Hampton began with Kecoughtan Indians By Paul Clancy - 09/07/2008 The Virginian Pilot
We whooped it up for the Old Dominion last year because our English forebears straggled ashore at Cape Henry and, finally, Jamestown four centuries before.
OK. Now on to the next hundred years...
Not so fast.
Another 400-year anniversary is just around the corner, and it's for a place that has endured against all odds. In 2010, Hampton will observe its quadri centennial as the oldest continuously occupied city in America. That's a big deal, although the beginning was a lot less than stellar.
The Kecoughtans, a native tribe led by one of Powhatan's sons, had long cultivated garden plots and fished along the riverbanks near the eventual site of Hampton University. The real originals were paleo-Indians who called the place home something like 12,000 years ago.
John Smith and his crew had made their second landing - after Cape Henry - at this spot. As J. Michael Cobb and Wythe Holt put it in their new book "Hampton," one of the Images of America series by Acadia Publishing, they were welcomed with food and dancing by the Kecoughtans. But the relationship went downhill from there.
The colonists, who had their eyes on this land from the get-go, established a military outpost, Fort Algernourne, nearby in 1609.
"The next summer, the English attacked and routed the Kecoughtans, removing the survivors westward and building now-lost Forts Henry and Charles, probably astride the entrance to Hampton River," the authors write.
They English called the place, at least temporarily, Kecoughtan.
"English settlement soon expanded beyond the walls of these forts, the authors continue. "Renamed Elizabeth City in 1619 in honor of King James's daughter, by 1625, it had the highest population of any Virginia settlement, with 359 people. Thirty-four of its 89 houses were fortified. It became one of the most important ports in Virginia; the early location of a customs house there indicates its commercial significance."
Hampton was quickly drawn into the vortex of local and national matters.
"It's resplendent with history of all sorts," marvels Cobb, curator of the Hampton History Museum. One of the most notable accomplishments was the establishment of the first free school in America in 1634. (Another 400th anniversary?)
After thriving as a tobacco port, the city was pillaged by
the British during the War of 1812. This outrage led to the construction of Fort Monroe, the largest moated bastion in the nation. It was this fortress, ultimately, that led to the city's utter destruction during the Civil War.
Because the Union held onto the fort, beefing it up with a huge, threatening federal presence, the Confederates retreated, putting the city to the torch.
The raging fires left little more than a few blackened chimneys. Thousands of former slaves - who had been deemed "contrabands of war" - moved into the ruined quarters and eked out an existence as free men and women. At the end of "the murderous, bleak, and exhausting war," as the authors termed it, Hamptonians returned to their ruined town.
Hampton rebuilt itself as a seafood port.
"Crabtown" not only featured plants where crabs were steamed, picked and canned, but a four-story mountain of oyster shells that dominated its waterfront for more than half a century. One can sense the aroma at the town's docks.
The 128-page book is dominated by pictures and captions. In fact, it began as a project to document the city's history with photographs. The fun part now, Cobb said, is that "people are coming out of the woodwork, saying 'that's me!' " He and Holt will talk about the book and sign copies at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at the History Museum.
Like the book, the museum's exhibits begin with the story of the people who greeted the English settlers.
But it's clear that the newcomers wanted this prime waterfront land and used the excuse of the murder of one of their men - even though the Indians didn't do it - to seize the land. And never gave back an inch.
They figured, as the old saying goes, that they stole it fair and square.
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