Merchants of Virginia

Old Dominion

Old Dominion is one of the best-known nicknames for Virginia, along with Mother of Presidents and Mother of States. The nickname probably derives from the fact that Virginia was the first, and therefore the oldest, of the overseas dominions of the kings and queens of England. The seal and coat of arms of the colony in use from 1607 until 1624, when the Virginia Company of London directed the colonization of Virginia, included the words, "En Dat Virginia Quintam" (also spelled "Quintum"), indicating that Virginia was the fifth of the realms, or domains, of the Crown. At that time, the kings and queens of England also claimed the thrones of Scotland, Ireland, and France (dating back to the Norman Conquest in 1066). The same words appeared on the seal between 1625, when Virginia became the English king's first royal colony, and the 1707 Acts of Union that combined the kingdoms of England and Scotland into the kingdom of Great Britain. The motto on the seal of Virginia was then altered to "En Dat Virginia Quartam," there being thereafter four, not five, royal dominions. That motto was used on the colonial seal until the beginning of the American Revolution (1775–1783). MORE...


A popular and plausible tradition that appears in most histories and reference works is that King Charles II referred to Virginia as his loyal old dominion at the time that he was restored to the throne in 1660. After the Parliamentarians executed King Charles I in 1649 following their victory in the English Civil Wars, they forced the king's namesake son and heir into exile and governed without a monarch. Nevertheless, the governor and General Assembly of Virginia proclaimed Prince Charles the king; in 1652 Parliament sent a fleet and armed force to Virginia to require the colony to surrender and give up its allegiance to the exiled claimant to the throne.

There is no known documentary proof for the story that at the time of his restoration as king in 1660 Charles II gratefully called Virginia his faithful old dominion, but it is possible that he did. Virginia historian Robert Beverley (d. 1722) wrote in his History and Present State of Virginia (1705) that by then there was a "Tradition, that the King, in Compliment to that Colony, wore at his Coronation a Robe made of the Silk, that was sent from thence." When Charles II acknowledged a gift of Virginia silk that Governor Sir William Berkeley presented to him in 1663, the king referred to the colony as "our auntient Collonie of Virginia," and one of "our own Dominions." In 1699 the General Assembly referred to Virginia as "his majesties ancient colony and dominion," and in 1700 in an address to the king the assembly used the phrase, "your Majests most antient Colony and Dominion of Virginia."

Those phrases were in common use during the remainder of the colonial period. The evolution of them into Old Dominion probably began during the American Revolution, when the king's oldest colony became an independent commonwealth and one of the thirteen original United States. At least two instances are known from 1778 in which Virginia army officers wrote to other Virginians and referred to the Old Dominion without explaining what the phrase meant, suggesting that they believed that their correspondents were familiar with the term. It was a well-recognized nickname throughout the United States by 1800, and use of it flourished during the early years of the nineteenth century. John Pendleton Kennedy included it in the subtitle to his popular 1832 novel, Swallow Barn: Or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion, which effectively created the literary genre known as the Virginia Novel. John Esten Cooke, for many years a popular author of history and fiction about Virginia, also employed the phrase in the subtitle of his 1854 historical romance The Virginia Comedians: Or, Old Days in the Old Dominion. Many Virginians by then included the words Old Dominion in titles of songs, political tracts, poems, novels, newspapers, historical works, debating societies, essays, educational institutions, and business firms. In 1859, Virginia natives residing in New York founded the Old Dominion Society of the City of New York.

The nickname increased in popularity after the American Civil War (1861–1865) and by the twentieth century was in regular use, sometimes even without the word Old. In 1962 when the General Assembly converted the Norfolk division of the College of William and Mary into an independent four-year institution of higher education, it gave the new school the name Old Dominion College, changed in 1969 to Old Dominion University. It has ever since been the largest and one of the best-known institutions of higher learning in southeastern Virginia. Its name clearly indicates to Virginians and to other Americans in which state it is located.


Further Reading
Heinemann, Ronald L., John G. Kolp, Anthony S. Parent Jr., and William G. Shade. Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607–2007. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
Wallenstein, Peter. Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Tarter, B. Old Dominion. (2014, January 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

  • MLA Citation:

    Tarter, Brent. "Old Dominion." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 30 Jan. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: April 21, 2011 | Last modified: January 30, 2014

Contributed by Brent Tarter, founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.