Anyone who has been in the Richmond area long enough (or may be even just passed through or looked at our map) will notice some interesting place names. Our streets, towns, counties, and parks are often named after historical figures or events dating back to the American Indians, colonial settlements, Revolutionary war heroes, and past governors. Urban legend or even a ghost story or two surrounds some other place names! Out of towners, or new to towners, often question the names – or at least the pronunciation- of many of these. Is it Pow-hite or Po-white, for example? As someone who grew up in the RVA area, I have heard these stories and myths surrounding many of these names for most of my life. My grandmother has an intriguing story about her time as a child camping near the “Powhite” Creek with her father when he came to town to sell goods from his farm. This was way before the Parkway. Maybe Laura and I can convince her to tell you that story one day.
Let’s start our tour around town with a few of the simple ones. Powhatan County, Pocahontas State Park, and Monacan High School are all named after the American Indians who lived in the area. Mule Barn Alley in downtown Richmond, duh. Tobaccoville in Powhatan, easy. Jackson Ward was named by Ulysses S Grant for Andrew Jackson as there were wards named for Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe already. Monroe Park at VCU still bears our former President’s name. Foushee St and Layfette St were both named after Revolutionary War heroes. Bainbridge, Decatuer, Perry, Porter, McDonough, and Hull were all Naval Heroes of the War of 1812 and had streets in Manchester named after them. It is also said that 12thSt was named in honor of the War of 1812. Armstrong High School is named after a Civil War Hero. This list of war hero place names could go on and on. Let’s move on to some of the more interesting stories.
The Fan: This area of Richmond is named such because of the way the streets fan out from Monroe Park. Fun fact, it used to be called Scuffletown. It was the location of Benedict Arnold’s scuffle with the militia in 1781. Luckily, that name didn’t stick.
Short Pump: Stop giggling. This was named in 1853 for a tavern and stage coach stop on the road from Richmond to mountains and western settlements had a well in the yard with an unusually short pump handle under the porch. Really. The short-handled pump became a quirky fixture at the tavern and patrons soon started telling one another that they’d “meet at the short pump.”
Three Chopt Rd: Originally Three Notched Rd, it is an Old Indian Trail that was marked by making three notches on the trees. It began at Powhatan’s Village, a few miles east of Richmond, and ran westward into the mountains. In the early 1800s it was called Three Chopped before changing to the current spelling by 1853.
Varina: When John Rolfe arrived in Virginia in 1610, he began cultivating a type of tobacco that was a cross between Indian tobacco and Bermuda tobacco. The end result was a tobacco crop that was very similar to tobacco being grown in the Spanish Varinas. Rolfe named his tobacco plantation Varina, because of this similarity. It was there that he lived with his wife Pocahontas, the Indian Princess (Yes, John Rolfe, not John Smith, but that’s a story for another blog).
Libby Hill: Named for Luther Libby, a local landowner. More importantly, this place is called “The view that named the city” as it is said that William Byrd, II stood on the hill decided that it reminded him of Richmond-upon-Thames, England.
Carytown: Named after Colonel Archibald Cary, one of the richest men in Virginia who made his money in the booming flour market of Richmond along with other business interests. Cary Street was named after him and his family’s plantation, Ampthill, is also now a city street name. When current Carytown became the site of the first strip mall in the city, it also bore his name.
Shockoe Slip/Bottom/Hill: Named after the Shockoe Creek (since paved over)- ‘shacahocan’ is a Powhatan/Algonquin phrase referring to a flat rock at the mouth of the creek. A slip is a boat ramp used for loading cargo onto ships (harkening once again to Richmond history in tobacco and flour exports).
Skinquarter: Not hard to figure out, but a touch gruesome. Settlers from the 1700s named this area as the American Indians used this site to skin and quarter the deer they had killed. Today it is the location of the amazing Skinquarter Farm Market in Chesterfield County.
Bumpass: A community in Louisa County named after the Bumpass family of the 1800s. Their named is derived from the French, Bon Pas, meaning good step. GoodStep, Va just didn’t have the same ring.
Bon Air: The vacation spot of the wealthy in the late 19th century, this town was named for the “good air” in the country compared to the city’s industrial downtown.
Goochland: This county name makes many a newcomer chuckle. According to one website, it’s where they grow the gooches. Thank you, Dr. Seuss wannabe. This land was named for Sir William Gooch, acting royal governor in the mid 1700s – He actually named it after himself.
Mechanicsville: Originally called Pioneer Grove, when the railroad came through and established a depot, one of the original landowners in the own, John Onstott, noted that the village was made up of hard working men, carpenters, masons, etc. and decided that “mechanics”-ville would be a good name.
Pony Pasture: An odd name for a park along the river, but there was once a pasture there, and the Brauer family kept ponies on the farm. Fun fact – it used to be an island before a creek was filled in to extend Riverside dr.
Granite Hills: Much of the hillsides of the area surrounding Pony Pasture was quarried for its granite. The rapids are there because there is so much granite. Captain John Smith and his boat couldn’t go any farther inland (past Richmond) because of the 320 million-year-old granite geological ridge that runs north-south through the East Coast that separates the Coastal and Piedmont regions.
Scott’s Addition: Named for General Winfield Scott, this was a part of the vast, 600-acre Hermitage estate that Scott inherited in 1818 from his father-in-law, Colonel John Mayo (Mayo Island, Mayo Bridge…).
Tuckahoe: an American Indian name for an edible water plant and the name of the creek bordering the property
Midlothian: Another difficult pronunciation for non-locals, it was named for the early 18th-century coal mining enterprises of the Wooldridge brothers (Woolridge Rd, ahem). They called their new venture the Mid-Lothian Mining and Manufacturing Company, the site of the first commercially mined coal in U.S.
Hopewell: Originally named Bermuda City in 1613 then changed to City Point in 1634. In 1744 a group of Quakers from Pennsylvania and Maryland began a Monthly Meeting called “Hopewell”, named after an ancient Indian tribe of the Midwest. A Meeting House was soon established bearing the same name. About 150 years later, the Dupont Company incorporated Hopewell Farm and built a factory to make dynamite. The name has been official ever since.
Robious Rd, Bellgrade, and Reid’s Landing: All named after men and places in a story of a lover’s quarrel resulting in the ghost story of the current Ruth’s Chris Steak House (original 1732 home on Bellgrade Plantation). Anthony Robiou, a wealthy Frechman, lived on Bellgrade Plantation and married Emily Wormley, the daughter of a prominent area attorney around 1850. When Robiou found Emily alone with her old boyfriend, John Reid, he publically demanded a divorce. Emily’s father was humiliated and convinced Reid to help him take revenge. Robiou was shot and killed, but only the father was convicted and hanged. Emily, who was neither divorced or disinherited prior to either man’s death, then married Reid and the two moved into the Bellgrade house. Unfortunately, very soon after she tragically fell to her death on the stairs of the plantation house. The ghosts of Robiou and Emily are both said to still roam the gardens.
Flying Squirrels: This one has nothing to do with history. In October 2009 the name was chosen through a Richmond Times- Dispatch readers “name-the-team-contest.”
If you must know, The Powhite Creek was named for the French Calvinist-Protestant denomination of Huguenots that settled in the area after their expulsion from France by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685, as they were commonly referred to as “poor white” or “po’ white.” –OR- Is it a reference to the “Powhite Indians” — a possible term used for the Algonquian Indians during the time of Chief Powhatan (which, funny enough, used to be spelled Powatan – perhaps pronounced po-watan)? We will have to save this one for another day…