The First Counties of Virginia
For anyone wanting to begin genealogy research in Virginia (or any state for that matter), it is most important to understand the history of the state and the divisions by county – and most particularly in Virginia, since that’s where it all began! What started as one colony on the shores of the James River moved up and down the coastline of the state – and then westward – always moving further into new territory and bringing civilization to the backwoods areas.
In 1607 with the beginning of Jamestown, the counties of Virginia were not planned in advance. The colony was a private company’s investment – The Virginia Company of London – and governed by the stockholders of the company, not the king of England. In 1617 the colony was divided into four incorporations – Henricus, Charles City, James City and Kecoughtan. As more people made the voyage from England to join the colony, in 1618 representatives were elected to help govern them. Starting in 1619 the General Assembly handled executive, legislative and judicial issues for the Virginia Colony. But the Virginia Company was doomed from the start – the hopes of reaping high benefits from their investment was never to be. So in 1624 King James I revoked the Virginia Company’s charter and took control.
By 1634 there were 5,000 colonists in the new world. This was too much for the governing body to easily handle. At this point eight shires were charted – and almost immediately called ‘counties’. Kecoughtan was thought to sound too heathen, therefore it’s name was changed to Elizabeth City. The four additional counties were Charles River, Accawmack, Warrosquyoake and Warwick River. By 1643 most of these ceased to exist. Charles River became York, Warrosquyoake became Isle of Wight, James City became Surry (in 1652), Charles City became Prince George (in 1703), Warwick River became Warwick.
In 1645, from the Indian District of Chickocoan – between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers – a new county, Northumberland, was formed. This county – and the counties formed from it – interest me more than any other part of Virginia. This is where my Linton’s, Berkeley’s, Mason’s, Hancock’s, Barton’s, Green’s – and many others – lived, worked, fought for their country during the Revolutionary War, bought and sold land, married and raised children.
Also known as the Northern Neck of Virginia, this land was granted to Lord Ralph Horton, Lord Henry Jermyn, Lord John Culpeper, Sir John Berkeley, Sir William Morton, Sir Dudley Wyatt and Thomas Culpeper, Esq., in 1649 by Charles, the exiled son of executed Charles I, for their support. Lord Thomas Culpeper, son of one of the original patentees, by 1681 had purchased the rights of the other patentees and became sole proprietor of the Northern Neck. It was re-granted to Culpeper in 1688 and passed to his daughter on his death, then to her son, Lord Thomas Fairfax. The transactions for this land are called the Northern Neck Land Grants – and contain much helpful information for genealogists!
In 1651 and 1653, respectively, Lancaster County and Westmoreland County were formed from Northumberland. Westmoreland was the northern half, the Potomac River its border; Lancaster the southern half, with the Rappahannock River as its border. In 1664 Stafford was carved out of Westmoreland; in 1731 Prince William was formed from Stafford and a bit of King George County. In 1742 Fairfax was formed from Prince William and in 1759 Fauquier County was also formed from Prince William. And in 1757 Loudoun County was formed from Fairfax. Why is this so important? Land that was a part of Loudoun County in 1757 was at one time land in Fairfax, Stafford, Westmoreland, etc. If you are trying to trace deeds back to the original owner you may have to move from county to county. Knowing this progression also helps in knowing where to look for older wills or marriage records.
I have presented only one small piece of the puzzle of Virginia counties. There are a total of 95 counties, plus 39 independent cities. A good source for county divisions is AniMap – a CD with information on all states. If interested you can visit the Goldbug website. I must visit there myself since my older version won’t work on my new computer – but since I bought it 10 years ago that’s not too bad! Happy researching!
Categories: Genealogy Ramblings