An Abbreviated History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Chapter Three: Settlement

By Maud Carter Clement, Chatham, Virginia, ca. 1952.

Chapter contents:

At the end of the first hundred years following the landing of the colonists at Jamestown, the settlement of Virginia had not extended westward beyond the head of the Tidewater. However the back country had been explored and was known to the traders. Many maps and outlines of the western wilderness had been drawn up; and when Alexander Spottswood became governor of Virginia in 1710, he made a collection of these crude drawings and studied them. (You will recall the story of Governor Spottswood's trip to the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the golden horseshoe souvenirs which he presented to the gentlemen who accompanied him.)

At this time Virginia became alarmed at the activity of the French in the Mississippi Valley. Their settlements at Kaskaskia and Vincennes in the Illinois country were considered a real threat to the security of Virginia's western frontiers.

In order to encourage her own western settlement, in 1720, two new Virginia counties were established, Spottsylvania in the north, and Brunswick in the south, both extending westward to the mountains. Settlers at once found their way up the Rappahannock Valley, and made their homes in Spottsylvania. But the settlement of Brunswick was slow, for the reason that the streams which water this great area flow south into North Carolina and settlement in Virginia had always led up her water courses which formed convenient highways for travel. The making of roads through the forests, felling giant trees, by hand, was a slow and heavy task. To encourage the settlement of the new counties one thousand pounds of public moneys was set aside for arms and ammunition for the defense of the frontiers, taxes were remitted for a space of ten years. But in spite of these measures so few people moved into Brunswick that twelve years passed before there was a sufficient to organize the county and appoint the customary officers. This was done in 1732.

The slow development of the frontiers caused the government to change its land policy. In the new counties land grants had been limited to 1000 acres per person. Now immense areas were granted to men of influence, with the understanding that they were to bring about their speedy settlement. These lands were sold to the incoming settlers at a neat profit, and comfortable fortunes were amassed.

In 1736, 110,000 acres were granted to Colonel Beverley and others in the Valley of Virginia (now Augusta County) and they too turned to Pennsylvania for settler's, bringing in the Germans and Scotch-Irish. They continued to come year after year, in great waves of migration, pouring in one section awhile, then moving on farther into Southwest Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina.

In 1735, Colonel Byrd, who had twice visited this section, was granted 105,000 acres between Birches Creek and Smith River, in what is now Southern Pittsylvania County, for the purpose of making a settlement of Swiss and other foreign Protestants. Colonel Byrd made every effort to bring in the settlers, writing a book in German called "New Found Eden," telling of Virginia's fine climate and soil. These he distributed through Europe, at the same time sending letters to Pennsylvania, inviting settlement.

The first body of Swiss Emigrants met with disaster; their ship being wrecked in a storm after reaching Virginia waters. The following year Colonel Byrd petitioned for further time for settling his Roanoke lands, saying another body of emigrants was now at sea. In after-years the pages of the deed books are taken up with the sale of these lands.

With attention thus drawn to the frontier, the men of eastern Virginia now began to speculate in Brunswick's western lands. In 1738, Colonel William Randolph secured a grant of 38,000 acres under the Blue Ridge, and Colonel Peter Jefferson secured 15,000 acres touching Randolph's lines. Colonel Archibald Cary and others were granted 35,000 acres on Smith River, and James and Joseph Terry were granted 20,000 acres on Turkey Cock Creek. To various persons were issued grants from one to ten thousand acres, besides the customary 400 acres allotted to each settler. It is the metes and bounds of this great number of land grants, marked out by the surveyors through boundless forests, which constitute the earliest record of the county. These records as found in the Surveyor's Book of Land Grants. (You can go to the Clerk's Office and see this book, which you will find full of interest.)

The colonial government, again taking note of the slow development of Brunswick's western lands, in November, 1783, enacted that "any person who within ten years shall settle upon the Roanoke River, on the south branch (Dan) above the fork; and on the north branch above the mouth of Little Roanoke and all lands lying between shall be exempt from all levies (taxes) for ten years … and that letters of naturalization be granted to any alien settling there, upon taking the oath of parliament."

The Aliens to whom the government was offering inducement to come were the Germans, Quakers and Scotch-Irish of Pennsylvania. Under the leadership of William Penn, Pennsylvania had become a place of refuge for the oppressed peoples of the old world. Thither had fled the Quakers from England, the Germans from the upper Rhine countries; and the Scotch who had settled in north Ireland and were therefore known as Scotch who had settled in north Ireland and were therefore known as the Scotch-Irish. To these wanderers Virginia offered homes and relief from taxes; and they came in great numbers, many crossing the Blue Ridge through the water gaps and making their homes east of the mountains in their Piedmont country.

Who were the hardy souls who dared to go into the wilderness of western Brunswick, and brave the hardships of frontier life, to make their homes? The trees of the forest must be felled to build the homes and clear the farm lands of these first comers. The surveyors' records have preserved their names, and while many have moved on to their sections, it is interesting to note there the names of many families still active in the life of the county.

It is not surprising to find the first settlers of our county to be Quakers from Pennsylvania. In the year of 1738, Isaac, Isaac Junior, and Joseph Cloud, of Chester county, Pennsylvania, made several entries for land along Banister River, where they first made their homes. They later moved westward to what is now Patrick County, then to North Carolina and Tennessee. In 1740, Daniel and Gideon Smith patented lands along with the Clouds, and it was probably from these two hardy hunters that Smith Mountain and Smith River took their names.

John Stewart, another settler of 1783, was probably Scotch-Irish; for in the settlement of his estate in 1776, there were listed nine Bibles and a Confession of Faith. Stewart's Creek of Sandy River indicated the location of his settlement. Peter Wilson made his home on Dan River; this plantation is now known as Dan's Hill. David Logan patented a thousand acres on Elkhorn Creek where his old settlement still stands. Robert Pusey, of a distinguished Quaker family of Chester County, established his home on Otter Creek of Smith River. He was captured by the Indians and held a prisoner for many years. Three members of the Bennett family appear in the western area at this time. So large a number of Pennsylvania Emigrants settled on Mayo River near the foot of the Blue Ridge (Patrick County) that a very early road was ordered to be cleared for their outlet to Lunenburg Court House.

Thomas and Tasker Tosh were two German settlers whose names are preserved in the small village of Toshes.

However, not all the first settlers were from Pennsylvania; there were many from eastern Virginia who, having heard the favorable reports of Brunswick's western lands, left their already settled homes and travelled the rough miles to this upland section. In 1738, Joseph Martin, of Henrico County, patented 800 acres along Staunton River. This is the first mention we have of the upper reaches of the Roanoke River being names the Staunton. Martin made his settlement on Sandy River, and in his will of 1749, divided it among his three sons John, Joseph and Jehu. In 1739, Joseph Echols, of Amelia, had a hunting camp here, and later Richard Echols was patenting lands.

In 1741, John Pigg, of Amelia County, entered for "400 acres on the south fork of Staunton River, beginning opposite the mouth of Snow Creek." The south fork of the Staunton river had not been named at this time and took its name from this early settler, becoming Pigg River. In the same year Benjamin Clement, of Amelia, made an entry on Staunton River where his old settlement "Chesnut Hill" still stands. In 1743, Thomas Calloway, of Caroline, had already made his home here.

In 1744, appear two settlers from Somerset County of the Eastern shore of Maryland, Hugh Henry and John Donelson. The latter made his home on Banister River and for thirty-five years was a leader in the life of the section. He was a county surveyor, first of Halifax and then of Pennsylvania; he was a justice of the peace, presiding over the monthly courts; a member of the Vestry of the Church of England; commanding officer of the military forces of the county; and a member of the House of Burgesses in those critical years leading up to the Revolutionary War. He performed many important commissions for the colonial government and completed the survey of the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina, taking up where Colonel Byrd left off.

Colonel Donelson's daughter Rachel was the beloved wife of one of our nation's greatest presidents, General Andrew Jackson. His granddaughter, Emily Donelson (daughter of his son Captain John Donelson), presided as mistress of the White House during President Jackson's two administrations, assuming the heavy responsibility at twenty-one years of age.

Between 1745 and 1750, the names of many well-known families appear in the surveyor's records. There we find Major John Coles, whose son Isaac later lived here (the name of his home is preserved in Greenfield Baptist Church); Samuel Harris, of Hanover, who made his home on Strawberry Creek of Sandy River and became a Baptist preacher; James Hunt, whose son David settled here. Daniel Coleman, of Cumberland County, patented lands if these years, to which his family later came. Colonel Peter Jefferson acquired the Pocket plantation on Staunton River. This he sold in 1754, to Mr. John Smith, who made his home there.

Many families of Maryland appear in the early records. Richard Tydings and Dutton Lane, of Baltimore County; Robert and Edward Sweeting; the widow and seven sons of John Stone, of Port Tobacco, Charles County (a brother of Thomas Stone, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence); the John Briscoes; the Purcells of Snow Hill, Worcester County.

From the French Huguenots came the families of Chastain, Witt, Dupuy, Fontaine, Remi, and Lanier.

While eastern Pittsylvania was settled largely by families from eastern Virginia, we may safely say that the first settlers of western Pittsylvania, Henry and Patrick Counties were the Quakers, Germans and Scotch-Irish of Pennsylvania, who continued to come until the end of the century. Herman Cook purchased large tracts of land on Pigg River and Tomahawk Creek and brought in families in the latter part of the century. Young Abram Rohrer, a Swiss, accompanied Cook south; and marrying his daughter, established the Rorer family of the county.

Among the later Pennsylvania emigrants were John Schelhauser, a German, whose name has been Americanized to Shelhorse; and Jacob Berger, whose headstone records that he was born in Germany in 1745.

The emigrants usually left Pennsylvania in the fall of the year after harvest was over, reaching Virginia before hard winter set in. "All were farmers but were artisans as well, making about everything they needed. The Germans were industrious and economical; the Scotch-Irish were alert, ambitious, grasping" (J. de R. Hamilton). They came bringing all that they owned. The prosperous drove big wagons in which were packed all their household goods and farming tools, and in which the women and children rode. The men walked or rode on horseback, driving before them such cattle as they owned. "Some had no wagons, and travelled on horseback, or walked with a pack-horse carrying bedding, a few simple farm implements, cooking utensils, a bag of corn and the Bible. Some lacking even a pack-horse walked all the way, carrying their entire property" (J. de R. Hamilton).

The early settlers attacked the forests in grim earnest, hewing down the trees for clearing, making real homes with gardens and orchards such as they had known in those parts of the colonies where civilization was well established. In 1753, Thomas Calloway and others were ordered to view the improvements made by Ralph Elkins at his house on Leatherwood Creek (Henry County), and there they found twenty-six acres under cultivation, twenty head of cattle, fences, orchards, buildings and other improvements. In 1754, Obadiah Woodson had 304 fruit trees set out on his farm on Snow Creek.

Pioneer life was simple and often crude. The first homes were usually cabins, which were later followed by the story-and-a-half weather-boarded house, often called "mansion house" in the wills of the builders.

Thomas Bouldin was an Irishman from Pennsylvania who, with his wife, made a trip to Virginia in 1745. But he chose a new route; he came by boat down the Chesapeake Bay, and then across country in a wagon to Brunswick's new lands. At first their home was a cabin, but as soon as possible a mansion house was built, and to the housewarming the countryside was invited. An Invitation was posted at the crossroads saying: "All are welcome who choose to come." The dancing and frolicking lasted a day and night, and an oxen roasted whole was one item of the feast. Colonel Bouldin was very soon elected Sheriff of the County.

It is probable that Colonel Byrd's words of praise brought about the early settlement of Dan River Valley. The first road in the county was ordered to be laid out from William Bean's plantation on the river (near Wenonda) to the Court House of Lunenburg. Bean had settled here in 1743, but his was a restless spirit and he was soon looking for far places. In 1768 he sold his lands to Colonel John Payne, of Goochland, Nicholas Perkins and others and moved out to Tennessee. The historian Phelan said of him: "Captain William Bean, of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, advanced farther into the wilderness than anyone who had preceded him, and his son Russell Bean was the first white child born With the erection of his cabin on the Watauga began the history of Tennessee."

Byrd had foretold that happy would be the people who made their homes in Dan Valley. And so it proved to be. In the story of his which the Reverend Bactin Stone (son of John Stone of Port Tobacco) wrote for his family, he said of his youth in Dan Valley: "Contentment appeared to be the lot of all, and happiness dwelt in every breast amidst the abundance of home stores, acquired by honest industry. Benevolence and kindness in supplying the wants of the newcomers, as later immigrants were called, were universal.…Friendship and good feeling universally reigned."

We gather from Stone's recollections that the fertile soil of the valley (which Colonel Byrd noted) had yielded bountiful crops for the early settler who were living surrounded by an abundance of good things. The valley people were warm-hearted and generous, welcoming others who came into their midst. In later years substantial homes were built through the valley, and there are few sections of Virginia today in which can be found so many handsome ante-bellum homes, splendidly preserved.

Two leading patriots of the Revolutionary War had their homes in the valley, Colonel John Wilson, who commanded the military forces of the county, and Colonel Peter Perkins, who commanded a regiment of the Virginia Militia. Colonel Perkins' home, "Berry Hill," was used as a hospital following the battle of Guilford Court House.

With the coming of the settlers, stores were opened here and there across the country, for there were thrifty ones among them who did not miss an opportunity to get on. John Hickey was operating a store in what if now western Henry County when the great road from the Mayo Settlement was opened in 1749; and though the road was probably one hundred and fifty miles in length, it was given the name of Hickey. Peter Copeland, a merchant of Caroline County, operated an early store in this section, as did John Rowland. We know that John Wilson had an early store on Dan River, and John Smith had one on Staunton River, and very probably there were others in each long stretch of valley.

When Peytonsburg became a county seat in 1752, stores were opened there; for in the Revolutionary War the town was also known as Terry's and Wimbish's Stores. When the county seat was moved farther west in 1767, very soon a large and well-stocked store was opened there by Major Samuel Calland. These stores were popular meeting places for the men, where they discussed the political questions of the times, as well as the neighborhood news.

While the building of the roads was a subject of great interest in the new section, the roads remained rough, deep in winter's mud or summer's dust. Little travel was done by the women except to church and to visit in the neighborhood, for theirs was a busy life. Almost everything needful for the household was produced in the home, either by their own hands, or by the slaves working under their careful direction. Looms and spinning wheels were a part of a home's furnishings, and both woolen and cotton goods were woven. The making of dyes was understood, and indigo (blue) was a common garden plant. The home woven cloth was home-dyed, and then made into clothing for the household members.

The candles that were used to light the homes were made by hand from beef tallow. The hides of beef were tanned and made into shoes by a neighborhood shoemaker. Local cabinetmakers also built the plain furniture of the early settlers. It was later, when more settlers from eastern Virginia had come in bringing with them their slaves and household belongings, that life here in the county began to follow the pattern of plantation life in Tidewater Virginia.

The Church of England was the established religion of the colony before the Revolutionary War. With the settlement of Brunswick's western lands, early churches were built and Sunday worship was arranged for the widely scattered new comers. There were churches on Peter's Creek and Spoon Creek of Patrick; on Leatherwood of Henry; on Pigg and Snow Creek of Franklin; and others within the limits of our county. There were also two early Baptist Churches, Dan River and County Line. The Scotch-Irish as a rule were of the Presbyterian faith, but there is no record of their building early churches.

Many of the settlers were within reach of a place of worship, and you can picture the pleasurable excitement of Sunday morning in these early homes. The family must be dressed in their best clothes; chairs would be placed in the stout wagon in which the women and children would ride, while the men folks riding horseback accompanied their families.

Before and after the service there was an opportunity to visit with friends and neighbors, who were all too seldom seen, and exchange bits of family and neighborhood news.

The customs of a rural Virginia church have not greatly changed through the years, and the social gathering before and after church, when neighbor greets neighbor, forms a pleasant part of Sunday worship today.

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Related Book

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Maud Carter Clement: History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia (1929)

This website is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia. (See also guides to Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville.)