The city of Harrisonburg was founded after Thomas Harrison granted portions of his land to the public in 1779. In 1737, Harrison relocated his household in the Shenandoah Valley. After five years, his family claimed the property in the area which is now known as the Harrisonburg City. The home the Harrison family created on Bruce Street can still be found there today. In 1778, Rockingham County was founded by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
After a year, Harrison donated two and a half-acre of his property to the newly-formed county. The first courthouse in the area was built on the site. In 1780, he added 50 acres to what he originally deeded to the public. Harrisonburg then became the county seat of Rockingham.
The Masonic Order, established in 1789, is the oldest organization founded in the city. It still exists today. The Trustees oversaw Harrisonburg’s town until a new charter was formed in 1849, where a mayor-council form of government was introduced. The first elected mayor was Isaac Hardesty, who had seven men helping him in the council.
The years between 1861 and 1864 were a tumultuous time for Harrisonburg as the war came to the city. The town used the fence around the courthouse to captive Union soldiers in the battle of Cross Keys. It was a challenging period for the entire city. A recognized cavalry officer, Turner Ashby, died in the fight. The city of Harrisonburg objected secession despite being a member of the Confederacy.
In 1892, over a thousand acres of land were added to Harrisonburg through appropriation. It led to the growth in the city’s population by three times. The following year, the city-appointed trustees to initiate a public-school system with the help of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The State Normal and Industrial School for Women was founded by the Virginia General Assembly in 1908. Following two decades, the school was renamed State Teachers College and later on became Madison College in 1938. The college used the name of James Madison University in 1977. At present, the University caters to more than 19,000 students and 4,000 faculty members.
The Rockingham Memorial Hospital was created in 1912 and aided counties from Shenandoah Valley and some parts of West Virginia. A regional cancer center was established in 1994. Harrisonburg was incorporated in 1916. In 1920, the population in Harrisonburg was more than 5,500. The Eastern Mennonite School was created in 1917 and is now known as the Eastern Mennonite University. In 1947, the school started to become a four-year degree institution. The University presently has a graduate school and undergraduate degree courses.
More acres of land were added to Harrisonburg through an appropriation in 1937, 1938, and 1950. The annexations resulted in the city’s expansion. The city population was 19,700 in the 1970 census. In 1982, the last occupation of the land took place and added 11.64 square miles to the city.
In the early 2000s, initiatives to restore downtown Harrisonburg began through various groups like Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance. Harrisonburg holds a State Historic District and a National Historic District.