The distinctive commercial and cultural environments in Virginia disposed people in the state's different regions to view their lives as Virginians in different ways and also to perceive their local, regional, and national identities differently. Residents of northwestern Virginia shared little other than a legal and political culture with residents of south-central Virginia or residents of any of the eastern cities. The same could be said to a greater or lesser degree of residents of any of the other regions within the state.
Mid-nineteenth-century Virginians often talked about two distinct sections divided by the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. The most illuminating way to view the great diversity within the state at that time, however, is to consider the watersheds. Waterways offered easy avenues of communication and commerce and knit together communities and counties and even regions that reached beyond state boundaries.
Residents of the Ohio Valley counties and towns, where enslaved African Americans were few and slavery was an almost inconsequential institution, did business with and read the same newspapers as nearby residents of free states. They looked outward from Virginia, to the Northeast and Northwest. The economy of the region and the many steamboats that transported people and merchandise up and down the Ohio River meant that those Virginians lived quite different lives than the residents immediately to the east in the Allegheny Mountains. There, commercial connections with other places were less-readily available, and the mountains dictated different demographic patterns and made long-distance communications and commerce more difficult and slow. In the southwestern counties of Virginia, residents of the upper regions of the Tennessee River watershed looked to the Southwest, not toward the Ohio Valley or toward eastern Virginia. In the valleys of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers the residents looked to the Northeast and retained long-standing commercial and cultural ties to Maryland and south-central Pennsylvania.
In the broad region of Virginia east of the Blue Ridge and west of the counties that bordered Chesapeake Bay slavery was the foundation of the economic and social systems. Slaves were a majority of the total population in many counties in the central and southern portions of that region. Planters and small farmers raised tobacco, grains, and other crops for commercial sale elsewhere. They often looked outward, too, toward the trade routes of the Atlantic Ocean. Residents there relied on canals and railroads and on the merchants in the manufacturing cities of Richmond, Petersburg, Danville, Lynchburg, and Fredericksburg to sell them necessary supplies and other goods imported from abroad or from northern cities and also to purchase their commodities for resale as far away as Europe, South America, and Australia.
Virginians who lived along the Potomac River and on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay were also often involved in commercial and cultural networks that included people in Maryland and markets and suppliers of goods in Philadelphia and New York. The port cities of Alexandria, Norfolk, and Portsmouth served as the intermediaries between those people and an outside world that included most American cities on the North Atlantic coast as well as European cities.