County News

Origin of counties dates back to 1600s

A historic map shows the area in Virginia where the first eight shires were established. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

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While the United States just celebrated its 243rd birthday, the formation of counties has an even longer history.

The origin of counties can be traced back 400 years to four “citties” that were established in 1619 by the Virginia Company of London or London Company, a private investment venture under King James I. The “citties” included James City, Charles City, Elizabeth City and Henrico City.

Over a decade later, in 1634, the royal crown created eight shires, the English equivalent of counties, which included the original “citties” plus additional land, according to James City County Planner Tori Haynes.

The eight shires included Accomack Shire, Charles City Shire, Charles River Shire, Elizabeth City Shire, Henrico Shire, James City Shire, Warwick River Shire and Warrosquyoake Shire.

The origins of James City County can be traced back to when the English settlements were established into “citties.”

Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, is located in what is now James City County, Haynes said. It was established in 1607 as James Fort and was privately owned by the stakeholders of the London Company until 1624 when it became a royal colony.

When England created the eight shires, James Cittie became James City Shire and within the next decade, the name evolved to James City County. However, Haynes said the county has never been a city and does not include a city today.

Haynes explained that James City County is celebrating its 400th anniversary in 2019 to remember historical events such as the General Assembly, which was the first legislative assembly held in Jamestown in 1619.

“The scope of the influence of James City County’s history is broad and woven into many facets of our geographic and cultural identity,” Haynes said.

History-based tourism and recreation is an important economic driver for the county, she explained.

“Overall, James City County strives to continue the rich legacy that has made this community a wonderful place to live, work and visit,” Haynes said.

Charles City County, one of the original eight shires, was named after King James of England’s son, Charles, who later became King Charles I.

Originally, the county was made up of land on both sides of the James River, but lost the acreage as other counties formed. In 1613, settlement in the county began, leading to the establishment of what is believed to be the first Virginia plantation.

The Washington Post has described Charles City County as “the land lost in time” because of the lack of new development and its similarities to the original environment when the area was first settled.

Judy Ledbetter, who serves as volunteer director of the Charles City County Richard M. Bowman Center for Local History, said when the first federal census was done in 1790, the population was only 1,500 less than it was at the time of the 2010 census.

“In many ways, we’re a county that is very traditional and slow to change,” Ledbetter said.

Northwest of Charles City County, settlers traveled up the James River and landed on the ground that was to become Henrico County.

“Henricus was the second settlement and out of Henricus became Henrico County. We go back to 1611,” said George Drumwright, former Henrico County deputy manager for community services and member of the board of trustees for the Henricus Foundation.

The city of Richmond was created out of the county, Drumwright said. Settlers built the first English hospital in Henricus and discovered tobacco along the James River.

“We continue to look back at where we came from and the James River has always been important to us,” Drumwright said, adding that the water system in the county currently comes from the James River.

The geography played an important role in the creation of the successful settlement, according to Harvey Hinson, a retired deputy county manager who also served as an interim supervisor on the Henrico County Board of Supervisors.

“It was just a combination of factors that all combined to make it the success it was,” he said.

According to Barry Lawrence, assistant to the county manager for board affairs, the county’s longer existence allowed for more development, specifically with tourism, compared to counties that were formed after the eight shires.

“We do have that longer history and probably the maturation process that gave us more time to develop as an organization,” Lawrence said.

Along the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Northampton County, which is located on the southern half of the eastern shore, was first called “Ye Kingdome of Accawamacke.”

Accomack became the eighth shire and was renamed Northampton in 1642. A year later, Northampton County was divided into two counties with the lower county named Northampton and the upper county named Accawmack or Accomack. Later, the counties reunited once again, but permanently divided in 1670.

Northampton County has the oldest continuous court records in the country.

According to “Exploring the Oldest Continuous Court Records of America,” which Northampton County Circuit Court Clerk Traci Johnson helped compile, court records for Northampton County are continuous from 1632 to the present.

For more than 100 years, the court records were kept in private homes. The records include a list of the clerks of court in the county that date back to 1632.

The beginning of the oldest continuous court records contains the first court orders, deeds and wills from Accawmack County.

“The records themselves are priceless,” Johnson said. “We work really hard to preserve the history and teach the young people what their forefathers did here.”

Johnson said the county’s history is its “most important asset.”

“The sign when you come into Northampton on both ends says, ‘Land of history, hospitality and opportunity for all,’” Johnson said. “I love that slogan.”

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