City Spotlight: Richmond, VA

Richmond, VA

Richmond is often called the “River City” because of the city’s location along the James River. From the James River, a wonderful image of the city has been captured. Though the city has a contemporary look with tall skyscrapers and modern bridges, downtown still maintains a vintage charm with cobblestone streets and early-20th-century storefronts. Come visit Richmond, the capital of the South. (Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries.) [Pg. 1]
Reprinted from Richmond: A Historic Walking Tour by Keshia A. Case (Arcadia Publishing, 2010.)

Though Richmond, VA is facing considerable notoriety lately, in light of its Monument Avenue and involvement in both the Revolutionary and the US Civil War, its history is rich and varied. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of Confederate monuments, and their place in daily life, you would be doing yourself a disservice by not learning or revisiting the other reasons this city is great. Here we explore a brief history of Richmond through text and vintage photos.

Brief History

Though various efforts by colonists to settle what is now Richmond occurred over the course of the colonial years, the city was officially incorporated in 1782, coinciding with the establishment of its first self-government. It is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, though it also served, albeit briefly, as the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

Colonial History: John Smith & Pocahontas

The first group of explorers to the site now known as Richmond was led by Captain Christopher Newport in 1607. Prior to their arrival, Indian tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy had lived in the region. Though accounts vary, it is suggested that the meeting of Captain John Smith & Pocahontas occurred in the following year. Unfortunately, rising tensions between the English and the native tribes led to fighting and unrest. The infamous account given by Captain Smith, in which Pocahontas selflessly risked her life to spare his own, allegedly occurred during this period of strife. However, the truthfulness of this account is contested to this day.
It’s more likely that, as early histories account, Pocahontas befriended John Smith, and assisted with the Jamestown colony. There was a period in particular in which many of the colonists were starving, and Pocahontas, along with help from her tribespeople, would arrive with life-saving provisions, creating what one would’ve thought to be a lifelong bond and friendship.

Despite this connection however, Pocahontas was captured by the English during the First Anglo-Powhatan War. She was held for ransom aboard the ship of Captain Samuel Argall, and when her father, Powhatan, failed to satisfy the colonists’ demands in exchange for her return, Pocahontas remained in captivity for a year. During that time, it appears she was taught English by a minister named Alexander Whitaker, and was later baptized with a new, Christian name: Rebecca.

During her year of captivity, Pocahontas met John Rolfe, a pious farmer who’d lost his wife and child during the voyage from England to the New World. After receiving permission from the governor to wed Pocahontas, both out of love for her and his belief that he would be saving her through the institution of Christian marriage, the couple married on April 5, 1614. She gave birth to a son, Thomas, the following year, and a period of peace between the colonists and Powhatan ensued.

Pocahontas, now a symbol of Indian religious conversion, was compelled to return to England, as evidence that the goals of the Virginia Company were achievable, part of which included Christianizing the natives. There, by all accounts, she was treated well, and was even presented to the king in Whitehall Palace during a play. In March of 1617, the Rolfes boarded a ship to return to Virginia. They had only gone as far as Gravesend when Pocahontas fell ill. She was taken ashore, where she died, possibly of pneumonia or tuberculosis. It is suggested that she was buried beneath the chancel of St. George’s, which was destroyed in a fire in 1727.

Official Establishment of Richmond

Richmond was officially founded by Colonel William Byrd II, otherwise known as the “Father of Richmond,” in 1737. With the help of his friend, William Mayo, a map of Richmond was planned, and the first lots were sold. Only 250 moved to Richmond when it officially became a town in 1742. Finally, 40 years later, following the surrender of the British at Yorktown, Richmond was incorporated as a city in 1782 and officially became Virginia’s capital. On July 19, later that year, Richmond’s first City Charter was legalized.

Richmond in the Civil War

Lee Surrenders

Although the fighting continued in some areas for weeks thereafter, Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, shown here in this postwar drawing, represented the effective end of the Civil War. The surrender was a bitter pill to swallow for many Confederates across Virginia and beyond. However, General Lee advocated putting resentments behind to rebuild the ravaged South. (LC.) [Pg. 114]
Reprinted from Remembering Virginia's Confederates by Sean M. Heuvel, Foreword by Col. J.E.B. Stuart IV U.S. Army (Retired) (Arcadia Publishing, 2010.)

Richmond played a key role in the Civil War, serving as the capital of the Confederate States of America, following the South’s decision to secede from the Union. Though an obvious seat of political power, it also served as a vital source of munitions, armament, weapons, supplies, and manpower for the Confederate troops. Due to its close proximity to the Union capital, Washington D.C., it was the target of numerous attempts to overthrow its government, and position of power. This same proximity to the fighting also led Richmond to serve as an epicenter of hospitals and military prisons. When the city finally fell to Union forces on April 3, 1865, large portions of the city were destroyed by fires set during the evacuation. Numerous memorials, monuments, and museums were erected in the aftermath of the war.


Boat on the Canal

In 1795, a portion of the canal system was built that opened the city to the delivery of goods by boat from the western counties of Virginia. The canal boat pictured above is representative of those that used the canal system throughout the city. The boats were generally pulled by horse on a towpatch next to the canal, and everything from tobacco, wheat, produce, and coal was transported. (Library of Congress) [Pg. 10]
Reprinted from Maritime Richmond by Dale Totty (Arcadia Publishing, 2004.)

Emerging from the rubble of the Civil War, Richmond sought to resume its position as an industrial center and economic powerhouse, with massive brick factories and iron front buildings. After the peak of canal traffic in the 1860’s, railroads grew to prominence, with Richmond as the site of the world’s first triple railroad crossing.

Tobacco warehousing and processing continued to play a vital role in the city’s economy, something which persists to this day. In fact, the world’s first cigarette-rolling machine was invented by Roanoke man, James Albert Bonsack, in the early 1880s. Another contributing factor to Richmond’s resurgence was the invention of the first successful electrically-powered trolley system, by Frank J. Sprague. The electric streetcar lines were so popular, they spread rapidly to cities nationwide. The transition from streetcars to buses began several decades later, following World War II.

Triple Crossing, Richmond
Over the years, a number of staged photographs have taken place at the Triple Crossing. The photo above was taken in 1966....[Pg. 42]
Reprinted from Richmond Railroads by Jeff Hawkins (Arcadia Publishing, 2010.)

20th Century

Maggie Lena Walker was born in 1864 and grew up in Richmond in the period immediately following the Civil War. In 1903, she became the first African-American woman in the United States to found a bank, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, and was an important leader in the civil rights movement. [Pg. 30]
Reprinted from Richmond Landmarks by Katarina M. Spears (Arcadia Publishing, 2012.)

Today, Richmond is one of the most densely popular cities in the U.S. South. Though often viewed as a major banking city: it is the site of the oldest surviving African-American bank in the U.S., originally the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, now called the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, as well as the headquarters of the Fifth District of the Federal Reserve Bank, Richmond boasts a rather diverse economy. Its employment base extends from chemical, food and tobacco manufacturing, to biotechnology, semi-conductors and high-tech fibers. The city consistently ranks among the “Best Places to Live and Work in America.”

Residents also enjoy a number of cultural opportunities including first-class museums, prominent universities, its own symphony, professional ballet and opera, theater companies, art galleries, and a diverse and booming restaurant scene. With easy access to the ocean, mountains, and Washington, D.C., Richmond truly has something for everyone.

Historic Photos Of and Around Richmond, VA

George Washington Statue
In the rotunda of the Virginia state capitol is a life-size marble statue of George Washington, designed in 1785-1788 by the French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon. Thomas Jefferson hired the sculptor to design the statue while serving diplomatic duty in Paris. Jean-Antoine Houdon came to Virginia and visited George Washington at Mount Vernon to make casts of the president; thus, this entire statue is the perfect likeness of the United State's first president. [Pg. 10]
Reprinted from Richmond: A Historic Walking Tour by Keshia A. Case (Arcadia Publishing, 2010.)

Young Edgar Allan Poe

Near the bell tower a visitor can find the bronze statue of the writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). The poet was born in Boston but considered himself a Virginian because he lived in Virginia for more years than in any other state. The statue was gifted to Richmond in 1957 by Dr. George Edward Barksdale, who wanted to put a landmark in the city to serve as a clear reminder of Poe's connection to Richmond. [Pg. 13]
Reprinted from Richmond: A Historic Walking Tour by Keshia A. Case (Arcadia Publishing, 2010.)

Talley House

This early view of the Talley residence, Talavera, reveals the appearance of the farm house before the late-10th-century additions altered its appearance. Poe was a regular guest of the Talleys and gave his last prive reading of "The Raven" in the parlor. According th Talley Family member Susan Archer Talley Weiss, Poe's performance was so terrifying that the servants in attendance fled the room. [Pg. 68]
Reprinted from Edgar Allan Poe in Richmond by Keshia A. Case and Christopher P. Semtner on behalf of the Poe Museum (Arcadia Publishing, 2009.)

The heavier-than-air flying machine and wireless communication promised a far greater capability and flexibility for Signal Corps observation. This requirement resulted in an advertisement for bids by the Wright brothers. This photograph depicts the Wright military airplane on September 3, 1908, at Fort Myer, after assembly and preparations for flight were completed. The balloon is storing hydrogen for the Signal Corps' other major aircraft program, the Baldwin SC-1 airship. (NASM.) [Pg. 11]
Reprinted from Virginia Aviation by Roger Connor (Arcadia Publishing, 2014.)

Thalimer's Surrealist Window Display

Windows could stir controvesy. An exhibit of Surrealist paintings at the Museum of Modern Art inspired a New York department store to create a window display featuring the art. What the window display created was chaos requiring police intervention to keep the crowds moving. William Tayloe “Billy” Munford, Thalhimers’ art director, saw potential in the exhibit, and within weeks, Richmond was the second city in the country to introduce Surrealism “to the masses.” Four windows, including one based on René Magritte’s Mental Calculus and another on Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, fascinated a sidewalk-blocking afternoon crowd, many of whom questioned the meaning of the displays. Whatever the meaning of the art, the windows certainly attracted attention. However, the surrealism fad in fashion did not catch on in Richmond. An April 1948 review of a Thalhimer fashion show reassures readers that “the selections were gay, summery, feminine—and not once did the ‘new look’ have a surrealistic effect.” [Pg. 36]
Reprinted from Thalhimer's Department Store by Emily Golightly Rusk, Foreword by Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt

 Additional Resources:
 Unionists in Virginia: Politics, Secession and Their Plan to Prevent Civil War

True Richmond Stories: Historic Tales from Virginia's Capital 

Curiosities of the Confederate Capital: Untold Richmond Stories of the Spectacular, Tragic and Bizarre

Monument Avenue Memories: Growing Up on Richmond's Grand Avenue

Shockoe Hill Cemetery: A Richmond Landmark History

Lesbian and Gay Richmond

University of Richmond

Wicked Richmond

 All Richmond, VA Titles