To mention a town named Monroe, Virginia is to bring to a listener's mind a railroad town between Lynchburg and Amherst. From there the famous Old 97 left for Spencer on a fateful run in 1903. This is not the Monroe of importance to Pittsylvania County history, however. The Monroe of interest here came into being in 1818 in Pittsylvania County on the banks of the Staunton river. The founder was one Abner Anthony whose forefathers settled in Campbell and Bedford Counties ca. 1750. This family came into the area during the final conflict with the Indians in the Piedmont. There are stories and legends surrounding this period. One is a story of Mary Crawford of Hurt who was kidnapped by the Redmen and carried off across the mountains. Legend has it that she was rescued by young Henry Staunton who dashed with her down the Staunton to return her to her grateful family. Another Indian War story surrounds Captain John Anthony of Walnut Hill in Campbell County. The Captain was chasing Indians to the west when his wife and small son had a visit from the savages. The gritty wife barricaded herself and offspring in the house and fought off her attackers with musket and ball from an upstairs window.
Anthony's Ford on the Staunton River lay close to the mouth of Louse Creek. It was on a road which led from Lou's Island on the Pigg River to Lynchburg. Actually there have been three Anthony Fords. One crossed the Otter River in Campbell County on the Lynchburg-Leesville Road. A second crossed the Staunton at the northeast corner of Pittsylvania County, and another Anthony's Ford lay down stream toward Leesville. The second one mentioned, which was the upper ford on the Staunton, is the one of interest to this work. Its actual site is now covered by the waters of Smith Mountain Lake near a place known as Vista Pointe.
The Anthonys had vast land holdings, it seems, and owned a grist mill on the Otter River. Three developments may have motivated Abner and Charles Anthony of Bedford County to purchase 315 acres of land just across the river in Pittsylvania County in 1814: The rapid settlement along the Staunton after the Revolution; the coming of Roanoke Navigation Company to this part of the river in 1816 (which would afford beter access to the Eastern markets for Pittsylvania County farm products); the traffic on their ford (or ferry) on the Staunton.
Abner was to acquire another 100 acres from John Seay that lay adjacent to the original tract in 1818. He became the guiding light of the enterprise and quickly set about subdividing a fifty acre tract into half acre lots. The big sale occurred on July 7, 1818, when a dozen or so lots were sold. Many more were sold in the ensuing months, especially to Bedford County residents. The descriptions of the lots indicate that Abner Anthony was planning a bustling city. Street names included Spring, Green, Brown, Commerce, Rives and Powell's Alley. Apparently Commerce Street was meant to be the Main Street, since most deeds were tied to it in their location descriptions. Tax records for 1819 show some twenty-eight lots existing — many more than the County Seat town of Competition had in 1819.
The Anthonys then sent an impressive petition to the Virginia General Assembly on December 12, 1818. There were 119 signatures on the petition. The signers were from some of the most prominent families in the region. Three of them were from the Early family — Jubal, Joel and Jabez of Franklin County. Neither of them sired the famous Civil War Confederate Lt. General Jubal Anderson Early, since “Old Jube's” father was Joab Early. The famous Jubal was born only two years before this petition descended on the General Assembly. The signers were “Old Jube's” relatives no doubt. Joab Early actually inherited the Washington Iron Works from his father and grandfather. According to Franklin County deeds, the title on this furnace near Rocky Mount was transferred to Col. Peter Saunders on January 1, 1818 (the year of the petition) by the “heirs of Joab Early.” These heirs included the two year old Jubal Anderson Early. This accounts for the signatures of three Earlys on the petition for the founding of the Town of Monroe. They understandably had the vested interest in the development of that proposed town just across the line in Pittsylvania County.
Other signers were from some of the most prominent families in the region, and included the following: Anthony, Rives, Early, Davis, Saunders, Leftwich, Hurt, Thomas, Harris and Quarles. Two of these are especially interesting. One was a Samuel Harris. However, this was not the famous Baptist preacher who died nearly twenty yeras before, but a descendent or a namesake no doubt. Another was John L. Hurt who may have been the John L. who was a patriot and a Staunton River industrialist.
The petition was quickly approved by the legislature, and the story could perhaps end there because no spectacular activity took place thereafter. Land transactions practically ceased. Investors failed to pay taxes on some of the lots and in 1836 the partnership of William Tunstall and Coleman Bennett bought fifteen lots at a Sheriff's auction. Among the owners of the lots in Monroe who lost by foreclosure were James Fishback, Henry Tate, George Hughes, Robert Powell, Enos Allen, James Newbill and Lewis Wingfield. None of these tax delinquent lots had houses, but there were a few others which appear to have had good buildings on them. For example, Thomas Lumpkin's house had a taxable valuation of eight hundred dollars.
There is evidence that some commercial activity transpired and some indication of population density in the area at one time. A post office called Monroeton was located in Pittsylvania County between 1823 and 1837. The source does not pinpoint the precise post office location of course. However, the name Monroeton invites conjecture. It could not have been called “Monroe” because of an older post office of the same name in Southhampton County. There was yet another Monroe in Monroe County (in what is now West Virginia) and it was called Union. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it seems logical to associate the post office name of Monroeton to the Commonwealth's third Town of Monroe.
The Town of Monroe stayed on the land books with the Towns of Danville, Competition [or Chatham], and Riceville through the Civil War. But during the thirty years prior to the purchase of the town lots at a Sheriff's sale, there was not a single land transfer in the Town of Monroe. In all likelihood Tunstall and Bennett failed to realize a profit in this venture, and as a town it was apparently long since dead when it disappeared from the tax rolls in 1869.
Historian Maud Clement barely mentioned Monroe and the Staunton river chronicler, Diane Popek, not at all. For the most part, only Deed Book 22 in the county records contains entries pertaining to Monroe. County lawyers see it mentioned as a land mark during title searches on occasion however.
Paradoxically, Abner Anthony was ahead of his time because in reality a town exists on the south bank of the Staunton at that point today. Scores of lakeside homes line the south shoreline of Smith Mountain Lake. Some may actually sit where Anthony planned for homes to be built. At the present time most of the site of old Monroe is probably submerged. The residential development called Vista Pointe could perhaps be sitting on or near what was a Monroe town lot. It is certain that the Anthony's Ford crossing lay on what is presently County Route 626. Its route no doubt ran through the Town of Monroe since there are 19th Century maps that label that road as the “Monroe Road.”
Anthony's Bridge replaced the ford (or ferry) sometime in the 1800s, and when the huge dam was built just down stream in the 1960s, Anthony's Ford Bridge across the Staunton had to be abandoned and removed. A few natives registered their complaints when this prominent landmark was demolished in the name of progress, but it passed quietly from the scene.
One minor historical note worth mentioning is the investment made by Benjamin Rives in Monroe. He built a house where and applied for an ordinary license on June 1, 1819. In July of 1823 he was granted a license to sell ardent spirits and oeprate a house of private entertainment. The cost of this license was $4.50 for one year.
Family names of some of the early Monroe settlers including Williams, Anthony, Lumpkin and Brown appear today on signs and mailboxes in the area.
Most of Louse Creek has been inundated by the lake. Its confluence with the Staunton was very near Anthony's Ford, which means that searching for physical traces of Monroe is out of the question. Why did it fail in this period of expansion? Did not Roanoke Navigation Company clear the Staunton for nagivation purposes well upstream of Monroe? Were not settlers still arriving almost daily? No definitive answer is possible perhaps. One must look at regional social and economic conditions at the time to even venture a guess.
The War of 1812 ended on the Christmas Eve after Abner Anthony purchased the land for the Town of Monroe. Ironically, the brief business upturn which followed was throttled by an economic depression during the “Era of Good Feeling” under President James Monroe. Then came the Panics of the 1830s under Andrew Jackson. The price of tobacco stayed low during that period and Roanoke Navigation Company apparently did not invest as heavily in the upper Staunton as it did in the lower. Traffic may have shifted to adjacent turnpikes where there were bridges and established routes. Monroe's isolation in a rugged terrain could have been a significant factor in its demise. In any case, had Monroe thrived like a few other towns in the county managed to do, its presence possibly could have prevented the construction of Smith Mountain Dam. The presence of a town the size of modern Gretna at the site in 1963, for example, would have given second thoughts to power company site selection committees. That hypothesis adds further interest and romance to the story of the forgotten Town of Monroe.
Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills
Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills
Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On
Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse
Clement: History of Pittsylvania County
Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past
Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County
Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County
Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books
Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina
Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town
Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.
Copyright © 1998–2005 Herman E. Melton.