Suffolk's rich history dates back to 1608 when the English settled here and traded with the Nansemond Indians. Captain John Smith noted the potential of the oyster beds in the Nansemond River, but was driven away by the native population. Eventually commerce grew along the river and John Constant founded an important trading center and village known as Constant's Wharf, which would become the Town of Suffolk in 1742, after Governor William Gooch's home in Suffolk County, England.
Burned by the British in 1779 and damaged by other fires throughout the next century, Suffolk survived to become a city in 1910. In 1912, an Italian immigrant named Amedeo Obici moved from Pennsylvania to Suffolk and founded the Planters Nut and Chocolate Company. Today, Suffolk remains a major peanut processing center and transportation hub in the heart of the Hampton Roads region. The City of Suffolk expanded in 1974, consolidating with the towns of Holland and Whaleyville and the County of Nansemond and making Suffolk (population 73,515) the largest city by land area in Virginia, encompassing a total of 430 square miles.
Suffolk offers visitors a wide array of cultural and historical sites, some of which are promoted as part of Virginia’s Civil War Trails program. The Old Nansemond County Courthouse, a Greek Revival building rebuilt after the fire of 1837, served as part of the headquarters for Major General Peck of the Union Army. Riddick's Folly (1837), a 20 room Greek Revival house, also briefly served as Union Headquarters and is now a museum and cultural center. Cedar Hill Cemetery (1802) houses the Confederate monument dedicated in 1889 and many other historic sculptures.
Six historic districts and seven individual properties in Suffolk are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In order to maintain Suffolk’s historic resources, many property owners are taking advantage of Federal and State tax credits, and a sense of renewal is attracting people to older sections of the city. The Historic Landmarks Commission has been instrumental in the revitalization of downtown Suffolk, where many historic buildings have put back into productive use, and the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society also works to preserve Suffolk's history with the aid of grants and local support.
The Historic Prentis House (c.1800), one of the oldest standing homes in Suffolk, has undergone an extensive restoration in cooperation with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and now serves as the Suffolk Visitor Center and offices for the Suffolk Division of Tourism. The Seaboard Passenger Train Station (1885), in continuous use until the mid-20th century, has been renovated as a railroad museum featuring a two-room HO-scale model of Suffolk in 1907. The deteriorating 1922 Suffolk High School is currently being restored and repurposed to serve as a cultural arts center with community meeting space and services in the downtown historic district.
Designated a Preserve America Community in June 2005.