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History

Founded in 1737 near the Fall of the James, Richmond has a long, colorful, and complex history, stretching from the revolutionary years through the present. Patrick Henry delivered his incendiary “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech at St. John’s Episcopal Church. During the war, Virginia’s capital was moved to Richmond from Williamsburg for reasons of military security, where it has remained ever since. The city and its surrounding area were home to many notable individuals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the great Chief Justice John Marshall, whose house in the notable Court End neighborhood is open to the public as a museum today (Marshall himself is buried in historic Shockoe Hill Cemetery). Gabriel Prosser led one of the most important early slave rebellions in the nation’s history just outside Richmond, in Henrico County. Edgar Allan Poe lived just a few blocks away from the Old Stone House, one of Richmond’s few remaining colonial structures that is today home to the Poe Museum.

Richmond has long played an important economic and political role on the national scene. Virginia’s General Assembly (the Western hemisphere’s oldest continuously operating legislative body) approved Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, one of the most significant documents of the nation’s early years and a prototype for the First Amendment, in 1786 in Shockoe Slip, on a spot soon to be the First Freedom Center. In the business sector, George Washington spearheaded efforts to create the James River and Kanawha Canal, a waterway that connected Richmond with western Virginia and helped make the city a key transportation and commercial hub for many years. Two presidents — James Monroe and John Tyler — chose Richmond as their final resting place and are interred in Hollywood Cemetery, one of the earliest cemeteries designed in the “rural garden” style in the United States.

Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and although much of the existing downtown was burned in 1865, a number of important landmarks of the era remain. The Virginia State Capitol served as the capitol of the Confederacy during the war years; the nearby White House of the Confederacy, today the Museum of the Confederacy, was the executive mansion of Jefferson Davis. The Tredegar Iron Works, which produced artillery for the military, also survived the conflagration and now houses the American Civil War Center, a museum that showcases the war from three viewpoints: North, South, and the enslaved. The Lumpkin’s Jail archaeological site, called “the Devil’s Half-Acre” in its time, provides a glimpse of Richmond's darker past as one of the nation’s largest slave-trading markets.

After Reconstruction, Richmond once again rose to prominence. It launched the world’s first electric streetcar system in 1888. Historically black neighborhood Jackson Ward became a thriving center of African-American culture and business in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1990s, Richmond native L. Douglas Wilder made headlines when he became the nation’s first black governor to be elected since Reconstruction.

Today, although Richmond has surged into the 21st century with significant achievements in business and innovation, it still remains informed by its diverse past.