The history of Norfolk got its start with the arrival of one of the earliest Englishmen to settle in the area, a man named Adam Thoroughgood. He had risen to a position of prominence and it is generally believed that two counties, North Norfolk and South Norfolk, as well as the town of Norfolk, were named by Thoroughgood, the name being in honor of his birthplace in England.
The Founding of Norfolk
The town was founded by the British in 1682 when Virginia was still a British colony. The original name of Norfolk was ‘The Towne of Norfolk County.’ Norfolk is an Anglo-Saxon name meaning ‘northern people’ as opposed to Suffolk which means ‘southern people.’ There is also a Suffolk in Virginia, which of course was also settled by the British. Norfolk and the surrounding area, known as Hampton Roads was not only the first place in what is now Virginia to be settled by the British, but was the first place in America to be settled by the British as well. Prior to Norfolk’s founding, the immediate area was already being used by the British as a port, and warehouses were being built to store merchandise.
The town originally was 50 acres in size, but given its favorable and somewhat strategic location on Chesapeake Bay it grew steadily. At the time of the American Revolution, Norfolk had over 6,000 residents. Today the number is approaching 250,000.
Wars, Fires, and Disease
Norfolk did not escape damage during the War, most of which was caused by its own residents along with the Revolutionary forces. In 1776 the British Fleet bombarded the city. Much of the damage was done however when the locals completed the destruction, leaving nothing behind for the occupying British forces. In fact the only thing left standing appears to have been the city’s largest church. Ironically, Norfolk had been a loyalist stronghold up to the start of the war but the British bombardment of the city, coupled with an earlier British defeat at the hands of revolutionary troops changed the sentiment of the townspeople to anti-loyalist.
Norfolk was quickly rebuilt after the war was over, only to suffer a disastrous fire a few short years later in which some 300 buildings were destroyed. Nevertheless, by the start of the 19th century it had grown to become the eighth largest town in the United States. Norfolk was again a victim of war in 1812. The British did not occupy the town but managed to close the port, which had a disastrous effect on the local economy. A little over 40 years later another calamity struck Norfolk. This time it was not the Redcoats, but yellow fever that was at the root of the problem. The disease claimed a third of the city’s population.
The Battle of Hampton Roads
During the Civil War Norfolk was naturally a part of the Confederacy. While not involved in the major land battles that were fought in Virginia, Norfolk nevertheless witnessed a famous battle of another kind. Not far offshore, and within view of the city, the first battle between iron-clad battleships took place. It was the battle of the USS Monitor and the CSS Merrimac. Historians are fully aware of the fact that prior to the time the battle took place the name of the CSS Merrimac had been changed to the CSS Virginia, a fact you won’t find in the history books. The USS Merrimac was not an iron-clad vessel. The name was changed once the armor plating had been added. The battle itself is remembered as the Battle of Hampton Roads and ended as a draw. The history of Norfolk does however include its capture and occupation by Union forces, not long after that famous battle.
The Jamestown Exposition and the Naval Base Norfolk
With the days of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War behind it, Norfolk has grown and prospered. A great event in the history of Norfolk occurred when the city became the site of a major exposition, the Jamestown Exposition of 1907. The Exposition commemorated the 300th anniversary of the founding of the settlement of Jamestown, the original English settlement in America. The site of the Jamestown Exposition is now the site of Naval Base Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world.
Norfolk should continue to prosper. It is across the bay from the immense shipbuilding facilities at Newport News in addition to hosting the naval base. It is close to Virginia Beach, a popular resort area. The city expanded rapidly during the first half of the 20th century, largely by annexing nearby towns and turning them into suburbs or neighborhoods. While for most of its history, Norfolk was somewhat isolated and most easily reached by water, the Interstate Highway System and the opening of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel connected the city to the Virginia peninsula, to Virginia Beach, and for that matter to the rest of the state.
Being home to the world’s largest naval base naturally resulted in Norfolk playing a major role during World War II, primarily as a logistics hub for the European theater of operations. Two reminders of World War II are present in the MacArthur Memorial, located near the tomb if the General, and the battleship USS Wisconsin, moored alongside the Norfolk waterfront.