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The History of Hampton Roads vs. Tidewater Identity Crisis
By Nancy E. Sheppard

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While York County and Poquoson may sit near the border of Hampton Roads, there is no doubt how important these jurisdictions are to this corner of the Commonwealth. As I have written in the past, I am a York County "transplant,” having spent most of my life on the south side of the area. Being "only” 35 years old, I have always known this area as Hampton Roads first, Tidewater by heritage. Being in my line of work as a local historian, I am approached by so many interesting people with thought provoking opinions and "lenses” into our vibrant history. At my book signing this past weekend, I was approached by a couple who had rather strong opinions on what this region should be called… is it Tidewater or is it Hampton Roads? So, let’s research the etymology behind what we call our area.

"Tidewater” is the moniker this region was known as for centuries. The word itself refers to any place where ocean tides effect the rivers and other connecting bodies of water, in terms of water level rising and falling. The region itself became known as "The Tidewater” because this was the first permanent English footprint in the United States. For obvious reasons, it isn’t the only "tidewater” in existence. Yet this is the name that many longtime locals know the region as. There are businesses and the south side’s community college use the word in their names, and even the name of our accent is referred to as "Tidewater English.” So, when did it become "Hampton Roads” and what is "Hampton Roads”?

"Hampton Roads” refers to the body of water that connects the James, Nansemond, and Elizabeth Rivers to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean around Sewell’s Point. Hence why the "Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel” is named as such since it cuts right through this point in the water. While many think that this is a relatively new phenomenon (somewhere in the 1980’s), the region around this body of water has been referred to as "Hampton Roads” for much longer. I found a Daily Press article from 1935 referring to the region, not just the body of water, as "Hampton Roads.” But the big push to stamp out the "Tidewater” name came in the latter half of the 20th century when development and business "big wigs” felt "Tidewater” made the region sound swampy and unbecoming, thus not attracting economic development. Even the Virginian-Pilot changed their style guide so the area would no longer be referred to as "Tidewater” in the newspaper.

The problem is that, with the "Hampton Roads” name, outside of us locals, this doesn’t say anything as to what and where we are. Those from outside of the area hear "Hampton Roads” and immediately assume that we are referring to some vast highway or mass transit system. In the past decade, the identity crisis of our region has stirred again when yet another new name was suggested: "Coastal Virginia.” Proponents for this "rebranding” felt that this name would tell "outsiders” more about our area while having a more palatable ring to it. The issue with this, and, for many, the name "Hampton Roads,: is that it strips away some of our regional identity and heritage… as Tidewater.

No matter how we refer to it… Tidewater, Hampton Roads, or Coastal Virginia… this unique corner of the Commonwealth is known to us by one name and one name alone: Home.


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