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The History of Pocahontas Island

Petersburg's African history began in Pocahontas Island in 1732, a year before William Byrd established a permanent community in Petersburg.

In 1726 Colonel John Bolling, the great grandson of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, purchased the tip of the peninsula that would become known as Pocahontas Island.  In 1732 "blacks were brought into the area to clear the building site, and to help erect [a tobacco] blacks from the Petersburg area came to the warehouse as laborers.  They were the sorters, packers, and handlers of the large barrels of tobacco...transported down river to domestic and foreign markets."1 These African Americans built residences near their work site and were among the first residents of Pocahontas Island.

Petersburg was a site of battle during the American Revolution, and the war affected the demographics of Pocahontas Island.  The economic disruptions of war prompted many of the island's affluent whites to relocate while several of the African Americans who were freed in the wake of the revolution purchased lots of land there.  A surge in slave manumissions after the American Revolution-- the result of military service, religious and ideological currents, or self-purchase-- prompted the settlement of numerous free blacks in Pocahontas Island in the late 1700s.

By the late eighteenth century, Pocahontas Island was a predominantly African American neighborhood, where both enslaved and free persons lived. The early settlement of free black people makes Pocahontas Island among the earliest predominantly free black communities in Virginia and among the first in North America. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Pocahontas Island was one of the largest free black commuities in the United States.

Located at the head of the Appomattox River, Pocahontas Island was integral to Petersburg’s commercial development and trading activities. Pocahontas Island’s black residents engaged in a variety of commercial activities including a range of skilled and service trades and small businesses. Several of Pocahontas Island’s free black proprietors were successful boatmen with fleets of schooners, sloops, and flatboats carrying trade along the river.  Richard Jarratt was a successful waterman who carried trade between Petersburg and Norfolk.  His son Alexander Jarrett expanded his father's Petersburg-based trade by making frequent business trips to New York. Richard Updike also owned a profitable boat business.  James Roberts, along with his eldest son, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, operated flat boats on the Appomattox and James Rivers until the latter emigrated to Liberia with his family in 1829.  There Joseph Roberts operated a joint trading firm with William Colson, another free black resident of Petersburg, that operated between Petersburg, Monrovia, Philadelphia, and New York.  The prevalence of black boatmen, watermen, fishermen, and pilots in Petersburg mirrored larger eighteenth and nineteenth century demographic patterns in North America’s Atlantic port cities, though most of the black workers in the other southern ports were enslaved whereas many of Petersburg’s watermen were free.

During the early nineteenth century, Pocahontas Island served as a node in the Underground Railroad network that assisted fugitive slaves traveling to freedom. Two of the original homes used for thie purpose still exist in Pocahontas Island.

After the Civil War, many black Virginians moved to Pocahontas Island further englarging the African American population.

1 Smith, James Wesley, et. al. The History and Legend of Pocahontas Island . Petersburg, VA: Plummer Printing Compay, 1981, p. 3.

Last Updated on Friday, 07 May 2010 16:21
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