History of Richmond, Virginia: A Story of Defiance, Resilience and Courage

Richmond fondly called, “The River City” is Virginia’s capital. During the civil war, the city was the capital of the Confederate States of America. The City is located at the falls of the James River (formerly called Powhatan’s River).

History of Richmond, Virginia

Prior to the arrival of English explorers, the area was inhabited by the Powhatan tribes. In 1607, Captain John Smith and a group of 120 men from Jamestown, V.A became the first settlers at James Falls. On May 21, 1607, Captain Christopher Newport and his party of explorers continued an exploration of the James River. Within a week, they found the falls and a small Island. On May 27, the party set up a cross that marked Richmond’s “discovery”. The Powhatan people put up a remarkable resistance against the settlers.

Founding of Richmond

In 1637, Thomas Stegg set up a trading post near the falls. Many new settlers flocked in after the construction of Fort Charles. Fort Charles continued to grow into a trading post. Fur, hides, and tobacco were the main items of trade. After the death of Stegg’s son, William Byrd I, a nephew took over the expanding estate. Colonel William Byrd II founded Richmond in 1737.

In 1742, Richmond, with a population of a paltry 250 people became a town. In 1780, the town’s population grew to 684 people. The Revolutionary War led to a period of rapid growth. In early 1780, the General Assembly requested Richmond to temporary serve as The State Capitol. The Assembly felt that Richmond was safer from British incursions than the official capital, Williamsburg.

In 1781, British troops burned the city to the ground. Richmond Virginia was soon recovered and officially incorporated as a city and official new capital of Virginia in May 1782. The event was eight months after the British admitted defeat at Yorktown. On July 19, 1782, the first Richmond City Charter was legalized. By 1790, Richmond’s population had shot to 3,761 people.

Richmond as a Confederate Capital

Before the Civil War, Richmond was one of US bustling commercial and industrial centers. It also prospered as a port city. Richmond manufactured America’s first iron and brick supplies. Tobacco processing and flour milling were also big industries.

Richmond’s was also a Slave trade center. The Shockoe Bottom slave auction blocks processed an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 slaves between 1800 and 1865.

In April 1861, Virginia left the Union. The Confederacy, in an acknowledgment of Virginia’s capital distinguished economic and political position, made Richmond their capital.

Richmond after the Civil War

The Civil War changed Richmond’s fortune. The war left the city bankrupt and in ruins. The Union troops besieged the city for nearly four years without fighting. In April 1865, Confederate troops fled the city and set fire to cotton and tobacco warehouses.

After the war, Richmond rebuilding began. Tobacco and iron emerged as the greatest sources of wealth. Banking also became a significant contributor with Richmond becoming a notable leading financial center.

Richmond industries expanded during the world wars. In the 1950’s, racial tensions divided the city. The federal government ordered integration, but the local leadership was against desegregation in schools. The battles continued until the 1980’s.

Modern Richmond

Richmond is a great lesson in rising after failure. Despite many disasters, the city is resilient. Richmond now has a population of 217,853 people as per a 2014 population estimate.
The city’s new breed of entrepreneurs is reshaping its economy. After a period racial turbulence, Virginia gave America the first African-American governor. In 1990 L. Douglas Wilder, a grandson of former slaves was sworn in as governor of the State of Virginia.

Modern Richmond is a thriving hub for culture, upscale shopping and outdoor fun.