Virginia Indian Trade
You are standing in the oldest part of Petersburg, known today as Old Towne. In 1646, Fort Henry was established here, along the colonial frontier, to protect settlers in the region and to capitalize on trade with the Virginia Indians. Fort Henry was the point of origin and return for the four most important inland explorations in the 17th-century English colonies. Indian trade in the region continued at until at least the 1750s. Petersburg-area men were the Colony's official translators for Cherokee allies during the French and Indian War and communicated with both of the Catawbas and the Cherokees when they came to Petersburg to be outfitted by the Colony to fight in the war.
Early in the 18th century, settlement of Southern Virginia and the North Carolina Piedmont centralized Petersburg's role in the tobacco trade. Petersburg provided the closest access to transatlantic shipping in the area, and as a result, tobacco rolled in from the surrounding region in exchange for European goods and African slaves. In 1730, the first of seven official tobacco inspections in the region was established across the street on the site of the Farmers Market, and many tobacco merchants followed by setting up businesses in Old Towne. The American Revolution disrupted commerce, but as late as 1791, when George Washington visited Petersburg, he wrote in his diary that fully one third of the North American tobacco trade was conducted here in Petersburg.
Manufacturing, Transportation & Commerce
With the decline of transatlantic trade after the Revolution, Petersburg's economy shifted to a focus on manufacturing, transportation, commerce and banking. Much of this activity took place in Old Towne. By the beginning of the Civil War, Petersburg was second only to Richmond in the South as a manufacturing center. By then the dominant mode of transportation had become the railroads, and Petersburg, especially Old Towne, had become a major railroad hub. The city was dense with wholesale and retail merchants, banks, and auctioneers, who conducted weekly auctions of property, including slaves, in the streets of Old Towne.
Decline and Revitalization
The nine-month siege of Petersburg at the end of the Civil War began a long decline for Petersburg and Old Towne that lasted through the 1960s. Four factors worked together to hasten this decline: 1) fashionable commercial businesses moved south along Sycamore Street, out of the Old Towne area, 2) the arrival of the automobile, with its need for more space, changed the cityscape, 3) Prohibition encouraged the development of an underworld economy, and 4) the sudden arrival of tens of thousands of troops at nearby Camp Lee in 1917, who sought recreation in Old Towne. Starting in the 1960s, community leaders began to fight back, using the city's history, historic architecture, tourism, natural heritage, and the arts as tools to reestablish Old Towne as a place to live, work, and visit. Today their vision is well on its way to being realized through local and regional initiatives that are helping Petersburg to once again become a center for tourism and commerce.