Founded in 1610, Hampton is a city of firsts – the first continuous English-speaking settlement was established here, America's first free public education was offered here and NASA trained its first astronauts here in Hampton.
Hampton's national monument, Fort Monroe, plays a large part in Hampton's history. In 1607, the English explorer Captain John Smith came ashore near Fort Monroe. In 1609, colonial settlers built a wooden structure large enough to hold 50 men and seven mounted cannons, and called it Fort Algernourne. In 1619, it would serve as a landing place in the New World for Africans brought in as slaves.
Work on the fort began in 1819. Named for James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States, Fort Monroe took 15 years to build. Among those who directed construction of the fort was a young lieutenant, Robert E. Lee.
Fort Monroe remained in the hands of the U.S. Army. Although situated in Virginia and surrounded by Confederate forces, the fort did not fall to the Confederacy.
Civil War Inclusion
On May 23, 1861, three Virginia slaves escaped from Norfolk at night and rowed a small boat across the harbor to Hampton. They arrived at Fort Monroe, which had remained under Union control, and asked for asylum. Post commander Major General Benjamin Butler met with the three - Frank Baker, Sheppard Mallory and James Townsend - and determined he would not return them. When a Confederate officer requested their return under the Fugitive Slave Act, Butler refused, declaring the three to be "contraband of war."
General Butler's contraband decision propelled slavery to the forefront as a wartime concern. By the end of the war, more than 10,000 former slaves were living in large tent cities outside the fort. Many of them stayed in the area, starting businesses and rebuilding Hampton. Thousands of African-Americans today trace their heritage to the slaves who escaped to "Freedom's Fortress."