The History of Pocahontas Island

By the late eighteenth century, Pocahontas Island was an African American neighborhood, where both enslaved and free persons lived. The early settlement of free black people makes Pocahontas Island the earliest predominantly free black community in Virginia and among the first in North America. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Pocahontas Island was one of the largest free black commuities in the United States.

Located at the head of the Appomattox River, Pocahontas Island was integral to Petersburg’s commercial development and trading activities. Pocahontas Island’s black residents engaged in a variety of commercial activities including a range of skilled and service trades and small businesses.  Several of Pocahontas Island’s free black proprietors were successful boatmen with fleets of schooners, sloops, and flatboats carrying trade along the river.  The prevalence of black boatmen, watermen, fishermen, and pilots in Petersburg mirrored larger eighteenth and nineteenth century demographic patterns in North America’s Atlantic port cities, though most of the black workers in the other southern ports were enslaved whereas many of Petersburg’s watermen were free.

During the early nineteenth century, Pocahontas Island served as a node in the Underground Railroad network that assisted fugitive slaves traveling to freedom. Two of the original homes used for thie purpose still exist in Pocahontas Island.