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Norfolk: History

In the Beginning

Beginning in about 9500 B.C., the area that is now Norfolk was called Skicoak, and was ruled by the Chesipean Indians.

But by the time the first Europeans reached the area, the tribe members had been driven out or killed by Chief Powhatan, after one of his advisors told Powhatan that in a dream he had seen the Powhatan Confederacy destroyed by strangers from the East. Powhatan thought this was a sign he should destroy the Chesipeans, even though they were a peaceful people.

In the 1560s, settlers arrived from Spain, briefly living along the York River in a Jesuit community called Ajacan. Initially, the plan was to convert the Indians, but when the native people attacked the settlement in 1571, the Spanish abandoned Ajacan. The English were the next to test the area as a colony site, establishing Roanoke Settlement in 1585 under the guidance of Sir Walter Raleigh. The initial group of colonists abandoned Roanoke the next year and were followed by a second group in 1587; this second settlement disappeared without a trace by 1590 in one of the enduring mysteries of early recorded American history.

In 1624 Virginia became a Royal Colony when King James I of England granted 500 acres of land in what is now the Ocean View section of Norfolk to Thomas Willoughby. Twelve years later, King Charles I of England gave Willoughby 200 additional acres, and this also became part of the original town of Norfolk.

In 1670, the British government directed the "building of storehouses to receive imported merchandise. . .and tobacco for export." This marked the beginning of Norfolk's importance as a port city. In 1673 the Virginia House of Burgesses called for the construction of Half Moon fort at the site of what is now Town Point Park.

City Prospers, Then Faces Destruction and Rebuilding

In 1682 England decreed that the "Towne of Lower Norfolk County" be established. The town was incorporated in 1705 and rechartered as a borough in 1736. For several decades the building of homes, farms, and businesses continued throughout the area, and Norfolk developed into a center for West Indies trade and the shipping of export products from the plantations of Virginia and the Carolinas. By 1775, Norfolk was known as the most prosperous city in Virginia.

The city served as a center for Tory forces during the American Revolution. On New Year's Day 1776, English ships under Royal Governor Lord Dunmore opened fire on the city, continuing their assault for eleven hours. High winds whipped up the flames and two-thirds of the city was destroyed by fire or cannonballs. By month's end the patriot colonists had torched the rest of the city to prevent the sheltering of Lord Dunmore and his forces. Every building in the city was destroyed by fire or cannonballs except Saint Paul's Church; a British cannonball remains in the wall of the church as testimony to the conflict. After the war, the citizens rallied and the city was rebuilt. In time it became a major shipbuilding and maritime center. In 1810, the U.S. government constructed a new fort at the site of dilapidated old Fort Norfolk. At that time the city's population stood at about 9,000 people.

Ports, Forts and Exports

The nineteenth century brought more troubles for the city. A major fire in 1804 destroyed 300 houses, warehouses, and stores. The population, which had been growing steadily, actually declined from more than 9,000 people in 1810 to 8,478 people by 1820.

Conveniently situated on the water and philosophically allied with the agitating Confederate states, Norfolk in 1821 became the embarkation point for African and African American individuals being sent back to Africa. Norfolk native Joseph Jenkins Roberts went on to become the first president of the Republic of Liberia after being deported. Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, with the Norfolk Navy Yard assuming a critical role as vessels docked there were burned or scuttled, including the famed Merrimac . It was in the Navy Yard that the Merrimac was rebuilt as an ironclad vessel renamed the Virginia, which went on to engage in the first ironclad battle against the Monitor . In May 1862, early in the Civil War, Norfolk was captured by Union forces. The troops ransacked the houses of the citizenry and forced passengers on local ferries to trample on the Confederate flag.

At the end of the Civil War, Norfolk buildings were in ruins and the city's foreign trade was nonexistent. At that time, the population stood at about 19,000 citizens. But within 20 years the city experienced a turnaround and three-story brick buildings lined the streets of Norfolk, which by then had thriving hotels and a large farmers' market. Steamships visited the port regularly and rail service connected it with other parts of the country. The 1880 population had grown to 21,966 residents.

And the Pendulum Swings: Prosperity, Then Depression Times

In 1907, the Jamestown Exposition, held to celebrate the 300-year history of that nearby city, led to Norfolk's building several downtown hotels and office buildings. Visitors came from every state and dignitaries traveled from around the world to take part in the seven-month run of the event.

Norfolk's tremendous military growth began during World War I. In 1917, the land that was the site of the Jamestown Exposition became the U.S. Naval Operating Base and Training Station, which was later renamed Naval Station Norfolk. It was during this time that Norfolk was nationally recognized for leading the country in Navy recruitment. Between 1910 and 1920 the city's population grew from around 67,000 people to nearly 116,000 people as the city also experienced an influx of workers at numerous new private manufacturing plants.

Prosperity declined after the heady war years, when Norfolk handled much of the coal that came by train from West Virginia to be shipped elsewhere. In 1922 Norfolk helped establish solid economic ground for itself by building a $5 million grain elevator and terminal. It also built a $500,000 farmers' market and annexed 27 square miles of nearby land, which included the Navy base area and the Ocean View resort district. Because of large-scale naval operations, the city did not suffer as much from the Great Depression as some others, and by 1940 the population stood at more than 144,000 residents.

New Development Follows War Years

With the coming of World War II, Norfolk once again saw thousands of workers descend on the city and the region, where more than 100 ships and landing craft were built during the war. The war years saw a rapid increase in the development of individual residences and apartment buildings, and the city struggled to deal with overcrowding. Between 1940 and 1944, the population practically doubled. That period also saw the expansion of furniture manufacturing, fertilizer plants, and other industries.

In the years after World War II, Norfolk began a campaign to annex neighboring counties. Slums were cleared and public housing was constructed. In addition, hundreds of acres of land in the downtown were razed and rebuilt. Much of this redevelopment was spurred by the SCOPE Convention and Cultural Center. This facility includes the Chrysler Museum and Chrysler Hall, named in honor of automobile mogul Walter P. Chrysler, who donated his extensive art collection to the city.

In 1952 the Elizabeth River Tunnel between Norfolk and Portsmouth was completed, and a second tunnel followed 10 years later. By then the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel linking Norfolk to the nearby city of Hampton was also built.

Virginia's third medical college, the Eastern Virginia Medical School, was built in Norfolk in 1973. During the next decade old buildings were razed and the Waterside Festival Marketplace, Town Point Park, and a number of condominiums were built along Norfolk's waterfront. Between 1950 and 1980 the population grew from 213,513 people to nearly 267,000 people. The 1980s saw development in the city that included th National Maritime Center, a new baseball stadium, and the construction of the Ghent Square neighborhood containing restored upscale residences.

In June 2000 the city was home to OpSail 2000, the largest tall ship and maritime event in history. Norfolk served as one of only six U.S. host ports for the events, which involved a fleet of 150 ships from more than 50 nations.

Today, Norfolk continues its long tradition of self-renewal with ambitious building projects in the downtown area strategically planned to continue through 2010, new residential developments along the water, and revitalization efforts within the abundance of varied historical neighborhoods. The Navy and the port continue to define Norfolk's character; the battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin is docked at Norfolk, with the National Maritime Center nearby on the waterfront. No matter what else changes in Norfolk, the sea stays at its core.

Historical Information: Norfolk County Historical Society, PO Box 6367, Norfolk, VA 23508-0367