Introduction to Virginia County Names

The full significance of geographical names does not appear to the casual thinker; but to one who asks why and how the names were given, interesting’ answers often suggest themselves. From the contemplation of the place that bears his name, we begin to consider the character and actions of the man from whom the name may have been derived, and our thoughts flow easily and swiftly from the man to his nationality, and from the nation to the circumstances that gave to the nation the possession of the place.

Thus, the name St. Petersburg calls up to most students of geography the idea of a great and mighty city, but there the idea generally ends. Further inquiry would have shown that a Russian sovereign, desirous of founding a capital worthy of his vast empire, had struggled against almost insurmountable difficulties and had builded the city which, in its name, reminds us of the ambition and power of Peter the Great. Pennsylvania, by the name it bears, recalls the worth and integrity of honest William Penn1 while Virginia tells us that an English nobleman discovered new and strange lands over the seas; and that Queen Elizabeth, pleased with the discovery of her subject, named these lands in commemoration of her own virgin state.

A name, apart from the circumstances that give it significance, is but a barren mingling of letters and sounds. Why, then, should we prize so dearly the names of objects about us? Why should we be so unwilling to change the name of the rose? It is because the name has become associated with that which it represents. The qualities that belong to the object are reproduced in memory as we name that object. Valueless in itself, the name becomes invaluable from the thoughts and associations that cluster around it.

The value and influence of a name are due to what the name suggests, as when, for in-stance, the warrior, in his fierce battle-cry, clamors for vengeance upon the slayers of his fallen comrades. “Remember the Alamo!”2 shouted the enraged Texans as they rushed upon the superior numbers of the opposing Mexicans. The valor inspired by their thirst for vengeance was irresistible; and the cruel slaughter at the Alamo was avenged by the brilliant victory of San Jacinto, which expelled the hated Mexicans from Texas soil.

Virginia names can justly claim for themselves an unusual degree of interest. In Virginia was made the first permanent English settlement in America, and during all the colonial days Virginia ranked among the colonies first in territory, in population, and in political importance. This priority of rank continued throughout the Revolution, and in 1810 Virginia was still the most populous State in the Union.

The naming of Virginia counties, combined with the circumstances that attended the naming, serves to recall many historical facts, and so numerous and important are these facts that the county names form, as it were, a framework on which hangs much of English history and more of the history of Virginia. Furthermore, this framework presents the facts in a new aspect, and, indeed, probably brings to light not a few facts that are wholly new.

The progress of events in England was carefully watched by Virginia, and the naming of a county in a particular year often serves to record some event of unusual interest to the mother country and to the colony. Births and marriages in the royal family of England are thus recorded; re-corded in this way, too, is the accession of a new sovereign to the throne, the ministry then in power, or the success of an English general or statesman. So, also, after Virginia became a State, matters and men of State or national interest furnish to a new county a name that indicates in itself the trend of popular sentiment.

The date of the settlement of any particular locality is often indicated by the name given to that locality; so, too, the political views of the residents are exhibited in the character of the names about them.

In Tidewater Virginia nearly all the counties bear names taken from places or persons in England, while in the western part of the State the vast majority of county names are of American origin, the names thus showing that the eastern portion of Virginia was settled earlier than the western portion. In the times of the struggle between the Round-heads and Royalists in England, Virginia earned for herself the title of “Old Do-minion” by her loyalty to the fugitive Prince Charles.

The story of the county-naming is preeminently a story of colonial Virginia, for fifty-eight of Virginia’s one hundred counties were named during the colonial era. Furthermore, no State in the Union can begin to suggest, in the naming of her counties, the wealth of colonial history thus suggested by Virginia.

Virginia was the oldest of the colonies, and Virginia has a larger number of counties that were named during the colonial times than any other State. The six New England States have, taken together, only sixty-seven counties in all; Pennsylvania has sixty-seven, and New York has sixty-one. Georgia, decidedly exceeding Virginia in the number of her counties, and North Carolina, nearly equaling her, has both put together, not as many colonial county names as Virginia. The remaining four of the original thirteen colonies. New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina, have now, in the aggregate, only eighty-nine counties.

As has been suggested, the long and close connection between England and Virginia is shown by the large number of county names taken from the mother country. Twenty-six of the hundred counties are named in honor of various royal families of England; perhaps a dozen are named after English shires3, six are named after colonial governors; and other names are taken from English generals and statesmen. Altogether England furnishes fifty-seven per cent, of Virginia county names.

Nine counties have Indian names, several are named from their natural features, and about twenty-five are named in honor of men that attained prominence on American soil.

  1. It gets its name, however, from Penn’s father, Admiral Penn. 

  2. Pronounced Alamo, and meaning cottonwood tree. 

  3. A division of England corresponding to our county. 

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