"In the Beginning, all America was Virginia."
William Byrd II
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Becoming Southerners

Leaving Virginia

Virginia Constitutional Convention in Richmond during the winter of 1829–30Soil exhaustion in the Tidewater became chronic, and the Piedmont was "worn out, washed and gullied." Conditions were better in the Valley of Virginia, where wheat rather than tobacco was dominant, but even there people saw a brighter future outside Virginia. Many German families made their way to the Midwest, while the Scotch-Irish continued down into Tennessee and beyond. A huge numbers of slaves were taken west with masters or were sold to the emerging Cotton South. In all, perhaps one million Virginians left the commonwealth between the Revolution and the Civil War. It was at this time, in 1831, that a group of Virginians came together to form the Virginia Historical Society. They were proud of the state's glorious past, but they were equally certain that its glory days were behind it.

Virginia fell from first to seventh place in population, and its number of congressmen dropped from twenty-three to eleven. Although this mass exodus of Virginians caused the state to slip into a secondary role both politically and economically, these westward-bound settlers spread their culture, laws, political ideas, and labor system across America. Many of these settlers were black, and this migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans out of Virginia created a system of slavery and black culture that was of continental dimensions.

Although this mass exodus caused Virginia to slip into a secondary role both politically and economically, these westward-bound settlers spread Virginia culture, laws, political ideas, labor system, surveying methods, concept of honor, and architectural styles across America. Many of these migrants were black. Just as the African slave trade of the 1600s and 1700s had led to the creation of an African-Virginian culture, this second "Middle Passage" of hundreds of thousands of blacks out of Virginia created a system of slavery and black culture that was of continental dimensions.

Cotton and the Slave Trade

Slave Auction, Virginia, by Lefevre James CranstoneThe agricultural depression in Virginia meant that, in many places, slaves cost more to maintain than they produced. This did not lead, however, to the elimination of slavery. One reason for its survival was that slavery, although unproductive in Virginia, was thriving elsewhere, creating high demand and prices for slaves.

The invention of the spinning jenny in England and the cotton gin in New England enabled cotton to replace wool as the staple for clothes. Cotton harvesting required stoop labor performed by slaves. Virginia was not a major cotton producer, but it became the major exporter of slaves to large-scale cotton-producing regions farther south. For the American South, cotton revived and strengthened slavery so that the generation of the Revolution, which had been uncomfortable about slavery, was succeeded by a southern generation that largely defended slavery as a positive good rather than an unfortunate necessity. They rationalized slavery by convincing themselves that African Americans were inferior, that they were better treated than northern white laborers, and that the Bible sanctioned the institution. As free discussion of the issue was discouraged, southerners began to think of themselves as a culture apart from the rest of the nation.

Virginians move to Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio

Poplar safe or pie safe, made 1840–60Throughout the 1700s, Virginians moved southwest down the Valley of Virginia, leading inexorably into Tennessee. In 1769 William Bean of Virginia became the first white settler in what would become Tennessee. Many Virginians followed in his footsteps and became the first families of the state. Kentucky remained a Virginia county from 1776 until it became a separate state in 1792. In 1778, Virginia governor Patrick Henry sent George Rogers Clark there to expel the British. His victories ensured that the region became part of the United States rather than British Canada. To Virginians of that period, Kentucky seemed to be the gateway to a better life.

I do not wonder at the rage for emigration. What do the bulk of people get here, that they cannot have for one-fifth of the labor in the western country?
John Randolph of Roanoke, 1813

As part of a coordinated effort to promote national unity, however, Virginia ceded its claims north of the Ohio River to the federal government in 1784. Nonetheless, large numbers of Virginians poured into southern Ohio after the Indians there were defeated in 1794. Slavery was outlawed in the Northwest, but the Virginia elite transplanted much of its culture. Both the 1850 and 1860 censuses show that more native-born Virginians had migrated to Ohio than to any other state. Ironically, in the Civil War that would be fought largely because of the westward movement of slavery, Virginia found that it had supplied as many people to the North as to the South.

The Lure of Distant Land

Cyrus McCormick

Virginia is waning fast. Tell Uncle Powell . . . to quit her as rats quit sinking vessels, and take a house in this land of promise, where he will find what he found in Virginia forty years past in her halcyon days of liberty, quiet, and defiance. . . . [In] ten years Virginia will be an antislavery state.
Branch Tanner Archer, Velasco, Texas, December 19, 1848, to his sisters Frances Archer and Jane Segar Archer at Cumberland Court House, Virginia

These expatriate Virginians, not only in Ohio, but also in Indiana, Illinois, and elsewhere in the Midwest, found themselves with tracts of farmland that were huge by Virginia standards. But they lacked the traditional Virginia slave labor force to work these broad acres. A Virginian came to the rescue. In 1831 Cyrus McCormick successfully demonstrated a mechanical reaper for harvesting wheat. He made no profit from it, however, until he relocated his business to the tiny town of Chicago in 1847. His firm later became known as International Harvester.

By the time McCormick moved to Chicago, Texas was exerting the same kind of appeal to Virginians that Kentucky had in the 1790s. Some Virginians had settled there earlier, when it was a Mexican province. Stephen F. Austin, a native of Wythe County, led settlers there in 1822. In 1836 at least twelve Virginians were among the fifty-nine signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico. Texas independence was secured when an army led by Sam Houston, another Rockbridge native, defeated and captured the Mexican president, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Some Virginia emigrants, however, returned to the Old Dominion. After the Civil War, William Byrd returned to Winchester and became the grandfather of future Governor Harry F. Byrd, Sr., and Admiral Richard E. Byrd.

Moving West

The annexation of Texas in 1845 sparked the Mexican War, which resulted in California and much of the Southwest becoming part of the United States. The leading American generals both were Virginians—Zachary Taylor, who won the initial victories, and Winfield Scott, who ended the war by capturing Mexico City. Then, in 1849, news of "Gold in California!" reached Virginia. Newspapers quickly filled up with advertisements by ad hoc companies that proposed to transport men there for $300. Many were young men who, in depressed Virginia, looked forward at best to scraping by. Generally, Virginians got there too late to get rich by mining. But many stayed and became successful in the professions and in politics.

Back in Virginia

The Testing of the First Reaping MachineOf course, not all Virginians moved west. Nor was the state entirely moribund. There was a spate of canal-building that later gave way to railroad development. Such men as Peter Minor and Edmund Ruffin introduced scientific farming to restore agricultural productivity. By the 1840s manufacturing was taking root in several cities, especially Richmond. Craftsmen enjoyed a golden age. Cabinetmakers, chairmakers, silversmiths, blacksmiths, ironmongers, tinsmiths, clock and watchmakers, saddle and harness makers, gunsmiths, and many other craftsmen produced works of beauty.

The Ruins of Jamestown, Virginia, by John Gadsby Chapman, 1834The vast majority of Virginians, however, lived on farms. The average family would have done almost everything by hand. The matron of a large slaveowning family might delegate all the cooking to a slave cook, but the much larger number of families who had one or two slaves merely shared the cooking chores with slaves. Women, slave or free, usually tended the vegetable or herb gardens and oversaw the dairy, the chicken coop, and the smokehouse. In preindustrial Virginia, the vast majority of clothes and textiles were made at home, either by white women or female slaves. If one had the energy, quilting, weaving coverlets and counterpanes, or stitching samplers were cherished means of self-expression for women and girls. Making fabric at home for sale was one of the few earning opportunities available to women. Few Virginia women were able to work outside the home until after the Civil War, when clothes-making was mechanized and public schools were created.

Slave Life

Slave Pass from Warrenton County, VirginiaAfrican Americans in Virginia had one more danger to dread—the 30 percent chance that they would be sold away from family, friends, and everything they knew. As slaves they received only the barest necessities and had no real protection under the law. On plantations, a hierarchy ranked a few household slaves above the field hands. Women also cooked, served meals, washed, ironed, mended clothes, made rough cloth and shoes for themselves, cared for white and black children, did housekeeping, and tended gardens. Former slaves remembered being hungry much of the time. Their diet consisted mainly of cornmeal, salt pork, bacon, peas, collard greens, turnips, and sometimes opossum or raccoon. Masters hired out many of their slaves to iron forges, tobacco warehouses, and mines. At times, one-quarter of skilled laborers in Richmond were slaves.

Next chapter Civil War