The Old Dominion

The Old Dominion

From the bay to the Blue Ridge, Virginia is changing. But many customs forged over time remain.

Published on October 12, 2013

In 1612, the English explorer John Smith wrote of Virginia: “Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for means of habitation.”

“Here are mountaines, hils, plaine, valleyes, rivers, and brookes all running most pleasantly into a faire Bay compassed . . . with fruitfull and delightsome land.”

During the four centuries since, and, doubtless, for centuries before, the land called Virginia has been, for the most part, “fruitfull and delightsome.”

But Virginia has also been the stage where so much of the American story has played out, a hallowed, ancient place where time has left the blessings of wisdom and leadership and the memory of war and slavery.

As Virginians prepare to choose their 72nd governor, Washington Post photographer Matt McClain set out — away from the cities and interstates — to capture the beauty, tradition and lore of the commonwealth.

And from the “faire” Chesapeake Bay to the western “mountaines,” Virginia revealed itself. In its rituals, people and landscapes, it remains a land as rich and abundant as the one that Smith found so pleasing in 1612.


The Blue Ridge Hunt, an organization founded in 1888 in the heart of Virginia’s horse country, puts on a fox hunt in Berryville. The history of fox hunting in the state dates to the early 1700s, and the Blue Ridge Hunt owns most of the land that was originally used by Lord Fairfax in the mid-1700s. In the state’s fledgling days, fox hunting was the province of farmers and landowners, and George Washington was among the Virginians who enjoyed the pastime. Today, the sport is controversial: Opponents say it’s cruel to the animals, but those who support it say it’s an integral part of rural culture and useful for environmental conservation and pest control.

From top: The American Civil War devastated Virginia and its people, as huge Union and Confederate armies fought savagely and repeatedly in the corridor between Washington and Richmond. Some places, like Manassas, saw two separate battles over the same ground a year apart. Here, historical interpreters, David Meisky, left, Alex Hughes and Tom Maples, right, take part in a reenactment of a Stonewall Jackson raid during the Manassas Civil War Weekend in late August.

Eve Spencer, 6, holds masks of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant outside the Athenaeum during the Civil War Flash Mob that encouraged people to dress in period Civil War clothing on April 28 in Alexandria. The city was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War and was the scene of the slaying of Union Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, the month after the war began.

Confederate interpreters, one portraying gray-haired Robert E. Lee, pay their respects at the Stonewall Memory Gardens grave of fellow historical interpreter Jack Maples, who had passed away earlier in the year, as they take part in the Manassas Civil War Weekend. They are members of Lee’s Lieutenants.


One thing the vast wilderness of Virginia offered early settlers was land, thousands and thousands of acres of land, which could be cleared and farmed. The Mount Vernon estate of George Washington, who considered himself above all a farmer, once encompassed 7,600 acres. Two hundred years later, Virginia’s venerable soil still is yielding crops. Michael Loper climbs on hay bales as he stacks them at property owned by Oasis Farms in Suffolk on Sept. 19.

From top: Boo Rose steps on tobacco picked in a field on Aug. 30 in Warfield, southwest of Petersburg. The land and crop is owned by third-generation tobacco farmer Neil Corum.

Rosendo Martinez takes a break from picking tobacco in a field at Corum’s farm.

Rose picks tobacco. The history of tobacco in Virginia can be traced back to John Rolfe, who, after his arrival at Jamestown in 1609, became the first settler to successfully grow the crop for commercial use. Native Americans harvested and used tobacco long before the settlers arrived.


As immigrants, especially from Northern Ireland, flooded into Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains in the 1700s, they brought along their music — the jigs, reels and laments of their native land. Modified by the haunting mountains where they settled, the music took on a style all its own, rendered on the guitar and banjo, as well as the traditional fiddle. Here, musicians perform during the 78th annual Old Fiddlers’ Convention at Felts Park on Aug. 9 in Galax, in the far southwestern part of the state.

From top: Chris Testerman rehearses before performing during the Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax.

Steve Scearce of Danville, center, plays music with others in downtown Galax.


The earliest Virginia colonists found the rivers and bays brimming with fish. English explorer John Smith reported multitudes of “trowts” and “eeles,” among other kinds. There were also “oisters” aplenty. There still are. Alyson Myers of Kegotank Farm works with her company’s oyster beds in Modest Town, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, on Sept. 20. Oysters used to be so plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay that their reefs defined the major river channels, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But the current oyster population in the bay is less than 1 percent of what it was at its height.

From top: Henry Tank walks on a dock as he fishes near the Bayford Oyster Co. in Franktown, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, on Sept. 21.

Oysters are a major part of coastal Virginia’s culture and heritage, both past and present.


Native Virginians hunted deer by corralling them within rings of fires, and then killing a dozen at a time. And the forests were filled with birds, rabbits and turkeys, which the natives hunted to survive. Hunting in Virginia today is more for sport than food and done with a good shotgun, rather than a fire. Tom Egeland Jr., left, and his brother Jeff Egeland take part in the annual dove hunt at the Shady Grove Kennel and Hunting Preserve on Sept. 14 in Remington, which is in Fauquier County.

From top: Sam Strawder, 23, takes part in the annual dove hunt at the Shady Grove Kennel and Hunting Preserve with her family.

Andrew Kuhlman and his dog Phoenix join the hunt in Remington.


Many of Virginia’s 18th-century immigrants fled to the commonwealth for religious freedom. Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers and Baptists often migrated to the state, driven by oppression back in Europe. In 1777, Thomas Jefferson wrote his famous Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which said: “No man shall … suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.” He was so proud of the statute that he wanted his tombstone to note that he was its author. Steve Blanchard, left, stands next to Katie Courain and her husband, Rob Courain, along with pastor Jim Somerville as members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church take part in a baptism in the James River on Aug. 18.


From top: Steve Blanchard helps Stephanie Jones out of the James River after being baptized as a member of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

First Baptist Church member Sidney Hocutt, 10, is baptized by her grandfather, Tom Hocutt, in the James River.

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