12 Virginia Counties Named after English Shires

  1. New Kent, Organized 1654
  2. Surry, Organized 1652
  3. Norfolk, Organized 1691
  4. Sussex, Organized 1754
  5. Buckingham, Organized 1761
  6. Bedford, Organized 1753
  7. Stafford, Organized 1666
  8. Westmoreland, Organized 1653
  9. Northumberland, Organized 1648
  10. Lancaster, Organized 1651
  11. Essex, Organized 1692
  12. Middlesex, Organized 1675

Seventeen Virginia counties have names that correspond to those of shires in England. Five of these names, however, are probably derived from titles of nobility with which prominent Englishmen were honored; Gloucester and York were nearly certainly named after two1 of King Charles I’s sons, Henry, Duke of Gloucester, and James, Duke of York. Cumberland county is named after Prince William, Duke of Cumberland and son of George II, King of England; Warwick county2 takes its name from the Earl of Warwick, a prominent member of the London Company for Virginia, and Northampton county3 is nearly certainly named after Spencer Compton, Earl of Northampton, who fell fighting for King Charles in the civil war of 1642-49. Bedford County, too, may possibly be named after an English duke, though it is classed among the counties named after the English shires.

Of the remaining twelve counties given in the list above, the names of two. New Kent and Surry can be traced with certainty.

New Kent is so named from the shire of Kent in England, and is a small tidewater county north of Henrico and Charles City. There are five Kent counties in the United States: in Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, and Texas; and it is almost safe to assume that the first three names are taken directly from the English shire, for these are old colonial counties and named when the States were loyal to England.

In New Kent county, on the banks of the Pamunkey River, is the mansion called the “White House,” which occupies the site of the one in which Washington was married.

About five miles from the mouth of Ware Creek, a tributary of the York River, and twenty-two miles from Jamestown, stand the ruins of the “The Old Stone House.”4 This building, though not completed, was strongly made and well suited for defense. Captain John Smith describes just such a fort that was partly built in 1608-09, but never finished, because the workmen had to stop building in order to provide a food supply.5 If this be Captain Smith’s fort, it is probably the oldest building erected by the English in America.

Surry county takes its name from the shire of Surrey, spelled with an e in England6 The only other Surry county in the United States is in North Carolina, which State follows Virginia in leaving out the original e. The North Carolina county is named after the English shire.7 Surry is on the south bank of the James River, between Isle of Wight on the east and Prince George on the west. The Blackwater River receives the drainage of the county on the southwest.

Nearly all of the twelve counties that we may assume to have been named after the shires of England are tidewater counties, and ten of them were named before 1700. Buckingham and Bedford are the only ones containing mountains. Five of the thirteen – Norfolk, Sussex, Buckingham, Bedford, and Surry – lie south of the James. Surry has already been discussed.

Norfolk and Sussex are flat counties of southeastern Virginia.

Norfolk, bordering on North Carolina, contains the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth, which are opposite each other on the Elizabeth River, and are noted for their excellent harbors. The great Jamestown Exposition of 1907, held in Norfolk from lack of accommodations at Jamestown, but which commemorated the three hundredth anniversary of the landing of the English at James-town, has done much to make this part of Virginia famous.

Norfolk was the second county8 of the State in population in 1900, but is now undoubtedly first. The farmers there are unsurpassed for industry and thrift, and agriculture is followed in a highly scientific manner. The market for vegetables is the earliest in the State, and the “trucking” trade is a source of great wealth. Fish and oysters of excellent quality are abundant, and a large trade in them is carried on,

Norfolk and Nansemond (to the west of Norfolk) counties contain the northern part of the Dismal Swamp; and Lake Drummond, so noted for the purity of its water, is about equally divided between the two counties.

Sussex County, a southwest extension of Surry County, from which it was formed, is watered by the Nottoway and Blackwater Rivers. Peanuts and cotton are raised, and the yellow pine furnishes valuable lumber.

Buckingham County is centrally located, and the James River forms its northern border. The soil of the river “low-grounds” is very rich, and the scenery, viewed from the bluffs on the James, is beautiful. Gold is mined here, though not extensively.

Bedford, with the James on its northeast border, and with tributaries of the Staunton River furnishing an abundant water supply elsewhere, is hardly surpassed in beauty of scenery by any Virginia county. The Peaks of Otter, with their extended view, are objects of great interest to the tourist. The hotel on the summit of Sharp Top, which is the peak commanding the best view, is generally open from May 1 to October 15. The number of guests that visit the hotel is large, and seems to be steadily increasing. The mountain air is peculiarly invigorating, and produces a keen appetite.

As has been intimated,9 Bedford County may have been named after an English duke, John Russell, fourth Duke of Bedford. The duke was born in 17 10, and at the time Bed-ford county was formed, 1753, was well known in the public life of England. He had been for three years Secretary of State, 1748-175 1, and it is quite possible that the Virginians named Bedford County in his honor two years after he retired from his high position. All four of the Virginia counties named in the three years 1752-3-4 have names of English origin: Halifax, in 1752, after an English earl; Prince Edward, in 1753, after a son of the Prince of Wales; Bedford, in 1753, after the English shire or after the English duke; Sussex, in 1754, after an English shire. The Duke of Bedford was Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, 1756-61, and died in 1771, after holding several other high positions.

Of the Six other counties named after English shires, three – Stafford, Westmoreland, and Northumberland – are separated from Maryland by the Potomac; three – Lancaster, Essex, and Middlesex – lie along the banks of the Rappahannock.

With regard to five of these counties, there is hardly any doubt that they take their names from the shires in England; but Stafford County may have been named in another way, though in my classification I place it among the counties named after shires.

Stafford County was formed in 1666 while William Howard, Viscount Stafford, was prominent at the English court; and it may have been named after the English viscount instead of after the English shire. Howard was brought up a Roman Catholic, and was a Royalist during the civil war, though he was often in opposition after the monarchy was restored. He was executed for treason in 1680, on testimony gathered by Titus Oates. He protested his innocence to the last and there is good reason to believe his protests.

Stafford, in northern Virginia, is watered by the Potomac and Rappahannock. Like the other counties bordering on tidewater Potomac, Stafford has an abundance of fish.

Westmoreland Is between King George and Northumberland on the Potomac, and the Rappahannock is a part of its southwest border. Westmoreland is famous as the birthplace of great men. Here were born Washington and Monroe, each of whom served eight years as President of the United States. In this county is Stratford, the capacious mansion built for Thomas Lee,10 the first native born American that became governor of Virginia. In Stratford were born Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, distinguished signers of the Declaration of Independence. The great Confederate chieftain, Robert Edward Lee, was also born in this house. General Henry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee, was also a native of Westmoreland.

Northumberland and Lancaster Counties adjoin the Chesapeake Bay, and carry on a vigorous trucking trade by means of the vessels that ply the bay and the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers.

Essex and Middlesex are two small tide-water counties on the south bank of the Rappahannock; the two counties together have an area of only 433 square miles, about the average area of a single county.

  1. See antea, pp. 34-35. 

  2. See antea, p. 64. 

  3. See antea, p. 66, 

  4. Campbell’s “History of Virginia,” p. 74. 

  5. Howe’s “Virginia History,” pp. 390-392; Smith’s “Virginia,” Vol. iii. p. 227. 

  6. Dr. B. W. Green supports me in this view. 

  7. J. C. D. in Appendix Mrs. Cornelia P. Spencer’s North Carolina History. 

  8. Henrico, with Richmond in it, was first in 1900, but Norfolk county gained on Henrico 2,500 population a year between 1890 and 1900, and in 1900 was only 281 behind. 

  9. p. 86. 

  10. p. 146 

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