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The so-called seven hills of Richmond


Alyson Lindsey Taylor-White’s Richmond Myths and Misconceptions at The Shockoe Examiner looks at a number of the stories that we tell ourselves about Richmond, from the evacuation fire to the staircase at the Jefferson Hotel to the so-called hills:

Like Rome, Richmond was built on seven hills. This is an old myth that just won’t go away on its own. No one is disputing that there are hills in Richmond. If you travel around the city, you have no doubt realized that there are some serious inclines, as well as equally generous valleys (Shockoe Bottom). This came to a discussion at city council in the 1930s, and they drafted an ordinance naming the original “seven” hills. The reason the ordinance was never adopted is perhaps because they could not agree to disagree on which to include. Because there are not or have not been seven hills. If you count some of the former ones along with the current ones they are:

Chimborazo Hill
Church Hill
Council Chamber Hill
French Garden Hill
Fulton Hill
Gambles Hill
Libby Hill
Navy Hill
Oregon Hill
Shockoe Hill
Union Hill

It gets even more confusing if you research old Richmond records, because several of these hills have gone through an equal number of names. Church Hill has been Richmond Hill and Indian Hill. Church Hill gets its name from the many churches there, but in particular, the first church, St. John’s. Fulton Hill was also called Powhatan Hill. Fulton was named for James Alexander Fulton who married Eliza Mayo, and built a (then) suburban house they named Powhatan there. Legend has it that is where Powhatan’s son Parahunt met with English adventurers John Smith and Christopher Newport in May of 1607. Eliza Mayo is from the family that built the Mayo Bridge over the James River. Those of you fond of recreating and residing in the former municipality of Manchester across the James River will also be reminded of Forest Hill and Westover Hills.

IMAGE: Adams 1864


Paul Hammond 03/29/2017 at 3:32 PM

What about the myth that Richmond was named for the view from Libbie Hill for which there is no documentation. This claim dates back to a blog post in the early by some Richmonders who visited England and took a photo of Richmond on Thames that resembled a similar view from Libbie. The legend grew from there and now there is a plaque placed at Libbie Hill Park by Doug Wilder than cements the claim.

John M 03/29/2017 at 4:11 PM

@Paul – Pretty sure that you’re wrong.

I’ve found mention of this in Henry Howe’s “Historical Collections of Virginia” from 1845 (p.305, which is p.329 of the PDF). You can download it here:

Paul Hammond 03/29/2017 at 4:46 PM

This documentation is far from definitive.

“The analogy of the situation of the place to that of Richmond on Thames, in England *suggested* that the name the town bears.”

Doug Wilder’s plaque simply claims “that it is believed” that is how Richmond was named, which as far as it goes is true.

I do remember the original blogpost which was somewhere back in 2003 and how the idea caught on. The claim so far is built on flimsy evidence, unless you’ve got something else.

John M 03/29/2017 at 5:16 PM

You’re right Paul, this is much more flimsy than some 1/2 remembered blog post from 2003.

John M 03/29/2017 at 5:28 PM

As authoritative as it gets around here:

“Byrd’s writings do not explicitly state that he found his muse for the naming of the new Richmond due to the similarity of the situation with the old one, but for over two hundred years that has been the reasonable assumption of Richmond visitors and historians.”

T. Tyler Potterfield’s Nonesuch Place: A History of the Richmond Landscape

Mike Nichols 03/29/2017 at 8:42 PM

No xxcc

Jason S 03/29/2017 at 9:58 PM Reply
Kay9 03/30/2017 at 10:06 AM

@4…Boom! Nice!

Paul Hammond 03/30/2017 at 3:39 PM

“Reasonable assumptions” don’t amount to good evidence. Actual period documentation like “I William Byrd, upon witnessing the view from this particular hill (whatever is was called at the time) have decided to name this new village after Richmond on Thames, but no such documentation exists. It’s a nice story, but is it true? No one knows.

I remember the post quite clearly and it was charming, but made no claims. My efforts to locate it have come up empty. I’m surprised you don’t remember it. You were (still are) quite active at the time..

Bill Hartsock 03/30/2017 at 5:35 PM

Paul, what is your point in challenging this historical idea? Let’s enjoy our heritage whether it’s factual or not. I bet you want to remove the statues from Monument Ave, also.

Richard Lee Bland 03/30/2017 at 7:33 PM

The mapping of Richmond at the time of the war of 1861-1865 locates the position of hills and several not named. Originally Richmond was a small central area around the Capitol, and even St. Johns Church was in Henrico, out of town. So select those seven hills accordingly.

I present a much wider consensus of Hills. North of Richmond (the boundary line was Bacon’s Quarter Branch which fed into Shockoe creek valley. Upon its north is Academy Hill -later the development of Highland Park this hill circa 1888 became named Chestnut Hill. East across Shockoe valley is Maddox Hill (above it is Chelsea Hill.) Maddox Hill is Bowling Green village and Fairfield area positioned above Union Hill, which south slope called Jefferson Park is Strikers Hill, then across from here east is Adams Hill. Further west is Chimborazo Hill, its northeast ridge is Cedar Hill.

These are round about Church Hill (which southwest slope is Taylors Hill and southeast section is Libby Hill.

Church Hill also was known as Richmond Hill (now the name of ecumenical Christian fellowship and residential community once Monte Maria Convent. That is actually Taylors section on the east while the western slope at 25th street is Nunnery Hill.

West of Richmond from Academy/Chestnut Hill (which likely includes Barton Heights, though Cannon Run is omitted) in the area of today’s Fan District is shown Bush Hill, not named is its north flank above Bacon’s Quarter Branch -today’s Newetown/Carver, was Sheep Hill.

At the head of Buchanan Spring roughly parallel Harrison street, Bush Hill positioned above two areas divided by Clarke Spring, Hollywood Hill on the west and on the east is Richmond Hill (later named Oregon/Belvidere Hill (actually Oregon was the east embankment of Belvidere/Richmond Hill. Looking east was a view across Gambles Hill (unmarked)and beyond unmarked in the grid of the town is Council Chamber Hill/also called Capitol Hill.

Shockoe Hill is the whole hill section along the north above the valley of Bacons’ Quarter Branch. Along the east edge of Shockoe Hill below Hospital and Shockoe cemetery once a deep crevasse opened west from Jackson street isolating Navy Hill from French Garden Hill these features disappeared cut in half in 1958 by Interstate 95, and doing so obliterated French Garden Hill 🙁

I suspect Poor House Hill was the western flank of Shockoe Hill, over the turn of Bacon’s Quarter Branch touching Sheep Hill’s area.

Now a comment or two for Eastern Henrico above Rocketts Landing. Here is found Fulton Hill, also known as Powhatan Hill. (I like to add Montrose Heights just north of Government road) again, East of Fulton Hill and nearer the river is Marion Hill all being in Henrico, and southeast next to the James river is Tree Hill.

I have, by the way, never found a name for the hill area of Maymont, or the deep ravine which became the twin lakes.

Richard Lee Bland 03/30/2017 at 7:38 PM

Oops, In describing hills of Richmond just posted, I meant further east of Adams Hill is Chimborazo Hill —not west… can’t edit from here.

Rick Tatnall 03/30/2017 at 8:56 PM

Paul, I believe Bill asks an important question – what is your point in challenging this historic idea? The post above and the article in the Shockoe Examiner do not even mention the relationship between the View from Libby Hill and the naming of Richmond, so why are you inflicting Church Hill and the East End with your wet blanket personality and insulting our heritage?

As John has pointed out, this “legend” started a bit earlier than the 2003 blogpost you can’t remember. Henry Howe was talking about it in 1845 which means that the story had been around for a while. And Tyler Potterfield was quite possibly “the expert” on the naming of Richmond (I have a paper he did specifically on the subject), so his belief in the legend has great importance to us believers. Us believers include our English friends in Richmond upon Thames who also embrace the naming relationship. The “naming of Richmond” plaque you reference with Doug Wilder’s name on it also has Mayor Robin Jowit’s name on it – the Mayor of Richmond upon Thames in 2006 when the plaque was dedicated. He was here because Richmonders in England have believed in the legend for hundreds of years as well.

You are right on one thing – there is nothing in writing that definitively proves that William Byrd II named Richmond Virginia after Richmond upon Thames because of the similarity of the views from Libby Hill and Richmond Hill. But what you obviously haven’t ever done is gone to Richmond upon Thames and seen their View because if you had, you would be a believer too. I just got back from leading my third delegation to Richmond upon Thames, a community that has been formally twinned with the City of Richmond since 1981 and a Sister City of the City of Richmond since 1992 – a twinning relationship based on the legend of the View. Every member of those delegations became a believer when they had the chance to see both views and marvel at their striking similarity. Like all before them, the members of our recent Pocahontas-oriented delegation visited the View from Richmond Hill (which the Shockoe Examiner reminds us was long ago the name of Church Hill, and presumably Libby Hill)and they are now believers too. They saw that the curve in the rivers are exactly the same; that the width of the rivers are the same; that the slope of the hill to the rivers are the same; that the panoramic “you can see forever” views are the same. Everybody who has had the opportunity to see both views is a believer!

So Paul, if there is a point you are trying to make, please enlighten us. Otherwise, please stop trolling our neighborhood conversations with your negativity and allow us the pleasure of believing in this legend.

Juliellen 03/31/2017 at 7:36 AM

#11 @Richard Lee Brand, interesting info on the hills. FYI, Fulton Hill and Fulton are in the city of Richmond, as is a big chunk of Montrose Heights. Together they are referred to as Greater Fulton, which is not very catchy but is useful since the community is pretty active as a whole.

Jason S 03/31/2017 at 9:48 AM

Bill (#10) probably not a good idea to conflate this discussion with the statues on monument ave. Two very different topics and a goober like me will probably tie your shoelaces together and trip ya up real bad in that debate. That is all, carry on.

Paul Hammond 03/31/2017 at 12:48 PM

Rick, you are free to believe what you want and take pleasure in it as I am free to express my opinion. I had never heard that this news site was restricted to Church Hillians, but I did live there at one point and often go through there. The legend of Libby Hill may be correct, but I see little evidence of it. We were discussing myths, of which I believe this is one. I’m all for the twinning of cities whether based on fact or legend.

@#10 Bill, don’t let me stand in the way of you enjoying your history whether it’s factual or not. I happen to be a big fan of the statues on Monument Boulevard. I’m not sure how that enters this discussion.


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