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Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Lovable Facts About Virginia

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

Virginia has played an outsized role in American history. It was where Britain’s international empire really began, where George Washington was born, was a key player in the Confederacy, and more. Here are 25 things you might not know about the Old Dominion.

1. It was the first successful British colony in North America. Jamestown, Virginia was settled in 1607 by John Smith and about 100 other men. As many as 90 percent of the settlers died of disease and starvation by 1610, but a few years later, a new strain of tobacco helped make the colony profitable, and the company funding the settlement, the Virginia Company, began recruiting women to come over to marry and start families. In 1624, the Virginia Company’s charter was revoked, and Virginia became a royal colony.

2. It used to be a lot bigger. At the time of the Revolutionary War, Virginia encompassed parts of what are now Kentucky and West Virginia. Kentucky became its own state in 1792, and West Virginia seceded from the rest of Virginia rather than join the Confederacy. Virginia also originally ceded some land to form Washington D.C. However, that 31-square-mile plot of land (now Arlington County) was given back to the state in the 1840s, in part because Alexandria was a major slave market and some of its residents feared that slavery would be outlawed in the capital, as it was in 1850.

Image Credit: KMusser via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

3. Its General Assembly is the oldest continuous legislative body in the Western Hemisphere. It was established in 1619 in Jamestown as the House of Burgesses, and though its form and powers have changed slightly over the centuries, it’s been meeting since then. It’s where George Washington tested out his early political chops, and where some of the most famous speeches of the American Revolution happened, including Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech.

4. In its early years, Virginia was a colony of servants. According to the Virginia Historical Society, three quarters of the English immigrants to Virginia in the 1600s were indentured servants at some point. About half of those indentured servants died before their seven years of servitude was up, but some did become relatively prosperous after gaining their freedom. However, by the 17th century, indentured servitude was largely replaced by slavery—which was permanent and hereditary.

5. Its judicial system influenced the early Supreme Court. Virginia established a system of superior courts in 1779, including the Supreme Court of Appeals. This appeals court became a model for the fledgling U.S. Supreme Court, whose powers and structure were not described in detail in the Constitution.

6. It’s very green. The state’s department of forestry reports that 62 percent of the state is forested.

Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Image Credit: Matt Kozlowski via Wikimedia Commons// CC BY-SA 3.0

7. It’s the motherland of U.S. presidents. Quite a few Virginians have held the nation’s highest office, including four out of the first five (the Massachusetts-born John Adams being the only exception). A total of eight U.S. presidents have been born in the state.

8. As the country’s largest slave-holding state, it was a hotbed for anti-slavery rebellions. In 1831, Nat Turner led a band of more than 50 rebels in the largest slave uprising in American history. Decades later, in 1859, abolitionist John Brown raided Harpers Ferry, hoping that slaves would join his group in their uprising (though none did). The raid inflamed tensions between the North and South, helping spark the Civil War.

9. It played a huge role in the Civil War. Virginia was home to the Confederate capital, Richmond, and adjacent to Washington, D.C., making it an important target for Union forces. Over the course of the war, 26 major battles and 2000 total military engagements took place in the state.

10. Yes, Williamsburg, Virginia, is home to a world-famous historic district. But it's also the location of the all-important Presidential Pet Museum. There, you can learn about George Washington's beloved horse, Nelson, James Buchanan's herd of elephants, and Calvin Coolidge's lion cubs. 

11. The first woman-run bank in the U.S. started in Richmond, Virginia. Maggie Lena Walker was a successful African American businesswoman who chartered a bank, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, in 1903. She was the bank’s first president and later chairman of the board of directors, providing black bank patrons a safe space to do business in the Jim Crow South. After a merger with two other banks, it survived as the oldest continuous black-run bank in the U.S. until 2009.

12. It has independent cities, which are not controlled by any county. Fairfax, the city, is not controlled by Fairfax, the county, for instance. Virginia is the only state that employs this system on a large scale. Out of the more than 40 independent cities in the U.S., only three are not located in Virginia: Baltimore, St. Louis, and Carson City, Nevada are also independent cities [PDF].

13. It has its own English dialect. Residents of Tangier Island, an island in the Chesapeake Bay where British colonists settled starting in the 1680s, speak in a very particular way due to the small island’s isolation. Islanders sound a lot more like Brits than Americans, and their speech includes variants of words that can be traced back to colonial English, like “spar grass” for asparagus. The dialect’s speakers use “backwards talk,” which is a lot like extreme sarcasm. For example, someone might say “you’re too soon” to mean “you’re late.” Other expressions include “got the mibs” which means you stink.

14. It’s a big source of labor for the federal government. More than 700,000 Virginians were employed by the government as of December 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Northern Virginia is home to the headquarters of numerous federal agencies, including the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the National Science Foundation, all the military and national security agencies in the Pentagon, the CIA, and more.

15. Thanks to the Chesapeake Bay, the state is the the largest seafood producer on the Atlantic coast and the third largest in America [PDF].

16. It’s serious about its favorite ham. State law specifies that to call something a Smithfield ham, it must be “processed, treated, smoked, aged, cured by the long-cure, dry salt method of cure and aged for a minimum period of six months” within the limits of Smithfield, Virginia. This cured ham was one of the nation’s first exports, selling in Bermuda in the late 1700s.

Image Credit: United States Coast Guard, PA2 Christopher Evanson via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

17. It has an annual pony swim. The island of Chincoteague, Virginia holds Pony Penning every year. Feral Chincoteague ponies are rounded up from the nearby Assateague Island and driven across the channel, as Maguerite Henry depicted in her 1947 children’s book Misty of Chincoteague. After their annual swim, some of the horses are sold to benefit the volunteer fire department.

18. It’s a wine destination. Virginia wine may not be as well-known as wine from Napa or France, but people have been making wine in the state since Thomas Jefferson planted European grapes at Monticello. However, wine made with local Virginia grapes was “mostly undrinkable” for the two centuries that followed, as a 2013 Washington Post story put it. After a successful reinvention, today Virginia is heralded as “the most exciting place for American wine right now.”

19. It’s got good schools. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is the nation’s third best high school, according to U.S. News and World Report’s rankings. In the publisher’s 2015 national rankings, Virginia’s high schools placed 10th. When the personal finance company WalletHub analyzed school district performance across the nation, Virginia ranked 11th.

20. It doesn’t have any major professional sports teams, making it the largest state without a major league sports franchise. While the Washington Redskins do have corporate headquarters in Ashburn, the team’s stadium is in Maryland.

American Foxhounds. Image Credit: iStock

21. It’s the birthplace of the American Foxhound. George Washington is considered the father of Virginia’s state dog breed, as the dogs are descended in part from a pack of French hounds gifted to the first president by the Marquis de Lafayette. The American Foxhound was one of the first American breeds.

22. Some notable entertainment powerhouses are from there. Ella Fitzgerald, June Carter Cash, Warren Beatty, Missy Elliott, and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan were all born in the state.

23. William Faulkner may be best known as a Mississippi writer, but he spent his last years as a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia. The school still has most of his archives, and you can listen to some of his lectures on its website.

24. Its tourism bureau made advertising history. “Virginia is for lovers,” the state’s travel slogan since 1969, first appeared in an advertisement in Modern Bride. It got a spot on the Madison Avenue Walk of Fame in 2009, and has also gotten shout-outs in several songs

25. It’s a surfing hot spot. The annual East Coast Surfing Championships, now in its 53rd year, is hosted in Virginia Beach. It bills itself as North America’s longest-running surf contest.

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Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
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Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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