The Greatest Virginians

Today I was asked to take part in a survey by the Library of Virginia and Richmond Times-Dispatch of the most famous Virginians of the last 400 years.  Here are the guidelines:

For each century – the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th – we would like you to name and write a short explanatory paragraph (about 200 words) for (1) a most influential Virginian and (2) a greatest Virginian. Please do not name the same person twice, and do not feel that the most influential Virginian necessarily left a 100-percent positive legacy. Fill in names only for the centuries your knowledge and comfort-level support. If you choose to focus on only one or two centuries, please feel free to do so – we expect it.

And if you would like to include a name and paragraph for a most important Virginian the public doesn’t know about, or a Virginian with the most destructive legacy, please feel free to do that as well. Be creative. The Times-Dispatch likely will publish a number of these, and we look forward to reading what our jury has to say.

The survey defines a Virginian as "someone who is identified with the commonwealth because of birth, residency, or circumstance."  I have a few ideas for the 19th century, but haven’t thought much beyond that. 

So, what do you think?

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21 comments… add one
  • Tour Marm Aug 31, 2007 @ 19:16

    Pocahontas (Lady Rebecca Rolfe)
    George Washington
    John Marshall
    My father (OK, I know…)
    Nancy Langhorne – Vicountess Astor

  • Kevin Levin Aug 30, 2007 @ 18:10

    Tim, — I definitely think it’s the former.

  • Tim Lacy Aug 30, 2007 @ 17:53

    Practical Question: How do categorize someone who was, say, born in 1770 but died in 1830? I suppose you go with the “time of prominent activity,” or strictly by birth/death date?

    I ask because I just posted a similar, more impromptu survey at H&E. – TL

  • Adam Zimmerli Aug 29, 2007 @ 5:03

    My apologies if this posts twice. I got some error message from Typepad… If this didn’t post twice, then here’s what I meant to post:

    If we’re talking about influential Virginians, and this is, after all, a Civil War Memory blog, what about Jubal Early? The impact he and the SHS had on the Civil War’s memory (and other far-reaching cultural and social aspects of life in the 19th, 20th, and arguably 21st century) would make him a prime, albeit notorious, candidate.

    Wouldn’t that be something, seeing him and Nat Turner on the same page. You can practically hear Early spinning in his grave.

    Or John Brown, considering that he was officially tried for treason against the commonwealth of Virginia. If his lawyers were unable to convince the jury that he couldn’t have committed treason against Virginia by sheer dint of not being a resident thereof, doesn’t that make him a de facto Virginian? Sounds like another candidate to me.


  • Cash Aug 29, 2007 @ 0:17


    If the criterion is “most famous,” then let’s give a nod to John Smith, Powhatan, and Pocahontas for the 17th Century [whether the story is true or not or blown out of proportion or not]; and George Washington, James Madison, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson for the 18th Century. It would be nice to bring in some names that aren’t usually mentioned, which would be educational, but they probably won’t fit the “most famous” criterion.



  • GreenmanTim Aug 28, 2007 @ 20:42

    I shall pose this question tomorrow, August 29th, at my blog concerning the 5 Greatest Nutmeggers…

  • Tim Lacy Aug 28, 2007 @ 18:04

    I don’t have any Virginia-related suggestions for you, but this sounds like a lot of fun. I wish someone would ask me about this for Illinois for Missouri. – TL

  • Will Hickox Aug 28, 2007 @ 16:45

    Woodrow Wilson for the 20th. Probably not the greatest (many say he was a lousy president) but in the running for most influential. If he had agreed to enter the Great War in 1915 after the Lusitania disaster, there’s a chance that a still-strong Germany may have emerged the victor. By holding off until 1917 (and not fighting until the following year), Wilson ensured our victory against the exhausted Central Powers. And this led to America’s role on the world stage.

  • Chris Paysinger Aug 28, 2007 @ 14:33

    I like the Carter family…might be good to get away from the politicos and military set….Good call Ken. (War Eagle!!!)

  • Rebecca Aug 28, 2007 @ 13:53

    I got the same email. I’m going to post on Cliopatria about it later, and I have a lot of ideas for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

    Can there be a challenger to John Smith or John Rolfe? Oh yes–

    How about Metoaka? or Wahunsonacock? Or Opechancanough? Or Cockacoeske? Or Sir William Berkeley (arguably the architect of colonial governance)? or Nathaniel Bacon? or Emanuel Driggus?

  • GreenmanTim Aug 28, 2007 @ 10:06

    If you feared the 19th century would turn out to be a gods ‘n generals hypefest, what are we to make of the possibilities for the 18th? Washington v. Jefferson with Madison and Henry also rans? Who else is deserving of a shot? Personally, I’m inclined toward Jefferson over the Father of our Country, but do not expect that to be the popular choice.

    And in the 17th, can there be a challenger to John Smith (or John Rolfe)?

  • Ken Noe Aug 28, 2007 @ 9:30


    If you want to move beyond the obvious political and military choices:

    Glenn McMullen, the Emory & Henry College grad who invented the jump shot. Imagine the NBA today with two-handed set shots. (Go Wasps!)

    Secretariat, the greatest race horse that ever lived, was born in Virginia.

    The Carter Family, the grandparents of bluegrass, country, and even rock.


  • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2007 @ 9:03

    Andy, — Now that is a very interesting choice. I never would have thought of Freeman, but he has indeed done a great deal to influence the way we remember Virginia’s rich history.

    Wow…I thought I would get a bunch of bone-headed responses that include Lee, Jackson, and Stuart. That’s not to say that they don’t deserve a nod, but that they are too easy and usually for the wrong reasons.

  • Andy Aug 28, 2007 @ 8:46

    I wonder if any historians would make the list. Douglas S. Freeman should get some consideration for the 20th Century.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2007 @ 8:01

    Marshall and Turner are both excellent choices.

    Jeff, — I don’t see how I can get around not nominating Mahone for that category.

  • Craig A. Warren Aug 28, 2007 @ 0:42

    I like Chris’s suggestion of Nat Turner. The parameters given by the TIMES-DISPATCH may make Turner an unlikely choice, but I think he merits far more attention than he typically receives.

  • Will Hickox Aug 28, 2007 @ 0:00

    “Fill in names only for the centuries your knowledge and comfort-level support.” Kind of an odd statement. Personally, the full-bottom wigs and outlandish wardrobes of the 17th century have always made me a bit uncomfortable…

  • John Hoptak Aug 27, 2007 @ 22:45

    Referencing your previous post. . .
    If you keep on a’gettin 100,000 hits every year and a half, well then I have a good candidate for the most influential Virginian of the 21st Century. . .
    Keep up the good work, and congratulations!

  • Jeff Aug 27, 2007 @ 22:09

    I got asked to do this too. You going to put Mahone in for “most important Virginian the public doesn’t know about”?

  • Chris Paysinger Aug 27, 2007 @ 20:09

    Just for the sake of controversy…though I do believe he falls in to this category, Nat Turner.

  • Mannie Gentile Aug 27, 2007 @ 19:00


    My vote for the most influential Virginian (by circumstance) is George C. Marshall.

    You know, the guy Europe is named after.

    But seriously, Marshall is the Virginian who gets my 20th century vote.


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