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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Why Do We Call It… Hampton Roads?

International naval rendezvous in Hampton Roads circa 1893 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

REGIONAL — Dependent upon which generation you belong to, this corner of southeastern Virginia can go by different monikers: Tidewater, Hampton Roads, or Coastal Virginia. For many of us natives, we still refer to our home as the Tidewater. Even our accent is called “Tidewater English.” In recent years, there has been a new push to “rebrand” the Tidewater as “Coastal Virginia.” However, what most know our area as is Hampton Roads. But how did this seemingly strange name come to be?

Let’s dive deeper as to how this area received just such a name.

What is considered ‘Hampton Roads’?

Before we move forward with the etymology behind the name Hampton Roads, why don’t we lay out exactly what is considered Hampton Roads.

This vast area includes the independent cities of Chesapeake, Franklin, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Poquoson, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Virginia Beach, and Williamsburg. It also includes the counties of Currituck (N.C.), Gates (N.C.), Gloucester, Isle of Wight, James City, Mathews, Southampton, and York.

From bay to river, ocean to fields, Hampton Roads incorporates a very wide and diverse area, all with a shared, rich history with each municipality having its own, unique personality.

How did all of these areas come together to be considered part of the same region? And where in the world did this odd name come from?

The History

The English established the first permanent settlement in what would become the United States right in the Historic Triangle at Jamestown (now part of James City County). The fledgling colony struggled with disease, famine, and war during the early years. But what came from their struggle was the vibrant area we know today.

During the mid-17th century, this region started being referred to as the “Tidewater.” The thing is, this isn’t the only “Tidewater.” In fact, the name itself refers to areas where the ocean and its tides impact the water levels in rivers and other inland-connected bodies of water. So, in a technical sense, this refers to areas in Virginia up to the fall line, which would be along Interstate 95 (I-95) to include Richmond, Fredericksburg, and even parts of the Greater Washington D.C.-area. This very vague, non-characteristic term does not really explain our location to others who are not familiar with the common vernacular of southeastern Virginia. Additionally, if you were to ask many natives of the Tidewater, they would gladly tell you that in regional identity, we are not connected to areas north of James City County .

To rewind a few decades, the City of Hampton (which was once part of the now-disbanded Elizabeth City County, Va.) received its name in 1610 from Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton (England). Now that we have discovered the first part of the Hampton Roads name origin story, let’s discuss the more enigmatic piece of it, “Roads.”

The term “roads” wasn’t originally what we think of today. After all, as is displayed in the featured image of this piece, the term Hampton Roads predates most major road systems as well as roads being a primary carrier of vehicles delivering people and goods.

In fact, Roads is a shortened version of the word, “roadstead.” This is nautical term which, according to the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, refers to places where there are natural harbors deep enough for ships to lay anchor. In other words, port towns.

As you may have guessed, roadstead was branded a transportation term because, in the 17th century, places like the Tidewater were highly dependent upon the rich maritime culture to transport goods, people, and establish businesses (e.g. the oyster fisheries that have had a long history in the area… but that is a story for a different day).

Did you know… The entirety of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel is considered to be in the City of Hampton municipality? So, the moment you cross onto the bridge coming from Norfolk, you’re in Hampton!

In referencing the roadsteads of the Tidewater, this would be specifically the junction where the Elizabeth, Nansemond, and James rivers meet with the Chesapeake Bay. Since this body of water is what cuts through the middle of the region connected to Hampton, the term Hampton Roads(tead) was applicable and became the generalized name for this junction.

Now that we have gotten those pesky little historical facts out of the way, how did this name spread to include not only this junction, but also the land that it connects together?

Hampton Roads… More Than Just the Waterway

Like many things that evolve over time, the innovations in the transportation of goods and people changed with the modus operandi of making everyone’s lives a little easier and more streamlined (maritime pun completely intended).

There is little doubt what a turning point the Gilded Age (which lasted in the United States from the 1870s until 1900) provided for the country. To give a brief synopsis, this was the period in history that was characterized by rapid innovation, invention, and what turned the country from a mostly agrarian-based economy into an industrialized and market-based one.

For the purposes of this conversation, we are just going to focus on the influence that it had on the growth of transportation and not delve too deeply into the rest of the underlying currents.

Now back to our story.

Railroads became all the rage back before the Civil War and then took center stage in a variety of ways during the war and in the immediate aftermath; particularly in reference to honoring President Abraham Lincoln following his assassination.

The efficiency, speed, and safety of railroads proved it to be heads and tails above solely using maritime transportation. Additionally, railroads allowed for the expansion of connectivity between locations across the country. Railways would transport goods and people to the Tidewater and then those that arrived here (goods or otherwise) would then be loaded onto maritime transport vessels for whatever the intended destination would be.

Think of railroads as the first massive way to interconnect the various localities around the United States. This way, someone or something from, say, Ohio could have much more ease to travel to a place like Tidewater, Va. than ever before.

As a result of this booming ground transportation industry which connected to the Tidewater’s waterways, the name Hampton Roads also came to reference the land areas adjacent to the water junction.

Because of this interconnectivity amongst the various parts of southeastern Virginia, the localities were further codependent on one another for economic prosperity and growth.

Slowly, print publications started referring to not only the maritime and railway transport lines as Hampton Roads, but also the areas in which they were located in. With the addition of streetcars, buses, paved roads, and automobiles, the area grew that much “smaller” and the interconnectivity was further profound.

In October 1922, major players in the region from business, the military, and the local governments came together to once and for all declare what this corner of Virginia would be referred to as a whole. It was in this meeting that it was decided to brand the area as Hampton Roads in order to show the cooperative working relationship between all of the municipalities.

President of Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company H.L. Ferguson declared in this meeting, “It is time to quit calling names across saltwater.”

However, the push to legalize the name didn’t occur until much later.

Hampton Roads or Coastal Virginia?

In the 1950s, a bill was introduced to the Virginia General Assembly to legally recognize the Tidewater as Hampton Roads. The bill claimed that the Tidewater was too generalized of a term to give a frame of reference to those outside the region. However, the bill died on the floor because of the nostalgia factor associated with the name, the Tidewater.

The push reemerged in the late-1970s and into the early 1980s. By this point, both monikers were accepted as interchangeable names for the area. Local business leaders argued that referencing the area as “Tidewater” sounded “too swampy” and, therefore, could not attract new businesses and persons to the area.

In 1983, local business and government leaders united to petition the United States Postal Service to legally change the name from Tidewater to Hampton Roads. This time, the legal name change was a success. At that point, local news publications changed their style guides so that, moving forward, the area would only be officially referred to in print as Hampton Roads.

However, the regional name crisis would not end there.

In the mid-2010s, once again, the constant identity flux and branding for the Tidewater/Hampton Roads came into question. The new push was to now refer to the area as Coastal Virginia.

The logic behind it makes a bit of sense. Hampton Roads may have become part of the zeitgeist in the local community (after all, it has been the legal name for close to forty years), but it doesn’t really speak to what the area is. In fact, many from not only outside the area, but also those who are native to Hampton Roads, don’t know the “origin story” to this term and how it is applicable to what our community at large is. Many think we have this elaborate highway system because as roadstead has become an archaic term. Because of ambiguity of the name, this brings into question how to attract tourists and businesses to the area at large if they don’t know what it means or, really, where we are?

So, we went from being recognized as having a name that was “too swampy” to one that is considered by some to be without a brandable identity.

As of now, we remain Hampton Roads — culturally and legally.

However, no matter what you refer to the area as — the Tidewater, Hampton Roads, or Coastal Virginia — we are still a very united region that, while each pocket has its own personality, we are still interconnected like the rivers that carried the first boats along its roadstead.

Editor’s Note: Nancy Sheppard is not only the managing editor of, but she is also a professional historian and award-nominated nonfiction history author that specializes in Hampton Roads and military aviation history.

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