the four capitals of Powhatan, from his original inheritance of "Powhatan" at the Fall Line to Matchut
NOTE: on John Smith's map, north is to the right
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia (John Smith, 1624)
Richmond has not always been the capital of Virginia, for either the original inhabitants or the colonists who arrived in 1607.
When the London Company sent three ships to Virginia, the territory in which they landed was ruled by Powhatan. He was the paramount chief over the local tribes in his territory of Tsenacommacah.
Powhatan governed from a seat of power at Werowocomoco, on what we now call the York River.
the specific site of Powhatan's capital at Werowocomoco was identified by archeologists from William and Mary and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources
Source: US Geological Survey, Gressit 7.5x7.5 topographic map
Powhatan had been born in a town further west, and had originally assumed power while living at the base of the waterfalls on Powhatan's River (now called the James River). He extended his control eastward by conquering the Piantatank, Kiskiak, and Chesapeake tribes. He moved to Werowocomoco, which had a long tradition as a special spiritual place, sometime before the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery arrived and disrupted the balance of power.
In 1607, his brother Parahunt was werowance in that town. He ruled as a subordinate of Powhatan, sending tribute of corn and furs to his brother located in his second capital at Werowocomoco.
In 1607, the English colonists established their official seat of government at Jamestown. The English soon discovered that their first capital of Virginia was about 15 miles south of Powhatan's base at Werowocomoco.
the two capitals of Tsenacommacah and Virginia in 1607 (the "Powhatan" at the top of the map is the location of Parahunt's town)
NOTE: on John Smith's map, north is to the right
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia (John Smith, 1624)
Powhatan shifted his capital twice before the Second Anglo-Powhatan war started in 1622. In 1609 he migrated westward from Werowocomoco to Orapakes, moving to the swamps at the headwaters of the Chickahominy River. Sometime between 1611-1614, he moved again to the north side of the Pamunkey River, to a location known at Matchut.
After the 1662 uprising led by Opechancanough, the English pushed the various tribes away from Jamestown. Central authority of Opechancanough faded. After the 1644 uprising, the Algonquian-speaking natives lost control over Tsenacommacah and there was no "capital" with a paramount chief.
Despite the success of English colonization, Jamestown never grew. In 1677, one year after the State House was burned in Bacon's Rebellion, the General Assembly voted to move the capital from Jamestown to Tyndall's Point in Gloucester County. London officials rejected that proposal, and the State House was rebuilt at Jamestown again. The town served as Virginia's capital for 92 years.
The English colonists finally abandoned Jamestown after the State House burned again in 1698. Governor Francis Nicholson and the General Assembly shifted the colonial capital to Middle Plantation and renamed it Williamsburg in 1699.1
in 1699, Governor Nicholson and the General Assembly moved the capital from Jamestown (1) to Williamsburg (2), and rejected another proposal for Gloucester (X)
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Governor Nicholson had been governor of Maryland, and he moved the capital from St. Mary's City to Annapolis in 1695. He designed Annapolis so streets radiated out from circles that included the Maryland State House and the Anglican church.
For Williamsburg, Nicholson chose a rectangular pattern. He placed the Capitol Building on the opposite end of town from the College of Wlliam and Mary. He designed a central road connecting them, and parallel roads on each side were named Francis Street and Nicholson Street.
The new name for the capital, replacing "Middle Plantation," honored King William III. The main road was named Duke of Gloucester Street after the son of Anne, the sister of deceased Queen Mary and the successor to the throne once King William III died. Her young son died in 1700, soon after Nicholson's design was completed. The main road in colonial Williamsburg ended up honoring a child instead of a king, since George I replaced Queen Anne.2
Governor Francis Nicholson named the main street in Williamsburg after the heir to the throne, but his name was also placed on the map
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Williamsburg was located in the middle of the peninsula separating the James and York rivers, so it was equally inconvenient for members of the General Assembly who lived in either watershed. The lack of a port led to another push in 1738 to move the capital. The timing was related to the death of the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, John Randolph, who lived in Williamsburg. He was replaced by John Robinson, who lived in King and Queen County within the York River watershed.
The 1738 proposal to move the capital to "a more convenient place" was endorsed by members of the House of Burgesses who supported a new location on the Janes River, rather than on the York River or one of its tributaries. The move was defeated by the legislators who wanted to keep the capital at Williamsburg. They allied in separate votes with the separate James River and York River factions, killing each proposal to move.
The Capitol, the building in Williamsburg that housed the General Assembly and the General Court, burned on January 30, 1747. Governor Gooch called a session of the General Assembly to vote for special funding to rebuild, but the House of Burgesses made clear that it wanted to locate the capital at a port on a navigable river. The burgesses voted to "lay the Foundation of a new City... in a Place commodiously situated for Navigation" and discussed two sites on the Pamunkey River, a tributary of the York River.
Colonial Williamsburg reconstructed a copy of the first Capitol which burned in 1747, because it had better evidence of that structure's appearance
After considering Newcastle in Hanover County, the legislators voted 43-33 to build at a site in New Kent County. The Council blocked the move, but the House of Burgesses refused to approve funding to rebuild in Jamestown. After further discussion of sites somewhere on the Pamunkey River, or on the James River between the Appomattox River and the Fall Line, the 1747 session ended with no decision.
Governor Gooch then received direction from officials in London to rebuild at Williamsburg. He called another meeting of the General Assembly in 1748. It debated the advantages of moving to Newcastle in Hanover County or Cumberland Town in New Kent County, but legislators finally approved rebuilding the Capitol in Williamsburg by a 40-38 vote.
A year later the issue popped up again and the House of Burgesses voted to move to Newcastle, claiming the morality of students at William and Mary was being lowered by the crowds who attended sessions of the General Assembly and General Court. The 1749 attempt to reconsider the choice of Williamsburg was blocked by a 4-3 vote in the Council, reflected the fact that four Council members lived in the Williamsburg area.
In 1752, as the new Capitol was being built, the House of Burgesses still voted again to move the colonial capital to Newcastle. Once again, the Council killed the move.
In 1761, yet another attempt to move was defeated by just one vote in the House of Burgesses. An attempt in 1766 never came to a formal vote.
In 1770 the General Assembly moved the customshouse for the District of the Upper James River from Jamestown to Bermuda Hundred, a sign of support for moving the capital further up the James River. London officials blocked that move. When the House of Burgesses did vote in 1772 to move by 48-32, once again the Council blocked action.
Advocates of staying in Williamsburg recognized that the inland location was a problem. In 1772 they got the General Assembly to authorize construction of a canal linking Williamsburg to both the James and York rivers. Little construction was completed before the conflicts between colonists and royal officials erupted into the American Revolution.
In 1776, the rebellious Virginians declared independence, breaking with authority in London. That changed the status of Williamsburg into the capital of an independent "Commonwealth," an independent state rather than a colony.
In 1780 the Virginians moved their state capital from Williamsburg. According to traditional political lore, Thomas Jefferson left a blank spot in the bill that he introduced, allowing the legislators to determine the location of the new capital. Reportedly the General Assembly considered Newcastle on the Pamunkey River, not far downstream from Powhatan's last capital at Matchut, before choosing Richmond in a close vote.3
25 years before the capital was moved from Williamsburg, Newcastle - but not Richmond - was important enough to show on a map
Source: Library of Congress, Carte des possessions angloises & françoises du continent de l'Amérique septentrionale. Kaart van de Engelsche en Fransche bezittingen in het vaste land van Noord America (1755)
The General Assembly chose to move furher inland from Williamsburg, but stay on a deepwater river. The new location was the small community of Richmond. It was chosen in hopes that the new center of the revolutionary state government would be less vulnerable to British attack. Thomas Jefferson, governor at the time, later wrote:4
The tactic failed. The British successfully marched into Richmond twice in 1781 - but there were few state government buildings to destroy.
Virginia committed to a national government based on the Articles of Confederation, which the General Assembly ratified in 1778. The Articles finally went into effect after Maryland ratified them in 1781, creating the first version of the United States of America - but establishing the confederation had little impact on the status of Richmond. As the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Richmond remained the capital of an independent state that was loosely allied with 12 other independent states.
On June 26, 1788, Virginia ratified the new US Constitution. With the creation of the new Federal government based on that document, Richmond became the capital of just one state, a subordinate government in the new national union.
When Virginia joined the Confederacy in 1861, the capital of that government moved from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond.
the Confederate Congress met in the Virginia State Capitol building between 1861-1865
Source: The Photographic History of the Civil War, The Goal - The Confederate Capitol (p.282)
From a Confederate perspective, Richmond's status as the state capital never changed during the 1861-65 Civil War. The government of the state of Virginia remained in Richmond, and the city was simultaneously home to the Confederate government.
From a Union perspective, Virginia's state capital moved in 1861, 1863, and 1865.
According to the Union perspective, the Restored Government of Virginia was the official state government of Virginia between 1861-65. The Restored Government of Virginia categorized Wheeling, Virginia to be the state capital in 1861, after Virginia voted to secede from the Union.
In 1863, West Virginia joined the Union as an independent state, so the capital of Virginia had to move. Governor Pierpont relocated to Alexandria. The last move of the Restored Government of Virginia was back to Richmond in 1865, after the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia and the dissolution of the Confederacy.
Confederate officials fled Richmond on April 2, 1865 after Robert E. Lee reported that the Union Army had broken through the defenses at Petersburg. The Confederate Cabinet met briefly in Danville between April 6-10, 1865. The move to Danville was a shift of the seat of the Confederate government, but not a shift of the Virginia state capital.
The Sutherlin Mansion (now the home of the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History) was the last "capitol" in the last "capital" of the Confederacy. The Confederate Congress never assembled there, but it was the location where Jefferson Davis last hosted a cabinet meeting and from which he issued his last formal proclamation.
That history has made the mansion a modern tourist attraction, and also the center of controversy. The City of Danville acquired the building and made it into the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, and flew the Confederate flag in the front yard of the mansion. Residents in the city, in which half of the population was classified by the 2010 Census as "Black or African American alone," objected. When city officials removed the flag, the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued to have it restored as a war memorial.5
The dispute centered around how the Confederate government's last formal meeting would be recognized. Virginia's governor and General Assembly never tried to use Danville as a new center of state government. Richmond's business district was burned at the end of the Civil War, but the state government has stayed in that location ever since 1865.
the Confederate Congress last met in the Sutherlin Mansion, making Danville the last capital of the Confederacy - but Danville has never been the state capital
Source: Wikipedia, Danville, Virginia
NOTE: The state capitol is the building that houses the Virginia General Assembly. The capital (spelled with an "a" instead of an "o") is the city in which the General Assembly meets.
At the Federal Level, Washington DC is the capital city and the US Congress meets in the Capitol building. Charlottesville (May/June, 1781), Staunton (June, 1781), and Lynchburg (April, 1865) could claim to have served briefly as the capital city of Virginia, since the General Assembly met there officially at least to do business. The state legislature has also convened in Williamsburg since 1865, but those were ceremonial sesions.
last five locations of the capitals of Virginia
Map source: USGS National Atlas
in 1865 the Capitol building in Richmond still resembled the original structure erected according to Thomas Jefferson's design, and a main entrance was on the west side rather than through the front (with the columns)
Source: Library of Congress, Capitol building