Richmond during the Colonial Period


Richmond was the most prominent of the towns that emerged at the fall line of the James River during Virginia’s colonial period. As early as 1608, the English settlers eyed a community near the seven-mile-long series of rapids that divided the head of navigation at the river’s downstream end and the calm stretch of water upriver from it. The area provided a series of strategic advantages: as a port, as a location for mills, and as a transitional territory between the Tidewater-based Powhatan Indians and the Monacan Indians of the Piedmont. The English attempted to settle there with limited success in the first half of the seventeenth century, but the establishment of Fort Charles after 1644 and the end of the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646) brought increased English settlement. In 1679 the General Assembly expanded William Byrd‘s landholdings around the falls, hoping to stabilize the area further. Within a few years Byrd transformed the location into an international trading center. Byrd’s son of the same name established the town of Richmond on the north side of the James River in 1733; the General Assembly formally recognized the town in 1742. Benefitting from its prime location and strengthened by nearby communities such as Westham on the west side of the falls and Rocky Ridge across the river, Richmond served as a key port for Virginia’s interior and emerged as an industrial location by the advent of the American Revolution (1775–1783).

Early Contact

Christopher Newport

Late in May 1607, after the first group of 104 English settlers dropped anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, Captain Christopher Newport led an expedition of 23 men up the James River. Along the way they found Powhatan, a key village of the Powhatan Indians of Tsenacomoco. The settlement shared its name with that of Tsenacomoco’s paramount chief—the father of the village’s weroance, or lesser chief, Parahunt. The community sat three miles downstream from the falls, a prime place for quarrying stone, fishing, and trading with other tribes. The villagers welcomed the English and feasted them, eyeing an alliance against their enemies the Monacans, who lived in the Piedmont region and controlled the area’s copper trade. (Possibly the Powhatans also saw the English newcomers as an alternative source of copper.) According to a letter likely authored by the colonist Gabriel Archer, Parahunt “sought by all means to disswade our Captayne from going any further” upriver, into Monacan territory. Instead the settlers traveled to the rapids, where they placed a cross bearing the name of their king, James I, and the year. The English returned from the journey speculating that the James might be able to support “100 water milnes for any uses.”

The English ventured into Powhatan territory many times, and even breached the falls to meet with the Monacans. In 1608 Newport returned from a trip to England with orders from the Virginia Company of London to plant settlements along the James up to the fall line. Captain Francis West and Sir Thomas Dale spearheaded two such efforts in 1609 and 1611, respectively, and their intrusions into Indian territory were met with violence; these skirmishes helped inaugurate the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614).

Subsequent European outposts established prior to the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632) were located downstream from the future site of Richmond. Two settlements named Henrico were established, a fort named Tuckahoe was built eight miles below the falls, and an ironworks was erected six miles downriver in 1619. The English returned to the fall line sometime after 1644, when the General Assembly ordered the construction of Fort Charles, which inaugurated continuous English settlement in the region. The English presence there increased in 1646 with the end of the Third Anglo-Powhatan War. The conflict’s aftermath cleared the tribes from the Tidewater lands between the York and James rivers.

From Trading Post to Town

The Burning of Jamestown

Politician and Indian trader William Byrd played a vital role in developing the first trading post at what is now Richmond. Having inherited 1,800 acres along the falls in Henrico County from his uncle Thomas Stegge in 1670, Byrd saw the economic potential of the region as a location for water mills and a trading house. In 1675 he joined with his neighbor Nathaniel Bacon to plan a fur-trading business, but clashes with Indians on the frontier forced the General Assembly to halt the potentially lucrative enterprise. The partnership dissolved in 1676, when Bacon—without Byrd’s support—led local militiamen in a rebellion against the royal government under Governor Sir William Berkeley. In 1679 Byrd was able to expand his landholdings along the falls and revived his venture with the Virginia Indians, sending parties into the interior and trading English goods for furs. Byrd expanded his operations by creating warehouses and stores on his James River plantations, fomenting new centers of trade where growers received access to goods. His land acquisition at the falls, which was contingent upon his placing 50 armed men and 250 tenants there, served as one of these trading locations. Within six years, his holdings were a source of international commerce: he owned a store that sold English products, he imported Caribbean goods, he actively participated in buying and selling American Indian and African slaves, and he shipped flour to Barbados and wheat to Madeira.

William Byrd II

Byrd’s son of the same name eventually acquired eleven plantations in the region. At one plantation, a small community called Shaccos emerged where Shockoe Creek emptied into the falls. Byrd built a tobacco warehouse there in 1712. The facility was designated as an official inspection station and eventually became the region’s key place to store and grade tobacco, stimulating further trade. The semblance of a town developed around the storehouse with a store, at least one tavern, a ferry, and a chapel. The passage of the Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730, which gave warehouses the power to destroy substandard crops and issue bills of exchange that served as currency, further strengthened the location’s economic position.

Noting Byrd’s control of the tobacco trade, the General Assembly urged him to turn the location into a town. Reluctantly, Byrd acquiesced in 1733, creating Richmond—possibly named after Richmond upon Thames in England—across the creek from Shaccos and Petersburg near his facilities at the falls of the Appomattox River. The location provided a safe port at the falls, lying between two hills.

William Mayo's Surveying Instruments

William Mayo, an immigrant from England via Barbados, and James Wood drew plans for the new town. The original thirty-four blocks, allayed along rough terrain, covered from today’s 17th Street east to today’s 25th Street and included what are now Cary, Main, Franklin, Grace, and Broad streets. The main blocks were divided into four lots each, along with twelve larger squares. Byrd placed an advertisement in the April 22, 1737, edition of the Virginia Gazette to announce the new location: the town was laid out “in a pleasant and healthy Situation,” he wrote, “and well Supply’d with Springs of good Water. It lies near the Publick Warehouse at Shoccoe’s, and in the midst of great Quantities of Grain, and all kind of Provisions.”

Governmental Consolidation

Virtual Tour of Saint John's Church

Once the benefits of a strategic location intersected with the creation of a formal community, county power consolidated in Richmond. The Henrico Parish church, located downriver, began the process of relocating near the new town in 1739. After Byrd discovered that a planned road to the new congregation would run through his property, he donated land for a new location east of Richmond, atop what was then Indian Town Hill (later called Church Hill). The new church was later renamed Saint John’s Church. The relocation of Henrico County’s religious authority, which provided a meeting place for the powerful vestrymen who ran the local parish, demonstrates Richmond’s quick rise in importance and the urgent need for urban communities in Virginia.

The General Assembly established Richmond formally in May 1742, noting that it had a population of 250 and sported a town commons along the James River. The bill granting the town’s new status also allowed a pair of two-day fairs, continuing Richmond’s growing role as a place of commerce. What it did not grant was the creation of a local government, leaving Richmond subject to Henrico County’s legal code. This awkward arrangement meant that the General Assembly effectively oversaw the town while the Henrico County Court handled the town’s day-to-day affairs. In one example, the Virginia government passed a 1744 law that stopped the construction and maintenance of wooden chimneys in Richmond, but named the Henrico County sheriff responsible for destroying any existing wooden chimneys after the law’s deadline passed. In 1752 the General Assembly moved the county seat from Varina to Richmond, finalizing the latter’s status as the key community in the region. An act of the same year modestly strengthened the new village’s government by naming nine trustees to supervise the construction of buildings, lots, and streets.

Nearby Towns

Fry-Jefferson Map Detail

Richmond’s role as a nexus of commerce, government, and religion helped spur the creation of two other towns that supported the community. As Byrd’s village grew at the lower end of the falls, Westham emerged at the rapids’ beginning. Farmers shipped their hogsheads of tobacco on flatboats and canoes down the river to its landing and then transported their harvest around the falls to Richmond, where it became available for wider distribution. In February 1746 the General Assembly passed a bill that improved navigation on the upper James River and commissioned another tobacco warehouse, also owned by the Byrd family. In Westham, as in Richmond, the combination of a warehouse and the ability to easily transship products led to small-scale urbanization. People met in Westham in 1751 to create lots in anticipation of a new town. The General Assembly established the new community, named Beverley, the next year, noting that the location contained streets and 150 lots, and stood as a key business location. Records indicate that administrating Richmond’s upstream counterpart might have been difficult: for example, in 1755 the General Assembly passed a law requiring all farmers who stored their tobacco at the Westham warehouse to pay their fees. By 1756, the landing and warehouse’s reach extended to Goochland, Albemarle, and Cumberland counties.

Rocky Ridge, sitting on the south bank of the river, received its own Byrd-owned warehouse by 1748. Though Rocky Ridge became established as the town of Manchester in 1769, it had some characteristics of a trading community during the colonial period. The tobacco grown on one Pittsylvania County plantation was taken to Rocky Ridge, where a merchant served as the grower’s agent, taking care of the agricultural product and purchasing manufactured goods. By 1767 the village included a forge, mill, landing, canal, eight rental properties, and 300 lots. Richmond annexed Manchester in 1910.

The Future

At the end of the colonial period, the gravitational pull created by Richmond’s geographic and financial advantages led to the first stirrings of industrial development. A coal region thirteen miles west of Richmond and Rocky Ridge became British North America’s first key source of fossil fuels, with ships carrying the commodity to other colonies by the 1760s. In the same decade, wheat began to surpass tobacco as the region’s key crop, which led to the emergence of large-scale flour production in 1777 and the long-anticipated use of the rapids for milling.

The Byrd family began divesting itself of its properties at Rocky Ridge and on the west side of Shockoe Creek in 1768. Richmond absorbed Shaccos the next year. In May 1779 the General Assembly moved the Virginia capital from Williamsburg to the town at the falls of the James River, inaugurating Richmond’s shift from town to city.

May 21—27, 1607
Captain Christopher Newport, Captain John Smith, George Percy, and others explore the James River, making mostly friendly contact with the Kecoughtans, the Paspaheghs, the Quiyoughcohannocks, and the Appamattucks.
May 24, 1607
Captain Christopher Newport and his fellow English colonists, in the words of George Percy, "set up a Crosse at the head of this River naming it Kings River, where we proclaimed James King of England to have the most right unto it."
Spring 1670
William Byrd I inherits most of the estate of his uncle, Thomas Stegge.
Landowner William Byrd I develops an international trade network around the falls of the James River.
September 19, 1733
William Byrd II writes that he has created a new town named Richmond near the informal village that sprouted around one of his tobacco warehouses. He had developed the locality under pressure from the General Assembly.
April 22, 1737
William Byrd II announces the new town of Richmond, surveyed and with lots for sale, in the Virginia Gazette.
May 1742
The General Assembly passes "An Act for establishing the Town of Richmond."
The Henrico County Court is relocated from Varina to Richmond.
May 1779
The General Assembly votes to move the state capital from Williamsburg to Richmond.
  • Tyler-McGraw, Marie. At the Falls: Richmond, Virginia, and Its People. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
APA Citation:
Gottlieb, Matthew. Richmond during the Colonial Period. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/richmond-during-the-colonial-period.
MLA Citation:
Gottlieb, Matthew. "Richmond during the Colonial Period" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 16 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, February 08
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