Norfolk, Virginia

John Farrer's map (1667 version by his daughter), totally omitting the Elizabeth River
Norfolk's fine harbor was not the focal point of early colonial Virginia -
John Farrer totally omitted the Elizabeth River (as shown in this 1667 version by his daughter)
Source: Library of Congress

Before the English sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and named the Elizabeth River, there was a Native American settlement there. The Chesapeakes apparently were not subjugated or allied with Powhatan, though the reports by the leaders in the early days of Jamestown are contradictory.

In 1585, the Roanoke Colony settlers may have visited the Elizabeth River or Nansemond River watersheds. Those colonists then abandoned their attempt to settle permanently on the barrier islands, but leaders of the next effort planned to start anew on the south shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

Of course, that last batch of English colonists had their plans changed. In 1587 their ship captain dumped them back at Roanoke Island again, in order to have more time to attack Spanish ships. (Captains got a share of the profits in any Spanish shipping they could capture.)

There is speculation that the English in "lost colony" ended up, willingly or unwillingly, with Chesapeakes. Powhatan destroyed tribe around time arrived at Jamestown, and claimed to have remainder of Roanoke process, but no independent evidence residue - such as a collection iron tools weapons was even seen.

Powhatan may have "planted" his own town at the original homeland of the Chesapeakes, after destroying them in 1607-08. There was plenty of protein in the brackish waters to support a large town there, and Powhatan knew he had to secure the fringes of his paramount chiefdoom (the area he controlled) while he coped with the intrusion of an alien people in the center of it.

William Byrd II visited Norfolk in 1728, on his way to survey the boundary between North Carolina and Virginia. The appointed commissioners for Virginia, plus surveyors and others hired to support the expedition, assembled at the Elizabeth River west of Norfolk.

Byrd reported that only the commissioners crossed the river to visit Norfolk, leaving the horses and most of the men behind "for fear of making a Famine in the Town." Norfolk was an active port, with enough visiting ships and sailors that Byrd's comment about available supplies probably reflected his over-the-top style more than reality.

He noted, perhaps more accurately, that the town was not dependent upon tobacco exports to England. Norfolk focused on trade with the Caribbean islands, and rum was a major import. Exports were local products, including food from hogs/cattle raised in Carolina and cedar shingles from the Dismal Swamp. Byrd, as a colonial official, was frustrated that no one bothered to purchase the timberland from the government in Williamsburg before cutting the trees:1

Norfolk has moft the ayr of a Town of any in Virginia...

Their Trade is Chiefly to the Weft-Indies, whither they export abundance of Beef, Pork, Flour and Lumber...

This Place is the Mart for moft of the Commodities producd in the Adjacent Parts of North Carolina. They have a pretty deal of Lumber from the Borderers on the Difmal, who make bold with the King's Land there abouts, without the lead Ceremony.

At the start of the American Revolution, Lord Dunmore sailed to Norfolk and loyalists took control of the town. Virginia "rebels" organized to block a reported plan of the loyalists to seize supplies from Suffolk. The two sides ended up confronting each other on opposite ends of the causeway at Great Bridge, with loyalists in control of the eastern edge and blocking any advance towards Norfolk.

The Americans may have arranged for a slave to "desert" and report that there were few armed opponents on the western edge of the causeway. For whatever reason, the British left the safety of their fortifications and attempted a head-on attack down the causeway. The Americans quickly killed or wounded the attackers. The British evacuated their position at Great Bridge, then moved out of Norfolk itself to safety on the ships in the harbor.

Unfortunately for the British, the ships were not safe. American riflemen hiding in buildings along the waterfront treated the ships as floating targets. In retaliation, on the night of January 1, 1776, British forces landed in Norfolk and set fire to the buildings that sheltered the sharpshooters.

The Americans may have facilitated the spread of the fire, ensuring that the town could not serve as a base for British troops or armed loyalists under Dunmore's command. There was some recognition on the American side that the destruction of Norfolk was partially due to American action, though 80 years after the event one historian gave credit to "patriotic" American property owners for choosing to destroy their own houses:2

a party was landed, under cover of the guns of the ships, and set fire to the obnoxious premises; and, either spreading from these buildings, as some suppose; or by the continued efforts of the enemy, as others suppose; or from the resolute patriotism of the inhabitants, who destroyed their property rather than let it be exposed to the enemy, as many, with some reason, maintain, the flames spread over the entire town, and reduced it to a heap of smoldering ruins...

The British report afterwards describe how the destruction started with the ships firing cannon to move the Americans away from the waterfront, allowing for the land assault to begin:3

The detested town of Norfolk is no more! Its destruction happened on New-Year's day. About four o'clock in the afternoon the signal was given from the Liverpool, when a dreadful cannonading began from the three ships, which lasted till it was too hot for the rebels to stand on their wharves. Our boats now landed, and set fire to the town in several places.

It burned fiercely all night, and the next day; nor are the flames yet extinguished; but no more of Norfolk remains than about twelve houses, which have escaped the flames.

The Virginia rebels burned the remaining houses at Norfolk a month later (there may ave been 400 structures that survived the initial destruction), but Dunmore's fleet remained in the harbor. Patriots gradually forced loyalists out of Portsmouth and confiscated the shipyard, and the British finally sailed away to Gwynne's Island in May 1776. When British forces returned in 1780 to create a long-term base in Hampton Roads, they chose to occupy Portsmouth.4

downtown Norfolk in 1873, when modern Boush Street near Town Point was still open water
downtown Norfolk in 1873, when modern Boush Street near Town Point was still open water
(compare to modern vista on GoogleMaps)
Source: Library of Congress, Norfolk & Portsmouth, Virginia 1873

downtown Norfolk in 1891
downtown Norfolk in 1891
(compare to modern vista on GoogleMaps)
Source: Library of Congress, Bird's eye view of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Berkley, Norfolk Co., Va

The Spanish in the Chesapeake Bay

Norfolk Naval Shipyard

Will Norfolk (and the Rest of Hampton Roads) Drown?

Sewells Point and the 1907 Jamestown Exposition

looking south past the market in Norfolk, across the harbor to the shoreline at Portsmouth in 1845
looking south past the market in Norfolk, across the harbor to the shoreline at Portsmouth in 1845
Source: Historical collections of Virginia, Market Square, Norfolk (p.393)


tributaries of the Elizabeth River
tributaries of the Elizabeth River
Source: Virginia State Water Control Board, Elizabeth River 205(j) Water Quality Plan (Figure 1)


1. William Byrd, History of the dividing line, and other tracts, Thomas H. Wynne, Richmond, Virginia, 1866, pp.19-20, (last checked January 4, 2016)
2. Henry R. Dawson, Battles of the United States, Vol. I, Johnson, Fry, and Company (New York), 1858, p.124, (last checked January 16, 2015)
3. Henry R. Dawson, Battles of the United States, Vol. I, Johnson, Fry, and Company (New York), 1858, pp.126-127, (last checked January 16, 2015)
4. Bruce Linder, Tidewater's Navy: An Illustrated History, Naval Institute Press, 2005, p.6, (last checked January 16, 2015)

President Lincoln initiated the capture of Norfolk by the Union army during the Peninsula Campaign
President Lincoln initiated the capture of Norfolk by the Union army during the Peninsula Campaign
Source: Frank Leslie's Illustrated History of the Civil War, Occupation of Norfolk VA By the Federal Troops - View of the City - Federal Vessels at Anchor (p.203)

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