13 Virginia Counties Named After Prominent Englishmen

  1. Warwick Original shire, 1634
  2. Southampton, Organized 1748
  3. Northampton Original shire, 1634
  4. Richmond, Organized 1692
  5. Fairfax, Organized 1742
  6. Albemarle, Organized 1744
  7. Loudoun, Organized 1757
  8. Amherst Organized 1761
  9. Chesterfield, Organized 1748
  10. Halifax Organized 1752
  11. Pittsylvania Organized 1767
  12. Greenville Organized 1780
  13. Rockingham, Organized 1777

Eleven Virginia counties, and more probably thirteen, are named in honor of various prominent Englishmen that lived during the days when Virginia was a colony. With regard to the naming of Richmond and Greenville Counties, there attaches considerable doubt; hence I have adopted the explanation that seems to me most probable.

Assuming that all thirteen of the counties were named as I suppose, the explanations will be as follows: two counties, Warwick and Southampton, were named after two English earls, members of the London Company for Virginia; Northampton is named after an English earl killed in fighting for King Charles I; Richmond county takes the name of an English duke; Fairfax is named in honor of an Englishman who owned extensive tracts of land in Virginia; Albemarle, Loudoun, and Amherst Counties are named after English generals; and Chesterfield, Halifax, Pittsylvania, Greenville, and Rockingham reproduce the names of English statesmen.

Warwick County, one of the original shires and at first called Warwick River County, is named after Robert Rich,1 the second Earl of Warwick, who was a prominent member of the London Company for Virginia. Rich obtained celebrity in the Civil War, was admiral for the Long Parliament, and enjoyed the confidence of Cromwell. He died in 1659, the year before the monarchy was restored.

Southampton County derives its name indirectly from Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton;2 for the “hundred” of Southampton, a division of the colony smaller than the county, was named in the earl’s honor while he was treasurer for the London Company. The county itself did not receive the earl’s name until 124 years after his death.

Wriothesley is said to have been especially active in procuring for Virginia the first charter of the London Company; and the second charter of the company made him treasurer, which then virtually meant governor, for the company. He held this office until the company was dissolved in 1624. A few months later he died of a fever that was contracted while he was engaged in an expedition against the Dutch. The Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated “Venus and Adonis” and the “Rape of Lucrece,” is the only man from whom Shakespeare acknowledges having received a benefit. A son of Shakespeare’s friend became the fourth Earl of Southampton, and was Treasurer of England during the first seven years of Charles II’s reign.

Northampton County was one of the eight original shires into which Virginia was divided in 1634. Its name until 1642-43 was “Accawmacke,” called from the name of an Indian tribe that lived on the “Eastern Shore,” which is that part of Virginia lying between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and containing the counties of Accomac and Northampton. The county name of Accomac was revived in 1672, when Northampton County was divided, and the northern part called Accomac.

The Eastern Shore county of “Accawmacke” doubtless had its name changed in 1643 to honor the memory of a brave Royalist, Spencer Compton, second Earl of Northampton, who that year gave his life in the cause of King Charles I. This explanation of the name is original with me, but the enthusiastic loyalty of the Virginians to the royal cause and the fact that the name was changed at a time when the colonists would be wanting to show their loyalty, make it almost certain that the death of the earl and the naming of the county in the same year stand in the relation of cause and effect.

Spencer Compton,3 second Earl of Northampton, born in May, 1601, a partisan of Charles in his struggle with Parliament, served actively in the royal army, and, while commanding the royal troops, was killed at the battle of Hopton Heath, March 19, 1643.

It is interesting to note that the North Carolina4 county of Northampton was named in 1741 in honor of George, probably the fourth Earl of Northampton. Spencer Compton, third son of the third Earl of Northampton, was created Viscount Pevensy and Earl of Wilmington in 1730 – whence probably the name of the city of Wilmington, North Carolina.

Of course the county of Northampton in Virginia could have been named after the English shire of the same name, and a writer in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography5 gives this origin of the name. He states that the name is said to have been changed from Accomac in honor of Colonel Obedience Robins, who was from Longbuckie, in Northampton, England.

As has been said, the origin of Richmond County’s name is very doubtful. There is no English shire after which it could have been named. The beautiful city of Richmond6 on the Thames gave the name to the present capital of Virginia, but there is no reason to believe that the Virginia county got is name from the English city. There remains the possibility that the county may take the name of some English Earl or Duke of Richmond, living, or in public remembrance, at the time the county was named.

Such a nobleman was Charles Lennox, first Duke of Richmond and a natural son of King

Charles II. The duke was born in 1672, and was therefore twenty years old when, in 1692, the old county of Rappahannock was divided into the two new counties of Richmond and Essex, and itself ceased to exist. The present county of Rappahannock has no relation to the former one, except that it bears the same name.

Macaulay, in his “History of England,” relates that King Charles on his death-bed parted with peculiar tenderness from the Duke of Richmond. At the Revolution of 1688 Richmond went to Paris in the service of the fugitive James, but later, changing both his politics and his religion, he became reconciled to King William and entered the Church of England. William’s wife was a daughter of James, and Anne, another daughter, was, with the exception of the king and queen, probably the most prominent character at court. In 1691 a county had been named after the king and queen jointly and another county had received Princess Anne’s name. It seems, therefore, not unlikely that the county of Richmond, formed in 1692, received the name of the Duke of Richmond, who was so closely connected with the royal family of England, and whose reconciliation with the king doubtless attracted the attention of the colonists in Virginia. I do not, unfortunately, know the date of the reconciliation, but, as the duke was “an unprincipled adventurer,”7 he most likely had gone over to William before 1692. Richmond died in England in 1723.

In connection with the Virginia county, it is interesting to note that the North Carolina county of Richmond, formed in 1779, was named after Charles Lennox, third Duke of Richmond (and probably a grandson of the first Duke of Richmond), who was a friend of the colonies in the English Parliament. A descendant of the first Duke of Richmond was Governor-General of Canada for some years during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Thomas, the sixth Baron of Fairfax, was born in England in 1691, and died in 1782 at his large country mansion, “Greenway Court,” twelve miles from Winchester, Va. He came to Virginia in 1739, but soon returned to England. In 1742, during his absence from Virginia, a part of his estates was organized into a county and named Fairfax in his honor. In 1745 Lord Fairfax settled permanently on his Virginia lands. Sixteen of the present counties of the State8 – Lancaster, Northumberland, Richmond, Westmoreland, Stafford, King George, Prince William, Fairfax, Loudoun, Fauquier, Culpeper, Clarke, Madison, Page, Shenandoah, and Frederick – and the seven West Virginia counties of Hampshire, Hardy, Morgan, Berkeley, Jefferson, Grant, and Mineral, belonged to the cultivated and hospitable old bachelor.

Lord Fairfax employed young Washington to make surveys on his vast domain, and the two men formed a strong and lifelong friendship for each other. Sir Thomas’s home was often the resort of guests, and his friendliness and generosity made him universally esteemed. During the Revolution he remained loyal to George III, but neither American nor Briton would harm the property of the genial old gentleman.

Albemarle County, organized in 1744, was named after William Anne Keppel, second Earl of Albemarle, who had been appointed Governor-in-chief of Virginia seven years before. The earl never occupied the governor’s chair, and Virginia was under deputy governors during the seventeen years that he was nominally her chief executive.

Keppel was born in England in 1702; at fifteen years of age was made captain in the English army, and was successively promoted for meritorious conduct until 1743, when he became Lieutenant-General. His excellent military record doubtless led to his being made governor of Virginia.

The Earl of Loudoun and General Amherst, prominent officers of the French and Indian War, were his successors in the gubernatorial office, though, like Keppel, neither of them actually performed the functions of that office. Lord Albemarle had a fine figure and courtly manners, but his habits were so extravagant that he was kept heavily in debt. He died in Paris at the age of fifty-two.

Keppel must not be confused with General George Monk, Duke of Albemarle, who restored the Stuarts to the throne in 1660. The duke was one of the eight original grantees of Carolina, and his name still lives in the North Carolina Albemarle Sound.

In 1757, when Loudoun County9 was formed, Lord Loudoun was commander of the British troops in America, and hence his name is given to one of the fairest of Virginia counties. Loudoun had been appointed governor of Virginia in the same year, but his military duties in the North prevented him from assuming the office. He proved, however, an utterly incompetent general. After he had left northern New York almost defenseless in order to increase the army he was leading against the strong French fortress at Louisburg, the enemy gained important successes on the unprotected frontier. Loudoun’s efforts resulted in no advantage to the British, for he did not deem his forces strong enough to carry on the siege, and so the English retired from Louisburg without accomplishing anything.

Very different was the military career of General Amherst, whom Pitt, the new English Prime Minister, appointed in Loudoun’s place in 1758. Louisburg was soon taken, and the English arms were nearly everywhere successful. The fall of Quebec in 1760 virtually ended the war, and, by the terms of the treaty of peace made in 1763, the French yielded to the English all their territory in North America except several small islands near Newfoundland. Amherst County’s name, which was given in 1761, fairly indicates the joyful pride that Virginia felt in the successful general. Amherst was appointed governor of Virginia in 1763, but he did not assume the office, and hence Fauquier continued to serve.

In 1748, when the Earl of Chesterfield had just ended his brilliant public career in Great Britain, the Virginia County was named in his honor. The earl had been many years both in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords, but his greatest political success was his able administration as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. His courtly grace and polished dignity made “Chesterfield manners” proverbial; and to say that one is a “regular Lord Chesterfield” is merely an emphatic way of affirming a complete fulfilment of the laws of etiquette. Chesterfield lived twenty-five years after his retirement to private life, and spent much of his time in correspondence. His letters,10 like his manners, are models of style.

In 1749 the English Earl of Halifax founded in Nova Scotia the famous seaport city that bears his name. The county that contains the city is also called Halifax, in honor of the earl. Three years later Virginia followed Nova Scotia’s example by organizing a Halifax County also. In 1758 North Carolina, too, named a county after the Earl of Halifax.

William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, was hardly surpassed in popularity or influence by any English statesman of the eighteenth century, though William Gladstone held nearly the same place in English hearts in the nineteenth century that William Pitt did 140 years ago. Nearly half of Pitt’s seventy years of life was spent in public service, and the successful termination of the war in Canada in 1763 was due to his sound judgment in the choice of generals. Pitt’s part in securing the repeal of the odious Stamp Act of 1766 was so well known that the General Assemblies of Massachusetts and Virginia gave him a vote of thanks for his efforts in their behalf. The grateful Virginians named Pittsylvania County after him the next year, and its county seat is called Chatham, from the earl’s title. The city of Pittsburg in Pennsylvania is also named after William Pitt.

Greenville (sometimes spelled Green-esville) County was formed in the latter part of 1780. I am divided between two explanations of the name, as it may come either from Sir Richard Temple Grenville, sometimes spelled Greenville, a brother-in-law of William Pitt, or from General Nathaniel Greene, of Revolutionary fame. Both explanations have much to recommend them, and while I credit the name to the English nobleman, I regard it equally as probable that it should be credited to the Revolutionary patriot.

A sketch of General Greene is given elsewhere,11 and a few words must suffice here. After ably fulfilling the duties of quarter-master-general of the Revolutionary army for two years, Greene was transferred to the command of the army in the South in the autumn of 1780. In October of that year he had presided over the tribunal that convicted the brave but unfortunate Andre. At the time that Greenville County was formed, the name of General Greene was already loved and honored in the South, and his movements were eagerly and anxiously watched by the patriotic Virginians. What Greene did or failed to do was going to mean much to the South and to Virginia, much to the very existence of the nation. What man could Virginia at that time more fittingly honor in the naming of a new county?12

Sir Richard Temple Grenville was born in 1711, and after an active life in politics, during which he showed himself to be a friend to liberty, he died in 1779, one year before the Virginia county of Greenville was formed. He was a brother-in-law of William Pitt, who had died in 1778, and was a patron of John Wilkes, the English politician and political agitator who became a popular hero by his fearless attacks on the English ministry and King George III. Wilkes, after being several times elected to Parliament and kept from taking his seat on the ground that he was ineligible, was elected and seated in 1774, and continued in Parliament until 1790. In 1777 Wilkes County, North Carolina, was named after the English friend of liberty. In addition to his connection, private and political, with William Pitt, so highly esteemed in the colonies, and his friendship for John Wilkes, Grenville was supposed by many to have been the author of the “Letters of Junius,” that were such masterly attacks on the English government at a time when the colonies were feeling the weight of English oppression.

The probability that the Virginia County was named after Sir Richard Grenville is heightened by the fact that North Carolina, in 1777, named three counties, Burke, Camden, and Wilkes, after English friends to the colonies, and in 1779 named Richmond County after another English friend.

The chief objection to the theory that Greenville County is named after General Greene is that the county is named Greenville, and not Greene. A further objection is the fact that in 1838 Virginia named Greene County in honor of the Revolutionary patriot, which she would hardly have done if one Virginia County were already named after Greene. It is, of course, possible that the older county was named in honor of the general, and that this fact was forgotten or over-looked when the new county was named.

The Marquis of Rockingham, after whom the Virginia County was named in 1777, was far inferior to William Pitt in ability; yet, as the leader of the liberal party among the aristocrats in England, he proved himself to be the true friend of America. He was Prime Minister of England in 1765-66, and, from that time, headed the opposition to the war ministry of Lord North. In 1782, when the party in favor of making peace with America came into power, Rockingham became Prime Minister again, but died a few months after assuming the office.

These thirteen counties are pretty widely scattered throughout the State. Loudoun and Fairfax are the most northern of them, and are watered by Potomac streams. Fairfax is rendered more attractive when it is remembered that Mount Vernon, the home and burial place of Washington, is within its borders. At Oak Hill in Loudoun county is the home where President Monroe resided for part of the time after his retirement from the Presidency.

Rockingham is a large county that lies between the Blue Ridge and Great North Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley, and it is drained by waters that enter the beautiful Shenandoah River.

Albemarle, in north-central Virginia, has beautiful mountain and river scenery. In this county is Charlottesville, which contains the University of Virginia. This institution, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson, has long held the first place among Southern universities. Jefferson was born in Albemarle, and also died there; and near Charlottesville is Monticello, his home and burial place. Albemarle produces excellent grapes, and the “Albemarle pippin” is probably more widely and favorably known than any other apple.

In 1842, when Mr. Andrew Stevenson, a citizen of Albemarle county, represented the United States at the English court, he caused several barrels of Albemarle pippins to be presented to Queen Victoria.13 From that time until her death the pippin was the apple eaten at the Court of St. James’; and it may be that King Edward keeps up the custom of his mother. At any rate, the pippin has a wonderful popularity in England now. Mr. C. E. Sydnor, the Richmond fruit expert, received, in the summer of 1907, an order from a wholesale fruit merchant of England for 20,000 barrels of pippins. This order, at $6.50 a; barrel in London, would represent about $130,000. Sydnor also received an order from Copenhagen, Denmark, for 5000 barrels of pippins. Some years ago a university student sent as a Christmas present a barrel of choice pippins from Charlottesville to his sweetheart in Louisiana. He took the writer with him to help select the apples, and the two sampled the fruit before it was shipped. Well, if those apples didn’t win that girl, she must be proof against all the wiles of crafty lovers!

Amherst County has the Blue Ridge on its northwestern border, while the James River adjoins it on the south for a distance of fifty miles.14

Pittsylvania and Halifax Counties lie together on the North Carolina border, and are watered by the Staunton and the Dan Rivers. Both are unusually large counties, and Pittsylvania is exceeded in population by Henrico and Norfolk only.

Chesterfield is southeast of the State’s center, and is surrounded on all except its northwest side by the James and Appomattox Rivers. Matoaca, a town of seven hundred inhabitants on the north bank of the Appomattox not far from Petersburg, bears a private name of Pocahontas,15 the Indian princess. Matoaca was the early home of John Randolph of Roanoke. Numerous Indian relics have been found there, and the place seems to have been a favorite resort with the Indians. Indeed, we assume that Pocahontas herself must have loved the neighborhood, for not far from Matoaca is a small place, not a post office, but a station on the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, called Pocahontas; and in Amelia County is Mattoax, which is simply another rendering of the Indian girl’s name.

Warwick and Southampton Counties are in southern Virginia, with the Isle of Wight County between them. Warwick County is in the southeastern part of the peninsula formed by the James and York Rivers. Its original name was Warwick River County,16 though the “River” was dropped before 1672. The county has greatly increased in population since Newport News began its growth.

Southampton County is drained by the Meherrin, Nottoway, and Blackwater Rivers. In Southampton occurred a slave insurrection under Nat Turner in 1831. Fifty-nine whites were murdered in cold blood, most of them women and children. The rising was promptly suppressed and Turner and about a dozen of his followers were hanged. The Negro leader claimed to have received revelations from heaven directing him to the step. The outbreak was not caused by cruelty of the whites to their slaves, for Turner confessed that his master treated him kindly.

As has been said, Northampton County is the southern part of the “Eastern Shore” of Virginia, Accomac comprising the northern part. Sulgrave, the ancestral home of the Washington’s, is in Northampton.

Richmond, in the “Northern Neck,” the peninsula formed by the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, is hemmed in by the Rappahannock River and by Westmoreland, Northumberland, and Lancaster Counties.

Greenville County, on the North Carolina line, separates Brunswick from Sussex and Southampton, and is watered by the Meherrin and Nottoway Rivers.

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. Dr. B. W. Green is authority for this, though I had already thought it probably the origin of the county name. 

  2. Dr. Green says the county is named after the earl; so also Bishop Meade. I had already learned that the “hundred” took the earls name. 

  3. Century Cyclopedia of Names.” 

  4. Spencer’s N. C. History, appendix. 

  5. Vol. ix., No. I, p. 94; reference through Dr. B. W. Green. 

  6. Howe’s “Virginia,” p. 305. 

  7. “Century Cyclopedia of Names,” under Charles Lennox. 

  8. Footnote, p. 236, Howe’s “Virginia History.” Grant and Mineral counties in West Virginia have been organized from Hampshire and Hardy since Howe wrote. 

  9. There is a Loudon county, Tennessee, and the Virginia County is sometimes incorrectly spelled without the u. 

  10. Chesterfield’s letters are valuable also as original sources of history. They give an inner picture of court life and of the royal family. 

  11. Pp. 113-114. 

  12. The county clerk of Greenville, 1895, unhesitatingly said that the county was named after General Greene. 

  13. Charlottesville Daily Progress, July 9, 1907. 

  14. Whitehead’s “Virginia Handbook” p. 202 

  15. Howe’s “Virginia,” p. 229. 

  16. Martin’s ”Virginia Gazetteer,” p. 288. 

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