*This is the first in a series of Historic Towns in Virginia articles.
Virginia is a popular destination for history buffs, drawing countless visitors each year to presidential homes and iconic landmarks. But some locations have more than a single story to tell; these five historic towns in coastal Virginia are steeped in history, with deep roots that date back hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of years. Discover these five historic gems along Virginia’s shorelines to reveal their incredible contributions to American history.
A Few Notable Historic Sites:
- Reedville Fishermen’s Museum
- Historic Christ Church (Weems)
- Mary Ball Washington Museum & Library (Lancaster)
The town of Reedville is in Northumberland County, settled by the Algonquian-speaking tribes of Wicocomico and Chickacoan prior to Colonial establishment in 1648. Home to the Atlantic menhaden fishing industry, Reedville’s Fishermen’s Museum preserves the important heritage of the fishermen and watermen of Virginia’s Northern Neck and Chesapeake Bay, showcasing how these skills have been passed down from generation to generation. Evidence of this occupational inheritance can be seen at the docks, where working watermen unload their day’s catch.
After exploring Reedville, travel to nearby Kilmarnock and Weems for even more Northern Neck history. Kilmarnock was first settled in the mid-1600s as “The Crossroads”, but became known as Kilmarnock in the late 1700s when a local landowner and businessman coined the term in reference to the town of Kilmarnock in Scotland. While in Kilmarnock, stop by the Mary Ball Washington Museum & Library to learn the full history of Kilmarnock and Lancaster County. The museum is named for George Washington’s mother, who was a native of the region. Just southwest of Kilmarnock in Weems, Historic Christ Church has gained recognition as the best preserved parish church from the Colonial-era, remaining virtually untouched since its erection in 1735.
Notable Historic Sites:
Prior to the arrival of the Colonists, Tangier Island was seasonally used as a retreat for Pocomoke Indians for centuries. While not much is known about these indigenous peoples, thousands of stone arrowheads have been found on the island, suggesting that the land mass was once much bigger than the remaining acreage, allowing for hunting of wild game. In addition to these arrowheads, historians discovered a large pile of oyster shells off the shore that dated back thousands of years. The shells reveal a much longer history of oyster cultivation than previously thought; native peoples had the equipment, knowledge, and expertise to work as watermen long before the Colonists emigrated to Virginia.
The first Colonists to discover Tangier Island were led by Captain John Smith in the summer of 1608. After an exploratory mission to what is now Washington, D.C., Smith traveled south along the Chesapeake Bay towards Jamestown and came across a group of small islands in the middle of the waterway. He collectively named them the “Russell Isles” for a doctor onboard the ship with him; today, these islands are Tangier, Smiths, and Watts Islands.
When discussing Tangier, you may often hear about the watermen that have lived here for generations, but when the island was first permanently settled in the 1770s, the land was mostly used for farming. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that islanders began harvesting crabs and oysters from the Chesapeake Bay, laying the groundwork for Virginia’s role as a world-class seafood producer.
During the War of 1812, the British used Tangier Island as a staging area and base, mobilizing their forces towards Washington, D.C. during planned attacks. Nothing is left of these temporary structures, but the Swain Memorial Methodist Church was established shortly after in 1835, and is the oldest building left on the shrinking island; since the 1850s, less than 33% of Tangier Island’s land mass remains. Although measures have been enacted to prevent further erosion, much of the current acreage could be lost to the Bay in the next 50 years.
Travel to Tangier Island is fairly limited, but visitors in Virginia can take a ferry from either Reedville or Onancock on the Eastern Shore to reach this historic town. Since its inception, the island community has remained very tight-knit, and you’ll notice a distinctive dialect of American English spoken on Tangier that is not found anywhere else in the world, thought to be remnants of the 17th-century English dialect brought over by the island’s first colonial settlers.
A Few Notable Historic Sites:
Tucked between the waterways of York River to the south and the Lower Chesapeake Bay on the East, the peninsula containing Gloucester was once the site of Werowocomoco, the capital of the powerful Powhatan Confederacy. Historic artifacts found from this region revealed proof of a large, populated community living here from approximately 1200 AD to the early 17th century.
Colonial settlements forced the native peoples to relocate, and the region was founded as Gloucester in 1651, named for Henry Stuart, Duke of Gloucester. One of the earliest residents of the region was George Washington’s grandfather, who built Warner Plantation in 1657. While the house no longer stands, today the plantation grounds hold the Inn at Warner Hall, an elegant bed and breakfast that reflects the land’s historic roots.
Gloucester has two historic churches worth a visit; Ware Episcopal Church was built in 1690, while Abingdon Episcopal Church dates to 1755. Abingdon Church stands on land donated by George Washington’s ancestors, and both churches were attended by Presidents Washington and Jefferson.
During the Revolutionary War, the Battle of the Hook took place in Gloucester while the Siege of Yorktown occurred simultaneously just a few miles down the road. One hour after Cornwallis surrendered in Yorktown, the British forces in Gloucester surrendered, as well.
Another historic site in Gloucester is the Rosewell Ruins. These crumbling walls once contained the luxurious mansion home of Rosewell Plantation, built in 1725. The estate was built to be a symbol of early American wealth, with designs even more ostentatious than the Governor’s Palace of Williamsburg, the early Virginia capital. John Page, grandson of the original owner, eventually inherited the property, and would often receive visits at the home from his close friend, Thomas Jefferson. It is even rumored that early drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written and edited in the mansion.
Gloucester faced war yet again with the beginning of the Civil War; the first shots fired in Virginia happened at Gloucester Point. In the following years, the bordering York River became an vital focus in the Confederacy strategy. Early Colonial settlers recognized the importance of the river and built fortifications as early as 1667 to protect the waterway from invaders. These fortifications were maintained and improved over the years. With the start of the Civil War, Confederate forces seized the Point in a strategic move to maintain control of the York River, going to great lengths to prevent the Union ships from traveling along the river towards the Confederate capital of Richmond.
A Few Notable Historic Sites:
- Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church
- Moses Myers House
- Willoughby-Baylor House at the Chrysler Museum of Art
- Fort Norfolk
A 400-year old port city in Virginia, Norfolk is home to the largest naval base in the world. The area’s history as a modern settlement began in 1636, and by 1682, a charter for the establishment of the “Towne of Lower Norfolk County” was issued by Parliament. Norfolk became one of only three cities in the Virginia Colony to receive a royal charter, with Jamestown and Williamsburg comprising the remaining charters.
By 1775, Norfolk was considered the most prosperous city in the entire state, acting as a vital shipping port to the British Isles and beyond. Exports of tobacco, corn, cotton, and timber were shipped from the port, while imports of rum, sugar, and manufactured goods arrived from England to be distributed through the rest of the lower colonies.
In 1739, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church was erected in the area, and after wars ravaged the Virginia colonies, it would remain the sole Colonial building to survive. Another distinct structure in Norfolk is the Moses Myers House, a Federal period home that dates to 1792. Today, the building houses a collection of artifacts that portray life in 18th century Virginia. The Federal-style Willoughby-Baylor House in Norfolk was built in 1794 and eventually became the Norfolk History Museum. In 1964, the Norfolk Historic Foundation restored the property, creating an exhibition that showcases the aspects of Norfolk’s architectural, commercial, maritime, and military history.
Norfolk became a stronghold of Loyalist support in the beginning of the American Revolution, and when the Revolutionary army marched towards the city in 1776, the outgoing English Governor decided to burn the city before retreating. But rather than working to extinguish the fires when they arrived, the rebel forces encouraged the burning so that they could paint English forces in a criminal light. Two-thirds of Norfolk would be destroyed by the fires, with only Saint Paul’s remaining (although the church still bears the dent of a cannonball in one of the walls).
The Revolutionary War behind them, Norfolk looked to the future and considered strengthening its position. President George Washington authorized the construction of Fort Norfolk in 1794, which would become an important safeguard for the area during the War of 1812. When the Civil War began, Confederate forces would use the fort to defend Norfolk and Portsmouth from the Union Army, but their position was short-lived, as the Union would take control of the fort in 1862, marking another notable turning point of the war. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over the fort as a base in 1923, eventually converting Fort Monroe into a historic museum. Today, visitors can take self-guided tours of the fort with free admission.
A Few Notable Historic Sites:
Hampton traces its historic roots to Old Point Comfort, where Fort Monroe has stood along the shores of the region since 1834. Like many other coastal towns, early Colonial settlers recognized the need to protect the area from invaders, so they chose a spot that would be advantageous in the case of an attack, guarding the channel between the Chesapeake Bay and the Hampton Roads waterways. Old Point Comfort was one of the first places explored by English colonists in the New World, identified for its strategic location in 1607. The early fortifications were improved upon over the centuries, but the existing Fort Monroe structures were some of the most impregnable of the time, taking over 25 years to complete the 170 structures within and becoming the largest stone fort ever to be erected in America.
The historic Saint John’s Episcopal Church was established in 1610, but would be periodically rebuilt in several spots around Hampton before the parish identified the current location in 1728. The church sustained damage during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, but the parish kept rebuilding after peace was attained. During the Civil War, widespread fires resulted in catastrophic damage to Hampton, and the church was the only Colonial-era structure to survive in downtown Hampton. Restorations began immediately after the war and finished in 1870. Several additions were added to the structure during the 20th century, but the historic integrity of the ancient church has been carefully preserved to reflect its importance in Virginia history. In addition to the building’s significance, the church uses the oldest communion silver in America, an English set that dates back to 1618.
While Hampton has some celebrated historic achievements, the area is also a tragic point in American history. The first Africans were brought to shore in Hampton in 1619, marking the embittered start of slavery on the continent. For nearly 250 years after, generations of African Americans would be enslaved throughout the colonies. When the Civil War began, Fort Monroe remained in the Union Army’s control, and President Lincoln ordered the fort reinforced to ensure the important military site was not overrun by the surrounding Confederate forces. General Butler, the Union general in charge of the fort, made a historic decision, decreeing that any slaves that arrived on the construct grounds would be considered “contraband” and would not be returned to bondage. This decision proved to be momentous; thousands of slaves would flee to the Union lines of Fort Monroe, gaining safety and freedom from their oppressors.
However, this dark period of United States history would bring about a moment of strength for the African American community; after the Confederate army evacuated at the end of the Civil War, Hampton became home to what was termed the “Grand Contraband Camp”, the first self-contained African American community in the United States. These newly freed persons worked together to support each other and provide an education for future generations of African Americans, subsequently leading to the 1868 establishment of Hampton University. The historic college allowed the emancipated slaves to further their education, as well as serving Native Americans in the area that were previously denied access to education. Stop by the college today and visit the Emancipation Oak, a historic tree on the college campus with limbs that span over 98 feet in diameter, designated one of the “10 Great Trees of the World” by National Geographic Society.
Hampton is also home to the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, which opened in 1957 as the world’s first bridge-tunnel.
*Stay tuned for the next Historic Towns in Virginia article!