Cities of Virginia


Virginia’s thirty-eight incorporated cities are politically and administratively independent of the counties with which they share borders, just as counties are politically and administratively independent of each other. This separation of counties and independent cities evolved slowly beginning with the incorporation of the first city, Williamsburg, in 1722 and has no statewide parallel anywhere else in the United States. Virginia’s towns exercise some functions of self-government but in many respects are political subdivisions of the counties in which they are located. The General Assembly first passed an act in 1680 to establish towns for commercial centers in Virginia. When few towns resulted under the act, the assembly tried again in 1691 and in 1705 with the same result. Much of the colony was too sparsely populated and insufficiently productive to generate many thriving towns. Each time the assembly repealed the recent town act and after 1710 gave up the attempt to establish towns en masse altogether. Thereafter, when groups of individuals petitioned the assembly to establish a town, the legislature authorized trustees to lay out the town and sell lots. After establishment, towns that petitioned the General Assembly were incorporated under acts that gave them town charters and some self-government.


From 1722 until 1892, towns became cities only by act of the General Assembly, which issued a city charter in the form of a statute; after 1892 a town could also incorporate as a city by petition to the circuit court. The first state constitutional mention of separate cities and counties came in the Constitution of 1869 and in the enabling legislation passed in the 1869–1870 General Assembly session. The constitution required that each county be divided into townships, and the enabling act stipulated that the commissioners appointed to lay off the townships (later changed to magisterial districts) should not include therein any town or city with a population of 5,000 or more. The Constitution of 1902 made no specific reference to independent cities but included provisions recognizing the principle that Virginia’s cities were independent of their neighboring counties. The Constitution of 1971 codified the independent status of Virginia’s cities.

Virginia’s program of annexation by judicial decision-making began under the Constitution of 1902. Before that time, municipalities had expanded their boundaries through special acts of the General Assembly. To comply with the new constitution’s prohibition of such special acts, the assembly passed legislation in 1904 that established the annexation procedure used until 1987. Beginning in the 1950s, five Virginia cities expanded their boundaries to subsume the now-extinct counties in which they were geographically situated. Hampton (subsuming Elizabeth City County) in 1952, Newport News (extinguishing Warwick County) in 1958, Virginia Beach (subsuming Princess Anne County) and Chesapeake (subsuming Norfolk County) in 1963, and Suffolk (extinguishing what until 1972 had been Nansemond County) in 1974. A 1987 statute prohibited cities from any further annexations from surrounding counties until 2010. The General Assembly recognized the subsequent financial hardship caused by the inability to annex especially in rural areas and passed an act in 1988 allowing any city with a population of fewer than 50,000 inhabitants to petition for reversion to town status. Since that time three cities have become towns again and rejoined the counties in which they are located, South Boston in 1995, Clifton Forge in 2001, and Bedford in 2013.

Current Virginia Cities

Alexandria, in Fairfax and Arlington Counties, was named for John Alexander, an early owner of the tract in Fairfax County on which the town was located. The act to establish Alexandria was passed in 1749. Its site had previously been known as Hunting Creek Warehouse and as Belhaven. Alexandria was incorporated as a town in 1779 and was ceded to the federal government in 1789 for use as part of the site of the new national capital. It officially became part of the District of Columbia in 1801 and was renamed Alexandria County by Congress. By an act of 9 July 1846, Alexandria County, including the town of Alexandria, was retroceded to Virginia, which took jurisdiction over the area on March 20, 1847. The town was incorporated as a city in 1852. Area: 15.2 square miles. Population: 128,283 (2000), 150,006 (2009 estimate).

Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee border in Washington County, originally was called Goodson, for Samuel Goodson who founded the town in 1850. Goodson was incorporated as a town in 1856, four years after the town of Bristol, Tennessee, was laid out in Sullivan County, Tennessee, contiguous to Goodson. In 1890, Goodson was incorporated as a city, and its name was changed to Bristol for its Tennessee neighbor. Today the two cities have separate governments but share a public library. When the Virginia-Tennessee boundary was settled in 1901, Bristol, Virginia, received from Bristol, Tennessee, the northern half of the main street between the two cities. Area: 12.9 square miles. Population: 17,637 (2000), 17,690 (2009 estimate).

Buena Vista, in Rockbridge County, was built on the site of the abandoned Buena Vista iron furnace. This furnace, which was in operation as late as 1855, was named probably for the Mexican village near which General Zachary Taylor won an important battle in the Mexican War in 1847. Buena Vista was laid out in 1889 and incorporated as a town in 1890. It was incorporated as a city in 1892. Area: 6.8 square miles. Population: 6,349 (2000), 6,222 (2009 estimate).

Charlottesville, in Albemarle County, was named for Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of King George III, and was established in 1762. The county seat of Albemarle County, Charlottesville was incorporated as a town in 1801 and as a city in 1888. Area: 10.3 square miles. Population: 40,099 (2000), 42,218 (2009 estimate).

Chesapeake, which is named for the Chesapeake Bay, comprises the former Norfolk County and the former city of South Norfolk. It was formed by court order on January 1, 1963 with the merger of the county and city, both of which thereby became extinct. Area: 340.7 square miles. Population: 199,184 (2000), 222,455 (2009 estimate).

Colonial Heights, in Chesterfield County, is located on the heights overlooking the Appomattox River and takes its name from the fact that the Marquis de Lafayette placed his artillery, known as the Colonials, on the heights to shell British positions in Petersburg in 1781. The campaign to have Colonial Heights incorporated as a town began in 1920 and was accomplished by court order in 1926. Colonial Heights became a city by court order on March 19, 1948. Area: 7.5 square miles. Population: 16,897 (2000), 17,823 (2009 estimate).

Covington, in Alleghany County, was named probably for General Leonard Covington (1768–1813), of Maryland, who died in the War of 1812 and for whom several other United States towns and counties were named about the same time. It was established in 1818 and first incorporated as a town in 1833. The charter was repealed in 1839 and the town was incorporated again in 1873. The county seat of Alleghany County, Covington became a city by court order on December 22, 1952. Area: 5.7 square miles. Population: 6,303 (2000), 6,149 (2009 estimate).

Danville, in Pittsylvania County, was named for the Dan River on which the city is located. Danville was established in 1793, was incorporated as a town in 1830, and became a city in 1890. The town of North Danville, incorporated in 1877 and renamed Neopolis in 1894, was added in 1896. Area: 43.1 square miles. Population: 48,411 (2000), 44,400 (2009 estimate).

Emporia, in Greensville County, was formed in 1887 from the merger of Hicksford and Belfield. Because of friction between the two villages, Benjamin D. Tillar, a county native and member of the Virginia House of Delegates, named the town after Emporia, Kansas, the hometown of one of his associates in the Atlantic and Danville Railroad. Emporia comes from the Latin word meaning place of plenty where business is transacted. The General Assembly revoked the town charter in 1888, a year after it had incorporated Emporia, and did not reincorporate the town until 1892. Emporia became a city by court order on July 31, 1967. Area: 6.9 square miles. Population: 5,665 (2000), 5,635 (2009 estimate).

Fairfax, in Fairfax County, was first called Providence. It was established at the site of the county courthouse in 1805. After the town named Fairfax in Culpeper County was changed to Culpeper in 1859, Fairfax County took the name Fairfax for its county seat. Incorporated by the General Assembly as a town on 15 January 1875 and reincorporated in 1892, Fairfax became a city by court order on July 1, 1961. Area: 6.3 square miles. Population: 21,498 (2000), 24,665 (2009 estimate).

Falls Church, in Fairfax County, was named for an Anglican church erected about 1769. The church received its name because of its proximity to the Little Falls of the Potomac. A post office was established in Falls Church in 1851. It was incorporated as a town in 1875 and became a city by court order on August 16, 1948. Area: 2.0 square miles. Population: 10,377 (2000), 11,957 (2009 estimate).

Franklin, in Southampton County, came into existence during the 1830s as a stop along the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad line then under construction. The origin of the name is unclear. It could have been named for Benjamin Franklin, patriot and statesman; for a man named Franklin who kept a store in the vicinity; or for the exclamation of a railroad section foreman who drove a spike into a crosstie and exclaimed, “This shall be Franklin!” It was a post village in 1855 and was incorporated as a town in 1876. Franklin became a city by a court order of December 22, 1961. Area: 8.4 square miles. Population: 8,346 (2000), 8,814 (2009 estimate).

Fredericksburg, in Spotsylvania County, was named for Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, eldest son of George II. Fredericksburg was established on the south bank of the Rappahannock River in 1728 and incorporated as a town in 1781 to take effect in March 1782. It became a city in 1879. Area: 10.5 square miles. Population: 19,279 (2000), 23,193 (2009 estimate).

Galax, in Grayson and Carroll Counties, was first called Bonaparte. It received its present name from the mountain evergreen that grows profusely in the surrounding area. It was incorporated as a town in 1906 and became a city by court order on November 30, 1953. Area: 8.2 square miles. Population: 6,837 (2000), 6,880 (2009 estimate).

Hampton was located in Elizabeth City County, which is now extinct. It takes its name from Hampton Creek, earlier called Southampton River in honor of the earl of Southampton, an important figure in the Virginia Company of London. An Indian town stood on the site in 1607, when Captain John Smith visited the area. The colonists established a village there in 1610 and a trading post in 1630. Hampton was established by an act of assembly in 1680 and was designated as a port of entry in 1705. It was first incorporated as a town in March 1849, but the act was repealed the following December. It was incorporated again in 1852, but the act of incorporation was repealed in 1860. The General Assembly incorporated the town of Hampton in 1887 for a third time, and it became a city by court order on March 4, 1908. It was greatly enlarged on July 1, 1952 by a merger with Elizabeth City County and the town of Phoebus; the county and town thereby became extinct. Area: 51.8 square miles. Population: 146,437 (2000), 144,236 (2009 estimate).

Harrisonburg, in Rockingham County, was named for Thomas Harrison, who gave the land for the town site in 1779. It was established in 1780, was incorporated as a town in 1849, and became a city by court order on May 6, 1916. Area: 17.6 square miles. Population: 40,453 (2000), 45,137 (2009 estimate).

Hopewell, in Prince George County, was established as Charles City Point by Sir Thomas Dale in 1613. Francis Eppes, who arrived in Virginia on the ship Hopewell, patented land near Charles City Point in 1635. He named part of his property Hopewell Farm. The town was known as City Point until 1913, when E. I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company purchased Hopewell Farm and established a factory and a settlement for munitions workers there. Hopewell was never incorporated as a town but was incorporated as a city by act of assembly on February 26, 1916 to take effect July 1, 1916. Area: 10.2 square miles. Population: 22,277 (2000), 23,123 (2009 estimate).

Lexington, in Rockbridge County, was named probably for the village in Massachusetts where the first battle of the American Revolution was fought. The town was established in 1778 as the county seat for newly created Rockbridge County. It is believed that Thomas Jefferson suggested the name for the town. Lexington was made a “town corporate” in 1841 and was enlarged and reincorporated as a town in 1874. It became a city by court order effective January 1, 1966. Area: 2.5 square miles. Population: 6,867 (2000), 6,901 (2009 estimate).

Lynchburg, in Campbell County, was named for John Lynch, the owner of the original town site. It was established in 1786, was incorporated as a town in 1805, and became a city in 1852. Area: 49.4 square miles. Population: 65,269 (2000), 73,933 (2009 estimate).

Manassas, in Prince William County, began in 1852 as the Manassas Junction of the Manassas Gap Railroad and the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and thus called Manassas Junction. It was incorporated as the town of Manassas in 1873 and became a city by court order on May 1, 1975. Area: 9.9 square miles. Population: 35,135 (2000), 36,514 (2009 estimate).

Manassas Park, in Prince William County, was created in 1955 as an outgrowth of Manassas. It was incorporated as a town by order of the circuit court on January 21, 1957 and became a city by court order on May 15, 1975, to take effect on the following June 1. Area: 2.5 square miles. Population: 10,290 (2000), 12,042 (2009 estimate).

Martinsville, in Henry County, was named for Joseph Martin, an early settler and Revolutionary soldier who represented Henry County in the General Assembly in 1791, when the town was established. Martinsville was incorporated as a town in 1873 and became a city by court order of December 6, 1928. Area: 11.0 square miles. Population: 15,416 (2000), 14,635 (2009 estimate).

Newport News was located in Warwick County, which is now extinct. The origin of the name is uncertain but the phrase “Newportes News” appeared in documents as early as 1619 and probably commemorated Christopher Newport, who made five voyages to Virginia between 1607 and 1619. Newport News was a small settlement until late in the nineteenth century, when it became the eastern terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. The Old Dominion Land Company bought land there in 1880 and began laying out a new village in October. Newport News was incorporated as a city by act of the General Assembly in 1896 without ever having been incorporated as a town. On July 1, 1958, Newport News was enlarged by consolidation with the city of Warwick, which then became extinct. Area: 68.3 square miles. Population: 180,150 (2000), 193,172 (2009 estimate).

Norfolk was located in Norfolk County, which is now extinct. The city took its name from the county of Norfolk, which had been named by King Charles I in 1636. Norfolk was established in 1680 by an act of assembly. It was incorporated as a borough in 1736 and a city in 1845. Norfolk was enlarged in 1906 by the annexation of the town of Berkley. Area: 53.7 square miles. Population: 234,403 (2000), 233,333 (2009 estimate).

Norton, in Wise County, was first known as Prince’s Flats, probably for William Prince, who settled in the area about 1787. The present name honors Eckstein Norton, president of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad in 1891 when the Clinch Valley branch of the railroad was completed. Norton was incorporated as a town in 1894 and became a city by court order on January 18, 1954. Area: 7.5 square miles. Population: 3,904 (2000), 3,713 (2009 estimate).

Petersburg was formed from parts of Dinwiddie, Prince George, and Chesterfield Counties. A garrison and fur trading post called Fort Henry was established there in 1645 on the site of the Indian town Appamattuck. The present name, suggested in 1733 by William Byrd, honors Peter Jones, Byrd’s companion on expeditions into the Virginia backcountry. Petersburg was established in 1748 and incorporated as a town in 1784. In the latter year the towns of Blandford, Pocahontas, and Ravenscroft were added to Petersburg. It was incorporated as a city in 1850. Area: 22.9 square miles. Population: 33,740 (2000), 32,986 (2009 estimate).

Poquoson, in York County, was established as a post office on April 12, 1880; the post office was discontinued on March 9, 1881, and reestablished on July 19, 1882. A pocosin, as the word is now spelled, is an upland swamp in the coastal plain of the southeastern United States. Poquoson became a town in 1952 as the result of a referendum and became a city by court order on June 1, 1975. Area: 15.5 square miles. Population: 11,566 (2000), 11,794 (2009 estimate).

Portsmouth was located in Norfolk County, which is now extinct. It was named by its founder, William Craford, for the English seaport and was established in 1752. Portsmouth was incorporated as a town in 1836 and as a city in 1858. Area: 33.2 square miles. Population: 105,565 (2000), 99,321 (2009 estimate).

Radford, in Montgomery County, was formerly known as Lovely Mount, English Ferry, Ingles’s Ferry, Central Depot, and Central City. The town of Central City was established in 1885 and incorporated as a town in 1887. Its name changed to Radford in 1890 to honor John Blair Radford, a prominent local citizen, and it was incorporated as a city in 1892. Area: 9.8 square miles. Population: 15,859 (2000), 16,184 (2009 estimate).

Richmond, located between Henrico and Chesterfield Counties, was named by William Byrd (1674–1744), who envisioned the development of a city at the falls of the James River and with the help of William Mayo laid out the town in 1737. The name probably came from the English borough of Richmond upon Thames, which Byrd visited on several occasions. Richmond was established in 1742, and in 1779 was designated the capital of Virginia effective 30 April 1780. It was incorporated as a town, although “stiled the city of Richmond,” in 1782 and was incorporated as a city in 1842. It served as the capital of the Confederacy from mid-1861 to April 1865 during the American Civil War. Richmond was enlarged by the annexation of Manchester (or South Richmond) in 1910, and by the addition of Barton Heights, Fairmount, and Highland Park in 1914. Further annexations from Chesterfield County occurred in 1942 and 1970. Area: 60.1 square miles. Population: 197,790 (2000), 204,451 (2009 estimate).

Roanoke, in Roanoke County, was first known as Big Lick because of salt deposits found in the vicinity. The town of Big Lick grew up around a depot built in 1852 on the new Virginia and Tennessee Railroad line about a mile from the village of Big Lick. The town was incorporated in 1874, and its name was changed to Roanoke (perhaps for the nearby Roanoke River) in 1882. Roanoke became a city in 1884. Area: 42.9 square miles. Population: 94,911 (2000), 94,482 (2009 estimate).

Salem, in Roanoke County, was laid out in 1802 on land owned by James Simpson. The town is said to have been named by a member of the Bryan family, of Salem, New Jersey. The General Assembly established Salem in 1806 and incorporated it as a town in 1836. Salem was incorporated as a city by court order of December 13, 1967, to take effect on January 1, 1968. Area: 14.6 square miles. Population: 24,747 (2000), 25,462 (2009 estimate).

Staunton, in Augusta County, was named, according to most authorities, for Rebecca Staunton, wife of Sir William Gooch, lieutenant governor of Virginia from 1727 to 1749. Staunton was laid out in 1748 at the site of the Augusta County courthouse and was established as a town in 1761. It was incorporated as a town in 1801 and as a city in 1871. Area: 19.7 square miles. Population: 23,853 (2000), 23,886 (2009 estimate).

Suffolk was located in Nansemond County, which is now extinct. It was named probably for the county of Suffolk in England. Established as a town in 1742 on the site of John Constant’s warehouse, Suffolk was incorporated as a town in 1808 and as a city by court order in 1910. On January 1, 1974 the city was enlarged when it merged with the former county of Nansemond. Area: 400 square miles. Population: 63,677 (2000), 83,659 (2009 estimate).

Virginia Beach was in Princess Anne County, which is now extinct. The ocean resort was incorporated as a town in 1906 and as a city by an act of the General Assembly on February 14, 1952. It was greatly enlarged on January 1, 1963 by consolidation with Princess Anne County, which thereby became extinct. Area: 248.3 square miles. Population: 425,257 (2000), 433,575 (2009 estimate).

Waynesboro, in Augusta County, was named for Revolutionary War hero Anthony Wayne, a general in the Continental army and in the subsequent wars with Indians in the Northwest Territory. The site was laid out as a town in Augusta County in 1798 and originally called Waynesborough. It was established as a town in 1801 and incorporated as a town in 1834. It was consolidated with Basic City in 1923 as Waynesboro-Basic. A year later the General Assembly changed the name to Waynesboro, which became a city by an act of the General Assembly in 1948. Area: 15.4 square miles. Population: 19,520 (2000), 22,241 (2009 estimate).

Williamsburg, in James City and York Counties, was established by the General Assembly as Middle Plantation in 1633. After the capitol building at Jamestown burned in 1698, the assembly decided to move the capital of the colony to Middle Plantation, which was renamed Williamsburg in 1699 in honor of William III. Williamsburg was established in 1699 and declared a “city Incorporate” in 1722, although its actual status was that of a borough. It served as the capital of Virginia from 1699 until 1780. Williamsburg was incorporated as a city in 1884. Area: 8.5 square miles. Population: 11,998 (2000), 12,729 (2009 estimate).

Winchester, in Frederick County, was first known as Opequon, then as Frederick’s Town (or Fredericktown), and, finally, on establishment as a town in 1752, as Winchester. According to tradition, one of the town’s founders, James Wood, named the town in honor of his birthplace in England. Winchester was incorporated as a town in 1779 and as a city in 1874. Area: 9.3 square miles. Population: 23,585 (2000), 26,322 (2009 estimate).

Extinct Virginia Cities

Manchester (extinct), in the city of Richmond, was established in 1769 on land owned by William Byrd (1728–1777) on the south bank of the James River. The General Assembly had authorized Fort Charles to be built there in 1645, and the site was soon named Rocky Ridge. After its establishment in 1769, the newly laid-out town was named probably for Manchester Parish in Chesterfield County. The parish in turn was named either for George Montague, fourth duke of Manchester, or for the town of Manchester, England. Incorporated as a town in 1834, Manchester served as the county seat for Chesterfield County from 1871 until 1874 when it was incorporated as a city (although Chesterfield did not move its courthouse until 1876). In 1910 Manchester was consolidated with the city of Richmond with the provisos that a free bridge would be constructed to connect Manchester with Richmond and that Manchester would retain a courthouse. Today the area is also known as South Richmond.

Nansemond (extinct), in the city of Suffolk, was originally Upper Norfolk County (established by 1640) and then Nansemond County (from 1646). It was named for the Nansemond Indian tribe that resided in the vicinity before Nansemond County was established. It became the city of Nansemond on July 1, 1972, merged with the city of Suffolk on January 1, 1974, and thereafter the entire area became known as the city of Suffolk.

South Norfolk (extinct), in the city of Chesapeake, was incorporated as a town in 1919 and as a city in 1921. Named for the adjacent city of Norfolk, it was mostly farmland until about 1889 when developers began to lay out a town there next to the town of Berkley. In 1963, the new city of Chesapeake was formed by the consolidation of Norfolk County with the city of South Norfolk, both of which then became extinct.

Warwick (extinct), in the city of Newport News, was established as Warwick River County, one of the original eight Virginia shires, or counties, first enumerated in 1634, and became Warwick County in 1643. It was named either for Robert Rich, earl of Warwick, a prominent member of the Virginia Company of London, or for the English county of Warwick. Warwick County was incorporated as the city of Warwick, effective July 16, 1952, and the city in turn was consolidated with the city of Newport News, effective July 1, 1958.

Former Cities Now Returned to Town Status

Bedford, in Bedford County, originally was known as Liberty. In 1782, it was established as a town and became the county seat when the court was moved there from New London. Liberty was incorporated as a town in 1839. Its name was changed to Bedford City in 1890 and to Bedford in 1912. Bedford was incorporated as a city by court order on August 30, 1968. In April 2008, the city began the procedure to revert to a town; in July 2012, the Virginia Commission on Local Government recommended the reversion; and a panel of circuit court judges appointed by the Supreme Court of Virginia approved the plan on December 18, 2012. The city became a town on July 1, 2013.

Clifton Forge, in Alleghany County, was named for James Clifton‘s iron furnace, which was located in the Iron Gate Gorge by 1828. Known as Williamson’s Station in 1857 when the railroad arrived, it was established as a town in 1861 and took the name Clifton Forge when it was incorporated in 1884. Clifton Forge was incorporated as a city by court order in 1906. On March 20, 1991, the General Assembly authorized the consolidation of Alleghany County and the independent city of Clifton Forge into a new independent city of Alleghany. The citizens of both locales voted against the proposal on May 5, 1992, however, and the change did not take effect. On March 6, 2001, its citizens voted to relinquish city status and Clifton Forge reverted to town status in Alleghany County on July 1, 2001.

South Boston, in Halifax County, was named for Boston, Massachusetts. The town was originally located on the south side of the Dan River and called Boyd’s Ferry. It was established in 1796 but was destroyed by floods shortly thereafter. Reestablished on the north side of the Dan River, it was incorporated as a town in 1884 and incorporated as a city by court order on December 22, 1959 to take effect on January 1, 1960. It relinquished its city status on July 1, 1995 and reverted to its former town status in Halifax County.

  • Bain, Chester W. “A Body Incorporate”: The Evolution of City-County Separation in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1967.
  • Salmon, Emily J. and Edward D. C. Campbell Jr., eds. The Hornbook of Virginia History: A Ready-Reference Guide to the Old Dominion’s People, Places, and Past. Fourth Edition. Richmond, Virginia: The Library of Virginia, 1994.
APA Citation:
The Hornbook of Virginia History. Cities of Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/cities-of-virginia.
MLA Citation:
The Hornbook of Virginia History. "Cities of Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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