Named for Captain Newport

On January 19, 2014 · 1 Comments

It started with a 12MC article, Upstart Eclipses Namesake and more specifically with an amusing comment from from KCJeff, "I’m willing to go out on a limb and state from my perspective that Newfoundland has surpassed Foundland!" From there I determined to find equally clever examples along the same vein. It stopped at a list of one. I finished searching pretty much immediately as I pondered Newport News — an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia — and it led me down a series of tangents. Maybe I’ll return to the original quest someday although not today.

Newport News, in alignment with the previous entry, had two New opportunities of course. I started with the second one, News. Following the comical progression introduced by KCJeff, I wondered if New S had surpassed S. I figured it hadn’t since regular old S seemed to be doing just fine on its own. All kidding aside, News seemed an odd choice to append to a city name. Historians offered several possible explanations and it had been subject to considerable speculation. News might be a corruption of the surname of an early colonial official, Sir William Newce, or it might not.

The Newport part was generally believed to have been named for Captain Christopher Newport. Historians interpreting the available evidence seemed to lean towards that conclusion although a piece of paper saying, "hey, we named it for Chris" either didn’t exist or remained lost to history. That also reminded me of an earlier 12MC article where the captain of a ship inspired placenames in his figurative or possibly literal wake, Named for Captain Cook. I don’t know if there will be any other articles in the "Named for Captain" series although if it becomes a trilogy I think the next one will be Named for Cap’n Crunch.

Christopher Newport Univ., Newport News, Virginia, USA

Thus a city in Virginia was likely named at least partially for Christopher Newport. That wouldn’t have seemed likely during the earlier part of his career. He spent most of his adult life as a privateer — a legal pirate — plundering Spanish and Portuguese cargo ships for personal profit and the financial gain of English investors who bankrolled his adventures. Then he commanded a fleet of three ships that brought an initial round of settlers to Jamestown in 1607 (my visit), the first permanent English settlement in what would later become the United States. That was enough to transform him from pirate-by-another-name to noble historical figure.

Logically one would assume that most things named for Newport would happen to be located in proximity to his several supply voyages to the Jamestown colony. That was mostly true. The preponderance fell along Virginia’s James River as one would expect, the riverine highway leading to and from Jamestown.

For example, an institution of higher learning was established in Newport News in 1961, initially called Christopher Newport College and now Christopher Newport University. Also, Newport Avenue in the Colonial Place and Riverview neighborhoods of nearby Norfolk (map) was also named for Christopher Newport. A variety of other tidewater Virginia roads likely paid homage to Newport as well although the occurrence in Norfolk was the only one that I could document with absolute certainty.

Christopher Newport Cross, Richmond, Virginia, USA

Elsewhere in Virginia and a little farther upstream, one can visit the Christopher Newport Cross in Richmond. As noted on a nearby inscription,

On May 24, 1607, Captain Christopher Newport and a party of explorers who had landed at Jamestown just days earlier arrived at the site of modern-day Richmond. Hoping to find a passage to the Pacific, they found instead a fortified Indian village with outlying agricultural fields. Newport… traveled the next day a short distance upstream. There he planted a cross in honor of King James I of England, probably on a small islet not too far from the fall line.

The current cross along Richmond’s Canal Walk dated to 1907. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities commissioned it for "the tercentenary of Christopher Newport’s visit."

Newport, Kentucky

Newport, Kentucky, USA

Newport, Kentucky seemed distant from Christopher Newport’s legacy both in time and miles. While definitely a "new port" on the expanding frontier of the nascent United States, the name did not derive from its tenuous foothold along the Ohio River. Neither was it named for an earlier Newport unlike nearly every other place bearing that name (e.g., Newport, Rhode Island). The Kentucky town across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio definitely commemorated Christopher Newport.

The original settlement had been founded by General James Taylor in 1795 on land that he’d inherited from his father. The Taylor family had a multi-generational history of wealth and privilege that traced back to the early colonial plantations of Virginia. President Zachary Taylor came from the same extended family, for example. This historical connection to Virginia traveled with Taylor to his home on the frontier and provided a context for the naming of Newport in Kentucky.

Named, In the Past Tense

Champlain Mountain, Acadia National Park, Maine, USA

Champlain Mountain’s summit rises more than a thousand feet on Mount Desert Island, a popular hiking destination in Maine’s Acadia National Park. It wasn’t always Champlain Mountain though. Once it was Mount Newport.

Newport Mountain, Mount Desert — Frederic Edwin Church, the Complete Works
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) license.

The artist Frederic Edwin Church of the Hudson River School painted this mountain in the early 1850’s, when it was still named for Christopher Newport. It seemed odd to commemorate Newport in a place so far removed from his haunts, and I guess that others must have felt the same or they wouldn’t have changed the name.

The painting sold at auction in 2000 for $4.186 million. Now that would be something any privateer would love to plunder.

On January 19, 2014 · 1 Comments

One Response to “Named for Captain Newport”

  1. Rhodent says:

    Speaking as a former resident of Newport News, that city was the first thing my mind went to when I read the Foundland joke as well. Really enjoyed this article!

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