Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Where is Shockoe?

Postcard view of Shockoe Valley from Jefferson Park, ca. 1910.

The origin of the name Shockoe predates European contact, being a modern corruption name applied by the Powhatans Native Americans to a creek with a large flat rock at its mouth. The native peoples who lived in the village of Powhatan (modern Richmond) applied their word for stone Shacahocan (as rescorded by the English linguist William Strachey) to this creek. The particular rock was a substantial landmark; so large it was used as pier for small craft during the colonial era. It marked the beginning of what the Powhatans called Paqwachowng, translated by Strachey as the Falls of the Kings River.

The English referred to the large granite outcropping at the Rock Landing and came to refer to the creek that flowed into the river at the landing as Shaccos. Over time the whole area west of the Creek came to be known as Shaccos, the location of many public tobacco inspection warehouses. In 1733, William Byrd of Westover established Richmond, adjacent to Shacco’s on the east bank of the creek. In 1758 Shaccos was incorporated into the town of Richmond.

The modern standard spelling of Shockoe dates from the around the time of the American Revolution. It came to be applied to the creek, the large valley in which the creek ran, and the large plateau on the western side of the creek, known as Shockoe Hill. The Virginia General Assembly in 1780 specified that the construction of various government buildings would be located on Shockoe Hill. This did not deter Richard Adams from fighting for over four years to locate the Capitol on Richmond, now Church Hill. Adams owned most of the property on Church Hill that he sought to enhance his investment through the construction of the Capitol. Investors on Shockoe Hill and Thomas Jefferson had another idea altogether, and managed to hang on to the Capitol as an ornament to Shockoe Hill.

Richmonders hear the term “Shockoe” in their daily traffic reports and in the names of two interesting parts of town known for their entertainment venues and loft architecture. Aside from this, most Richmonders are probably unaware of the origins of this peculiar word or the large extent of geography it can be applied to. Shockoe Creek for a hundred years has been entombed as the City sewer main, it no longer meanders through a wide flood plain. Shockoe Hill no longer appears on maps or in tourist literature, the way that Beacon Hill in Boston does. Its rough edges have been softened by hundreds of years of public improvements. As a whole Shockoe is largely forgotten name and archaic word that used to characterize so much of Richmond.

-Tyler Potterfield


HEK said...

Ray! An excellent concept for a blog. Ane thanks for the refresher on the origin of Shockoe. I'd either not known or forgotten about the massive stone at the mouth of the creek; my recollection the word was vaguely translated as "place of smooth rocks." But I was all wet on this. -- HEK

rickman said...

Thanks, I enjoyed reading about this. Any idea if the stone is still there? Looks to me like it should be right around the 14th street kayak take out. I would expect it might be marked, but I guess if it is in the middle of a sewer its not a great place o be.