Hampton Roads’ History Helped Shape America

Map of Hampton Roads Also known as Tidewater, Virginia

Hampton Roads has been the site of everything from the country’s first English settlement to the building of nuclear powered ships to space flight training and research.

The name Hampton Roads originally designated a broad bay of water created where the James, Elizabeth and Nansemond rivers flow together. Hampton Roads, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay, is 18 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

Until the 1980s, the cities that surround Hampton Roads were collectively referred to as Tidewater. In 1983 the U.S. Office of Management and Budget replaced Tidewater with Hampton Roads, and called it “a group of cities with economic and social integration.” Hampton Roads encompasses the cities of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Newport News, Hampton, and Williamsburg. It also includes York, James City, Gloucester and Isle of Wight counties.

Hampton Roads is one of the largest naval base areas in the world. The U.S. Navy owns 33,000 acres of land on which are built installations as Norfolk Naval Air Station and Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek. The Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, and Marines also maintain installations in Hampton Roads.

Jamestown Settlement Founded

Three small ships named the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery sailed into Hampton Roads in 1607. They continued up the James River to an island on which they built Jamestown, in honor of King James I. They landed on May 14, 1607. Their Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States.

The ships had been dispatched by the newly-formed Virginia Company. The mission was to establish a settlement in the Chesapeake Bay region, find gold, and chart a waterway course to Asia. The 104 settlers included carpenters, brick masons, even a tailor.

The Jamestown settlers did not find gold. Nor did they find a way to Asia. None of the crops they grew or the fish they caught generated enough money to offset company expenses. Even the shipyard they built — it serviced and repaired ships sailing between Virginia and England — failed to generate profits.

John Rolfe arrived in May 1609. He carried with him seeds of a strain of tobacco grown in the West Indies. It was milder than the tobacco grown by Virginia natives. Rolfe’s tobacco became a market hit in London, and Virginia had the profitable crop it sought.

Rolfe married Pocahontas, the legendary native girl who supposedly saved John Smith’s life.

First Battle of Ironclads

On March 8-9, 1862, Hampton Roads was the site of a historic naval battle between the Union vessel Monitor and the Confederate’s Virginia. It was the first battle between ironclad ships.

The Monitor was built to ram the wooden ships in the Confederate fleet. After the Yankee ship Merrimac was partially destroyed by fire, it was rebuilt by the Confederates, outfitted with a ironclad, and renamed the Virginia. the Union navy insisted on calling the ship by its Yankee name, Merrimac. Consequently this clash is most often referred to as the Batlle of the Monitor and Merrimac.

After six continuous hours of bouncing shells off each other the vessels disengaged. The Virginia later was scuttled at Craney Island. The Monitor sunk off the North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The First Aircraft Carriers

Collis B. Huntington built and owned railroads when he arrived in Hampton Roads. He built and owned the Chesapeake and Ohio that connected Richmond, Va., to the West Virginia coalmines. He wanted a marine terminal where the coal could be loaded onto ships and barges.

He built the terminal and then he built a town he named Newport News. With the terminal came the need for a shipyard. So he created Newport News Shipbuilding. The shipyard was awarded its first Navy contract in 1893, and built three gunboats.

On Nov. 14, 1910, 24-year-old Eugene Ely became the first airplane pilot to take off from a ship. A special wooden platform built on the bow of the USS Birmingham was his runway. The Birmingham was at anchor in Hampton Roads when Ely made history.

For the next two decades the U.S. made progress in flying and taking off from ships that had been converted into aircraft carriers. The USS Langley was the first of these carriers. On Sept. 26, 1931, Newport News Shipbuilding laid the keel for the USS Ranger, the first ship specifically designed as an aircraft carrier.

In 1959 the shipyard launched the USS Shark, its first nuclear-powered submarine. On Sept. 24, 1960, the fabled USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was launched.

Since first opening its doors in 1886 Newport News Shipbuilding has launched more than 700 vessels and continues to build the Navy’s fleet of aircraft carriers.

NASA Training at Langley

Hampton Roads’ leap into the space age began in the late 1950s when the NASA program took up residence at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton.

On April 9, 1959, NASA Langley introduced those who would become the country’s first astronauts – Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Walter Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Deke Slayton, and Gordon Cooper. The seven were trained at NASA Langley.


  1. Alf J. Mapp, Jr. The Virginia Experiment, The Old Dominion’s Role in the Making of America, The Dietz Press, 1957