Early History

Charlottesville was founded in 1762 and named after Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of King George III. Originally served as a midway point on the road from Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley, three founding fathers and presidents were born and spent most of their lives in the area: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. The three men played pivotal roles in igniting the Revolutionary War and saw Charlottesville house a prison for British and German soldiers in what is now known as the Barracks area.

The war ended and peace ensued in the newly-founded republic. Charlottesville grew as a commercial hub in central Virginia. Jefferson returned from serving as president to his home at Monticello and founded the University of Virginia in 1819. A railroad came to town in 1850. As peace gave way to the Civil War, the city avoided significant damage and no major battles were fought near town.

Following the Civil War, Charlottesville expanded and continued to develop. The city annexed more and more land, expanding to 800 acres by the late 1880s. It developed a horse-drawn streetcar service that later progressed into trolleys and paved roads at the start of the 20th century. Just as it is today, the area continued to be home to a thriving agricultural community. The antebellum focus of wheat and tobacco production eventually shifted to beef and dairy cattle, sheep, orchards, and vineyards. Farms grew smaller as freed slaves worked the land as tenant farmers and sharecroppers.

Tourism began to increase in Charlottesville in the first half of the 20th century due to the area’s natural beauty and attractions like Monticello. After World War II, the GI Bill helped more veterans attend college and attendance at the University of Virginia was bolstered. In the 1970s, cars were prohibited from Main Street, which paved the way for today’s iconic pedestrian downtown mall.

Presidents, farmers, and students alike have shaped the landscape of Charlottesville’s history over the last several hundred years. To learn more about the area’s fascinating past, visit the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society.