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Virginia, the unsettled state in the early 19th century
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Virginia, the unsettled state in the early 19th century

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The journey west always began with a decision, one that hundreds of thousands of Virginians made in the first half of the 19th century. Their decisions were an integral part of a huge population movement never seen before or since in the Old Dominion.

From the end of the American Revolution until the Civil War, even as Virginia’s population grew, other states surged ahead in growth and power. Indeed, more than a million people moved out of Virginia during that span.

Most of them had come to the conclusion that lands to the west offered opportunities that could not be realized in their native state. As one emigrant later noted: “They agreed on the one general object – that of bettering their condition.”

Tobacco, the crop that underpinned Virginia’s agriculture-based economy for nearly three centuries, seemed to have run its course by the early 19th century. To meet a soaring demand for tobacco products worldwide, farmers in Tidewater and Piedmont Virginia overplanted the crop, unaware of its leeching effects on the soil.

Crop rotation and the use of fertilizer were well into the future, and as a result, soil exhaustion became widespread. One observer noted that the land was so washed out and gullied that after a heavy rainfall, rivers and creeks “appeared like a torrent of blood.”

Meantime, even as wheat production held steady in the Shenandoah Valley, statewide land values plummeted from $207 million to less than $100 million in the first quarter of the 19th century.

“The times are dreadful,” Elizabeth Trist proclaimed in 1823, “if we may judge from the numbers that are migrating to different parts of the continent. Scarce a day passes that families are not going to Alabama, Missoura [sic] or some other places.”

Reports of a happier and more prosperous life in the states and territories farther west convinced many farmers that remaining in Virginia presented a grim future. Virginians who had gone ahead of them were only too glad to point this out. Writing to his sisters from Texas in 1848, Branch Archer warned: “Virginia is waning fast. ... Quit her as rats quit sinking vessels, and take a home in this land of promise.”

A once-mighty Virginia – the most populous, wealthiest and politically influential of the original 13 states – had slipped on the national scene by the 1830s. Its presence in Congress dropped sharply in the first half of the century. While four of the first five presidents were lifelong Virginians, three of the four remaining presidents who were born in the Old Dominion had long left their native state and were elected from elsewhere.

But Virginia’s loss did result in the westward spread of its culture, political ideas, laws, surveying practices, labor systems, concepts of honor, architectural styles – and a number of its talented natives, some who would play key roles in the history of the westward movement. Among them were John Sevier (first governor of Tennessee); Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin in Texas; James Denver (a Kansas Territory leader and namesake of the Colorado city); politician Henry Clay in Kentucky; mountain man Jim Bridger; artist George Caleb Bingham; and inventor and philanthropist Cyrus McCormick.

Virginia’s agricultural depression also resulted in the involuntary exodus of another significant component of its population: enslaved Africans.

Despite the hard times in Virginia, agriculture was thriving in the developing Deep South and the trans-Mississippi West. With the rapid rise of clothing made from cotton rather than from wool, demand for the new fabric soared. The shift resulted in increased use of slave labor in cotton-growing states.

With Virginia's land and crop values declining, maintaining slaves became more costly, and their monetary value declined as well. A slave appraised at $1,000 in Richmond could be sold in the New Orleans market for three or four times that amount. As a result, hundreds of thousands of slaves were sent involuntarily from Virginia, only to be sold at high prices in markets farther west. Virginia became a leader in this business, and nearly 30 auction houses in Richmond sold thousands of slaves every year. By 1850, the city was second only to New Orleans as the nation’s slave-trading center.

Virginians reacted in different ways to the state's decline: One group of concerned men convened in 1831 to form the Virginia Historical Society to ensure that its glorious past would not be forgotten.

Others attempted to transform Virginia into a more industrialized state that would be less dependent on the vagaries of agriculture. As a result, the General Assembly authorized a spate of canal building that by the 1850s gave way to the construction of railway lines. At the same time, manufacturing became an increasingly important component of the Virginia economy, with large factories springing up, especially in Richmond. Even agriculture changed as men including Edmund Ruffin and Peter Minor introduced scientific farming methods such as crop rotation and the use of fertilizer.

After Virginia seceded and joined the Confederacy in 1861, pro-Union counties in the western part of the state broke away and formed what became West Virginia in 1863. Virginia became the great battleground of the Civil War, the bloodiest stretch of real estate in the Western Hemisphere. By 1865, thousands of graves, burned-out homes, denuded forests, destroyed bridges, bankrupt railroads and untilled farmland littered Virginia’s landscape.

It would take another war nearly 80 years later for Virginia to fully recover from the setbacks of the 19th century. When World War II broke out, the U.S. economy shifted to wartime footing, much to the benefit of Virginia. The state was transformed as the defense buildup raised Virginia to unprecedented levels of employment and prosperity.

Virginia became a more urban and cosmopolitan state. Mechanization of agriculture spurred by a wartime labor shortage freed vast numbers of workers for a postwar boom in retail and other sectors of the economy. The federal government became Virginia’s largest employer. And the commonwealth experienced steady population growth a century later.

One constant in U.S. history is that Americans are movers: If you have studied your family history, you probably have found that once your forebears arrived here, they and their offspring moved to other places. History tells us that this centuries-old phenomenon will continue.

Charles F. Bryan Jr., Ph.D., is president and CEO emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society, spent 30 years as a public historian and is managing partner at Bryan & Jordan Consulting.

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