Encyclopedia Virginia

April 9, 2012
Detail from title page of 1590 account of Virginia
Photo caption

Detail from the title page of Thomas Hariot’s "A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia," 1590

Courtesy of The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia

On May 13, 1607, a group of English settlers, including a yeoman's son, John Smith, who had been arrested on accusations of plots to "usurpe the governement, murder the Councell, and make himselfe kinge," planted a cross at Cape Henry, a small plot of land in present-day Virginia along the James River.  According to historian J. Frederick Fausz, the site proved to be a tremendously fortuitous selection as it was one of the only areas not being used by an alliance of six Indian tribes led by Chief Powhatan (Wahunsonacock).  Had the settlers claimed any other area, there was a good chance they would have been overrun in a matter of days.

A comprehensive history of the early Jamestown settlement is just one of hundreds of entries on Virginia's 400-plus year history in the online Encyclopedia Virginia produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) with funding support from NEH's Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant program.  With  a 2009 award, the VFH has been contributing over 400 entries on pre-colonial and colonial Virginia history.

Portrait of indigenous people making a canoe
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Printed hand-colored engraving by Theodor de Bry after John White, ca. 1590

Courtesy of The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia

Portrait of a stately Englishman in front of a red curtain
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Potrait of Robert Carter III by Thomas Hudson, mid-18th century, oil on canvas.

Courtesy of Virginia Historical Society

Teachers, students, and researchers can find in-depth coverage of the state’s political, social, economic, and cultural history. Visitors are free to browse the site and conduct searches for key historical figures and events, from Nathaniel Bacon, who led a rebellion against the governor in 1675, to the construction of the Pentagon in the 1940s.

If you visit the site today to learn about Virginia’s early history, you will find not only entries about colonial settlers but also information about Indian culture and society. Managing Editor Matthew Gibson points out that “for content on colonial and pre-colonial era Virginia Indians in particular, the entry content Encyclopedia Virginia is creating and making accessible to a general public is a valuable resource that currently cannot be found anywhere else on the Web with the level of scholarly accuracy, detail, and narrative coherence and consistency that [the site] maintains.”

To create content that encapsulates more than 400 years of history, Encyclopedia Virginia uses a hybrid of traditional and new publication practices. Expert contributors compose each entry, which undergoes strict peer review and editing. At the same time, the Foundation has collaborated with local museums such as the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News and the Library of Virginia to provide curated content.

Nathaniel Bacon Manuscript
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Nathaniel Bacon, Manuscript, October 27, 1674

Courtesy of Library of Virginia

Gunston Hall
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Interior of Gunston Hall, a Georgian mansion on Mason's Neck in Fairfax County, built by George Mason in the 1750s. Photograph by Louise Kraft, 2010.

Courtesy of Gunston Hall

Encyclopedia Virginia is also harnessing the interactive possibilities of the Web to enhance the experience of learning about the Commonwealth. The developers have added geo-coordinates and temporal elements to individual historical events that occur in each entry. With this data, visitors can build mapping and timeline visualizations on the site through the “Explore Virginia” portal. They can also access Encyclopedia Virginia through their mobile devices using augmented reality browsers such as Layar. You can see a demonstration here.

In March, the VFH received an additional Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant award to expand the Encyclopedia, in partnership with the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, to cover the dynamic and turbulent period of Virginia's African American history spanning from 1862 to 1902.

Additional Reading

The following subject matters mentioned in this article are entries in the Encyclopedia Virginia:

Early Jamestown Settlement

John Smith


Nathaniel Bacon

The Pentagon

Funding information

The projects mentioned in this article have been awarded through the NEH Division of Preservation and Access's Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant program: PW-50312-09 and PW-50171-12.