An Abbreviated History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Chapter Four: Early Development

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

Chapter contents:

The Colonists who settled Virginia were Englishmen, and remained English at heart though their homes were three thousand miles overseas in the wilderness of the New World. With an inborn love of land and freedom they did not settle in towns, but made their homes in the countryside, along banks of rivers and on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

These first Virginians clung to the habits, customs, and moral standards of the country to which they always referred as "home", and named their Virginia plantations after familiar English scenes and English family estates. Some of these plantations, after more than three hundred years, bear their original names, such as Westover, Brandon, Flower De[w] Hundred and Bermuda Hundred.

In spite of a malarial climate and the attacks of the Indians, settlements were soon made from the falls of the James River, down either bank of the river to the Chesapeake Bay, across the Bay on the Eastern Shore and along the York River.

The young colony was granted the right of self government in 1619, and a General Assembly, with the House of Burgesses duly elected by the people, strove to meet the needs of the inhabitants in the laws that they enacted. In the "Statues of the General Assembly of Virginia", published by Henning and so called Henning's Statues, you can read all these early laws. There we find that in 1634 it was ordered that "the country be divided into eight shires (counties) which are to be governed as in England: Henrico, Charles City, James City, Elizabeth city, Warwick, Accomac, Charles River, and Warrosquoyrach. "A Lieutenant to be appointed the same as in England; Sheriffs shall be elected to have the same power as there."

Henrico, James City, and Charles City extended along the banks of James River, but Warrosquoyrach (whose strange Indian name was soon to be changed to Isle of Wight) lay entirely south of the river.

From the beginning Virginia life rested upon the plantation system, with its extensive culture of tobacco and corn. As the number of inhabitants increased, more frontier land was patented and new settlements made. In time the distance from the back settlements to the county court house would become so great as to prove troublesome; then the inhabitants would petition the General Assembly that the county be divided and a new county formed.

In the Act for establishing Brunswick County (1720) the boundaries were not named except to say that they included the Southern Pass, which probably meant the water gap of the Roanoke River where it breaks through the Blue Ridge; they were left to the governor to name at some later time. The Act gives a fair picture of the founding of this great frontier county lying along the North Carolina line. It reads: "To each Christian tithable as shall hereafter go to seat the said county (Brunswick) shall be distributed one firelock, musket, one socket of bayonet fitted thereto, one cartouch box, eight pounds bullets, two pounds powder. These arms are appropriate to the defense of the county, and are to be stamped with the name of the county. If found outside the county to be collected by the militia.…

"…Five hundred pounds to be laid out for a church, courthouse, prison, pillory and stocks, where it shall be fit in the county of Brunswick.…The whole of Brunswick shall be made one parish by the name of Andrew.…The Fourth Thursday shall be the Court Day of Brunswick."

The presence of Indian tribes in Southern Virginia may also have contributed to the slowness of Brunswick's settlement. The Nottoways and the Meherrins were living on the rivers of those names, while the Tuscaroras across in North Carolina hunted in Virginia, and all three tribes were members of the Iroquois race. Our own friendly Saponees were at Fort Christiana.

Before a sufficient number of inhabitants could be assembled to establish a county, a goodly portion of Isle of Wight (original shire 1634) and of Surry (cut from James City 1652) had to be added to Brunswick. As we have seen this was done in 1732, and was followed by a period of great land speculation in the western part, rather than settlement.

William Wynne, one of the justices of Brunswick, patented land along Dan River where the City of Danville now stands, and the falls of the river there took their name from him, being know as Wynn's Falls. He later settled on Dan River.

Fourteen years passed, and in 1746 the back inhabitants petitioned the General Assembly that "whereas divers inconveniences attended the upper inhabitants of Brunswick by reason of their great distance from the Court House" that the county be divided and a new county formed by the name of Lunenburg. The point of the dividing line from Brunswick was to be where the Roanoke River crosses the State Line, extending westward to the mountains. The new county included the present counties of Patrick, Henry, Franklin, Bedford, Campbell, Pittsylvania, Halifax, Mecklenburg, Charlotte, and Prince Edward.

It was now that settlers from Pennsylvania began to arrive in great numbers, making the long trip down the Valley of Virginia, crossing over the mountains and finding homes in western Lunenburg. Now there were court orders for roads to be laid off and cleared from the western settlements to the court house; stores were opened up; and church buildings (of the Church of England) were opened for worship. In 1749 John Boyd was given permission to operate a ferry across Dan River; and Benjamin Clement to build a mill on Sycamore Creek, and James Blevin one on Leatherwood Creek.

In the interest of law and order, Isaac Cloud was appointed Constable for the upper parts of Banister River, and Elisha Walden for Smith River and Wart (Bull) Mountain. (Henry and Patrick).

In the county levy in December 1746, we find the following familiar names in the list of those who were paid for a wolf's head: Gideon Smith, Joseph Echols, Joseph Cloud, Hugh Henry and William Callaway for William Harvey.

So rapidly did the number of inhabitants increase that after six years there was a petition that the county of Lunenburg be divided. But it was not the back inhabitants who complained of the great distance to court; perhaps after their long trip down from Pennsylvania distances did not seem so great. The complaint was made by the inhabitants living in the Fork of Dan and Staunton Rivers (Eastern Halifax) and their difficulty probably lay in crossing the rivers.

The petition was granted and in 1752 Halifax became a county, extending westward to the mountains, with Staunton River and Blackwater Creek forming the northern boundary. The county seat, or place for holding court, was located in what is now eastern Pittsylvania.

The county courts were presided over by justices of the peace, who were appointed by the Governor from among "the most able, honest and judicious citizens of the county", according to an Act of 1661. The justices were drawn from the body of the most capable and respected men of the community, and the office was considered so honorable that as in England it carried no salary.

Another duty of the justices was to take the "lists of tithables", or tax lists, each in his own district. A tax of twenty-one pounds of tobacco was laid upon each tithe, that is on each white male of eighteen years and over, and upon each slave of sixteen years and over. The number of tithables in Halifax the first year was 634, and the tobacco tax of twenty-one pounds amounted to 13,314 pounds, out of which was paid the expense of the county government. Early Halifax justices who lived in that part which later became Pittsylvania were Thomas Calloway, Samuel Harris, Benjamin Clement, Robert Pusey, and Thomas Dillard — all but Dillard being among the first settlers.

The clerk of the county was ordered to buy one dozen volumes of Webb's Virginia Justice that the Magistrates might be instructed in their duties.

As generally happens the place of holding court drew settlers and tradesmen, and in 1759, 100 acres adjoining the court house were laid off into lots and streets for a town and named Peytonsburg. From deeds recording the sale of lots we find the streets were named Spring, Mountain, Forest, and Randolph. There were stores of course, one was operated by John Wimbish and another by the Terrys; and a man named John Martin had a hat where he made men's hats. No doubt there was a tailor's shop too for the colonial gentlemen were particular in their dress.

With a court house and a town in this (Pittsylvania) section, the inhabitants ceased to be isolated and remote from the world of affairs. The monthly court drew lawyers and men of property from other counties, bringing a touch of the outside world; while the traders were to be found in every gathering of people. The county militia was organized, with its monthly musters (drills) to the music of fife and the roll of drum. All of this added interest and color to the life of the section.

Upon this peaceful scene of settlement and development burst the fury of the French and Indian War in 1754. The barbarous cruelties of Indian warfare caused the frontier settlers to forsake their homes and flee, seeking safety elsewhere. This put an end to further western expansion for several years.

But with the return of peace in 1762 the migration of peoples again got under way, and now many of the new settlers came from eastern Virginia. For there was a spirit of restlessness and adventure in the air, causing men to leave their settled homes and to travel the rough roads that led to the new untried lands of the West. When Pittsylvania was their destination we can imagine their satisfaction upon beholding the gently rolling hills, the crystal clear streams, and the rich bottom lands.

With the influx of new settlers, again the General Assembly was petitioned for the division of the county, stating that "whereas many inconveniences attend the inhabitants of the county of Halifax by means of the extent thereof." So it was enacted that Halifax be divided by a line to run from the mouth of Straightstone Creek on Staunton River to the Country Line near the mouth of Country Line Creek on Dan River, and that all that part that lies to the upper of the said line to be one distinct county, to be known by the name of Pittsylvania.

On June 1st, 1767, Pittsylvania became a Virginia county and was named in honor of the great English statesman, William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, who had shown himself to be the friend of the American Colonies. He was opposed to England's Stamp Act, and held that America contributed to England's resources by the monopoly of her trade, for it was to England alone that the colonies could sell.

When the Stamp Act was passed Pitt was sick at home; upon his return to Parliament he denounced the measure, saying: "In my opinion this kingdom has no right to lay tax on the colonies. America is obstinate. I rejoice that America has resisted; three million people so dead to all feeling of liberty, as to voluntarily submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest."

In February 1766, Pitt succeeded in having the stamp act repealed, in spite of the opposition of the King and his friends. It was in grateful recognition of this service that the new county in Virginia was named Pitt's Woods.

When the dividing line was run between Halifax and Pittsylvania it was found that Peytonsburg lay in Pittsylvania, so here at Halifax Old Court House was held on June 29th the first court of Pittsylvania County. A commission had been received from Governor Fauquier, appointing justices, or judges, to preside over the courts which read as follows: "George the Third, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defendant of the Faith … To Thomas Dillard, Sr., James Roberts, Jr., Hugh Innes, John Donelson, Theophilus Lacy, Thomas Dillard, Jr., Peter Copeland, John Smith, Archibald Gordon, John Dix, George Jefferson, Peter Perkins, John Vanbibber, Harmon Critz, John Wimbish, Robert Chandler, and Benjamin Lankford, Greetings. Know ye that we constituted and assigned you our justices of the peace for our county of Pittsylvania."

Pittsylvania, like the preceding counties, extended westward to the mountains, and at this time embraced within its borders the present counties of Patrick, Henry, and the southern part of Franklin. The justices were drawn from all these sections. Benjamin Lankford was chosen Sheriff, John Donelson, Surveyor, and William Tunstall Clerk of the county.

The lists of the tithables were straightway taken by the justices and numbered 938 whites and 316 slaves, giving a total of 1254 inhabitants not counting the women.

The surveyor was ordered to run a line due west 27 miles from the center of the dividing line between this county and Halifax and the court house to be established at the most convenient place to the end of the line. The plantation of James Roberts was selected, where there are bold springs, the head waters of Sandy River. (A plot of this survey can be seen in the State Library.)

James Roberts agreed to build a court house the same dimensions as Halifax Old Court House; also stocks, pillory, and a prison.

The military force of the county was organized at once. Archibald Gordon, a Scotch Highlander, produced a commission from the Governor appointing him head of this force, County Lieutenant. John Donelson was made Colonel, Thomas Dillard, Lieutenant Colonel, and Theophilus Lacy Major of the County Militia; while more than a dozen men served as Captains of Militia Companies, among whom were George Jefferson, John Wilson, John Pigg, Crispen and Abram Shelton, Elisha Walden, Robert Hairston, Peter Perkins.

At this time there were a number of lawyers living in the county practicing their profession, ready to carry on the legal business of the new county. They were Colonel Haynes Morgan, Captain Hugh Innes, Gideon Marr, William Todd, and Robert Williams. They were men of education and ability, and were leaders in the life of the county.

The interest that always attends the holding of court drew settlers, and two years later (1769) the General Assembly established a town at the county seat. The Act reads: "Whereas James Roberts has laid off fifty acres of land where the Court House of the county now stands, into lots and streets for a town which would be of great advantage to the inhabitants for the reception of traders, be it therefore enacted that the said fifty acres be established a town to be known by the name of Chatham."

Thus the county seat was also named in the honor of William Pitt, who was Earl of Chatham.

The justices of the peace were sensible of the dignity of their positions and resented any light behavior to them. Fines were imposed for such offenses. At August Court 1767, it was ordered: "William Astin having insulted Mr. Justice Innes in the execution of his office, he is fined ten pounds." At a court of November 1774, William Young is ordered to lie in the stocks for one hour for having behaved contemptuously to the court.

The justices represented the power to enforce law, order and good morals, and they did not neglect their duty. Offenders were brought before court for swearing one, two, and three oaths; for getting drunk, selling liquors contrary to law, and for allowing one's slaves to work on the Sabbath Day.

Soon after the establishment of the Court House on Sandy River a young Scotchman, Samuel Calland, opened a store there. He proved to be a man of parts, and his name so overshadowed that chosen for the town that in time it was forgotten that Callands ever bore the name of Chatham.

In 1776 he married a young lady of the county, Miss Elizabeth Smith, of the Pocket Plantation, and made him a home a mile or so distant from the village, near the end of Turkey Cock Mountain. The old residence, still standing, is one of the oldest buildings in the county.

Some of the early account books of Calland's Store have been preserved (at the library of the University of Virginia) and give a fair picture of the life of that day.

At these frontier stores one could purchase finest printed linens, silks, laces, knee and shoe buckles, and fine china, as well as hoes, sugar, and molasses.

On March 25, 1785, the old pioneer and hunter, Captain Elisha Walden, of Holston River, made a call at Calland's Store. He had now moved out to the Tennessee country to live, and it was probably some business matters which brought him back to his old home. There is no doubt but that he was warmly welcomed by old friends, and plied with many questions about life in the wilderness. How were friends faring who had also moved to the Tennessee country? Were lands good? Were they cheap? And so on. The purchases made by Captain Walden that day, "a fine apron, a fine handkerchief", and some black silk were probably gifts for the women of his family.

The matter of roads, the upkeep of old ones and the building of new ones, was the subject of prime importance in the county. Early road orders contain many items of interest. "William Collins is appointed surveyor of the road from Dillard's muster field to Hickey's Road."

This order locates one of the earliest drill grounds in the county, where the militia met once a month to drill and be trained for soldiers. Captain Thomas Dillard lived on Straightstone Creek and Staunton River. This field may be located on the Dividing Line Map where there is a square block in.

In 1774 Thomas Black, James Dillard, and Peyton Smith are to "view a road from Standefer's Track, joining the road that leads from Blackwater to the road from Ross's Quarter (on the Frying Pan) to the Court House." This order locates an early race track in the county. These first citizens of Pittsylvania, whether Virginians from Tidewater or Scotchmen from overseas, brought with them a love of breeding and raising fine horses. The Koulikhan, one of the thirty-nine English (most noted) horses imported into Virginia before the Revolutionary War, at this time was owned by Colonel William Tunstall, clerk of the county, and was standing in a Pittsylvania stable. He was bred to the mares of this section, and furnished some of the fine strain which can be noted in Pittsylvania farm stock today.

One would judge that horse racing was a customary sport from the casual reference made in a letter from Harry Innes to Ralph Smith, of the Pocket in 1782: "Sir, I have sent ye bearer over to know if you will take ye stagg, which I offered you as I was returning from Pittsylvania court. — You may have one, two, or three, for three I will take fifteen dollars, the money I shall be glad to receive at ye race next Friday. Your mo.ob. Harry Innes." Harry Innes was a young lawyer who later went to Kentucky and was active in the public affairs of the new section.

In 1774 it was ordered that a road "be viewed from Colonel Donelson's Iron Works to the mouth of Chestnut Creek." These iron mines, called the Bloomery, were located on Pigg River, and were the earliest iron works in this part of Virginia. When Colonel Donelson moved out to Tennessee in 1779 he sold them for four thousand pounds, and the mines were renamed the Washington.

At the first court held in Franklin County, February 1786, a new road was ordered to be viewed from the home of Colonel Peter Saunders to the Washington Iron Works, showing that the mines were located in Franklin County.

After the storm clouds of the American Revolution had broken upon this peaceful scene of Pittsylvania life, petitions were made to divide the county on account of its great size, setting forth that "the people were so often called together to court house on account of our unhappy disputes with Great Britain." Therefore it was enacted (Henning Statutes, Volume 9, 279) "that the county of Pittsylvania be divided into two counties, by a line beginning at the mouth of Blackwater on Staunton River, running parallel with the line of Halifax County till it strikes the County Line, and all that part of the county which lies to the westward of the said line shall be known by the name of Henry, and that all the other part which lies to the eastward of the said line shall be one other distinct county and retain the name of Pittsylvania."

On January 1, 1777, Pittsylvania assumed its present size. A new commission of peace was received from the governor naming the following men as justices of the peace: John Donelson, James Roberts, Crispen Shelton, Thomas Dillard, Peter Perkins, John Wimbish, Benjamin Lankford, William Witcher, John Owen, Abram Shelton, William Todd, Stephen Coleman, William Short, Reuben Payne, Charles Kennon, George Carter, Daniel Hankins, Joseph Morton, Charles Lynch Adams, John Dix. We miss from this list many familiar names of those who had been foremost in the settlement of the section and the enforcement of the laws. They were no longer inhabitants of Pittsylvania, for their homes lay in the new county of Henry.

The Surveyor, John Donelson, was ordered to run a line from the mouth of Straightstone Creek to the point where the dividing between Henry and Pittsylvania crosses the County Line, and that the center of that line be the place of holding court. The place agreed upon was the land of Jeremiah Worsham on Hickey's Road, "near the Cherrystone Meeting House Spring." In the absence of a court building, the meeting house was repaired and given over to the use of the court, where its sessions were held until the close of the war. This spring and meeting house were situated in a ravine to the north of the present Southern Railroad Station.

All male inhabitants of sixteen years and over were required to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Commonwealth of Virginia. At the July court 1777, the justices of the peace were ordered to take the list of the names of all persons taking the oath before the, and return same to the clerk. These early lists have been preserved.

In the year 1806 a very curious dispute arose regarding the location of the Court buildings. At the close of the Revolutionary War a brick court house had been built, with tall white columns, and to the rear a separate two room brick house for a clerk's office. These buildings were not placed near the springs at the bottom of the hill, but had been built on the top of the hill. Twenty-five years later the question was raised as to the legality of the buildings on the top of the hill. Feeling ran very high and the matter was carried before the General Assembly which decided the question by authorizing, on January 8, 1807, the present site of the court buildings to be the legal place of holding court. At the same time a town was established at Pittsylvania Court House to which the name Competition was given, in view of the dispute. The Act reads: "Be it enacted that eight acres of land, the property of Richard Johnson, adjoining the south end of the court house, shall be laid off into lots of one acre each, with streets and alleys as may be convenient, and be established a town by the name of Competition." The county seat of Pittsylvania bore this name until 1874 when it was officially changed to the more appropriate name of Chatham, which had been first given to that earlier seat on Sandy River. St. George Tucker was clerk of the Assembly at the time, and he wrote upon his blotter "Immortal Pitt How great thy fame When Competition yields to Chatham's name."

In 1791 General George Washington as president of the nation made a tour of the Southern States. He kept a diary of the trip and records that he spent a night in Pittsylvania at Peytonsburg. He wrote: "June 4th Left Mr. Gatewood's at half after six o'clock and between his house and the Ferry (Dix's Ferry on the Dan) passed the line which divided the State of Virginia from North Carolina, and dining at one Wilson's sixteen miles from the Ferry, lodged at Halifax Old Town." Halifax Old Town was Peytonsburg, which was often called simply Old Town, and here the Father of his Country once passed the night in a public tavern.

Richard Venable, a young lawyer then living in the village, records in his diary the bare fact of Washington's arrival without any comment. "Saturday, June 4th, 1791. General Washington came in the Evening. Stayed at Tavern, set out next morning before Sunrise."

It must have been that General Washington's coming was unknown, else the citizens of the county would have made some effort to do honor to the president of their nation when he came among them. General Washington's diary continues: "Sunday June 5, Left the Old Town about four o'clock, breakfasted at one Prid's (after crossing Banister River One and a half miles) about eleven miles from it came to Staunton River about 12 o'clock, where meeting Colonel Isaac Coles (formerly a member of Congress from this district), who pressing me to it, I went to his home about a mile off to dine and halt a day for the refreshment of myself and horses, leaving my servants and them at one of the usually indifferent taverns at the Ferry that they might be no trouble to a private family."

Several years later Colonel Isaac Coles moved to Pittsylvania where he had purchased a large body of land in the Meadows. He represented this district in Congress from 1789 to 1797. Matthew Clay, whose home lay near Chestnut Level succeeded Colonel Coles in Congress, representing the district from 1797 to 1813.

Matthew Clay married in 1788 Miss Mary Williams, a niece of Colonel Robert Williams, for whom Colonel Williams acted as guardian. His annual reports to the court as Mary's guardian reveal a happy Pittsylvania girlhood in these early years : "1783 To Jeduthon Carter for Board and Schooling, To one large sealskin Trunk, To one hunting saddle, To one pair of Silk Shoes, To Gold Locket, Paid Benjamin Walker for entrance to Dancing School, 11 yards Lutestring (a heavy silk of Samuel Calland, one pair of ear ring of Jasper, For cash at Sweet Springs, Expenses at Sweet Springs and returning."

Henry St. George Tucker was one of the ablest and most distinguished lawyers of his day, and was also a large land owner in Pittsylvania. Though he was then practicing law in Richmond, he decided to make his home in Pittsylvania, and settled about seven miles from the Court House. He had married Elizabeth Carter, great niece of General George Washington, and granddaughter of his sister, Mrs. Betty Washington Lewis of Fredericksburg.

Mr. Tucker moved his wife's family with them to Pittsylvania, settling Mr. and Mrs. Carter on the Deerwood Plantation, along Staunton River. It is said that Mrs. Betty Washington Lewis visited both her daughter and her granddaughter in their Pittsylvania homes.

While living here Mr. Tucker represented this district in Congress from 1815 to 1819. Mr. Carter died at Deerwood and there on his flat marble tomb one reads this touching epitaph: "Charles Carter, who departed this life on May 9th 1827. He was loved by those who knew him best. Best loved by those who knew him best." In more recent years to Pittsylvanians have had distinguished political careers, Lady Nancy Astor, and the Hon. Claude A. Swanson.

Lady Astor was born in Danville, the daughter of Colonel Chiswell Dabney Langhorne and his wife Nancy Keen. She was the first woman to sit in Great Britain's House of Parliament (her adopted home), which position she held for many years.

Claude A. Swanson was born in Pittsylvania in 1862, the son of Mr. John Swanson and his wife Catherine Rebecca Pritchett. He represented this district in Congress from 1893 to 1906; served as governor of Virginia from 1906 to 1910, when he sponsored the movement for better schools. He represented Virginia in the U. S. Senate from 1911 to 1933; was U. S. Secretary of Navy from 1933 to 1939, the time of his death.

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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 B&B, Chatham, Virginia. (See also guides to Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville.)