What county is Richmond, VA located in?
Richmond, VA is not located in any county. It is an independent city.
Why Richmond is an independent city
If you are visiting the Commonwealth or are a new resident, this question may be puzzling to you. In all other states (with a couple of exceptions we’ll discuss below), cities are a part of a particular county. This applies even to large cities like Chicago, Illinois, which is a part of Cook County, or Los Angeles, California, which is a part of Los Angeles County.
In Virginia, however, our cities are called “independent cities” and are not a part of any county. For voting and statistical purposes they are treated like a county, but they are independent entities.
All cities in Virginia have been independent, or free, cities since 1871. After the Civil War, a new state constitution was ratified, which separated West Virginia as a separate state and created independent cities.
Cities in Virginia are created by a charter from the General Assembly, the legislative branch of the Virginia government. To make things more complicated there are two types of city that can be chartered in Virginia. A first-class city has both a circuit court and a district court. A second-class city has a district court but no circuit court. Second-class cities will share a circuit court with an adjoining county.
General district courts are the lowest courts in the state. They handle minor cases like traffic infractions and misdemeanors as well as preliminary hearings for felonies. Circuit courts are the next level up, and they handle criminal trials and other matters passed on from the district court.
The difference between a city and town
Communities that are not chartered cities may be incorporated towns instead. An incorporated town is part of a county. Contrary to what you might expect, size or population does not determine the difference between a city and a town. Rather, it is only the distinction of a charter from the General Assembly that makes the difference. As many city charters were issued over 100 years ago, it makes sense that some cities may have remained smaller while some towns grew much larger.
Cities, counties, and shared names
Two counties that still exist today have “city” in their name. This is because these counties date back to the original settling of Virginia in the 1600s. Those counties are Charles City County and James City County. Both these counties are quite near to Richmond, located an hour or less east of the city. Charles City County is just south and east of Richmond, along the north side of the James River. James City County is adjacent to Williamsburg. Despite their names, they are legally counties, not cities.
Additionally, some counties and cities also share a name. It is important to realize that the City of Richmond and Richmond County are not the same or connected in any way. In fact, Richmond County is located nearly 60 miles northwest of the capital city.
Richmond’s history of city charters
Richmond has actually had not one, but four city charters over its long history. Founded in 1737 by Colonel William Byrd II, the first city charter was in 1782, when the city first incorporated. Subsequent city charters went into effect in 1851, 1918, and 1948. Each charter made changes to the structure of the city government. After all, a 12-person council of aldermen could hardly be expected to govern a modern city of over 200,000 inhabitants.
Interestingly, while Richmond received its first city charter in 1782, it actually became the capital of Virginia two years earlier, in 1780. Up until that time, the state capital was located in Williamsburg. The capital was relocated to provide a more central location for the state’s population as it expanded westward.
Other independent cities in the United States
Independent cities are rare in the United States outside of Virginia, but the tradition hails from early English government. English communities in the 16th and 17th centuries also required a charter to be considered a city. In their case, this was a royal charter granted by the king or queen. These charters were typically granted to towns that had a diocesan cathedral within their limits. It was not until the late 19th century that this connection between religion and city status was broken in Britain.
Only three cities in the United States outside of Virginia are independent cities. They are Baltimore, Maryland; Carson City, Nevada; and St. Louis, Missouri. Baltimore is the largest of these independent cities with a population of over 600,000. Baltimore became an independent city, separate from Baltimore County, in 1851. The City of St. Louis separated from St. Louis County in 1876. Carson City, Nevada is the most recent independent city out of the three. Carson City consolidated with Ormsby County in 1969, and the county was simultaneously dissolved. In all three cases, the cities were granted independent status due to the special needs of governing very large cities or state capitals.
Another interesting fact regarding cities and counties is that New York City is also not a part of any county. Instead, it is made up of five counties, each representing one of the boroughs of the city.
So now when someone asks you, “What county is Richmond, VA in?” you will know that the answer is, “None.” And you’ll be able to talk their ear off, too.
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