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Chloe Effron

25 Lovable Facts About Virginia

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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 In 1624, the Virginia Company’s charter was revoked, and Virginia became a royal colony.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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History
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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