Pocahontas Island, Virginia

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Pocahontas Island Historic District
Pocahontas Island (1541379387).jpg
Pocahontas Island welcome sign
Pocahontas Island, Virginia is located in Virginia
Pocahontas Island, Virginia
Location Pocahontas, Witten, Rolfe, Logan, and Sapony Sts., Petersburg, Virginia
Coordinates 37°14′19″N 77°23′59″W / 37.23861°N 77.39972°W / 37.23861; -77.39972Coordinates: 37°14′19″N 77°23′59″W / 37.23861°N 77.39972°W / 37.23861; -77.39972
Built 1952
Architect Lee, William Edward, Jr.
Architectural style Federal, Bungalow/Craftsman
Governing body Local
NRHP Reference #


VLR # 123-0114
Significant dates
Added to NRHP November 03, 2006
Designated VLR September 6, 2006[2]

Pocahontas Island, Virginia is a peninsula located on the north side of the Appomattox River within the limits of what is now Petersburg, Virginia. There is evidence of prehistoric Native American settlement dating from 6500 BC.[3] The area is more recently notable as the first predominately free black settlement in the state and, by mid-19th century, one of the largest in the nation.[4] In 1860 half of Petersburg's population was black, and one-third of those people were free (3,224 people), constituting the largest free black population of the time.

In 1975 residents secured renewed residential zoning to protect their neighborhoods from industrial development.[4] The Pocahontas Island Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).


Archaeological evidence of a prehistoric Native American community dated to 6500 BC has been found on the island.[3] This is at the beginning of the Middle Archaic Period (6500 BC to 3000 BC) or end of Early Archaic Period (8000 BC to 6500 BC)[5]

When English colonists first arrived in Virginia in 1607, the island was within the territory of the Appomattoc tribe of the Powhatan Confederacy. English colonial settlement started on the peninsula in the 18th century. Some of the first enslaved Africans were brought here in 1732 to work in John Bolling's tobacco warehouses. Surveyors platted the land in 1749, and settlers named the village Wittontown. When formally organized as a town in 1752, it was renamed Pocahontas after the Native American daughter of Powhatan, important to colonial history.[4]

In 1757 Petersburg built a bridge to link the peninsula to the city. In the early years a board of trustees managed the "island" and its development.[4] Incorporated within the city limits in 1784, the Pocahontas Island neighborhood was often neglected afterward by city government, more concerned with development in white areas.[4]

Nonetheless, the neighborhood became the center of a large free black residential community, the oldest in the nation and a beacon to free blacks in the state. They developed a commercial center in this area as well. One of the first black congregations was known here as the Sandy River Baptist Church, which later moved into the center of Petersburg and built the Gillfield Baptist Church. The growth of industrial jobs attracted free blacks to Petersburg; it was also a place where artisans and craftsmen could make a living. Other men worked as boatmen and fishermen on the river.

Numerous antebellum houses exist. Two surviving houses were linked to the Underground Railroad before the American Civil War: the Jarratt House, 808-810 Logan Street, and 215 Witten Street, informally called the Underground Railroad House.[3] By 1860, the city's population was half black - of those, one-third were free. It was the largest free black population by 1860.[6]

Archaeological evidence has been found relating to this period of majority black residency, as well as of industrial activity. For instance, researchers found remains of a depot of the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad, a building 30 feet by 300 feet. It was important for use in transport of Confederate troops during the American Civil War.[3]

Employment cycles after the war continued to affect less educated blacks more severely. It took decades for the city to rebuild after the American Civil War. Increasing industrialization provided continued opportunities for blacks, even though the white-dominated Virginia legislature imposed racial segregation and disfranchisement in the late 19th century. Blacks created their own opportunities.

In the 20th century, the more ambitious and younger people tended to leave the island (and many southern states) for other opportunities. The Great Migration to northern industrial cities, starting about World War I, is the time Islanders refer to as "when they lost the 'cream of the crop', with the majority of the remaining population being elderly retirees who sustain themselves on small fixed incomes."[4] The neighborhood shared economic troubles with the city, which lost jobs to other areas and increasingly to Richmond. The capital became the region's and state's financial center.

In 1971 the Petersburg city government rezoned some of the island for light industrial use. This caused the homes of 250 residents to be threatened with condemnation, making it impossible for owners to get financing for renovations. In 1975 residents won a battle to restore residential zoning. Allied groups began to survey and document the many historic properties.[4] The Pocahontas Island Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places because of its abundance of archaeological sites from prehistory through historic times, and of numerous antebellum buildings marking its history as a free black community.[7]

A 1993 tornado severely damaged some houses. By the late 20th century, the population had declined to fewer than 100 on the island from a high of 1700 earlier.[8]


Because of its significant resources, ranging from prehistoric to historic, the Pocahontas Island Historic District is listed on both the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2008-04-15. 
  2. ^ "Virginia Landmarks Register". Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Retrieved 19 March 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Pocahontas Research Project", Petersburg, VA Official Website, 2006, accessed 29 Dec 2008
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Janice H. Cosel and Laura Jo Leffel, "A Case Study of Pocahontas Island: Resistance to Post-Impact Evacuation in a Historic Black Community Virginia", Electronic Journal of Emergency Management, Number 1, 1999, accessed 27 Dec 2008
  5. ^ "Prehistoric Time Chart", Rock Creek Park, National Park Service, accessed 30 Dec 2008
  6. ^ Henry Chase, "Proud, free and black: Petersburg - visiting the Virginia location of the largest number of 19th century free slaves", American Visions, Jun-Jul 1994, accessed 27 Dec 2008
  7. ^ "Pocahontas Island Historic District", National Register Nominations, Heritage Matters, Jan-Feb 2008, accessed 30 Dec 2008
  8. ^ Richard Holtzclaw, "History from a different angle", Daily Press, 17 Jan 2007, accessed 29 Dec 2008

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