7 Virginia Counties Named After Virginians

  1. Wythe Organized 1789
  2. Grayson, Organized 1792
  3. Tazewell, Organized 1799
  4. Scott, Organized 1814
  5. Smyth Organized 1831
  6. Alexandria, Organized 1847
  7. Dickenson, Organized 1880

Wythe County, and Wytheville, its county seat, are named after George Wythe, another signer of the paper that declared the United States free and independent. Wythe was probably the most eminent Virginia jurist of the eighteenth century. During the Revolution he was an ardent and active patriot.1 He helped George Mason and Richard Henry Lee to frame Virginia’s State constitution in 1776,2 and soon afterwards aided Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Pendleton in the revision of the State laws. For more than twenty years Wythe was sole chancellor3 of Virginia, and he is generally known as Chancellor Wythe. Wythe ranked high among scholars, and by Jefferson was regarded as the best Greek and Latin scholar of Virginia.

From 1779 to 1789 Wythe was Professor of Law at William and Mary College, and many of his pupils afterwards attained great eminence: Jefferson4 – to whom he bequeathed his great library – and Madison subsequently became Presidents of the United States; Giles held the leadership of the Democratic-Republican party in the national Senate for seven years, and was governor of Virginia for three years; John Marshall was Chief Justice of the United States for thirty-five years, and gained a reputation in law that has certainly not been surpassed, and probably has not been equaled, within the United States.

Jefferson, Madison, Giles, and Marshall were each honored by Virginia in the name of a county, though Jefferson and Marshall became a part of West Virginia when that State was formed.

Chancellor Wythe’s residence in Williamsburg is still standing.

Grayson and Tazewell Counties were named in honor of two United States Senators from Virginia, who died shortly before the counties were organized.

The Virginia legislature of 1782-83 was remarkable for the entrance into State councils of several men who afterwards became quite distinguished. Among others were John Marshall, the future Chief Justice, and William Grayson,5 after whom Grayson county is named. Together with Patrick Henry and others, Grayson vigorously opposed the ratification by Virginia of the United States Constitution. In 1788 Grayson and Richard Henry Lee were elected as the first two United States Senators from Virginia under the Constitution, over Madison, who was then the Federal leader in the State. Senator Gray-son only lived to serve two years of the term to which he had been elected.

Tazewell County was formed in 1799 and named in honor of Senator Henry Tazewell, of Virginia, who died in that year. In 1775, at the age of twenty-two, Tazewell became a member of the Virginia legislature, and served until 1785. He was one of the committee6 of 1776 that drew up the Declaration of Rights and adopted the State constitution, and from 1785 till 1794 he held honorable positions in the Virginia judiciary. In the latter year he was chosen to the United States Senate, and held the office till his death.

Even more distinguished than Henry Tazewell was his son, Littleton Waller Tazewell, who was a member of the State legislature, a United States Senator, and governor of Virginia for the two years ending April 30, 1836.

Wythe County, situated among the mountains of southwest Virginia, is separated from West Virginia by Bland County, and from North Carolina by Grayson. Like its eastern neighbors, Pulaski and Carroll, Wythe County is drained entirely by New River waters.

Grayson County is included with Floyd and Carroll between two forks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the three are known as the Blue Ridge counties. These counties are among the most elevated in the State; and Mount Balsam in Grayson County, with an elevation of 5700 feet above sea level, is said to be the highest peak in Virginia.

Tazewell County, which adjoins West Virginia, is famous for its timber, minerals, and beautiful scenery. The county is drained chiefly by Clinch River waters, which flow southwest, and by tributaries of the New River, which flows northeast; “Burke’s Garden” is a beautiful and fertile valley of about thirty thousand acres in the eastern part of the county. It is surrounded on all except its north side by lofty mountains; from that side flow the headwaters of Wolf Creek, a large tributary of the New River.

Scott and Smyth counties are named in honor of two Virginia generals, Winfield Scott and Alexander Smyth.

General Winfield Scott was born in Petersburg, Va., June 13, 1786, and lived to see the end of the great Civil War of 1861-65. Scott took an active and honorable part in the War of 1812 against Great Britain, and won still greater fame by his victories in the Mexican War; the infirmities of old age prevented him from being anything more than an interested spectator in the war between the States.

He entered the army at the age of twenty-two. Early in 1814 he began a vigorous and systematic training of the troops, and in a few months’ time he had a well-drilled army with which to attack the British in Canada. On July 5 of that year he obtained an important victory in Canada, at the Battle of Chippewa, and twenty days afterwards he fought the memorable drawn battle of Lundy’s Lane.

This engagement, sometimes called Bridgewater, began at five o’clock in the afternoon and raged until midnight. One man out of every five engaged was either killed or wounded. The scene of the encounter was made more impressive because the din of conflict was mingled with the sullen roar of Niagara Falls. These two battles greatly encouraged the Americans, and established the fame of the brave American commander, who was soon offered the position of Secretary of War by President Madison, Scott, however, declining the President’s offer. The naming of Scott County in 1814 was a well-deserved tribute to the gallant Virginian at the hands of his native State. His signal victories in the Mexican War earned him the Whig nomination for the Presidency in 1852, but he was defeated by Franklin Pierce, the Democratic’ nominee. Scott held the chief command of the American army for twenty years, but was forced to resign his position in 1861 on account of failing health.

Like Grayson and Tazewell, Smyth County was named in honor of a prominent Virginia statesman whose career had been recently ended by death. General Alexander Smyth , but he early removed to Virginia, where he entered upon the practice of law. For many years he was a member of the State legislature, and in 1808 Jefferson appointed him a colonel of a United States regiment in the Southwest. He was after-wards made general, was sent against Canada in 1 812, but failed and was removed from the army. He seems, however, to have retained public esteem, for, after serving again as a State legislator, he was elected to Congress in 1817, where he served almost continuously until his death, in 1830. Smyth County was named in the following year for the citizen, soldier, and statesman who had so long identified himself with the interests of his adopted State.

Scott county contains a wonderful natural tunnel that extends for 150 yards through one of the spurs of Powell’s Mountain.7 In height and width the tunnel varies greatly, 100 feet being probably the maximum height, and 150 feet the greatest width. The Virginia and Southwestern Railroad runs trains through the tunnel, while outside, overhead, a wagon road crosses it. Stock Creek, a tributary of the Clinch River, flows through the tunnel. Scott County lies between the counties of Lee and Washington, on the Tennessee line and is watered by the Clinch and Holston Rivers.

Smyth is situated north of Washington and Grayson, and is divided by Holston River waters and the mountain into three distinct sections, which differ greatly in natural features and products.

Alexandria County doubtless derives its name from its chief city. The city itself was originally known as Belhaven, but the name was changed to Alexandria in honor of the Alexander family, of whom the oldest was John Alexander, a citizen of the place. John’s son, William Thornton Alexander, was a prominent business man of a hundred years ago. The city was incorporated in 1779. The present county was for many years a part of the District of Columbia, but was receded to Virginia in 1847. Alexandria is the smallest of Virginia counties, having a land surface of only thirty-two square miles. It is surrounded on all except its north side by Fairfax County, where the Potomac River forms its boundary.

Dickenson County is named in honor of William J. Dickenson, a delegate from Russell to the Virginia Assembly at the time of Dickenson’s formation in 1 880. After the Assembly had voted that the name of the new county should be Dickenson, the Senate substituted Stonewall for Dickenson – a tribute to General “Stonewall” Jackson. Virginia had already named a county Jackson,8 after President Andrew Jackson, hence the name “Stonewall” would be more unmistakably a tribute to Thomas J. Jackson than the name Jackson itself. The Assembly, however, rejected the Senate’s amendment, and the name Dickenson was adopted.

The Dickenson family has always been at the front in public affairs in that narrow strip of Virginia lying south of West Virginia and east of Kentucky. William J. Dickenson’s grandfather, Henry Dickenson, located in that section in 1770 and in 1785 helped to organize Russell County, serving as Russell’s first county clerk. William’s father, Major James Dickenson, was several times sheriff of Russell and for two terms served in the Virginia Assembly. William J. Dickenson himself, after studying law and while County Attorney for Russell, was elected to the Assembly, serving two terms before the Civil War and six terms after it, retiring from the Assembly in 1882. Though a strong Union man and bitterly opposed to secession, Dickenson during the war remained quietly on his farm, taking care of his aged parents. At the age of eighty he died at Castlewood, Russell County, April 5, 1907, at the home of his nephew, Hon. R. Walter Dickenson, now State Senator from Russell, Dickenson, Tazewell, and Buchanan Counties. He never married. His youngest brother, Thomas T. Dickenson, is still living at Castlewood.

Dickenson County, which is drained by the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River, is separated from Kentucky by the Cumberland Mountains. Dickenson is the youngest county in the State by nineteen years. Bland being next youngest. Like other youths, however, Dickenson has great possibilities, for the letterhead of the county clerk informs us that Dickenson County is the richest undeveloped county in coal and mineral and hardwood in the South.

Source: Virginia Country Names: Two Hundred and Seventy Years of Virginia History, Charles M, Long, PH.D., New York and Washington, The Neale Publishing Company, 1908

  1. See Wythe in American Supplement to “Encyclopedia Britannica. 

  2. Wythe, “Appleton’s American Biography.” 

  3. An office corresponding to the presidency of the Court of Appeals; it was abolished at Wythe’s death. 

  4. Jefferson took law under Wythe by private instruction about 1760. 

  5. Not to be confounded with William J. Grayson, after whom a Kentucky county is named. 

  6. See Vol. i. p. 409, Henry’s “Life of Henry,” for a list of the thirty-two men that composed this committee. 

  7. Whitehead’s “Virginia Handbook,” p. 53, quoting the Bristol News, calls the tunnel 300 yards long; but see “Martin’s Virginia Gazetteer,” pp. 442-444. 

  8. Now a part of West Virginia. 

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