of the English King and Parliament. That approach to the West beyond colony borders, as we have discovered was the first can of worms that triggered our drift to Independence and War.

But lost is the reality that conceptional or not, that Proclamation Line was a wall, a legally insurmountable barrier to colonial settlement of the trans-Appalachian hinterland. As such it frustrated not only land development companies and their associated elites, but most importantly the horde of migrants newly settled on the western periphery counties and towns on the eastern side of the Appalachians. The numbers were very large, even relative to the populations of the core settled East of the colony. If these western migrants were fairly integrated politically into the core policy system, it is reasonable to argue it would have resulted in system change. It is also reasonable to argue the economic base of the state/colony would have been dramatically diversified. That is very true for Virginia–and it will be demonstrably true for our next chapter concerned with Pennsylvania.

Thanks to malapportionment created by making counties the basic unit of the election franchise, and then inserting property and residency qualifications into the franchise, huge segments of the western population was tossed outside the confines of the colony-state’s policy system. The only thing that saved many western residents from the vicissitudes of the eastern core was its isolation and distance, as well as a unspoken decision by both parties to leave the other alone–and the rise of the drift to Independence and War that diverted attention away from the colony policy system to the English hegemonic Parliament and King. That didn’t make the inhabitants of western peripheries any happier, but it certainly fed into the fires of Revolution and suspended hopes. To make matters incredibly worse, conditions and realities in these western peripheries further frustrated resident hopes and expectations, added to the burdens of their daily life, and the sheer isolation and lack of civilization and economic base brutalized life.

The complicated and complex nexus of values and issues, triggered by the conquest of Native American lands–which was a cornerstone issue of the policy agenda of most western residents–enveloped their more domestic wants and concerns and not only complicated addressing the problem of western settlement by colonials, but made its solution virtually zero-sum: win or lose. With colony and British control over these western peripheries so weak, western residents simply continued on their path to the west. It should not be surprising that in the drift to Independence and War years, the borderland Proclamation areas were increasing populated by migrants from western counties–and that the Revolutionary War period was a time in which the initial crossing of the trans-Appalachian West was made in large numbers, and the first settlements of what will become the first states of the trans-Appalachian West were founded: Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. Before the Early Republic began (1789) Kentucky was five years into its drive for American statehood. Tennessee was not that far behind. Vermont was the first-except it was on the wrong side of the Appalachians–caught in the crossfire of being on the western periphery of New Hampshire and the eastern periphery of New York. Thank God for Ethan Allen. In short, the period from 1763 through 1775 ranks as one of the most mobile and a period of chronic western settlement in American history.

Between 1760 and 1776, the New England colonies created 283 new towns … a tripling of the pre-1760 rate…. In a single decade, New York’s population more than doubled,  from 81,000 in 1761, to 168,000 in 1771. Most of that growth occurred in the Mohawk and upper Hudson valleys. … North Carolina’s population increased sixfold between 1750 and 1775, and Georgia grew by a factor of fourteen [6].

The bi-modal distribution of colonial population into East and West was appreciated at the time. In these years the West was usually referred to as the “Backcountry”, and two realities affected the then-colonial policy system: (1) Backcountry inhabitants, residents would not be the appropriate word, were easily distinguishable from the demographics and people found in the East-to the extent they dressed differently, were of different ethnic/religious groups, talked in a different accent, and not only acted differently but clearly wanted and were driven by non-core values and beliefs. These were a different people with different cultures, and (2) what they wanted, and the consequences of their actions and activities entered into the core policy system’s politics and agenda-setting. In particular, Indian-fighting and the realities of sustain migration into hinterland wilderness plus issues and concerns arising from land ownership produced reactions that are not incompatible with the our contemporary conflicting emotions and policies over our southern borders–just in reverse.

In that  significant elements of the planter oligopoly were deeply involved in the latter, and the risks and costs associated with chronic fighting with Native Americans meant the Backwater placed highly on the core policy agenda. As the drift to independence turned incrementally into a drift to armed conflict the politics of independence and revolution further complicated tensions between the two geographies. External to the core policy system, western reaction to revolution was inherently defined as anomic, reactions of the Mob (masses is a better term) in these fluid and ill-integrated geographies were largely beyond the control of the core policy system.

In Virginia, as we have seen, the royal governor attempted to play off the demands and hopes of western inhabitants as a check on the increasing revolutionary activities by planter elites with a western counties war with Native Americans. Lord Dunsmore’s 1774 provoking and of expansion into Indian territories alerts us to the dangerous and complex policy implications of heeding western county demands; its effects on Native Americans were disastrous and demoralizing. In this module, however, our primary interests are in the budding development of future political cultures and policy systems in new states that will rise from the inhabitants of the Great Wagon Road western counties. The best case study for this is found, not in Virginia, but in North Carolina’s border counties with Virginia (Orange and Granville in particular). North Carolina imported through Virginian migration a great deal of Virginia’s policy system, including its reliance on a tobacco economic base, a planter oligopoly and culture in its eastern core, and the development of a strong decentralized county dominated by planter elites.

In neighboring North Carolina, we more clearly see the effects of negative land ownership practices on western counties residents.  Virginia’s planter elites as we have discussed saw commercial opportunities in land development in their western counties–and the governor saw a very clear need to encourage settlement that could buffer Virginia’s borders against raids and invasions from the hotly contested Ohio Valley. Pioneered by the early German migration, land sales and favorable long-term land rental provided opportunity to homesteaders to settle in and develop solid yeoman husbandry. The Scots-Irish that followed benefited from this, though many in the southwestern counties did not take advantage of these opportunities. In North Carolina, commercial land companies and less rapacious land owners were harder to find, and combined with a less effective colony-level government, corruption and brutal elite behavior was more common. Nancy Isenberg, in a well-developed colonial era North Carolina county-level case study traces both the Virginia settlement of North Carolina in the early to mid-18th century, but details its nasty effects on the non-planter setters. Her concern is to trace the early origins of our contemporary populism and she finds North Carolina fertile ground for its earliest American development [7].

The causes and the conduct of the North Carolina’s Regulation War, a semi-populist struggle (1764-1771) sheds considerable insight into the dynamics, but more importantly, the centrality of land as the key issue in western county policy-making/economic development. Located on and near North Carolina’s northern and-Virginia’s southwest border (present day Raleigh-Durham metro area), the War of Regulation has been lang debated as to its character and place in American history. Some have contended it was the opening act of the Revolution (I am not among them), others, with whom I agree, see the War of Regulation more as American’s earliest populist uprising [8]. The participants in this struggle fought over land, who owned it and how local government was unfair to residents other than the planter elite.

The Regulator story injects the after effects of the Great Awakening, and is very sensitive to the mixed cultural background of its participants, in which Scots-Irish are present in numbers, but not the only grouping that conducted the War. The War of Regulation was as Isenberg should assert, a class war, but it is much, much more.Most importantly, as the reader might be sensitive, I regard the Regulation War as the earliest insight into the dynamic tensions that underlie western expansion into new states during the Early Republic period. It should because the same people, and their descendants will resettle in the new states of our “first south west”. That the War of Regulation exerted profound effects on North Carolina goes unmentioned in this module–but it did.

How land ownership in western counties tied together the challenge of the West to the core colony policy system (East) is developed in the next module. As complicated as that topic is, it is simple compared to another reason why this module and case study is critical to the history. The War of Regulation did overlap the period of the drift to Independence and War. It is not hard to confuse the 1765 Stamp Act disruption that spread throughout every American colony as associated with the War of Regulation. furthermore, there is no escaping the fact that its participants will play significant role in the latter. Activists associated with the Regulatory War, including Herman Husband, North Carolina Governor William Tyron, Richard Henderson, and local county officials such as Edmund Fanning suggest to me a central theme developed in this module–that in the West, the western counties, the drive to independence was less a drive to liberty, or no taxation without representation, than a drive to remove obstacles associated with achieving the American Dream of western county residents: land ownership to homestead.

Class warfare and political empowerment were more means to an end of building an agricultural homestead economic base. That was the motivation that drew these western residents to America in the first place; it was that Dream that placed them precisely in the most isolated-hostile, dangerous hinterland wilderness in settled North America. It was that Dream that launched the War of Regulation, and then when it was over thrust western residents onto the road to American independence. Perhaps, that will be more evident as we continue forward into new chapters. Activists from the Regulation War affected latent activists from other states. People like Thomas Sullivan and Ethan Allen, Sam Adams, and a cast of characters that we will meet in our next Pennsylvania chapter–including a real surprise–will all infuse our assertion with a larger meaning and support. That Herman Husband will play a large role in the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, nearly twenty-five years after the Regulation War might suggest to the reader there is a story that follows from the War of Regulation that just might continue to the present-day–perhaps I am describing not only the emergence of rural populism, which I have made the title of the module, but also the earliest tracing of our contemporary community development wing.



[1] Gordon Wood, the Radicalism of the American Revolution (Vintage, 1991), pp. 124-5

[2] Gordon S. Wood, the Radicalism of the American Revolution p. 125, p. 126. Wood gets his data from Bernard Bailyn’s Peopling of British North America (University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, p. 9. Bailyn  also adds to this total “at least 12,000 immigrants from German states and Switzerland (who entered into Philadelphia) and 84,500 enslaved Africans–he estimates the combined total to be 10% of the total 1775 U.S. population. He comments that almost all of this immigration was in states south of New England.

[3] Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: a Continental History, 1750-1804 (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), p. 66 (footnote 33)


[5] Alan Taylor, American Revolutions, p. 67

[6] Alan Taylor,American Revolutions: a Continental History, 1750-1804 (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), p. 66-7

[7] Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: the Untold History of White Trash in America (Viking Press, 2016), pp. 43-8

[8] See William Hogeland, the Whiskey Rebellion (Scribner, 2006)