Searching for Chatham's First Courthouse

By Henry H. Mitchell

David and Jonathan Mitchell at Meeting House Spring

David and Jonathan Mitchell stand at Cherrystone Meeting House Spring, between Kemper and Ridge Streets in west Chatham. The spring likely provides the key to answering the question of the location of the old courthouse. Because of the spring's location, it seems probable that the courthouse was across the open field and just beyond the distant line of trees.

1779 Survey Has No Starting Point

The location of the first courthouse in Chatham, a structure built by Jeremiah Worsham between 1777 and 1779, has been a matter of speculation for years. The puzzle was first brought to my attention in 1976 by town manager (and Pittsylvania Historical Society president) Paul Harold.

Harold brought to me a copy of the only definitive court record of the old building location, a survey (see illustration below) dated July 30, 1779, and found on page 216 of Book 5 in the Pittsylvania County Clerk's Office. Unfortunately, the surveyor's sketch recorded there is related to three red oaks and one Spanish oak, rather than to a permanent landmark.

1779 Survey

1779 survey of the early courthouse area, as found in court records. The text of the entry reads:

Pittsylvania Prison Bounds Containing 8 Acres of Land — Layed off 30th day of July 1779 — Joshua Stone

At a Court held for Pittsylvania County 17th day of July 1779 — The within plat was returned and ordered to be recorded by the Court. — Test. Will. Tunstall ck

However, the sketch does helpfully include one spring, an ordinary (tavern), a cabin, the prison, the court house, a path, and a road. The bearings and lengths of the boundary lines laid from tree to tree are precise. Although the sketches of buildings are only approximations, it does appear that they are positioned with enough accuracy to be helpful to modern researchers. If only a single reliable starting point could be determined, then the dimensions written on the drawing seemingly would enable the modern researcher/surveyor to find fairly reliable locations for all the features on the map.

Paul Harold at Meeting House Spring

Paul Harold inspects Meeting House Spring, late 1970's.

Find the Spring, Find Everything Else

Paul Harold was of the opinion (correctly, I believe) that the key to the puzzle is the spring. In 1976 he was fairly certain that the large spring near the end of Kemper Lane was the one sought. He also believed that the courthouse site lay in the low ground nearby, and tried to match the drawing to remains of buildings found nearby along Kemper, but without success.

I was unsure of the spring's identity, and began to compare the map to other springs on the west side of Chatham, especially focusing on one in the ravine off the end of Aston Place, behind the new Pittsylvania County Library building.

Match the Old Survey to a Modern Geological Survey Map

In the meantime, naturalist Bill Hathaway introduced me to the local U. S. Geological Survey maps and assisted in a careful tracing of Col. William Byrd II's 1728 survey of the southern boundary of Pittsylvania County. With Hathaway's assistance, Byrd's writings and surveying measurements were carefully matched to numerous visible locations in today's landscape. One result was the placement of a Virginia highway marker commemorating Byrd's conversation with Saponi guide Ned Bearskin concerning the Saponi religion.

With that exercise, Hathaway convinced me of the efficacy of utilizing Geological Survey maps in interpreting historical documents. During the same time frame, Dr. Alan Vance Briceland of the VCU History Department published a stunning book based on early Virginia explorers' diaries and reports compared to Geological Survey Maps (see Westward from Virginia: The Exploration of the Virginia-Carolina Frontier 1650-1710, The University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 1987), further demonstrating the effectiveness of the technique.

So, finally, after many years of contemplating the puzzle (and leaving it on the proverbial “back burner”), I copied the local Geological Survey Map with a photocopier, and also made a transparency print of the 1779 survey to the same scale, so it could be laid on top of the modern map. The next step was to investigate west Chatham's several springs (see second drawing below) to see if the 1779 combination of spring, path, road, and buildings could work at each location. All actually looked somewhat feasible. My family members and I explored all the springs on foot, looking for possible matches, but with no conclusive discoveries.

U. S. Geological Survey Map of west Chatham

During the preliminary phase of the above investigation, a U. S. Geological Survey map for the western portion of Chatham was utilized, with the following additions as shown:

Clement and Taylor Lead Back to Kemper Lane

Then, in January 2002, my family was preparing for web posting the manuscript An Abbreviated History of Pittsylvania County by Pittsylvania County historian Maud Carter Clement, when we noticed that in that 1952 document she describes the position of the old courthouse as related to the Cherrystone Meeting House Spring. Then, in asking several of Chatham's long-time residents about that name, I was told by Frank Taylor that he recalled as a boy in the 1920's carrying water from Meeting House Spring just off Kemper Lane to the crew operating a sawmill across the tracks.

So, it seemed likely to me that Paul Harold had been correct about the spring all along. But now, rather than looking for building remains, we could simply follow the measurements of the original survey and the now-correlated Geological Survey map. Based on the assumption that Meeting House Spring is the spring shown on the 1779 map, I, along with Roger Boswell and my sons David and Jonathan Mitchell, used a compass and measuring tape to find approximate positions of the various features on the surveyor's sketch. This was accomplished on January 28, 2002.

Overlay of the 1779 survey onto the modern Geological Survey Map

Here the 1779 survey sketch is a transparency overlay on the Geological Survey Map (enlarged from the previous illustration), showing the approximate correlations of location. (Both maps were copied to the same scale before overlaying.) The assumed courthouse location is found below and to the left of center, to the right of the circled letter A which represents the Meeting House Spring.

Result Leads Uphill to Ridge and Depot Streets

David Mitchell runs tape measure

David Mitchell runs a tape measure from the Cherrystone Meeting House Spring uphill, across the Hammack field north of Ridge Street, toward the old courthouse location, according to the bearing suggested by the 1779 survey.

As a result, it appears that the original Pittsylvania Courthouse village created after the county was reconfigured to its present bounds in 1777 was along the hill just north of Depot Street, where Ridge Street is found today (see the third drawing above). The courthouse probably sat in the back yard of the Patterson-Allen house, and the prison approximately where the Scruggs-Kendrick-Jackson house stands (near the railroad). Also according to our estimation the 1779 survey shows a cabin near the position of the Patterson-Allen home. Of perhaps most immediate interest is the fact that the 1779 ordinary was near the position of the Viccellio-Amos-O'Brien home, which is partially log-bodied, and was an old structure when the German-immigrant Viccellios first moved there in the 1840's (information obtained from Viccellio granddaughter Martha Viccellio Dickerson in January 2002). Therefore, it is possible that the 1779 ordinary still stands at the intersection of Ridge and Depot Streets.

Jonathan Mitchell, David Mitchell, and Roger Boswell

Jonathan Mitchell, David Mitchell, and Roger Boswell stand at the approximate location of the old courthouse. They are on the side of the hill behind the Patterson-Allen house on Ridge Street. Boswell's home on Ridge Street is visible in the background.

We saw only a trace of the courthouse path shown on the 1779 survey, as a slight swag running up the hill from Meeting House Spring to the old courthouse location. No evidence of it could be seen in the woods near the possible courthouse location, or beyond, uphill and to the east of the courthouse site. The road shown in the 1779 survey apparently followed the present ravine just a few yards south of Depot Street, joining the 1779 courthouse path probably somewhere near the former Crider Tire Service building or the Chatham Baptist Church parking lot.

The courthouse probably sat on the side of the ravine above Cherrystone Meeting House Spring, not in the low ground. However, its position may well have been a slippery slope in wet or wintery weather, not nearly so accommodating as the broad hilltop which is today's downtown Chatham, and where three more courthouses have been built since that first building was abandoned in 1782.

Looking toward the spring

David Mitchell and Roger Boswell are barely visible at the distant treeline near the Cherrystone Meeting House Spring, as seen across the Hammack field from near the old courthouse location. The flat ridge behind them is the railroad embankment of the main line of the Norfolk and Southern Railway.

Looking along the old path

The northern (left) edge of the swag along the hillside (in the Hammack field) appears to roughly correspond with the path shown in the 1779 survey drawing. That path led from the Cherrystone Meeting House Spring to the old courthouse.


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