Virginia County Names: Two hundred and seventy years of Virginia History

Map of Virginia - Small
Map of Virginia with county names

We have traced the naming of Virginia counties from 1634, when the eight original shires were organized, through the naming of Dickenson County in 1880 – from eight counties to one hundred counties.

The names, as they were given, singly or sometimes in groups, make a record for the historian almost as suggestive as the early Chronicles of the Anglo-Saxons in England. Viewed in the light of the circumstances attending the naming, the names give a picture of thoughts and feelings of the Virginians – a moving picture that begins with colonial Virginia in her loyalty to King James I of England, that continues with Revolutionary Virginian in her devotion to the Father of his Country, and that ends with modern Virginia honoring one of her own sons in the naming of her youngest county.1James City County, organized 1634; Washington county, organized 1776; Dickinson county, organized 1880.

The story of Virginia is the story of the oldest English colony, and in that story we seek and we find a richer heritage of names taken from England than in the story of any other colony. For one hundred and sixty-nine years Virginia was a colony, and during that period fifty-eight of her one hundred counties were organized and named.

Fifty-six of these fifty-eight counties took their names, directly or indirectly, from England. Royal English families contributed twenty-six names, English shires gave twelve, one came from an English island, six were from governors imported into the colony, and ten were from Englishmen of prominence, some of whom never set foot on Virginia soil. One of the fifty-eight names, Dunmore, was afterwards, in 1777, changed to Shenandoah, thus reducing the colonial names of English origin to fifty-five. The other three names were Nansemond, Accomac, and Shenandoah, all Indian. The fifty-five English names were, during the Revolution, increased to fifty-six-fifty-seven, if Greenville County be named after Sir Richard Temple Grenville. It is more than a coincidence that Virginia should have fifty-eight counties named during the colonial period, and that fifty-seven county names should come from England.

The characteristics of the two States, Virginia and West Virginia, mother and daughter, are shown in their county names. Virginia, old and conservative, looked to England for the majority of her county names; West Virginia, young and independent, has, with few exceptions, names of American origin.2Most of the West Virginia counties were named before the new State was formed, however. Virginia clings to the spirit of the English cavaliers, and honors the memory of their high-born descendants, men of lofty ideals and noble lives. West Virginia, strong and sturdy, is building a commonwealth rich in material resources and strong in the spirit of self-made men.

Virginia’s age is shown by her fifty-seven counties with names from England; West Virginia’s youth is shown by the fact that only three counties out of fifty-five – Berkeley, Hampshire, and Raleigh – are taken from England. West Virginia is distinctively American in her county names, Virginia is largely colonial.

Now, while it is true in general that Virginia has had a spirit of deliberation and conservatism, a spirit at times antagonistic to progress, that spirit is, we believe, gradually giving way to one more practical and progressive, a spirit fired by renewed youth and refined by three hundred years of struggle. Virginia is awaking. Nor does West Virginia exhibit solely the marks of rude and pushing youth. Education is beginning to keep pace with oil, and culture is strenuously contending with coal.

Virginia’s past is glorious, a precious heritage to all sons of the Old Dominion. Virginia’s future, now rosy with promise, lies, under God, in the hands of her sons.

Virginia County Names

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

Footnotes:   [ + ]

1.James City County, organized 1634; Washington county, organized 1776; Dickinson county, organized 1880.
2.Most of the West Virginia counties were named before the new State was formed, however.
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