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Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881
By George Holbert Tucker

Chapter 42

Forrest - Norfolk's First Historian

Norfolk history buffs owe a great deal to William H. Forrest, the author of the first serious historical work on the Norfolk area.

Although Forrest's prose style is a trifle rococo for contemporary tastes, his historical writings preserve a gold mine of out-of-the-way information concerning the Norfolk area that would have been forgotten if he had not had the foresight to set it down.

Forrest was born near London Bridge in Princess Anne County (now the City of Virginia Beach) in 1817. He was a son of John P.C. and Mrs. Elizabeth Forrest. Not too much is known concerning his earlier years, but he was always interested in his adopted city and was known as one of its most progressive citizens.

When he was thirty, he began a weekly paper in Norfolk called the Virginia Temperance Advocate. The first issue, dated May 15, 1847, stated that it was dedicated to "temperance, morality, literature, health, etc."

Feeling the great need for a city directory, there having been none since 1806-07, Forrest set about compiling a systematic listing of the inhabitants of the city and its many growing businesses. The directory, published in 1851-52, lists him as "William S. Forrest, editor and proprietor of the Norfolk Directory, No. 6 Brewer St., near Freemason."

While compiling the directory, Forrest felt the necessity of a good general history of Norfolk and its vicinity. His "Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Norfolk and Vicinity . . . During a Period of 200 Years" was published in 1853 and was an immediate success.

Forrest was blessed with an excellent memory and the knack of never forgetting intimate details concerning persons and important happenings. He also had access to many private papers and files of old newspapers that no longer exist, and his extracts from them have proved invaluable to latter-day historians.

Norfolk had a population of sixteen thousand at the time the history was issued. Two years later, the city was almost wiped out by the worst yellow fever epidemic in its history. Fortunately, Forrest survived the disaster and incorporated his observations in "The Great Pestilence in Virginia," which was published a year after the epidemic.

This volume is one of the best accounts of the terrible summer of 1855, when the only vessel to enter the harbor was a small steamer transporting mail and coffins from the Washington and Richmond steamers anchored in Hampton Roads.

Throughout this period, Forrest was also connected with The Daily Southern Argus and Virginia and North Carolina Advertiser. This was the Norfolk "states' rights" paper of the period and was dedicated to "Southern Views and Southern Rights."

The Argus was discontinued in 1861 after almost every man in its plant had joined the Confederate Army. Forrest was the "local editor," or what would today be known as the "city editor" of the Argus.

After the Civil War, Forrest entered the real estate business. He was a great promoter of railroads coming into the Norfolk area and was particularly interested in making Norfolk the port for the Eastern North Carolina trade.

He died on October 10, 1878, and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery. His funeral took place at Cumberland Street Methodist Church, which was torn down a few years ago to provide additional parking space for the congregation of St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

Chapter 43
Norfolk and the Navy

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

See the "Table of Contents" for links to every chapter in Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881 by George Holbert Tucker.