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Interest in American colonization led to the creation of the Virginia Company (chartered in 1606) by investors in London and South West England. In 1607, the Company's London branch established England's first permanent colony in North America at Jamestown, west of Chesapeake Bay.

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Tobacco Ships in the James River
Virginia Colony. 1600s

The colony survived because of experiments with tobacco as a commercial crop in 1612; local economy grew when exports to England grew to 15 million pounds by the late 1660s.

In October 1775, Virginia's last Royal Governor, The Earl of Dunmore, made his headquarters at Gosport. After his defeat at Great Bridge and the destruction of Norfolk, he entrenched at Hospital Point, one mile north, but was driven out in May 1776.

Portsmouth was again invaded by the British: Sir George Collier in 1779, General Leslie in 1780. The traitor Benedict Arnold and General Phillips in 1881. Here, on this Portsmouth waterfront in August 1781, Lord Cornwallis embarked 7000 troops and sailed to Yorktown where he surrendered to the victorious American and French forces, 19 October 1781.

July 19, 1859, The New York Times , New York, New York

The Slave Trade of the South

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Advertisement for the Sale of Slaves and Trade Goods
Charleston Gazette

The Millenium, so confidently foreseen by the Hon. Miss Murray, does not seem to be very near at hand in the prosperous City of Mobile.

Instead of bending their intellects to tbe task of emancipating the slaves they already have, the people of that cotton-loving community are evidently inflamed with the desire of adding to themselves other slaves that as yet they know not of. Mr. Forsyth, not long since Minister of the United States in Mexico, now edits a journal called the Mobile Register, and in a recent issue of that sheet has taken up the question of Slavery and its future as seen from the stand-point of the Gulf States.

Mr. Forsyth by no means agrees with her Britannic Majesty's Maid of Honor that the institution of Slavery is a calamity and an incubus upon the character and the fortunes of the South. On the contrary, Mr. Forsyth looks upon Slavery as the glory and strength of the universal Yankee nation. He assumes that after many trials and troubles the institution is at last successfully emerging from a long war waged against it by fanaticism and misguided philanthropy, and that nothing now remains to complete its triumph but the repeal of all laws prohibiting the African Slave-trade. It is, however, admitted that the time has not yet come in which to make the question a political issue. The South itself is not fully ripe for it, while the North is unanimously hostile. But the Mobile Register intends to agitate and illuminate the Southern mind until all is ready, and then it will strike out at once for Repeal. Even now it "chafes" under the imputation of dishonor cast upon the character of the South by the existing statute, and naively observes, "if the African Slave-trade is wrong, sinful and infamous, the same is also true not only of our inter-State Slave-trade, but of the institution of Slavery itself."

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Mr. Forsyth is not the wisest man in the world certainly, nor ought the Mobile Register to be in and of itself regarded as the voice of the South; but in this instance Mr. Forsythe and his Register are echoes of a general cry.

All the Indications point to a strong movement at the South for reviving the foreign Slave trade. How soon it may become general in the sugar and cotton States cannot now be predicted. There are grave political difficulties which hinder its progress, the chief being that the South itself will inevitably be distracted by the Slave-trade qnestion. Virginia has already intimated that when the division comes she will array herself with the North. All the other border Slave States will do likewise, and this consideration deters the advocates of the policy more than any regard for the world's opinion. But the pecuniary interest of the hour, always one of the strongest of human motives, impels the planters to seek cheap labor from Africa. The question, therefore, is much more likely to increase than diminish in importance, and all the efforts of politicians cannot long keep it out of the national arena.

However unwelcome the fact may be to the philanthropist, it is, nevertheless, undeniable that the Slave trade, in some of its forms, is reviving in this our enlightened day all over the world. Slavery under other names, and with more or less modification, is manifestly increasing. England and France are at this moment engaged largely in importing slaves for their colonies from Asia. That the trade differs in some respects from the African Slave-trade, and that the condition of the Coolies is not altogether the same with that of the negroes, are facts which do not essentially affect the case. The dark and emphatic truth is that the great civilized nations of the earth are all evidently bent upon elevating commercial advantages, and the development of industrial production, over those splendid theories of abstract Human Bight which electrified the world, threw down thrones, and convulsed the politics of mankind half a century ago. Mr. Caryle's doctrine of Labor is overriding the "glittering generalities" of the American Declaration of Independence, and the magnificent declarations of the French Revolutionary Tribune, and the religious earnestness which emancipated the slaves of the British Antilles. The African and the Coolie are to be treated like the birds that, being able to sing, decline to exercise their powers. They can work in the rice-field and the cane-patch; ergo, they must work in the rice-field and the cane-patch, whether they will or no.

It is true there are counter-movements going on at the same time. In Africa itself the loyal believers In the faith of Wilberforce and Clarkson are building up free communities of the African race and threatening a yet distant but declaive competition with the slaveholding countries of the world. The pause which has marked itself, the whole world over, in the movement of mankind towards higher theories of interest and duty than men like Mr. Forsyth are capable perhaps of imagining, is an eddy in the current, not a return of the tide. But it is a strong eddy, nevertheless, and it must not be overlooked by the statesmen of America, who mean to govern the nation nationally, and to maintain our true traditional policy of devotion alike to vested rights and to rational progress.

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Tobacco Ad, c. 1867
Myers Bros and Co., Richmond Virginia


During the early 1800s, Alexandria was the primier port on the Potomac River. In its harbor, ships unloaded their cargoes of Antigua rum, Puerto Rico coffee and Lisbon wines, as well as manufactured goods from Great Britain. The population was said to be 4971 in 1800, but grew to 6543 by 1808 and to 7143 in 1810.

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Alexandria, Virginia

Although Alexandria's shipping interests had been harmed by the undeclared naval war with France, trade soon rebounded. The Alexandria Advertiser editorialized in 1802, that

"Not more than two years since it was a rare thing to see a square rigged vessel in our harbour; we now have our wharves lined with vessels destined for foreign ports. Our merchants have generally received their fall goods, and we sincerely hope they will reap the reward of their labors..."

From 1801 to 1810, Alexandria shipped to foreign countries 613,895 barrels of flour and 233,139 bushels of wheat. The town's major markets were Portugal and Spain. The West Indies remained the best market for flour, taking nearly one-third of Alexandria's exports in addition to 35% of its corn. A large percentage of Alexandria's commerce also centered around its coastwise trade with New England. Tobacco, preserved meats, grain and forest products account for the majority of commodities exchanged.

Two sugar houses stood at the corner of South Alfred and Cameron street; 800,000 pounds of sugar was produced annually. About seven enslaved men and boys toiled at each refinery at the physically strenuous and dangerous tasks of refining the raw West Indies muscovado to hard, white sugar cones for domestic use and export. By 1810, Alexandria ranked third in the nation (behind New York and Pennsylvania) in the production of refined sugar . . . which was shipped in raw from the West Indies and New Orleans in exchange for cargoes of flour and tobacco.

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Richmond, Virginia, The Imperial Ruby Birds Eye Brand
Tobacco Label

As in most world seaports, trade brought tragedy in the form of plagues and epidemics including yellow fever in 1803 when more than 200 people died.

Shortly after the world rushed to gold fields in California, Alaska and Australia, America's Union and Confederate troops battled throughout the southern states; it's as though the mass migration of people around the world meant nothing to those fighting to maintain ownership of their slaves.

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Virginia, La Danza Brand Tobacco Label
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Arrival of the Union Ironclad, Monitoor
Hapton Roads, Virginia. c 1862.

During the American Civil War, Libby prison was a Confederate prison at Richmond, Virginia housing Union Army officers. During 1863 the Confederates held an excess of prisoners, resulting in a general exchange: The United States government giving up 121,909 in return for 110,800 held by the Confederates. From 1861 to 1864, 225,000 Union soldiers passed the doors of Libby Prison at Richmond.

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Libby Prison, Richmond, Virginia

May 1864 was the date of the opening battle in the biggest campaign of the war. General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union forces, had joined George Meade's Army of the Potomac to encounter Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the tangled Wilderness forest near Chancellorsville, Virginia, the site of Lee's brilliant victory the year before.

The fighting was intense, and raging fires that consumed the dead and wounded magnified the horror of battle. But little was gained in the confused attacks by either side. On May 6, the second day of battle in the Wilderness, Grant sought to break the stalemate by sending Winfield Hancock's corps against the Confederate right flank at the southern end of the battle line. The Federals were on the verge of breaking through the troops of James Longstreet when they stumbled in the dense undergrowth. Lee entered the fray to rally the Confederate troops, but his devoted solders urged him away from the action.

In two days, the Union lost 17,000 men to the Confederates' 11,000. This was nearly one-fifth of each army. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. Grant pulled his men out of the Wilderness on May 7 and moved further south to yet another fierce battle at Spotsylvania.

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The Union Sloop of War Kearsarge Sinking
the Confederate Ship Alabama
June 19, 1864
Currier & Ives
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The Fall of Richmond, Virginia
April 2, 1865
Currier & Ives
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President Abraham Lincoln's entry into
Richmond, Virginia after it fell to Union Forces

Newport News

The New York Times
New York, New York, July 17, 1882

The City of Newport News, Virginia

NEWPORT NEWS, Va., July 13.--Those who have studied the natural features and possible future of Virginia's sea-shore have long regarded with interest that point of land at the eastern extremity of the Virginia peninsula, which projects into the waters of the York and James Rivers and Chesapeake Bay and reaches out like a huge key toward the very gateway of the Old Dominion, where these great bodies of water are discharged through the capes into the open sea beyond. Since about the beginning of the seventeenth century, when Capt. Newport landed on the north-eastern shore of the James River bringing with him from England tidings that had long been expected and were gladly welcomed by the colonists, this spot, where he first set foot on Virginia soil, has been known as Newport News.

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Newport News, Virginia.
Aerial view of Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co.

By the extension of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway from Richmond, hitherto its eastern terminus, 75 miles down the peninsula to its apex, the new city of Newport News has become now the ocean terminus of the railway system, and promises to play an important part in the future of Virginia.

Already the machinery of business has transformed the place into a scene of activity. Where only two years ago an occasional footprint betrayed the rare infractions of the solitude that reigned, the loading of ships, the landing of railway freight and passengers, the coaling of foreign steamers, and the hammer of the carpenter now form the elements of a continuous bustle and stir. . . The wonder that this natural seaport was not long ago utilized grows with reflection. Here, surely, is a harbor in which the navies of a half-dozen great powers might find ample elbow room. There is nowhere in the world a place that seems better fitted by nature to be the centre of an extensive commerce, where the largest ships can float at wharves of ordinary length. Only a dozen yards from the shore, opposite the point, the natural depth is sufficient for vessels of 1,000 tons burden, and it increases rapidly in advancing toward mid-channel, while at the wharves there is a depth of 28 feet of water at low tide, so that vessels may approach them under sail at any hour of the day or night.

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Richmond, Virginia - Panoramic Map

Owing to the indentation of the Atlantic coastline at this point, Newport News is at the same time nearer to the open sea on the one hand, and to the interior centres of population and production on the other, than any of the other principal Atlantic ports. It is 150 miles nearer to ocean navigation than Baltimore, 85 miles nearer than Philadelphia or Boston, and 15 miles nearer than New York itself. Its roadstead and harbor are sheltered and safe for all classes of vessels in all conditions of wind and weather. Hampton Roads, in point of fact, has been for years the favorite refuge and rendezvous for incoming vessels seeking harbor or consigned to await orders for loading at the various Atlantic ports, and there is probably no other one spot on the coast in sight of which so large and numerous fleets of ocean tonnage can be found within a given time. Between the open sea and Newport News there has never been any obstruction from ice within the memory of man; no dangerous rocks or shoals, and vessels of all kinds, from the smallest coaster to the largest steamship, coming in from the open sea can disdain services of tow-boat or pilot at all seasons of the year by day or night, a species of independence which, as a vessel Captain has grimly remarked, they cannot afford to indulge in at any other port . . .

The noted City of Rome, which may be taken as a type of this new departure in vessel construction, draws over 25 feet of water and registers over 5,500 tons. She cannot enter New York Harbor except at high tides, while her difficulties in this respect are considerably increased at Liverpool and London. In fact, the delays incident to the navigation of the Thames are so seriously felt that deep and capacious docks to meet the requirements of modern vessels are now in couse of construction at Tilbury Port, near the mouth of the river. Col. Warburton closes his interesting discussion of this subject by saying that "large steamers will find at Newport News advantages which cannot fail to attract them--cheap coal for steam purposes, which can be delivered on the wharf at $3 to $3.25 per ton; a free port, a sheltered and capacious harbor, with deep water at all tides."

Since the organization of the new steamship line to Brazil, in which leading houses in the South American trade are financially interested, the additional life and activity given to the place has greatly increased its apparent importance. Starting from New York, the steamers stop at Newport News, and will probably concentrate at this point exports from Richmond, West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. They are of 3,500 tons capacity, are built of iron, with water-tight compartments, and contain excellent accommodations for saloon passengers . . .

Newport News itself proposes to bear a hand in supplying less fortunate regions with the necessaries and luxuries of life, for it is surrounded by the great fisheries and oyster beds for which the waters of Virginia are celebrated, and by lands peculiarly adapted for the fruit and market gardens from which the supplies of early fruits and vegetables for the Northern cities are largely drawn, for this, it will be remembered, is the centre of the renowned truck-farming district of tidewater Virginia.


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Slave Auction at Richmond, Virginia, 1856

The Fugitive Slave Act was part of the group of laws referred to as the "Compromise of 1850." In this compromise, the antislavery advocates gained the admission of California as a free state, and the prohibition of slave-trading in the District of Columbia. The slavery party received concessions with regard to slaveholding in Texas and the passage of this law. Passage of this law was so hated by abolitionists, however, that its existence played a role in the end of slavery a little more than a dozen years later. This law also spurred the continued operation of the fabled Undergound Railroad, a network of over 3,000 homes and other "stations" that helped escaping slaves travel from the southern slave-holding states to the northern states and Canada.

Harriet Beecher Stowe is best remembered as the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, her first novel, published as a serial in 1851 and then in book form in 1852. This book infuriated Southerners. It focused on the cruelties of slavery--particularly the separation of family members--and brought instant acclaim to Stowe. After its publication, Stowe traveled throughout the United States and Europe speaking against slavery. She reported that upon meeting President Lincoln, he remarked, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war."

By 1863, the combination of the Northern blockade of Southern ports, the diversion of Southern food supplies from the home front to the war front and the escalating inflation of its currency began to negatively affect the Confederacy's civilian population. Tensions boiled to the surface on April 2, 1863 when a group of hungry and desperate women descended upon the Confederate capitol in Richmond demanding relief. Rebuffed by the Governor, the mob took their complaints to the streets and sparked a spontaneous protest by a crowd estimated in the thousands. Shouting "Bread, Bread, Bread!" the mob vented its frustrations by smashing store windows and looted their contents. The chaos was curbed only when Confederate President Jefferson Davis called upon the crowd to disperse, backing up his entreaty with troops armed with fixed bayonets.

A Richmond woman described the scene in a letter written to a friend on April 2, 1863:

"Something very sad has just happened in Richmond - something that makes me ashamed of all my jeremiads over the loss of the petty comforts and conveniences of life - hats, bonnets, gowns, stationery, books, magazines, dainty food.

Since the weather has been so pleasant, I have been in the habit of walking in the Capitol Square before breakfast every morning. . . Yesterday, upon arriving, I found within the gates a crowd of women and boys - several hundreds of them, standing quietly together.

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The Bread Riot in Richmond, Virginia 1863

I sat on a bench near, and one of the number left the rest and took the seat beside me. She was a pale, emaciated girl, not more than eighteen. . . As she raised her hand to remove her sunbonnet and use it for a fan, her loose calico sleeve slipped up and revealed the mere skeleton of an arm. She perceived my expression as I looked at it, and hastily pulled down her sleeve with a short laugh. 'This is all that's left of me' she said. 'It seems real funny, don't it?. . .We are starving. As soon as enough of us get together, we are going to the bakeries and each of us will take a loaf of bread. That is little enough for the government to give us after it has taken all our men.' . . .

The crowd now rapidly increased, and numbered, I am sure, more than a thousand women and children. It grew and grew until it reached the dignity of a mob - a bread riot. They impressed all the light carts they met, and marched along silently and in order. They marched through Cary Street and Main, visiting the stores of the speculators and emptying them of their contents. Governor Letcher sent the mayor to read the Riot Act, and as this had no effect on the crowd. The city battalion came up. The women fell back with frightened eyes, but did not obey the order to disperse.

The President [Jefferson Davis] then appeared ascended a dray, and addressed them. It is, said he was received at first with hisses from the boys, but after he had spoken some little time with great kindness and sympathy, the women moved quietly on, taking their food with them. General Elze and General Winder wished to call troops from the camps to 'suppress the women,' but [Secretary of War James] Seddon, a wise man, declined to issue the order. While I write women and children are still standing in the streets, demanding food, and the government is issuing to them rations of rice."

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Newly Freed African American Group of Men and Children
Ruins of Richmond, Virginia
April 3, 1865
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African-American citizens voting
Richmond, Virginia. 1871
United States: Virginia

The Project

Maritime Nations, Ships, Sea Captains, Merchants, Merchandise, Ship Passengers and VIPs sailing into San Francisco during the 1800s.



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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; Maritime Library, San Francisco, California.

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