The area around Chatham offers several unique opportunites for "time-travel" back into the 1700's, and this self-guided tour is designed for that purpose. The mid-1700's was the period when Pittsylvania County was first organized as an English-speaking settlement.
Col. William Byrd was appointed by the governors of Virginia and North Carolina to survey a dividing line in 1728 between Virginia and North Carolina. Settlement was just beginning and taxation districts had to be clarified. By this time the local native population (Siouan tribes) had almost entirely vacated the area, moving to Canada and to the southern Carolinas as a result of disastrous warfare with the northern Iroquois.
New arrivals through the middle decades of the 1700's created an area of tobacco plantations and small farms. Pittsylvania County's rural character continues to this day, allowing the continued existence of traces of the 1700's and its life-style. To encourage the preservation of that period's legacy, the local county government has entered into working partnerships with the Pittsylvania Historical Society and the Chatham Garden Club to maintain three buildings important to that period: the Callands courthouse and clerks office, and the Yates Tavern at Gretna. All of these buildings are easily accessible from public highways and are open to the public at specific events.
After Pittsylvania County was cut off from Halifax in 1767, and before Henry County was cut off from Pittsylvania in 1777, this location was chosen as the location for Pittsylvania County's first courthouse. Evidence of the Revolutionary-era county seat has largely disappeared except for two fascinating brick structures.
The two brick buildings (see sketches below) are owned by Pittsylvania County, thanks to the generosity of Landon E. Oakes and J. Clyde Oakes, and the Stegall family. Both public and private funds have been used in the restoration of the two structures, the smaller building under the auspices of the Chatham Garden Club and the larger by the Pittsylvania Historical Society.
The smaller building is without dispute the office of the clerk of court. It was ordered by the court to be built by James Roberts in 1767, but was not completed until about 1771. Especially note that the brick corbel cornice at the edge of the roof matches that of the courthouse across the road.
The larger building, on the other side of present-day VA 969, appears (by its exterior and interior design, and by local tradition) to be the courthouse, constructed during 1772 by Roberts after five years' procrastination, but incomplete records of Roberts' tumultuous business and public dealings make it difficult to identify the building for certain as the courthouse structure. By 1777 the court had been moved to present-day Chatham, and by 1788 the large brick building had come into the ownership of James Smith and Samuel Calland. By 1792 Calland was sole owner, and in subsequent years his store and post office in this building gave the community the name used to this day.
This little building was home to several generations of the Yates family, who also from time to time took out licenses to operate an "ordinary," a sort of frontier bed-and-breakast. It was strategically placed along the old Pigg River Road and only a few miles from Hickey's Road, the first major road penetrating this part of western Virginia from the east. It is likely to have been an especially convenient stop during the Revolutionary War days, at which time Peytonsburg (14 miles to the southeast) was one of nine busy supply depots in Virginia.
Called the only building of its kind in Virginia by the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission, Yates Tavern is unique for its jetties. These are second floor protrusions of some 10 inches, giving a bit more space in the upper floor. Restored by the Pittsylvania Bicentennial Commission, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Historic Register.
Yates Tavern was deeded to Pittsylvania County by Mrs. Nannie Bennett Cocke, and is utilized under the auspices of the Pittsylvania Historical Society.
Looking east from VA 686 on a curve halfway between its two intersections with VA 683, an eagle-eyed traveler can spot a lone rock chimney, standing in a vast pasture on private land (not open to the public). Just behind the chimney is the tree line which obscures the Banister River.
It was at this spot that Rachel Donelson, to become the famed wife of Andrew Jackson, was born in 1767. When Rachel was 12 years old, her father, Col. John Donelson, moved his family to Kentucky, then Tennessee, where they became one of that state's founding families.
Col. Donelson sold the local tract of land on which stood his family's home to John Markham, whose name is now associated with the area. The Donelson home remained until around 1930, when it was destroyed by by neglect, demolition, and/or fire. The house was a rather large story-and-a-half clapboard structure, flanked by two massive chimneys, of the type and proportion typical of construction here during that period.
In the late 1930's Mrs. Thomas F. Motley hired laborers to place a commemorative chimney, constructed in part from stones remaining from the Donelson house, on the original site. The Thomas Carter Chapter of the D. A. R. mounted a memorial tablet to Rachel Donelson on the chimney.
A state historical marker honoring Rachel Donelson Jackson stands on the east side of U. S. 29 bypass between the VA 832 and VA 685 exits at Chatham. Her portrait, taken from one commissioned by Andrew Jackson after her death, hangs in the Pittsylvania County courthouse.
There is evidence that Pittsylvania County's streams were once heavily utilized for harvesting of fish by the local native tribes. The most permanent reminder of this usage is the presence of numerous weirs (stone dams) in the Banister and Pigg Rivers. The most visible and accessible weir in Pittsylvania's collection is one found along VA 683 in the Markham community. Here the Banister River and the right-of-way of the graveled road converge, making the weir and its pool easy to see.
Construction of the weir from rocks, many probably moved from nearby cliffs, created a deep pool which made fishing easier. Artifacts found in the vicinity of the local weirs suggest that nets, harpoons, and bone hooks were used in the fishing, and it is generally agreed that the weirs were especially created for the purpose of mounting fish traps in the wall of the weir at a point of water flow.
Found in the streams by Pittsylvania's first European settlers, the weirs in some cases continued to serve their fish-trapping functions for local residents until the early years of the 20th century.
Note: This self-guided tour was first published in the Fall 1992 issue of the Pittsylvania Historical Society Packet.
This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.
Text and illustrations copyright © 1992–2006 Henry H. Mitchell.