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First Families of Virginia (FFV) were those families in Colonial Virginia who were socially prominent and wealthy, but not necessarily the earliest settlers. They originated with colonists from England who primarily settled at Jamestown, Williamsburg, and along the James River and other navigable waters in Virginia during the 17th century. As there was a propensity to marry within their narrow social scope for many generations, many descendants bear surnames which became common in the growing colony.
The American Revolution cut ties with Britain but did not cut traditions. While some Tory First Family members remained loyal to Britain and saw their fortunes decline after the Revolution, others were Whigs who not only supported but led the Revolution. They flourished until the time of the Civil War, when they lost their slaves and much of their wealth. However they kept their traditions and much of their political power. Fishwick says that by the 1950s, "the Oldtime Aristocracy has not given up, or sunk into decadence as the Southern novelists suggest." They adopted modern technology and coopted rich "Yankees" into their upper class rural horse-farm society.
Many of the original English colonists considered members of the First Families of Virginia migrated to the Colony of Virginia. This migration took place during the English Civil War and English Interregnum period (1642–1660), after the first thanksgiving in Virginia (1619) held by Captain John Woodlief. Royalists left England on the accession to power of Oliver Cromwell and his Parliament. Because most of Virginia's leading families recognized Charles II as King following the execution of Charles I in 1649, Charles II reputedly called Virginia his "Old Dominion" – a nickname that endures today. The affinity of many early aristocratic Virginia settlers for the Crown led to the term "distressed Cavaliers", often applied to the Virginia oligarchy. Many Cavaliers who served under King Charles I fled to Virginia. Thus it came to be that FFVs often refer to Virginia as "Cavalier Country". These men were offered rewards of land, etc., by King Charles II but they had settled in Virginia and so remained in Virginia.
Most of such early settlers in Virginia were so-called "Second Sons". Primogeniture favored the first sons' inheriting lands and titles in England. Virginia evolved in a society of second or third sons of English aristocracy who inherited land grants or land in Virginia. They formed part of what became the southern elite in America.
In some cases, longstanding ties between families of the English aristocracy simply transplanted themselves to the new colony. In one case, for instance, ancestral ties between the Spencer family of Bedfordshire and the Washington family meant that it was a Spencer who secured the land grant on which the Washingtons would later build their Mount Vernon home. These sorts of ties were common in the early colony, as aristocratic families shuttled back and forth between England and Virginia, maintaining their connections with the mother country and with each other.
The reins of power were held by a thin network of increasingly interrelated families. "As early as 1660 every seat on the ruling Council of Virginia was held by members of five interrelated families," writes British historian John Keegan, "and as late as 1775 every council member was descended from one of the 1660 councillors."
The ties among Virginia families was based on intermarriage. In an economy based largely on the possession of tobacco plantations, the ownership of that land was tightly controlled, and often passed between families of corresponding social rank. The Virginia economy, predicated on the institution of slavery and not on mercantile pursuits, meant that the gentry could keep tight rein on the levers of power, which passed in somewhat orderly fashion from family to family. (In the more modern mercantile economy of the north, social mobility became more prominent, and the power of the elite was muted by the forces of the market economy.)
Many of the great Virginia dynasties traced their roots to families like the Lees, Randolphs, Byrds and the Fitzhughs who traced lineage to England's county families and baronial legacies. But not all: even the most humble Virginia immigrants aspired to the English manorial trappings of their "betters". Virginia history is not the sole province of English aristocrats. Such families as the Shackelfords, who gave their name to a Virginia hamlet, rose from modest beginnings in Hampshire to a place in the Virginia firmament based on hard work and smart marriages. At the same time other once-great families died out or sank into obscurity.
Many of the First Families of Virginia can also trace their ancestry to a young Native American named Pocahontas (1596–1617). She was the youngest daughter of Nonoma Winanuske Matatiske and Chief Powhatan, King of the Powhatan Confederacy. She was educated among the English of Virginia and when given the opportunity to return to her family she declined and accepted an offer of marriage from planter John Rolfe who had fallen in love with her. Rolfe had become prominent and wealthy as the first to successfully develop an export cash crop for the Colony with new varieties of tobacco. Their only child, Thomas Rolfe, was born in 1615, and his offspring married into other elite families. Princess Pocahontas was much celebrated in London where she was welcomed with great ceremony at the Royal Court and although she died young, she became legendary as the first Indian from Virginia to become Christian, marry an Englishman, and have a child from such a marriage. She is an important symbol of friendly Indian-English relations of the Jamestown colony and, by virtue of many fictional accounts of the mythology of early American history.
In 1887 Virginia Governor Wyndham Robertson authored the first history of Pocahontas and her descendants, delineating the ancestry of the Native American woman as it spread among FFV families such as the Bollings, Whittles, Blands, Skipwiths, Flemings, Catletts, Gays, Jordans, Randolphs, Tazewells and many others. The intermarriages between these families meant that many shared the same names, sometimes just in different order—as in the case of Lt. Col. Powhatan Bolling Whittle of the 38th Virginia Infantry, Confederate States of America, the uncle of Matoaka Whittle Sims.
In the early 20th century there was a surge of interest in Virginia traditions and heritage, especially among the FFV. In 1907, the Jamestown Exposition was held near Norfolk to celebrate the tricentennial of the arrival of the first English colonists and the founding of Jamestown. Preservation Virginia, formerly known as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, founded in Williamsburg in 1889, emphasized patriotism in the name of Virginia's 18th-century Founding Fathers. Many FFV members attended the College of William and Mary including several members of the influential Page family, who helped establish the original College site and grounds.
Some family names include: