After the first permanent English-speaking settlement was established in April 1607, at Jamestown, Virginia, Captain Christopher Newport led explorers northwest up the James River, to an area that was inhabited by Powhatan Native Americans.
In 1737, planter William Byrd II commissioned Major William Mayo to lay out the original town grid. Byrd named the city "Richmond" after the English town of Richmond near (and now part of) London, because the view of the James River was strikingly similar to the view of the River Thames from Richmond Hill in England, where he had spent time during his youth. The settlement was laid out in April 1737, and was incorporated as a town in 1742.
In 1775, Patrick Henry delivered his famous "Give me Liberty or Give me Death" speech in St. John's Church in Richmond, crucial for deciding Virginia's participation in the First Continental Congress and setting the course for revolution and independence. On April 18, 1780, the state capital was moved from the colonial capital of Williamsburg to Richmond, to provide a more centralized location for Virginia's increasing westerly population, as well as to isolate the capital from British attack. The latter motive proved to be in vain, and in 1781, under the command of Benedict Arnold, Richmond was burned by British troops, causing Governor Thomas Jefferson to flee as the Virginia militia, led by Sampson Mathews, defended the city.
Early United States
Richmond recovered quickly from the war, and by 1782 was once again a thriving city. In 1786, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (drafted by Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826) was passed at the temporary capitol in Richmond, providing the basis for the separation of church and state, a key element in the development of the freedom of religion in the United States. A permanent home for the new government, the Greek Revival style of the Virginia State Capitol building, was designed by Thomas Jefferson with the assistance of Charles-Louis Clérisseau, and was completed in 1788.
After the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), Richmond emerged as an important industrial center. To facilitate the transfer of cargo from the flat-bottomed James River bateaux above the fall line to the ocean-faring ships below, an enterprising George Washington helped design the James River and Kanawha Canal from Westham east to Richmond, in the 18th century to bypass Richmond's rapids on the upper James River with the intent of providing a water route across the Appalachian Mountains to the Kanawha River flowing westward into the Ohio then eventually to the Mississippi River. The legacy of the canal boatmen is represented by the figure in the center of the city flag. As a result of this and ample access to hydropower due to the falls, Richmond became home to some of the largest manufacturing facilities in the country, including iron works and flour mills, the largest facilities of their kind in The South. The resistance to the slave trade was growing by the mid-nineteenth century; in one famous case in 1848, Henry "Box" Brown made history by having himself nailed into a small box and shipped from Richmond through Baltimore's President Street Station northward on the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad (a well-used "Underground Railroad" route for escaping disguised slaves) to abolitionists in Philadelphia, in the free state of Pennsylvania, escaping slavery. By 1850, Richmond was connected by the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad to Port Walthall, where ships carrying over 200 tonnes of cargo could connect to Baltimore or Philadelphia or passenger liners could reach Norfolk, Virginia through the Hampton Roads harbor. Richmond was connected to the North on the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad in the nineteenth Century which was later replaced by, CSXT.
Retreating Confederates burned one-fourth of Richmond in April 1865
On April 17, 1861, five days after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the state legislature voted to secede from the United States and join the newly organized Confederate States of America. Official action came in May, after the Confederacy promised to move its national capital from its provisional home in Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond. The city was located at the end of a long supply line, which made it difficult to defend, requiring the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia and arguably the Confederacy's best troops and commanders. It became the main target of Union armies, especially in the campaigns of 1862 and 1864–65.
In addition to Virginia and Confederate government offices and hospitals, a railroad hub, and one of the largest slave markets, Richmond had the largest iron foundry and arms factory during the war, the Tredegar Iron Works, which turned out artillery and other munitions, including the 723 tons of armor plating that covered the CSS Virginia (the salvaged former steam frigate USS Merrimack), the world's first ironclad warship used in war, as well as much of the Confederates' heavy ordnance machinery. The Confederate States Congress shared quarters with the Virginia General Assembly in Jefferson's designed Virginia State Capitol, with the Confederacy's executive mansion, known as the "White House of the Confederacy", located two blocks away on Clay Street. The Seven Days Battles followed in late June and early July 1862, during which commanding Union General-in-Chief George B. McClellan threatened to take Richmond in the Peninsula campaign but ultimately failed.
Three years later, as March 1865 ended, Richmond became indefensible after nearby Petersburg and several remaining rail supply lines to the south and southwest were broken. On March 25, Confederate General John B. Gordon's desperate attack on Fort Stedman east of Petersburg failed. On April 1, Federal Cavalry General Philip Sheridan, assigned to interdict the Southside Railroad, met brigades commanded by Southern Gen. George Pickett at the Five Forks junction, smashing them, taking thousands of prisoners, and encouraging Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant to order a general advance. When the Union Sixth Corps broke through Confederate lines on the Boydton Plank Road south of Petersburg, Confederate casualties exceeded 5,000, or about a tenth of General Lee's defending army. Lee then informed President Jefferson Davis that he was about to evacuate Richmond.
Davis and his cabinet, along with the government archives and Treasury gold, left the city by train that night, as government officials burned documents and departing Confederate troops burned tobacco and other warehouses to deny their contents to the victors. On April 2, 1865, General Godfrey Weitzel, commander of the 25th Corps of the United States Colored Troops, accepted the city's surrender from the Mayor and a group of leading citizens who remained. The Union troops eventually managed to stop the raging fires but about 25% of the city's buildings were destroyed.
President Abraham Lincoln visited General Grant at Petersburg on April 3, and took a launch to Richmond up the James River the next day, while Jefferson Davis attempted to organize his remaining Confederate government further southwest at Danville. Lincoln met Confederate assistant secretary of War John A. Campbell, and handed him a note inviting Virginia's state legislature to end their rebellion. After Campbell spun the note to Confederate legislators as a possible end to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln rescinded his offer and ordered General Weitzel to prevent the former Confederate state legislature from meeting. Union forces killed, wounded or captured 8,000 Confederate troops at Sayler's Creek southwest of Petersburg on April 6, as the Southerners continued a general retreat southwestward. General Lee continued to reject General Grant's surrender suggestions until Sheridan's infantry and cavalry moved around the shrinking Army of Northern Virginia and appeared in front of his withdrawing forces on April 8, cutting off the line of further retreat southwest. He surrendered his remaining approximately 10,000 troops at Appomattox Court House meeting General Grant the following morning at the McLean Home. Davis was captured on May 10 near Irwinville, Georgia and taken back to Virginia, where he was imprisoned for two years at Fort Monroe until freed on bail.
Richmond emerged a decade after the smoldering rubble of the Civil War to resume its position as an economic powerhouse, with iron front buildings and massive brick factories. Canal traffic peaked in the 1860s and slowly gave way to railroads, allowing Richmond to become a major railroad crossroads, eventually including the site of the world's first triple railroad crossing. Tobacco warehousing and processing continued to play a role, boosted by the world's first cigarette-rolling machine, invented by James Albert Bonsack of Roanoke in 1880/81. Contributing to Richmond's resurgence was the first successful electrically powered trolley system in the United States, the Richmond Union Passenger Railway. Designed by electric power pioneer Frank J. Sprague, the trolley system opened its first line in 1888, and electric streetcar lines rapidly spread to other cities across the country. Sprague's system used an overhead wire and trolley pole to collect current, with electric motors on the car's trucks. In Richmond, the transition from streetcars to buses began in May 1947 and was completed on November 25, 1949.
By the early 20th century, Richmond had an extensive network of electric streetcars, as shown here crossing the Mayo Bridge across the James River, ca. 1917
By the beginning of the 20th century, the city's population had reached 85,050 in 5 square miles (13 km2), making it the most densely populated city in the Southern United States. In 1900, the Census Bureau reported Richmond's population as 62.1% white and 37.9% black. Freed slaves and their descendants created a thriving African-American business community, and the city's historic Jackson Ward became known as the "Wall Street of Black America". In 1903, African-American businesswoman and financier Maggie L. Walker chartered St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, and served as its first president, as well as the first female bank president in the United States. Today, the bank is called the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, and it is the oldest surviving African-American bank in the U.S. Other figures from this time included John Mitchell, Jr. In 1910, the former city of Manchester was consolidated with the city of Richmond, and in 1914, the city annexed Barton Heights, Ginter Park, and Highland Park areas of Henrico County. In May 1914, Richmond became the headquarters of the Fifth District of the Federal Reserve Bank.
Several major performing arts venues were constructed during the 1920s, including what are now the Landmark Theatre, Byrd Theatre, and Carpenter Theatre. The city's first radio station, WRVA, began broadcasting in 1925. WTVR-TV (CBS 6), the first television station in Richmond, was the first television station south of Washington, D.C.
Between 1963 and 1965, there was a "downtown boom" that led to the construction of more than 700 buildings in the city. In 1968, Virginia Commonwealth University was created by the merger of the Medical College of Virginia with the Richmond Professional Institute. In 1970, Richmond's borders expanded by an additional 27 square miles (70 km2) on the south. After several years of court cases in which Chesterfield County fought annexation, more than 47,000 people who once were Chesterfield County residents found themselves within the city's perimeters on January 1, 1970. In 1996, still-sore tensions arose amid controversy involved in placing a statue of African American Richmond native and tennis star Arthur Ashe to the series of statues of Confederate Generals of the Civil War on Monument Avenue. After several months of controversy, the bronze statue of Ashe was finally completed on Monument Avenue facing the opposite direction from the Confederate Generals on July 10, 1996.
A multimillion-dollar flood wall was completed in 1995, in order to protect low-lying areas of city from the oft-rising waters of the James River. As a result, the River District businesses grew rapidly, and today the area is home to much of Richmond's entertainment, dining and nightlife activity, bolstered by the creation of a Canal Walk along the city's former industrial canals.