Virginia Before the Washingtons

Early Virginia was a complex place where English, Native, and African cultures merged, and often clashed, for the first time. This year, 2019, marks the four hundredth anniversary of two important events in the history of both Virginia and the United States: the meeting of the General Assembly, the first representative governing body in America, and the arrival of the first African slaves in mainland English America. Join leading historians and academics for an enlightening look at the cultures, demographics, economics, and social forces which drove the founding and earliest days of the Old Dominion. Speakers will examine a wide variety of topics, including the emergence of the plantation system, slavery, religion, Native cultures, the first women to arrive in the colony, and the earliest generations of the Washington family.

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Dates and Time


$200 for General Public
$175 for Members and Donors

Please note that this lineup is subject to change at any time.

Virginia Before the Washingtons

Friday, November 1

1:30 pm

Symposium Registration, Vaughan Lobby

2:00 pm 

Welcome and Opening Remarks

2:15 pm

Jamestown 1619: Democracy, Slavery, and Race

James Horn

During an oppressively hot spell in the middle of summer 1619, two events occurred along the banks of the James River that would profoundly shape the course of American history.  In the newly built church at Jamestown, the first representative governing body in America – the General Assembly – was convened. A few weeks later, two battered privateers entered the Chesapeake Bay with the first African slaves to arrive in English North America.  1619, then, marks the origin of the most important political development in American history, the beginning of our democratic experiment, and the emergence of one of the nation’s greatest challenges: the corrosive impact of racism and inequality.

James Horn is President of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Preservation Virginia) at Historic Jamestowne, the original site of the first permanent English colony in America.  A leading expert on early Virginia, Dr. Horn is the author and editor of numerous articles and books including most recently 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy

3:15 pm 

Indigenous Politics and the Jamestown Colony in 1619: Stories, Backstories, and Resolutions

James Rice

The famous "first Assembly" at Jamestown in July 1619 paid more attention to Native Americans than to any other topic, and Governor George Yeardley called these “doubtful times, between us and the Indians.” This presentation features three stories of Native-newcomer encounters in 1619, the backstories to these episodes, and their aftermaths. The resolutions to the tensions that were exposed in these encounters were critical to the transformation of the failed colony of Jamestown into “Virginia,” a plantation society characterized by large-scale tobacco production for export, unfree labor, and the dominance of a small cadre of elite planters.

James Rice is the Walter S. Dickson Professor of History and Chair of the History Department at Tufts University. He is the author of two books, Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson, and Tales from a Revolution: Bacon's Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America. His current research includes a reevaluation of the Jamestown Era, titled Founding Massacres: Violence, Ambition, and the Birth of Virginia.

4:15 pm

Refreshment Break

4:30 pm

Emerging Scholars Panel

More information will be announced soon.

5:30 pm

Cocktail Reception in Vaughan Lobby, Mansion Tours

6:30 pm 

Dinner at Mount Vernon Inn

8:00 pm

Evening Entertainment: 17th Century Harpsichord Music

Joyce Lindorff

Saturday, November 2

8:00 am 

Continental Breakfast, Vaughan Lobby

9:00 am 

Opening Remarks

9:15 am 

The Ideological Origins of the Plantation in Virginia

Paul Musselwhite

English colonists in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake described the places they established as “plantations,” but they bore little resemblance to the large factory farms, powered by enslaved laborers, that we associate with the term today. For those colonists, a “plantation” implied a consciously constructed civic community planted on foreign soil, replete with towns, markets, and common lands. How was this vision “plantation” reshaped by decisions taken on the ground in Virginia? Most importantly, how did this redefinition help to mask and justify the increasingly exploitative system of tobacco agriculture within an early-modern culture still wary of the tension between commerce and the public good? 

Paul Musselwhite is Associate Professor of History at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake (2018) and the co-editor of two other books: Empire of the Senses: Sensory Practices of Colonialism in Early America (2017) and Virginia 1619: Slavery & Freedom in the Making of English America (2019). He is currently engaged in a study of plantation naming practices and the evolution of the idea of plantation.

10:15 am

To Profit Like “Other Countryes and Kingdoms”: The Ethics of Trade in Early Virginia

Alexander B. Haskell

What rules, whether spoken or unspoken, determined how early English settlers in Virginia approached trade? This talk recovers the surprising degree to which colonists’ commercial activities centered on considerations of how and when profit-seeking is moral or immoral. Often lost in our assumption that colonization was driven by greed, this concern by Virginia’s young government with maintaining certain limits in the marketplace derived from broader political and religious factors. In particular, the dream that Virginia might one day be a kingdom capable of rivaling the Spanish monarchy’s American states encouraged colonial leaders to follow European commercial norms, shaped as much by theologians as lawyers.

Alexander B. Haskell is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside. He is interested in the relationship between moral thought and historical change, themes he first explored in For God, King, and People: Forging Commonwealth Bonds in Renaissance Virginia. His next book project considers how early Americans deployed sovereign state theory to pursue a variety of political, religious, and social ends.

11:15 am

Refreshment Break

11:30 am

Young Intermediaries in Early Jamestown

Karen Ordahl Kupperman

How do you cope with a strange environment and unknown people whose culture you do not understand but on whom you are completely dependent?  This is the situation that faced Jamestown's leaders.  The Chesapeake Algonquians needed to understand the newcomers and their goals and capabilities. Both sides deployed kids to learn the language and culture of the other.  As the youths and their understanding of each sides' issues matured, it became harder and harder for them to act as simple intermediaries.  When hostilities loomed, they were caught in the middle, and leaders on both sides came to doubt their loyalty with disastrous consequences.   

Karen Ordahl Kupperman is Silver Professor of History Emerita at New York University. Her book Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught Between Cultures in Early Virginia was published by NYU Press in January 2019, along with a new edition of Henry Spelman's Relation of Virginia from the original manuscript.  She is the author of The Jamestown Project (2007) and The Atlantic in World History (2012).  Among her awards are the AHA Prize in Atlantic History, and the AHA's Beveridge Prize for the best book in American history.

12:30 pm

Lunch, Mount Vernon Inn

1:45 pm

“To make the men more settled”: The Significance of Colonizing Women

Kathleen Brown

Early in Jamestown’s history, English women were recruited to ensure the "settled" nature of the heavily male and sparsely populated fort. Their labor, their availability as wives, and their reproductive capacity were all clearly understood by Virginia Company officials as crucial to the success of the settlement.  Examining the nature of their presence closely, these women appear to have secured both the Englishness of the settlement and the colonial claims of investors to turn the territory into property. In making the men more settled, these women served as a crucial factor in the disruption and displacement of the Powhatan people, as well as the emergence of the plantation economy.

Kathleen M. Brown is the David Boies Professor of History and the Director of the Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality, and Women at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of two prize-winning books, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race and Power in Colonial Virginia (1996) and Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (2009).

2:45 pm

Refreshment Break

3:00 pm

African Catholics in Early Virginia

John K. Thornton

The first Africans to come to Virginia were brought from Angola, a country which had already had over a century of engagement with Christianity.  In some areas, the entire population was Christian, elsewhere only a handful.  Nevertheless, it seems quite likely that there were a substantial number of Christians among the arrivals.  Given that English and Dutch Christians were debating the question of whether a Christian could be held as a slave in Dordrecht (Dort) on the eve of this event, did Christian status determine how many of the arrivals would be freed at some point?  The evidence is not clear, but the prospect that Christianity played a role in the rather high number of manumissions among the arrivals raised the possibility.

John Thornton is Professor of History and African American Studies at Boston University.  He is the author of Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, and with Linda Heywood, he wrote Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles and the Foundation of the Americas.  His interest in greater Atlantic history resulted in A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, which won the World History Association’s Bentley Prize in 2008.

4:00 pm

Witches, Suicides, Burglars, and Catholics: The Unexpected World of Virginia’s First Washingtons.

Philip Levy

Generations of biographers have looked into George Washington’s family background only to sniff out possible roots of greatness. As a result, when we talk about Virginia’s first Washingtons, we tend to recite a long line of Johns and Lawrences, some land deals, and a major Indian war—not much else. The George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Westmoreland County is working to change all of that by funding a new study of the early Washingtons and the archaeology of their homes. The goal is to understand these places and all associated people as historical actors and not simply antecedents. This presentation is a glimpse into some of the rarely (or even never before) discussed events that are the real story of the Washington family before George.

Philip Levy is a Professor of History at the University of South Florida and was part of the team that discovered the archaeological remains of Washington’s childhood home. He is the author of Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home, as well as George Washington Written Upon the Land: Nature, Memory, Myth, and Landscape. In 2016 he was a Mount Vernon Library Fellow working on a book entitled “Washingtonology: Excavations and Explorations of the Life of the First President” which will be released next year.

5:00 pm

Symposium concludes


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