Explore and sustain the James River Watershed

The Origins of Richmond


With its strategic location at the Falls of the James, Richmond has been an important political, military and economic hub since before the arrival of Europeans. It was the capital of the Powhatan tribe long before it was the capital of the Virginia Colony, the State of Virginia and the Southern Confederacy.

Parahunt’s Village

Until the arrival of the English in 1609, Parahunt, the chief of the Powhatan tribe, had his main capital on a high hill overlooking the falls of the James. The Powhatan tribe was one of the main tribes in the confederacy of the same name, and the river, in their language, was likewise known as the Powhatan. The village where Richmond is now also went by the name of Powhatan as well as Shocquohocan or Shockoe. Parahunt was the son of Wahunsunacock (also known as Chief Powhatan) the paramount chief of the Powhatan Confederacy.

Two weeks after landing at Jamestown in 1607, a party of two dozen English under Captain Christopher Newport set out by pinnace to explore the Upper James. They learned of the existence of this important site from the natives they encountered on the way. The natives fed and danced for the English and informed them that the falls marked the western frontier of the Powatan confederacy with its enemies, the Monocan tribe. Newport soon became obsessed with this strategic location and the idea of assisting the Powhatans against them militarily. While being entertained by the chief at Arrahatec (near a place later called Cox Ferry), the explorers were visited by Parahunt who led them to his village upriver.

Captain Gabriel Archer gave the most vivid description of Parahunt’s village, which he called Pawatah's Tower. He reported that there were 12 houses on the hill, with various crops growing on the plain between the hill and the islands in the river, such as wheat, beans, peas, tobacco, pumpkins, gourds, hemp, and flax. The islands were planted with maize, and had six or seven families living on them. After meeting with the two chiefs while the women gave them strawberries and mulberries, the Englishmen decided to visit the nearby waterfalls, found they could pass no farther in their ship, and anchored for the night between the islands and the village.

The following day, Newport shared some of his ship's provisions, pork and peas, with Parahunt, and learned what he could of local geography and politics from him. As they were particularly eager to proceed beyond the falls, Parahunt agreed to meet them there, where he dissuaded Newport from going into Monacan country.

Returning downriver, the Captain erected on one of the islands, a cross reading Jacobus Rex, 1607, declaring the country to be the possession of James I of England; however, he told his guide, Navirans, that the cross signified an alliance between himself and the chief of Powhatan. Meeting Parahunt one last time, Newport presented him with a gown and an English hatchet, and returned to Jamestown...

The English did not visit the falls again for a year and a half, although during this time they continued attempting to negotiate with the paramount Chief Powhatan for an assault on the Monacans. After Newport's return from England in September 1608, he unilaterally took a party of 120 soldiers to the falls and explored the country beyond. This upset Chief Powhatan, and the natives at Powhatan village hid their corn, refusing to sell it.

By a year later, in September 1609, Powhatan's people seemed in such awe of the colony's then-President, Captain John Smith (who was a prisoner at their first meeting), that Smith felt emboldened to send another force of 120 men under Francis West to settle at the falls, in the district known as Rockett's, Smith then personally came to "West Fort" and arranged to purchase the entire Indian village (about 3 miles (4.8 km) from the fort) from Parahunt for an amount of copper and an Englishman named Henry Spelman. Even so, the Powhatans did not fully appreciate that the English were now actually in possession of their fortified town (which Smith had renamed Nonsuch), and thus they began to harass the settlers, eventually forcing West to abandon the project and return to Jamestown. In fall, 1610, Lord de la Warre (West's brother) made a second attempt to build a fort at the falls, which managed to last all winter, but was then likewise abandoned.

Following this, the English made no attempt to settle any higher than Henricus (in modern Chesterfield County), which lasted from 1611 until the Indian massacre of 1622. Following the Second Anglo-Powhatan War of 1644-45, the Powhatan tribes signed a peace treaty in 1646 ceding the settlers all territory below the Fall Line, from the Blackwater River to the York River. At this time, the colony built Fort Charles at the falls of the James, near where the legal frontier was for over half a century. After two years, the site of Fort Charles was relocated to Manastoh on the South Side of the river (later known as Manchester), where the ground was considered slightly more fertile.

In 1656 several hundred Nahyssans and Mahocks (Siouan groups) and Rechahecrians (possibly Erie) threatened both the Powhatans and the English by settling near the falls; a combined force of English and Pamunkeys was sent to dislodge them in a bloody battle near Richmond, where the Pamunkey chief Totopotomoi was slain.

The First English Landowners

Col. David Crawford, a Virginia Burgess 1692-94, owned much of the land in the latter 17th century that would become Richmond. By around 1699 or 1700, the Monacan had abandoned their closest settlement, Mowhemencho, above the falls at Bernard's Creek — which was then repopulated with French Huguenot pioneers, to serve as a further buffer between the downriver English plantations and the native tribes. The name of the Huguenots' village survives today in that of the Richmond suburb of Manakin-Sabot.

In 1673, William Byrd I was granted lands on the James River that included the area around Falls that would become Richmond and already included small settlements. Byrd was a well-connected Indian trader in the area and established a fort on the site. William Byrd II inherited his father's land in 1704 and expanded the families wealth as a planter.

By the early 18th century, the population of the area was still below 200. In 1730, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed the Warehouse Act, which required inspectors to grade tobacco at 40 different locations. This led to much development at the Falls of the James. Seven years later, In 1737, planter William Byrd II commissioned Major William Mayo to lay out the original town grid. Byrd named the city "Richmond" after the English town of Richmond near (and now part of) London, because the view of the James River was strikingly similar to the view of the River Thames from Richmond Hill in England, where he had spent time during his youth. The settlement was laid out in April 1737, and was incorporated as a town in 1742. 

Early trade grew rapidly, primarily in the agriculture sector, but also in the slave trade. Slaves were imported from Africa to Richmond's Manchester docks, and were bought and sold at the same market. Shockoe Bottom was a center for slave trading. It is believed that between 1800–1865, 300,000 slaves were sent from Shockoe Bottom to work in the deep south. Shockoe Bottom also serves as the burial ground for thousands of Africans.

By 1768, William Byrd III had squandered the family fortune and resorted to a public lottery to raise money for his debts. He auctioned off large lots of still-undeveloped Byrd family land in the Richmond region.

Revolutionary War

In 1775, Patrick Henry delivered his famous, "Give me Liberty or Give me Death", speech to the Virginia Assembly in St. John's Church in Richmond, which was crucial for deciding Virginia's participation in the First Continental Congress and setting the course for revolution and independence. On April 18, 1780, the state capital was moved from the colonial capital of Williamsburg to Richmond, to provide a more centralized location for Virginia's increasing westerly population, as well as to isolate the capital from British attack. The latter motive proved to be in vain, and in 1781, under the command of turncoat Benedict Arnold, Richmond was burned by British troops, causing Governor Thomas Jefferson to flee the city.

Richmond recovered quickly from the war, and by 1782 was once again a thriving city. In 1786, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (drafted by Thomas Jefferson) was passed at the temporary capitol in Richmond, providing the basis for the separation of church and state, a key element in the development of the freedom of religion in the United States. A permanent home for the new government, the Virginia State Capitol building, was designed by Thomas Jefferson with the assistance of Charles-Louis Clérisseau, and was completed in 1788.

After the Revolutionary War, Richmond emerged an important industrial center. To facilitate the transfer of cargo from the flat-bottomed bateaux above the fall line to the ocean-faring ships below, George Washington helped design the James River and Kanawha Canal in the 18th century to bypass Richmond's rapids, with the intent of providing a water route across the Appalachians to the Kanawha River. The legacy of the canal boatmen is represented by the figure in the center of the city flag. As a result of this and ample access to hydropower due to the falls, Richmond became home to some of the largest manufacturing facilities in the country, including iron works and flour mills, the largest facilities of their kind in the south. The first bridge across the James River, named Mayo's Bridge after the founder of the city, was built in 1787.


This article was adapted from the following Wikipedia articles:

History of Richmond, Virginia and Richmond, Virginia

For an in-depth overview of Richmond's historic waterfront with current and historic maps, download this PDF by the Canal Committee of the Historic Richmond Foundation.

For more information about locations mentioned in the earliest accounts of Richmond visit the Historic Richmond Foundation and the Virginia Historical Society


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