Taking its name from the creek that once flowed through the area, Shockoe Slip was founded as a small trading post by William Byrd in the 1600s. "Shocquohocan" was the Native American word for the flat stone at the mouth of the creek; "slip" referred to the area's position on the canal basin where boats loaded their cargo. Until the mid-1800s, "the Slip" flourished as the commercial center of Richmond and most of the state until the final days of the Civil War.
The evacuation fire of 1865 is one of the most devastating historical events in Richmond's history. On April 2, Confederate troops faced with the relentless advance of the Union army marching toward Richmond, received orders to burn select businesses lest their contents fall into enemy hands. They set fire to several tobacco warehouses in the area, at which point a brisk wind fanned the flames. Within a few hours the fire had become a citywide inferno, and by the following day the entire downtown area was reduced to charred rubble. Richmond subsequently fell to Union forces on April 3.
Abraham Lincoln himself arrived the following day and, surrounded by a huge procession that comprised many freed slaves, made his way on foot up Main Street, turned right on 14th and proceeded to Franklin where he continued west to Governor Street and the White House of the Confederacy. Lee would surrender at Appomattox on April 9th; three days later, John Wilkes Booth, a noted Richmond thespian, ended Lincoln's life with a bullet in the head.
Despite their secessionist desires, Richmonders mourned Lincoln's death, as those who were intent on filling his shoes promised to be much harder on the fallen South than gentile Abe. For the time being, however, their concerns were more immediate. The business district was decimated: 900 buildings and their contents were gone, among them the central businesses, three bridges across the James River, two railroad depots, the armory, the courthouses and a church. Oddly the Common House, now the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, was among the few buildings spared.
Shockoe Slip is best known today as the cobblestone paved street that runs east-west between 12th and 14th. Actually, the Shockoe Slip Historic District encompasses nine city blocks on the southeastern edge of Richmond's financial district, bounded by East Main, South 12th, the Downtown Expressway and the railroad tracks.