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Why Is Virginia Called Old Dominion?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 17, 2024
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The American state of Virginia is called Old Dominion because of its status as the first American colony of the British Empire and because of the domain status given to it by Charles II. Old Dominion is one of seven nicknames for the state; others include the Mother of Presidents or Statesmen, Mother of States, the Cavalier State and Down Where the South Begins. An alternative of Old Dominion is the Ancient Dominion, but it has the same meaning.

Virginia has a rightful claim to call itself Ancient or Old Dominion because it was the first colony of England in the Americas. Queen Elizabeth I asked Sir Walter Raleigh to explore and settle land north of Spanish Florida in 1583. He named the territory after her, the Virgin Queen, but in those days, the territory of Virginia ran from the Carolinas to Maine. In 1607, Virginia became the first colony to host a permanent town, which was called Jamestown.

England, and then Britain, as it became known at the beginning of the 16th century, founded its American and Caribbean colonies as private financial enterprises. This meant one or a number of commercial companies formed and founded the colony, and were not directly run by the Crown or government of Britain. Virginia was unique amongst these colonies in the fact that it was a direct crown colony and was run by the British government through a governor.

This point is crucial to the formation of Virginia’s nickname. During the English Civil War, Virginia’s Governor Sir William Berkeley adhered to King Charles I’s religious policies, but remained neutral in everything else. The Civil War greatly affected commerce and Virginia’s neutrality was designed to maximize trade.

All this changed when Charles I lost the war and was executed. Instead of acknowledging the rightful claim to governance of the democratic government of the British parliament, Virginia recognized Charles’ son, Charles II, as King of Virginia instead. The state was forced to back down in 1552, but Charles II never forgot Virginia’s loyalty.

In 1660, the newly crowned King Charles II received some silk from Virginia. The King acknowledged this gift as being from the ‘Dominion of Virginia.’ In 1663, he then gave Virginia the new motto of ‘en dat Virginia Quintum’ meaning ‘Behold, Virginia gives the fifth.’ This means that alongside the four original dominions of England, Scotland, Ireland and France, Charles II was now recognizing Virginia as the fifth dominion. He did this by also putting the arms of Virginia on his shield as one of the four quarters alongside France, Ireland and Scotland.

Virginians added the term ‘old’ to denote the state’s status as being the oldest in the Americas, to the new title of ‘dominion’ to form its nickname. Old Dominion was from the reign of Charles II onward considered equal to the other dominions and of higher status than the mere colonies that surrounded it.

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