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The History of Portsmouth, Virginia

The winds of the Elizabeth river, chills the air in the evening as the City celebrates 250 years of life in the All-American City of Portsmouth, Virginia. Once a thriving mecca of retail stores, the life of Portsmouth has had a revitalization that has brought the true value of the city to the standards of the other surrounding cities. With the addition of The Portsmouth Renaissance Hotel and Convention Center, Admirals Landing, High Street Landing, and the Portsmouth Amphitheater, the skyline of Portsmouth has improved considerably. It is the 10th largest city in Virginia, with 11 % of the land owned by the Federal government. The city is four feet above sea-level. Let's look at the History of the City of Portsmouth, Virginia.
A train arrived in Portsmouth with a grandmother, her daughter, and a few of her grandchildren to a place called: Portsmouth, Virginia.

The History of Portsmouth, Virginia

The history of Portsmouth, Virginia began as a group of people from England travel through the Chesapeake River (which later became the Elizabeth River, which was named after Elizabeth, the daughter of King James I of England). In 1607, they were surveying the land for a place to settle when they came through the mouth of the Elizabeth River and noticed that there were Indians settled along the shore. They continue further inland to settle in a place called Jamestown. The Captain was John Smith who founded the city of Jamestown. After a year of living in Jamestown, John Smith and twelve other men decided to return to the mouth of the Elizabeth River. When they returned, the Indians on the shore were gone. Had that been the case in 1607, Portsmouth and the surrounding area would have been discovered first. The story goes that "the tidal arm of the sea was first noticed by Captain Christopher Newport was a Jamestown colonist when the interest to go back to discover Tidewater was discussed by the colonist" The area was about to become a large and vast maritime community.
When John Smith and the twelve men explored the Elizabeth River, they sail only six to seven miles up the river to see what they had passed along the way to Jamestown. They found "garden plots" and indication showed that there were no more Indians. They reported that the river shore was "more overgrown pine and fir trees, they ever saw".
The records of the activities in this area was silent for the next twelve years. Despite the silent, the colonists became familiar with due to the passage through the area to Jamestown. A "fulfilled prophecy of Portsmouth economic growth" was made by a petition , which John Wood, asked to use four hundred acres of land on the mouth of the Elizabeth River" because there were timbers fitting for his turn and water sufficient enough to launch ships that shall be built there". Nothing else was heard of about John Wood ever again.
The first recorded petition of land was made by Captain William Tucker, who patented 650 acres of land in the Sewells Point area of Norfolk, Virginia. The movement southward across Hampton Roads to the Peninsula was beginning. They settled across the Elizabeth and Lynnnhaven Rivers.
In the earlier years, Portsmouth was a plantation community. In 1634, to administer the government and justice to the widely scattered plantations, the Colony of Virginia was divided into eight shires. One of the shires included the southeastern part of Virginia and the Peninsula. The county was called Elizabeth City County. In 1637, the northern part of the county was separated from the southern part and became two separated counties: Princess Anne County and Norfolk County.
The Western part of Norfolk County was called Upper Norfolk County and the eastern part of the county was called Lower Norfolk County. The western part of Norfolk County became the cities of Chesapeake, Suffolk, and parts of Portsmouth. Norfolk and Portsmouth became the eastern part of the county. Princess Anne County later changed to Virginia Beach for the long coastline where the beach is located. The area of Hampton Roads was forming.

The Establishment of Portsmouth, Virginia

In 1659, Captain William Carver, master mariner and ship owner, began patenting land, which Portsmouth now stand. In 1664, he received a land grant for the land for Portsmouth. Captain Carver was an active member of the Bacon Rebellion and was hung in 1676 by Governor William Berkeley. Captain Carver was hung for high treason and forfeited all his land to the English Crown.
In 1716, part of the land that Captain Carver patented consist of 850 acres of land including additional land which totalled about 1129 acres was granted to Lt. Colonel William Crawford.
Crawford was a wealthy merchant and ship owner. He held title such as high sheriff, presiding justice in the Norfolk County court, member of the House of Burgess, and Lt. Colonel of the local county militia. In 1752, Colonel William carver set aside 65 acres of land to establish the town of Portsmouth, Virginia. He called Mr. Gershom Nimmo, the county surveyor, laid out the land called Portsmouth, after the great England port and dock shipyard town of the same name in Great Britain. An act passed by the General Assembly of Virginia allow Colonel Crawford to sell half-lots of land. The town was dedicated to public use of the four corners of "High and Court Streets". Each corner was use for a courthouse, jail, market, and church. Colonel Crawford died ten years later in 1762, leaving most of his land to Thomas and George Veale. In 1763, Thomas Veale's land was annexed to become a part of Portsmouth, which extended the town to Chestnut Street. The Board of Trustees of Portsmouth was established in the same year.
The Gosport Shipyard was established by Andrew Sprowle, a wealthy merchant, ship owner, and trustee of Portsmouth, Virginia, purchased some waterfront land south of Portsmouth and began operating a small shipyard. Portsmouth economic future land on this shipyard venture. The shipyard was separated from Portsmouth by Crab Creek. Sprowle gave the name Gosport to the shipyard. Sprowle's shipyard prospered and was later use by the British naval vessels. He was appointed British Naval Agent and became one of the leading merchants in Virginia. Sprowle sought refuge with the forces of the Royal Governor, Dunmore, was driven from Portsmouth during the outbreak of the American Revolution. He lost and his possessions and later died in 1776. "the newly independent Commonwealth of Virginia confiscated the Virginia flag, and built and operated its own navy throughout the American Revolution" in the shipyard.
The American Revolution brought a series of invasions in Portsmouth. Lord Dunmore had captured all the arms and weapons and bragged that Norfolk County was defenseless. He declared martial law and declared to free slaves who fought in service for the English Crown. He attacked the American militia and was defeated in the Battle of Great Bridge on December 9, 1775. He withdrew his forces to the British fleet anchored on the Elizabeth River. He fired on the Borough of Norfolk, with his naval guns and set fire to Norfolk on January 1, 1776. In the days that followed a number of houses and buildings in Portsmouth. The Gosport shipyard was burned also.
The American troops commanded by Major Charles Lee occupied Portsmouth. Lord Dunmore evacuated the Elizabeth River and Portsmouth never saw him again. He occupied Gwinn Island, which he was later driven to New York.
Mill Point , the property of Robert Tucker, the present site of the Naval hospital was occupied by the American troops. At that time, they built Fort Nelson. The British burned the Gosport Shipyard again. After raiding the country side and burning the town of Suffolk, the British returned to New York by sea.
In 1780, General benedict Arnold, entered the Capes. He occupied Portsmouth with his troops. He established his headquarters at the northwest corner of High and Middle Streets in the home of Patrick Robinson. He used an old sugar house at the south end of Crawford Street for a prison and barracks. In July 1781, Lord Cornwallis arrived with his army to join the forces with the troop in Portsmouth. The combined troops in Portsmouth left for Yorktown, where Cornwallis met his fate at Yorktown. This was the end of the American Revolution.
After the American Revolution, on May 31, 1783, thirty-nine inhabitants and property owners of Portsmouth petitioned the General Assembly of Virginia for Portsmouth interest. The Board of Trustees requested to levy taxes for public use, regulate markets, and removed nuisances. Not only did they pass the act, they authorized the construction of the marketplace. It was erected in the Center of High Street, extending east from Crawford Street.
Portsmouth, in its attempt to become the Commonwealth's principal port and trade value with North Carolina, and attract merchants from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other places. They were perfectly aware of the shortcomings as a shipbuilding power. In 1784, a act allow authorization of sub-divisions of Gosport to be sold to the public but the shipyard tract remained the possession of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The same year, Gosport was annexed to Portsmouth. In 1789, Gosport was connected by a Bridge to Portsmouth at the south end of Crawford Street. The British Naval Act prohibited naval vessels trading with the British West Indies. Before this time, the West Indies had been the commercial life to the people of Tidewater. British vessels now entered the Elizabeth River, loaded the merchandise from Wharves, and became rich at the local people. There was nothing that could be done about it. Portsmouth merchants, ship owners, and shipbuilders protested in 1785, when they petitioned to the General Assembly. The vessels of the British were still permitted to load ship in Portsmouth.
Almost a decade had passed before the harbor was a revival of maritime interest. In 1790, Portsmouth had 300 houses with a population of 1700 residents. Of the citizens, Portsmouth had 1039 Whites, 616 slaves, and 47 free blacks. Portsmouth was a small community if the late eighteen hundreds.
War with the Barbary States prompted Congress to authorize the construction of six frigates in 1794. The frigates were the UNITED STATES, CONSTITUTION, PRESIDENT, CONGRESS, CONSTELLATION, AND CHESAPEAKE. Under the leadership of Commander Richard Dale, a native of Norfolk County, who served in the American Revolution under Paul Jones. One of these ships, the CHESAPEAKE, was laid in the Gosport Shipyard. Peace was declared in 1795, and work on the Chesapeake stopped, by the Quasi-War with France brought renewal activity in 1798 and the final completion of the vessel. The war department was created in 1798 and in 1801, the Federal Government purchased the Gosport Shipyard. James Monroe, the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, signed the deed conveying 16 acres of the land for $12,000.
In December 1800, a group of Portsmouth citizen petitioned the General Assembly to moved the County seat from the Town of Washington, now Berkeley, to the Town of Portsmouth The act was passed in 1801, but not until they built a courthouse. The construction. The construction was completed in 1803, and stood on the northeast corner of High and Court Streets, the jail occupying the corner on the opposite side of Court Street, where the court now stands. The present courthouse was finished and occupied in 1846.

The Chronological History of Portsmouth, Virginia

1608-Captain John Smith explores the Elizabeth River.
1664-captain William Carver receives a land grant for Portsmouth.
1676-Carver hung for participation in the Bacon Rebellion.
1705-Citizens petition for ferry.
1716-English Crown grants 1129 acres to Lt. Colonel William Crawford.
1752-Colonel Crawford lays out 65 acres of land in the Town of Portsmouth.
162-Colonel Crawford died. Trinity Church established.
1763-Gosport established and a "maritime yard is started by Andrew Sprowle. Thomas Veale's land annexed for Portsmouth.
1772-Monumental Methodist Church established.
1776-Gosport yard burns. American Troops built Fort Nelson at present-day site.
1779-Collier's Raid. Fort Nelson occupied. Gosport yard burned again. British land at Port Norfolk and takes the city.
1780-British troops under Benedict Arnold occupy Portsmouth.
1783-Town Trustees authorize to levy annual taxes, to regulate markets, and remove nuisances.
1801-The Federal Government buys Gosport Yard for $12,660. The United States Shipyard establish.
1803-First courthouse built. Town become County seat.
1811-Town limits extends West, including the eastern side of Chestnut Street.
1813-The Battle of Craney Island.
1815-The first steamboat, the side wheeler, Washington, arrives.
1819-Incorporated as a town under the jurisdictions of the county.
1820-Shipyard launches the first-of-the-line, the 74-gun Delaware.
1821-The gale of 1821. The Fire of 1821.
1824-Lafayette visits Portsmouth.
1827-The United States Hospital built on the site of Fort Nelson.
1830-First firefighter unit established.
1832-First railroad organized.
1833-Andrew Jackson opened the country first dry dock in the Gosport shipyard.
1834-Train service inaugurated with service to Suffolk.
1835-Construction of the first hotel, the Crawford House.
1836-Authorization given to construct wharves, establish a hospital, erect a magazine, and pave, grade, and light the streets.
1839-Ferry Landing changed from the east end of North Street to the foot of High Street.
1843-Old Fellows School established.
1844-Establishment of Free School.
1846-Completion of the Courthouse.
1847-First public school opened. "Nine o'clock gun" inaugurated.
1850-First School building was completed.
1852-A mayor and council replaced the Board of Trustees. Town land into wards.
1853-Construction of the Ocean House (Hotel Monroe) and the Macon House.
1854-the Organization of Portsmouth Gas Company.
1858-Town becomes an independent city.
1861-Civil War begins. Union forces evacuate and burn shipyard.
1862-Battle of the Monitor and Merrimac (Css Monroe). Confederate forced to evacuate the navy yard.
1870-General Robert E. Lee visits Portsmouth.
1872-The oldest picture of High Street is taken.
1877-Ball at the shipyard in honor of the Russian Grand Duke, Alexis and Constantine.
1884-First telephone.
1885-First high graduates.
1887-Operation of horse-drawn street car begins.
1889-Electric lighting begins with the opening of Eison Light and Power Company.
1894-Annexation of Parkview. Portsmouth Star founded.
1896-Seaboard lays tracks on Crawford Street, north of Hight Street.
1899-Kings Daughter Hospital, forerunner of Portsmouth General, is chartered.
1901-Dr. Carr brings the first automobile to Portsmouth.
1909-Annexation of Scottsville and Prentis Place.
1913-Organization of the first public library.
1916-City manager form of government adopted.
1918-Truxtun and Cradock built.
1919-Annexation of Port Norfolk.
1935-Operation of motor buses.
1942-First radio station (WSAP).
1944-Maryview Hospital founded.
1948-Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company install dial system. Annexation of Westhaven and Waterview.
1949-Founding of the Shipyard's Naval Museum.
1950-Construction of the Elizabeth River Tunnel begins.
1952-Elizabeth River Tunnel opens.
1953-WAVY succeeds WSAP.
1955-The Portsmouth Star sells out to Norfolk newspaper. Ferry makes last run.
1956-Portsmouth Historical Society organizes. City charter revised to provide for the election of councilmen at large.
1957-WAVY-TV begins. Fire destroys Monroe Hotel.
1958-Seaboard Railroad moves to Richmond, Virginia.
1960-Annexation of Cradock, Alexander Park, Simondale, Elizabeth Manor. Dedication of new Portsmouth Reginal Medical Center. Norfolk County seat moves from Portsmouth to Great Bridge.
1961-The Portsmouth Historical Society acquires the Hill House.
1962-Second tunnel under the Elizabeth River opens.
1963-Public Library moves to its present site. Shipyard's Naval Museum transferred to City's waterfront.
1967-The Coast lightship Portsmouth is placed on exhibit. Portsmouth Marine terminal begin's operation at Pinner's Point. Construction of the seawall on the waterfront.
1970-Dedication and opening of new Civic Center.

Important Figures of Portsmouth

John White
-First mayor of Portsmouth.
Jeffrey T. Wilson- (1842-1929)-Editor of the "Colored Notes" of the Portsmouth Star newspaper. He was a noted churchmen, local historian, and philosopher.
Ida Belle Barbour-(?-1925)-founder of the Miller Day Nursery and Home. In 1911, she conceived the idea of a day nursery for the children of working mothers and organized a group of twenty women known as the Women's League to support the cause. She was made president, manager, and matron. She put into the home, all the earning as a teacher under the Slater Industrial Classes in the Third District School for Negroes in Portsmouth in 1898. She named the institution "Miller" after a dear friend from Philadelphia. Her devotion and sacrifice to the nursery endeared her by the entire city.
Isreal Charles Norcum-(1856-1916)-born in Edenton, North Carolina, he came to Portsmouth to become the principal of the Chestnut School in 1884. His guidance and influence was felt by many Negroes that they named a high school after him.
William Earhart Weaver-(1878-1944)-Principal of I.C. Norcum High School for thirty-five years. He was a noted churchmen and baritone soloist. He first entered the city school system in 1909 when arrived at High Street School.
Lavina Weaver-She was a devoted teacher at the High Street School in 1911. She became the assistant principal of I.C. Norcum from 1920-1950. Riddick-Weaver Center was named in her honor.
Junius Kellogg-He was a famous basketball player for the Harlem Globe Trotters, who broke the point shaving scandal in New York by not taking a bribe while he was a star player at Manhattan College in the 1950's. He became a wheelchair victim after being involved in an automobile accident.
Bishop Charles Twine-Well-known minister and churchmen, who lived to be 100 years old. The church he founded was named-Twine Memorial Church, formerly Union Holiness .
Ruth Weston Brown-A Portsmouth native, she was a regular on the "Hello Larry " TV series. Ruth is a singer, who recorded many songs including, "Teardrops" which won her fame in rhythm and blues.
John Fisher-He open an Undertaking Business called Fisher Funeral Home. He was appointed Grand Commander of the Knights of Phythias. For many years, he was the Grand Marshall of the Negroe Parades. His family is buried in a cemetery, which is named at the family, Fisher Hill. Many great citizens of Portsmouth is buried there.
Ida Mae Willie Elliott-She was the first Negroe teacher in a Churchland school.
Stephen Clarke-He was a pioneer high school principal of Norfolk County prior to the Mt. Hermon area being annexed by the city of Portsmouth. He retired from the school system in Portsmouth in 1950. A school was named in his honor.
James Holley, III-He was elected to the Portsmouth City Council in 1968. He was two-time and Current mayor of the City of Portsmouth, Virginia. He has spear-headed campaigns for the improvement of the City of Portsmouth as a whole.

Negroe Schools in Portsmouth

1878-Chestnut School.
1907-Brighton School.
1919-George Peabody Elementary School.
1919-Truxtun Elementary School.
1922-Pinner Point School.
1937-I.C. Norcum High School.

Negroe Life in Portsmouth, Virginia

The first Negroe attorney in Portsmouth was William Reid.
The first Negroe councilmen was Samuel Davis. Negroe councilmen in Portsmouth were Rev J.M. Armistead, Nelson Proctor, John Pugh, Samuel fisher, and John Judkins. In latter years, Lee King, L. Louise Lucas, Bernard Griffin, Sr., Charles Whitehurst, and Mayor James Holley, III have been part of the councilmen team at one time or another.
The first black high school was originally numbered at 40 students attending with only nine graduating on June 15, 1915.
Lee Wise was the first Negroe architect in Portsmouth.
Rev. E.G. Corprew was the first Negroe pastor of Zion Baptist Church and was the Clerk of the Market of Portsmouth.
Moses Taylor was an old hackman who lived on County Street between Middle and Crawford. He was a slave and the step-father of Jeffrey Wilson.
James Choate was a Portsmouth citizen, popularly known as the "Father of Organization". He founded the "Order of Buffaloes" in 1896. He was a well-known barber.
Moses Sheppard was in the Battle of Manila during the Spanish-American War.
George Temuh was a Negroe State Senator of Portsmouth and Norfolk County.
Portsmouth had gas in 1858. Charles A. Grimes was the manager.
Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a native of Portsmouth, became the first governor of Liberia, African and was later elected Liberia's first president when it became an independent republic in 1847.
James Manning was the captain of the City's first Colored militia.
Dr. Helen T. Mewton was the first Negroe women doctor.
Dr. Clinton Sommerville, a native of North Carolina, began the pastorate of Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1905. He founded Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in 1922. He was a forceful speaker, publisher, and scholar.
Rev. Meade Burnette Birchette was for more than 26 years, the rector of St. James Episcopalian Church and leader of the drive to get a library for Negroes.
Graham Jackson, a nationally known musician, who lived in Atlanta, Georgia was a native of Portsmouth. He was a favorite of President Franklin Roosevelt. He played the accordion in his funeral procession.

Negroe Neighborhoods

Douglass Park
Cavalier Manor
Ida Barbour
Washington Park
Jeffrey Wilson Homes
Dale Homes
Swanson Homes
Prentis Park

High Schools

I.C. Norcum High School
Woodrow Wilson High School
Churchland High School

Important Places

Portsmouth Civic Center-located in the heart of the downtown area of Portsmouth, it serves as the police, courts, and jail for the city of Portsmouth. The area is located near the waterfront.
The Portsmouth Public Library-located on Court and County Streets, the library has branches located in Cradock, Churchland, and Cavalier Manor.
The Portsmouth Amphitheater-Located on the Portsmouth Waterfront, it seat about 10,000 or more people for special musical events.
Olde Towne Tours-tour all the historical houses in the city of Portsmouth with this tour which takes place during the summer time.
The Portsmouth Naval Hospital-officially called the U.S. Regional Medical Center, the naval hospital is the oldest hospital in the United States.
The Cradock Business District-located on Afton Parkway, this is the first organized business district in the country.
The Statue of William Crawford-located on the Corner of High and Court Street, the statue is the body bust of the founder of Portsmouth.
The Elizabeth River-this river is the hear of Portsmouth and is located on the Portsmouth waterfront. The Seawall Festival and the Umoja Festival are held near the Elizabeth River waterfront.
The Portsmouth Lightship Museum-Portsmouth-once a frigate, the Portsmouth, was decommissioned and became a museum on the Portsmouth waterfront.

Portsmouth Today

The City of Portsmouth is involved in extensive renovation of the City downtown and surrounding areas. With new hotel, drug stores, amphitheater, businesses, and many other new things, Portsmouth changed to a beautiful place. Let me be your guide and do a short tour of what to expect in Portsmouth, Virginia.
Portsmouth has five major areas. Cavalier Manor, Churchland, Midtown, Downtown, and Cradock are the areas of Portsmouth located throughout this 30 square mile city. City Hall is located on Crawford Parkway, the first major street in the downtown area. Drive north on Crawford towards the north, you will be near the famous Portsmouth Naval Hospital, where it was built in 1827 while the dome was added in 1909. Travel west on Crawford Parkway until you get to Elm Avenue and travel south to London Boulevard, make a right and you will see the new I.C. Norcum, which was built in the late 1990's. Go west again and you will be traveling towards the Mt. Hermon and Port Norfolk sections. Make a right on Mt. Vernon Avenue and go all the way to the light near the water. Make a left and across a bridge and down the interstate and you will be heading to Churchland area. Exit at the Towne Point Road exit and make a right and you will be in the heart of Churchland. Go to Western Branch Boulevard and make a left a head to the Churchland bridge. Cross the bridge and you will be in the Westhaven area of Portsmouth. The first street across the bridge, make a right. Travel that street until you get to Airline Boulevard. Make a right. Travel until you get to Portsmouth Boulevard. Make a right and travel Portsmouth Boulevard until you get to a Bridge. Turn back around a travel Portsmouth Boulevard until you get to Airline and travel Airline until you get to Greenwood Drive. Greenwood Drive will carry you through the heart of Cavalier Manor. Travel Greenwood until you get to Victory Boulevard. This street will take you to George Washington Highway. Make a left on George Washington Highway until you get to the Naval Shipyard exit. Bare left into the shipyard, make a right on Portsmouth Boulevard until you get to the end. Make a left on Port Centre Parkway. Travel this Street until you get to Crawford Parkway and make a right. You are now the front of the City Hall. Portsmouth is a short trip but has many interesting people.
James Holley, III is the mayor of Portsmouth along with six other councilmen. Bernard Griffin, Sr., Thomas Benn, III, William "Bill" Moody, Cameron Pitts, Marlene Randall, and are the councilmen. Portsmouth is managed by a city manager. The position has been filled by people such as George Hanbury, Luke McCoy, and Ronald Massie. They handle the police, fire, city operation such as recreation, parks, public works, public utilities, etc.
While being a member of the staff of the city of Portsmouth, i have met alot of interesting people. In Recreation, we had Thomas Norman (retired), Cornelius Coleman (retired), Velma Copeland (retired), Aldora Hatcher, Dr. L. Pettis Patton, creates program for children after working hard in school. In public works, Dorothy Carney, Orlene Mitchell, William Debrough, Vernon Carney, make the water flow through the city to fill our wonderful river up again. In the Mowing Division, we have Darryl Sessoms, Willie Wilson, Donald Elliott, Jr., Carl Hill, Marvin Bates, and many others.
If you want a hotel, we have several, Super Eight on London, Portsmouth Renaissance on Water Street. If you want to dine there are several restaurants in Portsmouth that will suit your needs. If you need to do alittle research, go to the Portsmouth Public Library on Court Street. They have many house tour such as the Olde Towne tours in Portsmouth in the summer.
There are several festival that take place in the summer. We have the Cock Island Races, Seawall Festival, the Umoja Festival, and many other special events such as the Children's Expo, the Children's Museum, and many other places. We have special cultural store such as the Art Atrium, The Courthouse Museum, the Virginia Sport Hall of Fame, etc.
The Bracy family settled in this area after leaving the fair county of Northampton behind in their memories. Portsmouth became home for all the people of this family. They lived in many homes, raise their children, attend sporting events, city Council meeting, and may be your next door neighbor but the members of the Bracy-Demaree-Mungo-McDow family have been migrating to Portsmouth and its surrounding areas for many years to become the largest family in Portsmouth, Virginia. Because there are so many women in this family, the names have changed to so many other names so you can't go by what name is now but by the names they are today.

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