Suffolk

Suffolk is the largest city in land area (430 square miles) in Virginia
Suffolk is the largest city in land area (430 square miles) in Virginia
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

When the Engish colonists arrived in 1607, they sailed up what they named the James River and passed by the Nansemond tribe on the south bank. The English ended up naming the Nansemond River after that tribe, one of the Algonquian-speaking components of Powhatan's paramount confederacy.

John Smith explored up the Nansemond River to the site marked with a Maltese cross
John Smith explored up the Nansemond River to the site marked with a Maltese cross
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith

The Nansemond tribe's primary town was on Dumpling Island. They harvested plants and wildlife from the swamp and brackish waters of the Nansemond River, but it was their corn fields that attracted the English. Christopher Newport's first attempt to trade for corn in 1608 led to a brief exchange of gunfire and arrows, followed by multiple communications, an exchange of hostages, and then some trading. In 1609, during John Smith's second exploration of the Chesapeake Bay, the English had to fire their muskets and destroy several wooden canoes before the Nansemonds were willing to trade for corn.1

In 1609, John Smith decided to disperse settlement away from Jamestown. Colonists were exhausting the resources near the fort, and needed to obtain food from additional territory. Smith sent 60 colonists to occupy the town of the Nansemonds, but the Native Americans resisted. After two English messengers were killed, the colonists destroyed the Nansemond town and temple on Dumpling Island, but then abandoned the site:2

we Beate the Salvages outt of the Island burned their howses ransaked their Temples, Tooke downe the Corpes of their deade kings from their Toambes, and Caryed away their pearles Copper and braceletts wherewith they doe decore their kings funeralles.

Dumpling Island was located at Wilroy Swamp, upstream from the mouth of the Nansemond River
Dumpling Island was located at Wilroy Swamp, upstream from the mouth of the Nansemond River
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), The National Map

Nansemond County was created in 1637, when population growth justified division of New Norfolk County into Upper Norfolk County and Lower Norfolk County. In 1646, Upper Norfolk County was renamed Nansemond County.

Thomas Fry and Peter Jefferson mapped Nansemond County in 1751
Thomas Fry and Peter Jefferson mapped Nansemond County in 1751
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina

The first English colonist known to permanently occupy the current site of Suffolk was John Constant. He set up a trading post in the 1720's, over a century after Jamestown was founded - so the names of previous occupants may just be lost to history. Even Constant's legacy has been altered by a spelling mistake. When a highway through the city was built in the 1950's, it was named Constance Road rather than Constant's Road.3

Constant's Wharf Park & Marina is named after John Constant, as is the incorrectly-spelled Constance Road
Constant's Wharf Park & Marina is named after John Constant, as is the incorrectly-spelled Constance Road
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Suffolk 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (2013)

The stimulus to create a town on the Nansemond River was the Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730, finally pushed through the General Assembly by Governor Gooch. Officials in London, as well as major merchants, wanted to create towns and concentrate settlement in Virginia. Modifying the low-density settlement pattern to establish towns offered a more cost-effective way to collect export taxes. Inspection stations would also provide quality control and limit export of "trash" tobacco; merchants were expected to increase the price paid to all Virginia planters after inspection ensured higher quality tobacco exports.

Towns would also streamline shipment of tobacco to England. Since the English had arrived in 1607, the deep river channels throughout Tidewater Virginia had allowed many plantation owners to build individual wharves for shipping hogsheads of tobacco across the Atlantic Ocean. Small farmers near a larger plantation, including laborers who had acquired some land after completing their term of indenture, would grow perhaps one hogshead of tobacco each year. The farmers with limited acreage would transport their tobacco in small ships ("shallops") to the large plantation wharves, but there were dozens of such wharves in Tidewater. Ships were delayed for months by the inefficient process of stopping at so many different locations to gather a complete load of hogsheads for a transatlantic trip.

Suffolk grew into a town after the 1730 law, which identified a location "At the widow Constance's, at Sleepy-Hole Point, in Nansemond County" for an inspection warehouse.4

the City of Suffolk  a tobacco inspection warehouse on the Nansemond River, before multiple railroads arrived
the City of Suffolk started as a tobacco inspection warehouse on the Nansemond River, before multiple railroads arrived
Source: Library of Congress, Birds eye view of Suffolk, Nansemond Co., Va. 1907

In 1742, the General Assembly officially named the community that had developed around Constant's Wharf and the tobacco inspection station as "Suffolk." Governor Gooch's family had come orginally from Suffolk, so the legislators were honoring him.

In 1808, the town of Suffolk was chartered, and it was incorporated as an independent city in 1910. The curent City of Suffolk was formed in 1974, when the city of Suffolk merged with the County of Nansemond (including the towns of Holland and Whaleyville).5

The timber in the Great Dismal Swamp east of Suffolk was a key economic resource for colonists. William Byrd II had recognized the potential when he helped survey the Virginia-North Carolina boundary in 1732. However, the area inland from the navigable channel of the Nansemond River was so isolated that it seved as a refuge for runaway slaves and mulattoes, people who faced severe discrimination if they tried to mix with the rest of the colonial population.

In 1763 the Dismal Swamp Land Company was chartered; George Washington was a major leader in the project. One vision was to drain the swamp and convert it into farmland for growing hemp, the fibers of which would be spun into rope.

Digging ditches, even with slave labor, was difficult and the Dismal Swamp Land Company made little progress in draining the swamp. Timber harvest was easier, with loads manufactured from bald cypress and Atlantic White Cedar floated down Shingle Creek to the wharves at Suffolk.

The "naval stores" (pitch and turpentine) concentrated there, and the easy access up the Nansemond River, made Suffolk a target in the Revolutionary War. After the French allied with the rebelling colonists in America in 1788, the British military was stretched thin in a world-wide war.

One way to break the stalemate at New York (which had been surrounded by George Washington's army for three years) was for the British to cut off the military supplies coming to New York from Virginia, and to cause enough economic pain in the southern colonies to force the Continental Congress to negotiate for peace and reunion with England.

because timber harvest could be conducted in isolated swampland, Nansemond County was relatively attractive to free people of color prior to the Civil War
because timber harvest could be conducted in isolated swampland, Nansemond County was relatively attractive to free people of color prior to the Civil War
Source: National Endowment for the Humanities - The Great Dismal Swamp, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp

The 1779 Mathew-Collier raid into the Chesapeake Bay burned military resources stockoiled in Virginia. In addition, private warehouses and ships loaded with tobacco were looted, in order to enrich the English and impoverish the rebels. In mid-May of 1779, after capturing Norfolk and Portsmouth and destroying the Gosport Navy Yard, the British sailed upstream to Suffolk. They captured the town without opposition. The naval stores (and most buildings in town) were easily destroyed in a dramatic conflagration:6

With hundreds of barrels of tar, pitch, turpentine, and rum on fire, the molten mass flowed like a lava field, with winds fanning the fire as gun magazines exploded.

the 1779 Mathew-Collier raid of the British Navy burned Suffolk and the supplies stored there
the 1779 Mathew-Collier raid of the British Navy burned Suffolk and the supplies stored there
Source: Library of Congress, A Plan of the entrance of Chesapeak [sic] Bay, with James and York Rivers

Some trade through Suffolk came from North Carolina, because shipping through Albemarle/Pamlico Sound was difficult due to the barrier islands. Suffolk was on the Chesapeake Bay, and the Nansemond River offered a transportation route to export farm products lumber to Philadelphia, New York, and Europe, but getting goods through the swamps to Suffolk remained difficult after the Revolutionary War.

Shingle Creek was named after the main product floated downstream from the swamplands to Suffolk
Shingle Creek was named after the main product floated downstream from the swamplands to Suffolk
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Suffolk 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (2013)

To facilitate transport by water, Shingle Creek was extended with ditches into the swamp southeast of Suffolk. When George Washington was president, the Dismal Swamp Canal Company started digging a full-scale canal, but Washington sold his investment in the speculative project before the Jericho Canal was completed.7

Jericho Ditch linked Lake Drummond and the Nansemond River
Jericho Ditch linked Lake Drummond and the Nansemond River
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Suffolk 15x15 topographic quadrangle (1919)

The main railroads built through Suffolk were designed to draw trade away from Petersburg and the Roanoke River. When Portsmouth constructed the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad (later renamed the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad) to intercept traffic at the Roanoke River Canal in North Carolina, Petersburg and Richmond merchants sent a gang into North Carlina and literally tore up the tracks to block competition. The Civil War occurred just three years after the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad was finally built, so its effect on shipping at other port cities occurred later.

Suffolk got its main rail connections, including the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad, because it was in-between the ports on the Elizabeth River and the hinterland from which those ports sought to draw traffic
Suffolk got its main rail connections, including the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad, because it was in-between the ports on the Elizabeth River and the hinterland from which those ports sought to draw traffic
Source: Library of Congress, Map of the Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad from Portsmouth, Va. to Weldon, N.C (1847)

two railroads ran through Suffolk prior to the Civil War
two railroads ran through Suffolk prior to the Civil War
Source: Library of Congress, Map of eastern Virginia (1862)

During the American Civil War in 1863, Suffolk was occupied by the Union Army in order to block potential Confederate raids on Norfolk and Portsmouth. James Longstreet brought his division to the area to resupply, and he briefly laid siege to Suffolk. The firepower and manueverability of the US Navy in the Nansemond River was too great for the Confederates, and they abandoned southeastern Virginia in preparation for the march that ended at Gettysburg. Suffolk itself had no strategic value; it had no manufacturing center or political significance. After Longstreet left, the Union forces also withdrew to defensive lines closer to the Elizabeth River.

the independent city of Suffolk provided an additional level of services to urbanized areas, beyond what Nansemond County offered, until the jurisdictions merged in 1974
the independent city of Suffolk provided an additional level of services to urbanized areas, beyond what Nansemond County offered, until the jurisdictions merged in 1974
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Suffolk 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (1954)

before Suffolk developed, Portsmouth dammed tributaries of the Nansemond River to create reservoirs for drinking water
before Suffolk developed, Portsmouth dammed tributaries of the Nansemond River to create reservoirs for drinking water
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Mining Marl in Southeastern Virginia

Links

References

1. Helen C. Roundtree, Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries, University of Oklahoma Press, 1996, p.43, p.46
2. "The First Anglo-Powhatan War Begins; an excerpt from 'A Trewe Relacyon of the procedeings and ocurrentes of Momente which have hapned in Virginia' by George Percy," Encyclopedia Virginia, 2011, http://encyclopediavirginia.org/The_First_Anglo-Powhatan_War_Begins_an_excerpt_from_A_Trewe_Relacyon_of_the_procedeings_and_ocurrentes_of_Momente_which_have_hapned_in_Virginia_by_George_Percy (last checked October 18, 2014)
3. "What's in a name? | Constant's Wharf in Suffolk," The Virginian-Pilot, January 23, 2012, http://hamptonroads.com/2012/01/whats-name-constants-wharf-suffolk (last checked October 18, 2014)
4. "An Act for amending the Staple of Tobacco; and for preventing Frauds in his Majesty's Customs" (1730), Encyclopedia Virginia, 2012, http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/_An_Act_for_amending_the_Staple_of_Tobacco_and_for_preventing_Frauds_in_his_Majesty_s_Customs_1730 (last checked October 18, 2014)
5. "City Government, History, and Community Attractions," City of Suffolk, http://www.suffolkva.us/files/2113/4202/9126/City_Government-History_and_Community_Attractions.pdf (last checked October 18, 2014)
6. David Lee Russell, The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies, McFarland & Company (North Carolina), 2000, p.128, http://books.google.com/books?id=5DFy0eWaPxIC (last checked October 18, 2014)
7. Michael A. Blaakman, "Dismal Swamp Company," Mount Vernon, http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/dismal-swamp-company/ (last checked October 18, 2014)

Suffolk competed with Norfolk/Portsmouth for trade from North Carolina that sought a port on the Chesapeake Bay
Suffolk competed with Norfolk/Portsmouth for trade from North Carolina that sought a port on the Chesapeake Bay
Source: Library of Congress, A Plan of the entrance of Chesapeak [sic] Bay, with James and York Rivers

Route 460 bridge over the Nansemond River, just north of US 58 intersection
Route 460 bridge over the Nansemond River, just north of US 58 intersection

Riddick's Folly, headquarters of Union Major General John J. Peck for a month in 1863
Riddick's Folly, headquarters of Union Major General John J. Peck for a month in 1863
Riddick's Folly, headquarters of Union Major General John J. Peck for a month in 1863

former Nansemond County Courthouse, now Suffolk Visitor Center
former Nansemond County Courthouse, now Suffolk Visitor Center

Confederate memorial at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suffolk
Confederate memorial at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suffolk


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