History of Richmond, Virginia

Located along the fall line of the James River, Richmond is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Although Richmond was incorporated as a town “to be styled the City of Richmond” in 1742, it was not until 1782 that it was incorporated as a city. Plentiful in Revolutionary War history, Richmond served also as the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

The beginning

In 1607, after 10 days of travel up Powhatan’s River (later known as the James River), Captain John Smith and 120 men from Jamestown, Virginia, settled at the river's highest navigable location. Theirs was the first attempt to settle at the Falls of the James.

Four years later in 1611, the governor of the new Jamestown colony organized an expedition to sail up the James and settled below the falls in a place they called Henricus. The first hospital in North America was located there, serving also as the home of Pocahontas.

Struggles with the indigenous peoples began to simmer and then boil over after the death of Pocahontas in 1617, and her father Chief Powhatan the following year. Widespread Indian attacks during the Powhatan uprising of 1622 destroyed every English settlement along the James River except Jamestown.

Led by the more aggressive Chief Opechancanough, the tribe massacred nearly 400 white settlers during a surprise attack in 1644. Two years later, the tribe was forced to sign a treaty that granted the English possession of the land below the Falls of the James.

The neighborhoods of Shockoe Bottom, Shockoe Slip, and Church Hill, where St. John's Church had been built the prior year, coalesced into one entity when Richmond was chartered as a town, in 1742. They were governed by the Virginia House of Burgesses, located in Jamestown.

Importance during the Revolutionary War

Richmond became a center of activity prior to and during the Revolutionary War. Patrick Henry’s famous speech “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” was delivered at Richmond’s St. John’s Church and was said to have inspired the House of Burgesses to pass a resolution to deliver Virginia troops to the Revolutionary War in 1775. One year later, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress.

In 1780, during the War of Independence, Virginia’s state capital was moved to Richmond from Williamsburg. A year later, Richmond was burned to the ground by British troops during Benedict Arnold’s watch. By 1782, Richmond had recovered and was incorporated as a city.

Slave trade center

It is believed that between 1800 and 1865, an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 slaves were processed through the Shockoe Bottom slave auction blocks in Richmond, on their way to the Deep South. Shockoe Bottom served also as a burial ground for thousands of Africans whom had not survived the journey or died shortly after their entry into America.

In one of the more creative and dangerous escapes by a slave in the mid-1800s, Henry “Box” Brown, with the help of a sympathetic white shoemaker, Samuel Smith, had himself nailed into a two- by three-foot box labeled “dry goods” and was loaded onto a northbound train from Richmond to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Civil War headquarters

With an asset such as the city’s Tredegar Iron Works, Richmond became the capital for the Confederate States of America, in 1861. They served as the largest foundry in the South and the third-largest in antebellum United States. The foundry produced more than 2,200 cannon including 12-pounder Napoleans, three-inch ordinance guns, and heavy coastal cannon, and more than 700 tons of ironclad, some of which was used to cover the CSS Virginia * which engaged the USS Monitor, in the four-hour battle of Hampton Roads, also known as the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack, in March 1862.

When it was imminent that Ulysses S. Grant would overtake nearby Petersburg in April 1865, CSA President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet abandoned Richmond. Taking the last unobstructed railroad train out of Richmond, they fled south to safer territory in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they met in secret until the end of the war.

Having been instructed to set the bridges, armory, and supply warehouses on fire, retreating soldiers caused a fire that destroyed large parts of Richmond. The following day the city’s mayor surrendered Richmond to Union soldiers and requested assistance to put out the fires. Federal troops were removed from Richmond in 1870, after the state was readmitted to the Union.

Innovation and Invention

Richmond kept its Confederate history alive even after Reconstruction ended, as it embraced the winds of change blowing through the city. Monument Avenue, established in 1877, was erected to honor such important Confederate figures of Richmond as Davis, JEB Stuart, Robert E. Lee, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and Matthew F. Maury, a prominent oceanographer and nicknamed “Pathfinder of the Seas.”

In 1888, the country’s first successful trolley system opened in Richmond. Designed by electric power pioneer Frank J. Sprague, the system soon replaced horse-drawn cars. The street railway system of the late 1800s and beginning of the 1900s brought welcomed growth to Richmond.

The tobacco industry aided Richmond in coming out of the economic slump caused by the Great Depression. Thanks to tobacco producer Philip Morris and others, Richmond was back on its feet within five years, and the value of its real estate had increased 250 percent between 1935 and 1936.

As Richmond was entering the post-[World War II] lifestyle, it was introduced to new uses for natural gas in 1950. In addition, the highest production of cigarettes in the city’s history occurred in 1952, at a 110 billion in one year.

Originally approved for 15 exits, the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike revolutionized travel when it opened in 1958. The toll road was soon given the designation of Interstate 95 through Richmond but divided into Interstates 85 and 95 South at nearby Petersburg.

Modern Richmond

When Hurricane Agnes dropped 16 inches of rain over central Virginia in 1972, the James River flooded Richmond. Flood waters in the river reached 6.5 feet higher than the historical 200-year-old record. Thirteen years later, a multi-million dollar floodwall was erected to prevent the rising waters of the river from overflowing again.

To validate their place in the civil rights movement, Richmondites elected L. Douglas Wilder as the first African-American governor in America. A grandson of former slaves, Wilder was sworn in as governor of the State of Virginia, in 1990.

After years of decline in the economy of the downtown area, the expanded floodwall opened up portions of the riverfront for development. At the beginning of the 21st century, revitalization efforts yielded a 1.25-mile corridor of trendy apartments, restaurants, shops, and hotels. Located along the Canal Walk, the corridor is located where the old James River, Kanawha Canal, and the Haxal Canal once flowed.

In an attempt to lure more tourists to the history-rich area, the Richmond Civil War Visitor Center, operated by the National Park Service, opened three floors of exhibits and artifacts in the old Tredegar Iron Works in 2000.

Other attractions

Aside from the redeveloped riverfront, “River City” has a number of other places of interest for history buffs and travelers. Once deemed the “Black Wall Street” sometime during the 1800s because of its many banks, Jackson Ward continues as one of the most historic areas of the city and encompasses more than 40 neighborhood blocks.

Known as the “Harlem of the South,” Jackson Ward was frequented by such famous blacks as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and James Brown, at such popular venues the historic Hippodrome Theater.

Visitors can dine at popular Croaker’s Spot, Richmond's famous soul-food, seafood institution; see the monument of “Bojangles,” who donated a stoplight for the safety of neighborhood children; or view artifacts at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center located on Clay Street.

Richmond is also home to the Museum of the Confederacy and the adjoining White House of the Confederacy, as well as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which contains the largest collection of Faberge objects outside of Russia.

For youth-oriented activities, visitors will enjoy the Children’s Museum of Richmond, with its IMAX theater, and the nearby Virginia Museum of Science. The American Civil War Center, with its debut sometime in 2006, will be the first museum of its kind to interweave, in a national context, the historical accounts of how Union, Confederate, and African-American soldiers fought next to and across from each other during the Civil War.

Institutes of Higher Learning

The diversity of population and culture is represented quite strongly in the higher learning institutions located in the area. Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Arts ranks one of the best art schools in the country. The University of Richmond was founded by Virginia Baptists, in 1830, as a liberal arts university, and currently enrolls 3,000 undergraduate and 1,200 graduate students in law, business, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Historically a black university, Virginia Union University was founded by a former slave trader, in 1865.

Sports and live action

Although the area does not have any major league professional sports team, Richmond residents are privy to many minor league sports activities, including the Richmond Braves baseball team, the Atlanta Braves’ AAA affiliate, which plays at The Diamond. The Richmond Kickers soccer team plays at the University of Richmond Stadium, and the Richmond Riverdogs, which represent the city in the United Hockey League.

Others sporting events include NASCAR racing at the Richmond International Raceway, where two annual Nextel NASCAR races are held, and thoroughbred racing at Colonial Downs, which hosts the prestigious Virginia Derby and other horse races, in nearby New Kent county.


* The Virginia was built using the remains of the scuttled USS Merrimack . She was raised from the bottom of the James River at the shipyards near Portsmouth, rebuilt using the engines and the hull, and outfitted with ironclad siding.

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