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A Short Maritime History of Virginia Beach

Replica of the historic ship at Jamestown in Virginia

The pristine shores of Virginia Beach haven’t always been a tourist destination with restaurants, shops, and suntanning opportunities.

Before it ever became what it’s known for today, Virginia Beach was the setting for iconic historical moments and, even more so, for the makings of Maritime history. As the site of the first landing in what eventually became the United States, the chapters of history in this place are long and many. We could never do it justice completely, as the history that shaped modern-day Virginia Beach could fill countless books. However, we want to take you on a brief trip through time, Maritime specifically, and highlight some of the most noteworthy moments that occurred in this small piece of paradise.

This journey through time uncovers the tales of local indigenous people, early English settlers, lighthouses, naval battles, and Virginia Beach’s continued celebration of its maritime legacy.

The Early Days of Virginia Beach Maritime

Jamestown Settlement

Indigenous Inhabitants and the Chesepian Tribe

Centuries before the arrival of English settlers, the Chesapeake Bay area, including the land now known as Virginia Beach, was inhabited by the Chesepian tribe. These indigenous people thrived in the region, relying on the sea’s abundant resources for their sustenance and livelihood.

They resided in the areas now known as South Hampton Roads, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Virginia Beach, where they were divided into five distinct sections: Weapemiooc, Chawanook, Secotan, Pomouic, and Newsiooc, each ruled and run independently.

Tying deeply to the marine environment, their presence is a poignant reminder of Virginia Beach’s maritime heritage.

Arrival of the English Settlers

Virginia Beach’s recorded history only began in 1607 with the arrival of English settlers.

This journey, led by Captain Christoper Newport, landed them in Cape Henry, located within present-day Virginia Beach. The settlers pressed on, eventually establishing Jamestown as the first permanent New World settlement. This pivotal event marked the beginning of Virginia Beach’s recorded maritime history under English influence. The Chesapeake Bay area, with its vast waterways and natural harbors, was a critical piece of the colonization journey.

Those who settled on these shores heavily relied on the sea for sustenance and commerce, which launched this area into a new era of maritime significance that can still be seen and felt today.

Virginia Beach Maritime History Through the Years

Cape Henry Lighthouse

America’s First Official Port

Virginia’s ports have been a monumental part of the state’s history for nearly four centuries. From the very first “America’s First Port” at Jamestown in 1607 through modern-day naval ports, the history of Virginia’s ports is deeply intertwined with the nation’s history.

With the first official port of the Americas came the gateway for trade and communication to begin in the fledgling colony. With the Chesapeake Bay at their doorstep, the early settlers had access to abundant resources on top of trade routes. The name “Chesapeake” itself is thought to originate from the Algonquin language, meaning “Great Shellfish Bay,” appropriately named for this region that was teeming with marine life.

Jamestown and its port were the very heart of the early American maritime world, facilitating trade, navigation, and the growth of the colonies. It marked the beginning of a legacy that would continue to extend beyond this time in history, shaping the entirety of maritime history in what is now Virginia Beach, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the entire United States.

The Battle of the Capes

By the 1700s, Chesapeake Bay established itself as a hub for trade and maritime battles.

In 1781, the waters off Virginia Beach became the stage for a pivotal maritime battle during the Revolutionary War. French naval forces successfully blocked British ships from resupplying General Cornwallis in Yorktown. This vital action at the Battle of the Capes played a decisive role in the American victory, with it coming the birth of a new nation – and Virginia Beach’s waters witnessed this turning point in history in real time.

Guiding Lights – The Iconic Virginia Beach Lighthouses

Virginia Beach’s maritime history is intricately linked to its lighthouses.

Not long after the Battle of the Capes, The Cape Henry Lighthouse was constructed in 1792 using native Virginia sandstone. This remarkable structure still stands today as one of the oldest surviving lighthouses in the United States. Signifying its historical importance, it was the first building project authorized under the U.S. Constitution, demonstrating its crucial role in guiding ships safely along the treacherous coastline.

The original lighthouse served as a vigilant sentinel for nearly a century until cracks necessitated the construction of a new light, which stands just 350 feet away. These two towering lighthouses, side by side, serve as enduring symbols of Virginia’s maritime heritage, silently witnessing over two centuries of maritime history and providing vital navigational guidance to ships entering Virginia’s ports.

With their stately presence, these lighthouses evoke a profound sense of history and provide a tangible connection to Virginia’s maritime past.

Civil War: A Clash of Ironclads

The Civil War made an indelible mark on Virginia Beach. In 1862, it was the site of a remarkable battle between the ironclad warships, the USS Monitor, and the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack). This battle revolutionized naval warfare, as it was one of the first encounters between ironclad vessels, signifying the end of wooden ship warfare.

The battle occurred near the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, not far from Virginia Beach’s coastline. The Monitor and Merrimack engagement, also known as the Battle of Hampton Roads, was a historic moment in naval history, as these iron giants clashed in an epic struggle that marked a significant turning point in warfare at sea.

World War ||: U-Boats Off the Coast

During World War II, the waters off the coast of Virginia Beach assumed an equally significant role in history. German U-boats, or submarines, patrolled these waters in search of American vessels. This marked a critical phase in the Battle of the Atlantic, where German submarines targeted Allied shipping along the eastern seaboard. Virginia Beach’s strategic location made it a pivotal point of interest for U-boats searching for American vessels. These wartime events underscore Virginia Beach’s contributions to both national and global history during World War II.

Modern Maritime in Virginia Beach

Nauticus Naval Museum
Virginia Beach offers not only picturesque beaches and modern amenities but also a rich maritime history that reverberates through the centuries. From the indigenous inhabitants to the colonial settlers, from lighthouses to naval battles, this coastal city remains deeply connected to its maritime roots.

Today, Virginia Beach continues to celebrate and preserve its maritime heritage. The Old Cape Henry Lighthouse shares its grounds with a nearly 70-foot-long gun barrel from the USS Iowa (BB-61), a retired U.S. Navy Iowa-class battleship. This relic from the past stands as a tribute to the nation’s maritime prowess and the city’s role in that history.

Virginia Beach’s story is one of historical relevance, preserved through monuments and commemorated every day in the coastal winds that sweep over the Chesapeake Bay. It’s a story waiting to be explored and appreciated by all who visit.