The first English settlement in what is now Hampton was started in 1610, when Colonist under Governor Sir Thomas Gates captured a Native American village, Kecoughtan.  Forts Henry and Charles were early defensive work in the area, but by 1637 were abandoned. Hampton is the oldest continually occupied English town in America since Jamestowne was later abandoned. Called Elizabeth Cittie by 1619, it was Hampton (in Elizabeth City County) by 1680.  The first Africans to land in Virginia, from a Dutch ship in 1619, arrived here. They were treated as indentured servants, and were later freed, It would not be long before a more permanent servitude, slavery, was introduced.

Hampton Roads, where the James River’s waters empty into Chesapeake Bay, is the gateway to Virginia’s interior.  Old Point Comfort is a site that has long been strategic. Along with positions at Willoughby’s Spit and Sewell’s Point in Norfolk, and Ft Wool in the middle of Hampton Roads, the shipping route to Richmond is protected.   The ruins of Ft. Wool, dating from the early 1800s, is best seen from harbour cruises.

Casemate Museum of Fort Monroe should be the starting point for a tour of this historic fortress. The cell where Jefferson Davis was kept for several months in 1865 was the original centerpiece of the museum, though now exhibits feature the installation’s history.  The Army’s Coast Artillery Museum is also located here.

This strategic point was the site of Fort Algernoume (1609-1667), built by Cap. John Ratcliffe, then later Fort George (1727-1749-destroyed by a hurricane).  The British sacked Hampton and easily sailed up the Chesapeake Bay in 1812, exposing the need for better coastal defense. Fort Monroe was begun in 1819, and is the largest stone fort in the country,.  The headquarters of the Chesapeake Bay defenses in World War 2, the Coast Artillery Corps dominated the action here in the first half of the Twentieth Century. It was the site of the Coast Artillery School.

The walking tour highlights many historic points around the fort.  The quarters where Robert E. Lee brought his bride after their honeymoon can be seen, as well as Quarters Number 1, c.1820, the oldest building at the fort.  (it has hosted figures as disparate as the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824 and President Lincoln in 1862) Edgar Allan Poe served here a year, attaining the rank of sergeant major of artillery.

From the Flagstaff Bastion, Fort Wool can be seen in the middle of Hampton Roads, as well as  Engineer Wharf and the site of the battle between the ironclads-the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia (Merrimack).  The Old Point Comfort LIghthouse has been in use since 1802. Jefferson Davis Memorial Park is another point of interest on the fort’s ramparts.  Fort Monroe is the only Army fort still in use which is surrounded by a moat.

The Protestant Chapel of the Centurion, dedicated in 1858, was named for the Roman centurion, Cornelius, who was converted by the Apostle Peter.  St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Catholic Church, dedicated in 1903, is on land owned by the government, though the buildings are owned by the Diocese. Although Catholic Mass was first held early in the forts history, the first official chapel was not built until around 1860.  The Chamberlin, built in 1928, is the fourth hotel at the same site, which was an early resort area for Virginians. Several seacoast batteries are a short drive along Chesapeake Bay, including Battery DeRussy and Battery Church.

There are many opportunities for recreation nearby.  Buckroe Beach and Park offers picnic sites, a playground, and kayak/paddleboat  rentals. Salt Ponds Marina Resort, Old Point Comfort Marina offer services for those arriving by water.  Grandview Nature Preserve has marsh and woodland trails, as well as a scenic beach on the bay.

The Zero Milepost is a replica of the post which stood at the end of the track, near the Old Point Comfort/Ft. Monroe station of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.  It is 664.9 miles from this point to Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Emancipation Oak is on the site of Little Scotland, a plantation overlooking the Hampton River.  Mary S. Peake taught classes to African-Americans under this tree as early as 1861. The Emancipation Proclamation was read here.  It is the symbol of the Hampton Institute, founded in 1868 by the American Missionary Association to educated African-Americans. This venerable institution was instrumental in training teachers and numbers among its alumni the great educator Booker T. Washington.  The Hampton University Museum is the oldest in Virginia, with extensive collections on the culture and history of African-Americans. The Institute also had a program for the education of Native Americans for several decades.

The Hampton Downtown Historic District encompasses a variety of buildings, including Beaux-Arts, Gothic Revival and Art Deco styles.  Notable sites include First United Methodist Church (1887) Sclater Building (1871) St. Tammany’s Masonic Lodge (1868) Hampton Baptist Church (1883) Circuit Courthouse (1876) Old City Hall (1939) and St. John’s Episcopal  Church (1738) The Hampton History Museum includes Civil War ruins, period clothing and many exhibits on local history.

Virginia Air and Space Museum is a modern educational center, with summer camps for children, aviation and space simulators, hands on exhibits and an IMAX theatre.  A three story atrium features a collection of historic aircraft. The museum is the visitor center for nearby Langley Air Force Base and NASA’s Langley Research Center.   this is a must for those interested in aviation history and the space program. Explore the solar system, the future of space exploration, and maybe talk with the astronauts aboard the International Space Station…the sky’s the limit.

The Hampton Carousel, located across from the Air and Space Museum, is a 1920’s era carousel built in Philadelphia.   Buckroe Beach Amusement Park closed in the 1980’s and the carousel was dismantled, restored and moved to its current location.  It is run by the Hampton History Museum.

Blackbeard’s Point received its name because Governor Alexander Spotswood sent Lt. Maynard of the Royal Navy to capture Blackbeard, who was menacing colonial shipping in the area.  Blackbeard was killed off the North Carolina coast, and his head was hung from a pole at the mouth of the Hampton River to discourage pirate activity.

Originally the site of Little England Plantation, James S. Darling laid out a development in 1898.  It was to be served by his new electric railway, making this area a suburb connected to Hampton and Newport News.  Darling was an entrepreneur from New York who was involved in lumber and oyster businesses, among others. Victoria Boulevard Historic District has many fine examples of Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and American Foursquare styles.  Three of these houses were built by Hampton Institute trained craftsmen, a sign of the success of efforts to improve the status of blacks through education. Darling’s son, Frank, built his house around 1895. Besides business interests, Frank also founded the Hampton Fire Department and the Dixie hospital.  

Little England Chapel, c.1879, was designed and built by students from the Hampton Institute.  An African-American Missionary Chapel, it was built to replace an open air classroom/Sunda School which had grown too large for the outdoor space.  Students did missionary work in the community. Around 1870, Daniel Cock set aside land for sale to African-Americans in the area. Other land nearby was also made available, and  by 1910, when the last lot was sold, the area was called Cock’s Newtown. Later the entire African-American community in the area became Newtown.

Hampton Parks offer opportunities for hiking, picnicking and other recreational activities.  Mill Point Park offers waterfront greenspace. Bluebird Gap Farm Park has a farm theme complete with petting zoo.  Air Power Park shows off the areas aviation and space heritage with jets, rockets, missiles and a museum. Sandy Bottom Nature Center/Park features environmental education and wildlife management on land which was reclaimed from garbage dumps and barrow pits.  

Tidewater Virginia is noted for its fresh seafood.  Luckily you are never far from a restaurant featuring local cuisine.  The Chesapeake Bay, James and York Rivers offer many marinas and boat charters for those interested in seeing the area from the water, as the colonist first did.  Golf courses, hiking trails and other recreational facilities offer a variety of diversions for those seeking a little exercise.

The first land battle in Virginia in the  War to Prevent Southern Independence took place in Hampton, not far from the Langley complex.  The Big Bethel Historic Marker states that on June 10, 1861 Confederate forces under Col. John Magruder repulsed an attack by Brig. Gen. Ebenezer Pierce’s Union force from nearby Ft. Monroe.   Although most of the battlefield is under a modern reservoir, there is a new hiking trail which helps explain the battle with 10 new signs. A monument to D.H. Hill’s North Carolina troops is in the area, along with one to Vermont’s troops.  

Adjoining Hampton, Newport News is noted for its ship building faciities.  Victory Landing Park offers waterfront walking trails and harbour views. Here, as the James River meets Hampton Roads, Newport News maritime heritage comes into focus.  A harbour cruise is a great way to take in the atmosphere of the shipping industry and the displays of naval forces in the area. The Newport News Victory Arch, built in 1919, is the site of war memorials and parades.

The origin of the name Newport News is the subject of conjecture.  John Smith’s map shows the area as Point Hope. By 1619 it was known as Newport News.  Was it named for Cap. Christopher Newport? He at least has a university named for him.  One story has colonists leaving Jamestown after a time of struggle. They met a fleet arriving from England, with supplies and more settlers, near Mulberry Island.  The site of good news, on Cap. Newport’s ship, Newport’s good news? Another possible name source is from 1621 settlement of the area by Sir William Newce, Cap. Thomas Newce and Daniel Gookin from Newcetown, Ireland; therefore Newport Newce.  Whatever the real story, this area has a long history.

James A. Fields House, built in 1897, is an  Italianate house built by a prominent African-American lawyer and politician.  The location also served as the first African-American hospital in the city. African-Americans built a hospital in 1915 in this area, which was replaced by Whittaker Memorial Hospital in 1943.  The Joseph Thomas Newsome House is the 1898 Queen Anne style home of a prominent African-American attorney and journalist. Today it features an museum and cultural center dedicated to the area’s African-American heritage and arts.  

The Virginia War Museum features the military history of the country told through exhibits of uniforms, weapons and other artifacts.  The Virginia Living Museum has a nature trail, plants and animals, hands-on exhibits, and the Abbitt Planetarium Theatre. Nearby Causey’s Mill Park showcases an 1866  wood, 2 story frame building with original machinery from the mill inside.The Peninsula Fine Arts Center features contemporary modern art, classes, workshops, and hands on art experiences for kids.

Mariner Museum and Park has been designated as the National Maritime Museum by Congress.  Archer Milton Huntington, whose family’s railroad, coal export, and shipping holdings were extensive, was the driving force behind the museum.  The family was prominent in the founding of Newport News. The museum, founded in 1930, houses an extensive research library, artifacts from the U.S.S. Monitor, models, paintings, carved figure heads and much more in its galleries, and the Explorer’s Theatre for special movies.    The museum overlooks Lake Maury, named for pioneer oceanographer and native Virginian Matthew Fontaine Maury. The surrounding park and trail feature thousands of maritime artifacts from around the world. The Noland Trail features several bridges, the most famous is the Lion Bridge (actually a dam) overlooking the James River.  Several sculptures by Anna Hyatt Huntington, the founder’s wife, accentuate the bridge area. Four lion sculptures give the bridge its name.

Monitor National Marine Sanctuary has an office across from the museum.  A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the purpose of the program is to preserve maritime treasures as national park protect treasures on land.  The Monitor N.M.S. is located off the North Carolina coast, and protects wrecks from many eras of history, especially the World War 2 defense of the East Coast.

The Warwick County Courthouse, built in 1884, today houses the Warwick County Historical Society.  A Confederate monument graces the grounds. Since Warwick County was annexed by Newport News, the government offices have moved.  

Mulberry Island has long been known for its rich soil, which led John Rolfe and Capt. William Peirce to plant tobacco here in the 1610’s. However in 1918 the Army took the land as a military base. Ft. Eustis is the home of Army Aviation Logistics School, the Army Transportation Museum and the 7th Transportation Brigade.  Today, the fort of part of Joint Base Langley-Eustis. The Matthew Jones House (c. 1720) is one of the few surviving post-in-ground, or earthfast, structures, which later brickwork turned into a Georgian manor with a rare porch tower. Restored in the 1990’s, it is now an architectural exhibit, including some exposed interior elements showing colonial construction techniques.  Also located on Mulberry Island was Ft. Crawford, was the anchor on the James River of the Confederate Warwick-Yorktowne Line.

The Peninsula Campaign of 1862 began when Gen. George McClellan planned to move  the Federal army from Fort Monroe, up the peninsula between the York and James Rivers, to attack the Confederate capital at Richmond.  Confederate Gens. Joseph Johnston and John Magruder built a line of breastworks along several waterways between the James and the York, even incorporating some of the American Revolutionary earthworks at Yorktowne

Lee Hall Mansion (1851-59) is one of the few remaining antebellum homes on the peninsula. Richard Decauter Lee’s home was the headquarters of Gens. Joseph Johnston and John Magruder during April-May of 1862 while Confederates held the Warwick-Yorktowne Line. Several miles of the Confederate lines are still there for those who like a hike and take time to locate the sites.   The nearby Historic Boxwood Inn (1897) is a bed and breakfast in the middle of this historic area.

Less than a mile from Lee Hall, on the Yorktowne Road, lies Endview, built in 1769 by William Harwood on land his ancestor, Capt. Thomas Harwood acquired in 1635.  (Capt. Harwood was later speaker of House of Burgesses) Gen. Thomas Nelson, Jr. and the Virginia Militia stopped here on way to Yorktowne. Confederates briefly used it as a hospital during the Battle of Dam Number 1.  Because of the springs and abundant game, the area had been visited by Native Americans until the time of the Jamestowne Settlement. The name Endview derives from the view approaching visitors had of the end of the house.  

Skiffe’s Creek Redoubt was the site of gun emplacements built to defend Mulberry Island.  Young’s Mill (1820) was the site of a skirmish on Apr. 4, 1862. At Lee’s Mill Historic Park signs explain the Confederate repulse of a Union attack on Apr. 5, 1862.  Entrenchments can also be seen here where a redout and gun emplacements overlooked the Warwick River. Wynn’s Mill and Dam Number 1 are located in the area of Newport News Park and City Lake.  On Apr. 16, 1862, Dam Number 1 was the scene of a major engagement, when Confederates repulsed a Union attempt to break through the Confederate line. This failure caused Gen. McClellan to settle the Union army into a month long siege of the strong Confederate line.  It would not be long before he resumed his march on Richmond.

The lower peninsula area has so much to offer, from museums to historic sites, natural beauty and recreational activities.   From colonials to Confederates , from ships to railroads to rockets, parks to waterfronts…. This is a place where you can walk where John Rolfe, Robert E. Lee and Booker T. Washington made history.  

Brett Moffatt

Brett Moffatt is an independent scholar in Tennessee.

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