Long designated as the North Branch of the James, the North Branch takes its name from "River Anne", to honor Queen Anne (1665-1714), then monarch of England, and so of the Virginia Colony as well. 
A ten-mile stretch of the river from the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir to the Woolen Mills area was designated by the General Assembly as part of Virginia's Scenic Rivers System.
The first European visitors to what would become Albemarle County likely traveled to the area via the Rivanna, which was originally known as the River Anna.   Thomas Jefferson ordered a study of the Rivanna River in 1763. Jefferson helped pass an Act of Assembly that cleared of rocks and debris from the river, and constructed a sluice at Milton Falls.  This made the river navigable for canoes and bateaux as far up as Milton. This caused the Rivanna River to become an important transportation route during the Revolutionary War. In the 1820s, the town of Charlottesville renamed the ports along the river "Pireus" after the port city of Athens.
Rivanna River Vortex
The University of Virginia School of Architecture conducted a one-week project on the future of the Rivanna River called the Rivanna River Vortex. . At an introductory panel session on January 14, 2013, professor Daniel Bluestone argued that the river has largely become invisible and recommended teams anchor their projects to the history that has been forgotten.
The river is an impediment to east-west travel, crossed in limited places. From north to south, these are:
- U.S. Route 250 and Virginia State Route 20 at the Free Bridge, the former crossing of the Three Notch'd Road.
- Interstate 64
- County 729
The river as economic engine
In August 2012 Albemarle and Charlottesville officials called for a joint planning session that would focus on economic development in the Woolen Mills neighborhood and river area. Officials have suggested that pedestrian access and use of the area would be among the session's primary focuses, as would expanding the commercial uses. The joint planning commission meeting is scheduled for Sept. 18, 2012.
The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission was directed by Charlottesville City Council and the Albemarle Board of Supervisors in 2014 to study how the river could become an asset for the community. Their plan was endorsed by the city and county planning commissions in January 2017. 
- Web. pdf. Rivanna River History, Lindsay Nolting and J. Stephen Pence, Rivanna Conservation Society, retrieved 12 Jun 2009.
- Web. Rivanna Scenic River; expands to include length of waterway from South Fork Rivanna River reservoir. (SB957), Richmond Sunlight, retrieved 08 Sept. 2009..
- Web. , Tim Shea, Charlottesville Tomorrow, January 15, 2013, retrieved January 15, 2013.
- Web. Rivanna Greenbelt Trail, City of Charlottesville, retrieved 30 July 2012.
- Web. Canal society celebrates Jefferson the businessman, Tim Shea, Charlottesville Tomorrow, April 28, 2013, retrieved April 29, 2013.
- Web. Can Charlottesville become a city by the river?, Chiara Canzi, C-VILLE Weekly, Portico Publications, January 10, 2012, retrieved January 12, 2011. Print. January 10, 2012 , 24.02, .
- Web. Albemarle officials call for joint planning along Rivanna River border with Charlottesville, Sean Tubbs, August 2, 2012, retrieved August 6, 2011.
- Web. Rivanna River planning projects endorsed by city, county commissions, Josh Mandell, News Article, Charlottesville Tomorrow, January 24, 2017, retrieved December 26, 2017.