13 Virginia Counties Named After Governors

  1. Culpeper, Organized 1748
  2. Spotsylvania, Organized 1720
  3. Goochland Organized 1727
  4. Dinwiddie, Organized 1752
  5. Fauquier Organized 1759
  6. Botetourt, Organized 1769
  7. Henry, Organized 1776
  8. Patrick, Organized 1790
  9. Nelson, Organized 1807
  10. Lee, Organized 1792
  11. Page, Organized 1831
  12. Giles, Organized 1806
  13. Floyd. Organized 1831
  14. Wise, Organized 1855

In fourteen of her counties Virginia reproduces the names of her governors. Botetourt, Culpeper, Dinwiddie, Fauquier, Goochland, and Spotsylvania recall colonial times; while Floyd, Giles, Patrick and Henry, Lee, Nelson, Page, and Wise date after the Declaration of Independence.

With the exception of Botetourt, these colonial counties lie east of Virginia’s center. Fauquier and Culpeper are in the north near the headwaters of the Rappahannock. Spotsylvania, to the southeast of these two counties, contains the sources of the Mat, the Ta, the Po and the Ny Rivers, which unite in Caroline county to form the Mattapony River. Dinwiddie is in southeastern Virginia, and is drained by the Nottoway and Appomattox Rivers. Goochland is on the north bank of the James between Fluvanna and Henrico.

Fourteen counties, as two are named after Patrick Henry.

Botetourt lies on both sides of the James, wedged in between the Alleghany and Blue Ridge Mountains.

Lord Culpeper, who served from 1680 to 1683 as the governor of Virginia, is chiefly notable for the immense tracts of land he owned. In 1673 Charles II of England granted Virginia for a period of thirty-one years to Culpeper and the Earl of Arlington. Two years afterward Culpeper bought the rights to the lands lying between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, and was appointed governor of Virginia for life. He did not come to Virginia to assume his office until 1680. Though a shrewd and capable governor, Culpeper was convicted of bribery at the end of three years, and was thereupon deposed from office. Culpeper county was named after Governor Culpeper in 1748, a few years after his grandson, Lord Fairfax,1 had made his home on the vast estate inherited from his grandfather.

Of the six colonial governors who gave their names to Virginia counties, Alexander Spotswood,2 with his spacious and hospitable country home, is probably the most interesting character. While governor he made an exploring tour through the country from Williamsburg across the mountains to the Shenandoah River. The party had a jolly time and were gone six weeks. On their return each tourist received a golden horseshoe as a souvenir of the trip, and thus was instituted the order of the “Knights of the Horse Shoe.” A horse-shoe was chosen as the badge of knighthood because the horses, which at home needed no shoes, had to be shod in order to be able to travel over the rocky regions of the mountains. In 1724 Governor Spotswood had above the falls on the Rappahannock River an iron furnace, considered by himself as the first regular iron furnace in the United States.3

Sir William Gooch had already won fame as a soldier in Europe when he was chosen governor of the Old Dominion in 1727. Two counties were established that year, and one of them was named Goochland in honor of the new governor. Gooch greatly endeared himself to the people by his wise administration as governor, and the Virginians bade him a tearful farewell when he sailed for his English home after twenty years of service in the colony. The flourishing city of Staunton in Augusta County is named after Lady Staunton, the beloved wife of Governor Gooch.

Robert Dinwiddie became governor of Virginia in 1752, and a county was named after him the same year. Dinwiddie’s term lasted six years. Though neither a good nor a popular executive, Dinwiddie showed discernment by appointing young Washington to important commands. The latter-s trip beyond Fort Duquesne was undertaken at Dinwiddie’s instigation.

The Virginians again complimented their chief executive in 1759 when they named Fauquier County in honor of Francis Fauquier, who had lately become governor. Fauquier was a broad-minded scholar of culture and ability, and his society was greatly enjoyed by the youthful but appreciative Jefferson. Though Fauquier was watchful of the interest of the home government in England, he had also the welfare of the colonists at heart. His term was ended by death in 1768.

Lord Norberne Berkeley, Baron of Botetourt, became governor of Virginia in 1768, and held the office until his death in October, 1770. Though the opposition between the Virginians and the mother country caused Botetourt to use strongly repressive measures towards Virginia, the baron was a true friend to the colony. He was much mourned at his death and the legislature honored his memory with a marble statue, which is still standing at William and Mary College. The beautiful county in western Virginia received his name the year before his death. Fincastle, the county seat of Botetourt, takes its name from Lord Botetourt’s estate in England. Fincastle County was formed in 1772, but ceased to exist four years later, when it was divided into Washington, Montgomery, and Kentucky counties – the last named afterwards became Kentucky State.

Berkeley County, now of West Virginia, was organized as a Virginia county in 1772. The name was nearly certainly derived from the late Governor Botetourt, Lord Norberne Berkeley, though I have no authority to cite in support of this theory. On the other hand, “Appleton’s American Cyclopedia” says that the county was named after “Governor Berkeley.” This must mean Sir William Berkeley, governor of Virginia for twenty years or more in the seventeenth century. William Berkeley is the only person that was generally known as Governor Berkeley; Norberne Berkeley is known in history as Governor Botetourt.

Several considerations seem to throw doubt on the cyclopedia’s statement. The latter part of Berkeley’s administration was marked by great cruelty to the followers of Nathaniel Bacon, and Berkeley was recalled to England at the request of the Virginians. While the governor had been very popular before Bacon’s rebellion, was it likely that Virginia should wait ninety-five years after Berkeley’s death and then give a county name for a governor that had been hateful to many in the colony for his acts of tyranny?

In the Virginians’ attitude towards Lord Botetourt it seems more probable that Berkeley County should have been named after the baron’s ordinary name, Norberne Berkeley. Fincastle County was named after his English estate the same year Berkeley County was organized, and Botetourt County had been named after the baron himself only three years before – thus proving the affection of Virginians for him. But, even if Berkeley County is named after Sir William Berkeley, the naming was probably done to reflect honor on Lord Norberne Berkeley, for Norberne was a direct descendant of John, elder brother of William.

Culpeper, Orange, and Fauquier organized a famous regiment of “Minute Men”4 at the beginning of the Revolution. The Culpeper corps carried an aggressive-looking flag, which had depicted on it a rattlesnake with twelve rattles – the head for Virginia, a rattle for each of the other colonies. On the flag were the words: “The Culpeper Minute Men. Liberty or Death. Don’t Tread on Me.” The Culpeper men wore green hunting shirts and were otherwise attired so as to present a savage and formidable appearance.

Fauquier contains some of the best farming lands in the State. Botetourt is rich in minerals and well adapted to stock raising. Dinwiddie contains Petersburg, the third city of the State in size.

The eight counties that Virginia has named after her governors since she cast off allegiance to England are west of the State’s center, and all of them are more or less mountainous. Patrick and Henry are on the North Carolina border, and are watered by Carolina Streams. Lee, the most western county of the State, separates Kentucky from Tennessee, and is drained by Russell’s River, whose waters reach the Tennessee. Wise is north of Lee, and also borders on Kentucky; it is drained by Kentucky streams and by Clinch River waters. Giles, bordering on West Virginia, is bisected by the New River. Floyd is watered chiefly by the Little River, a tributary of the New, and lies northwest of Patrick County. Nelson, with its west-central position, is beautified on the northwest by the Blue Ridge Mountains, on the southwest by the historic James. Page, in the Shenandoah Valley, is noted for the wonderful Luray Caverns.

Of Virginia’s governors none deserve a higher rank than Patrick Henry. His long life almost coincides with that of Washington – he was born four years after, and died six months before, the President. Both were Virginia born, and both spent their last days in their native State.

It would be hard to overestimate the value of Henry’s services to his State and his country. Before the Revolution his eloquence did much to secure the repeal of the odious Stamp Act, and when the war was on hand he kindled a fiery zeal for independence in the hearts of his countrymen. Henry was instrumental in getting the Virginia delegates to propose independence in the national Congress of 1776,5 and he helped to secure the guarantee of religious freedom in the State6 and the national7 constitutions.

After perfecting for Virginia the first writ-ten State constitution in America, the Williamsburg State convention ended its work of June 29, 1776, by electing Patrick Henry the first governor of the new State,8 and the legislature of that year honored Henry by giving his name to the large county that had just been formed from Pittsylvania. After Henry had retired from the Virginia legislature of 1790, a new county was formed from a part of Henry County, and the ex-legislator was again honored in Patrick County’s name. Henry was unanimously re-elected governor four times, and in 1796, six years after his retirement to private life, was again chosen chief executive of Virginia, but declined to serve on account of the infirmities of age. The Virginia governors were then elected by the State legislature for a term of one year, and were not eligible for more than three successive terms. No other governor of Virginia has served as many terms as Henry,9 nor does any other governor of the State have more than one county named in his honor. Henry was twice offered a United States senatorship, and also important offices under President Washington, but he declined them all.

Nelson County was formed in 1807, and was named after General Thomas Nelson, who was Virginia’s third governor after she had become a State. While Nelson was of greater service as a legislator than as a soldier, he took honorable rank in both capacities. As a member of the Virginia legislature he helped to frame the State constitution, and afterwards signed the Declaration of Independence. In 1776 he was Henry’s chief competitor for the governorship, and in June, 1781, he succeeded Jefferson in that office. At the siege of Yorktown, where he commanded the Virginia militia, Governor Nelson manifested a noble example of unselfish patriotism. His house was the largest and best in Yorktown, and thinking, therefore, that General Cornwallis probably had his head-quarters there. Nelson had the building bombarded,10 offering a reward to the cannoneer who should put the first ball through it. Nelson’s term of governorship lasted not quite six months, as failing health forced him to resign, and the remaining eight years of his life were spent in retirement. He died in York, the county that had given him birth fifty-one years before. The statues of six honored sons of Virginia stand around the lifelike equestrian statue of Washington in the capitol square of Richmond. These statues commemorate the lives and services of General Andrew Lewis, so distinguished in Indian warfare; George Mason; Chief Justice Marshall; Patrick Henry; President Jefferson, and Governor Thomas Nelson.

Lee County received its name in 1792, from General Henry Lee, of Westmoreland, who had just become governor of Virginia. Virginia had special reason at that time to honor the name of Lee, as Richard Henry Lee had just retired to private life after thirty-six years of arduous public service, while Francis Lightfoot Lee and Arthur Lee, brothers of Richard Henry Lee, had also endeared themselves to the State by careers of usefulness and honor.

General Henry Lee, second cousin to Richard Henry, rendered valuable service in the Revolution by his brave and well-trained “legion” of cavalry. Lee’s “Memoirs of ’76” tells of Revolutionary scenes. Lee was a member of the congress that adopted the Constitution of the United States, and he urged its ratification by Virginia in 1788. He became governor of the State December 1, 1791, and held the office three years.

Three Lees have been Virginia’s chief executive: Thomas Lee,11 President of the Colonial Council, was governor from September, 1749, to February, 1751; General Henry Lee, December 1, 1791, to December 1, 1794; and General Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of General R. E. Lee and grandson of Governor Henry Lee, was governor for the four years ending December 31, 1889.

At the death of Washington Congress appointed Henry Lee to prepare a eulogy on the great American. Lee’s speech contained the now famous words, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his country-men.”

Page County was named in 1831 in honor of Governor John Page, whose term of office expired twenty-six years before the county was organized.

John Page, of Gloucester County, Virginia, attended William and Mary College with Thomas Jefferson, and the two students formed there a lasting friendship for each other. During the Revolution Page proved of great service to the State as lieutenant-governor and as a member of the committee of public safety. He was in Congress during Washington’s entire Presidency, and was governor of Virginia for the three years ending in 1805. When Page retired from the governorship, his old friend, President Jefferson, appointed him to a public office, which he held until his death in 1808.

Those who have read the delightful stories of Thomas Nelson Page will, perhaps, take a greater interest in Governor John Page when they learn that he was the great-grandfather of the author of “Marse Chan” and “Meh Lady.”

William Branch Giles had been for two years the leader of the Democratic Party in the United States Senate when Giles County was named after him in 1806. In 1791 he was elected to Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Colonel Theodoric Bland, and served continuously in that body for eight years. He resigned from Congress in 1798 and became a member of the Virginia legislature, where he helped Madison to pass the celebrated “Resolutions of ’98.” These Resolutions strongly emphasized the rights of the individual States, and indicated the dangerous tendencies that lurk in a government that has too great power over the parts composing that government. Giles was chosen United States Senator in 1804, and at once became the leader of the Democratic Party in the Senate. After holding the leadership seven years, he lost it because of his opposition to war with Great Britain. He retired from the Senate to private life in 1815, but entered politics again in 1826 as a member of the Virginia legislature. The next year he was made governor of Virginia, and served until 1830.

Floyd County takes its name from John Floyd, who succeeded Mr. Giles as governor of Virginia. Floyd was a member of Congress from Virginia from 1830 to 1834 He enjoyed the personal friendship of Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson, but opposed Jackson’s election for a second term because of the repressive measures the President used against South Carolina. South Carolina seems to have appreciated Floyd’s pronounced States’ rights views, for she gave him her vote for President in 1832.

It is rather unusual for father and son to become governors of the same State, but John Buchanan Floyd, son of Governor John Floyd, was governor of Virginia from 1849 to 1852. When James Buchanan became President in 1857 he appointed young Floyd Secretary of War.

Henry Alexander Wise, of Accomack County, Virginia, who had served eleven years in Congress and for three years as minister to Brazil, was nominated by the Democrats in 1855 for governor of Virginia. He began the campaign under heavy disadvantages, but his vigorous and skillful canvass, during which he traveled over three thousand miles12 and made more than fifty speeches, resulted in his election by ten thousand majority. Wise County was named that year in honor of the energetic governor-elect. He held the office four years, and, like young Floyd, entered the Confederate army. Neither man was especially fortunate in his military career: in their case the laurels earned in peace were greater than those won in war.

Giles, Nelson, and Page Counties are remarkable for natural objects of great interest.

In Giles, about a thousand feet above the base of Salt Pond Mountain, and three thousand feet above sea-level, is a wonderful sheet of water known as Mountain Lake.13 The lake is three-fourths of a mile long, half a mile wide, and from fifty to sixty feet deep. The water is so transparent that the bottom can be seen in every part.

In the southwestern comer of Nelson County is probably the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River. Crab Tree Falls starts from the top of Pinnacle Peak and descends three thousand feet in going a horizontal distance of two thousand feet; The highest cataract, the “Grand Cataract,” makes a fall of five hundred feet; the lowest falls is about fifty feet high. Crab Tree Creek, on which the falls is located, flows into Tye River a few miles from the cataract. The approach to the falls is very difficult, but the numerous visitors are well repaid for their trouble by the magnificent view obtained.

Page County are the Luray Caverns, whose “wonders surpass those of any other caverns known to man.” The most remarkable of these curious examples of nature’s handiwork were not discovered until 1878. They are now fitted up with electric lights, that their wonderful formation may be fully appreciated by the numerous sightseers who visit them.

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. Pp. 69-70 for Fairfax. 

  2. Spelled with one t, and so the county should be spelled. 

  3. But there was a furnace for smelting iron ore at Falling Creek, in Chesterfield County, in 1619. It was destroyed and the people killed in the Indian massacre, of March 22, 1622. There is a pig of the iron with the furnace mark in the State Library in Richmond. 

  4. Howe’s “Virginia,” pp. 237-8. 

  5. See Henry’s “Henry,” Vol. i. pp. 332-34. 

  6. Ibid,, Vol. i. pp. 431-32. 

  7. Ibid,, Vol. ii. pp. 338-89. 

  8. Virginia was a colony, subject to Great Britain, before she declared her Independence. 

  9. Unless it was Governor Botetourt; see pp. 139-141. 

  10. The Governor’s house was struck by the shot, but is still standing and has people living in it. 

  11. See p. 92 for Thomas Lee. 

  12. It must be remembered that the facilities for travel are much better in 1908 than they were in 1855. Railroads were scarce then. 

  13. Well described in Howe’s “Virginia History” and Martin’s “Virginia Gazetteer.” Whitehead’s “Virginia Handbook” describes Mountain Lake (formerly called Salt Pond, Crab Tree Falls, and Luray Caves.  

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