Early Years and Progress toward County Courts
Thus by 1622 several settlements in Virginia were governed locally by courts composed of commissioners of the peace (later known as justices of the peace). These courts met, usually monthly, to issue licenses to marry and to keep taverns and ordinaries. Because service on these courts enhanced one's reputation, it became the logical stepping stone for those who wished to serve in the House of Burgesses, the lower house (after 1643 when they began to meet separately from the upper house) of the Virginia General Assembly.
Monthly Courts Established By Law
In the September 1632 session, the General Assembly passed an act that declared, "Accordinge to the former orders of the Assembly, the fift[h] of March, 1632, It is now thought fitt and accordinglie ordered, That the mounthlie corts be held and kept in remote parts of this colony, vizt. for the upper parts, Warwicke river, Warrosquyoke, Elizabeth Citty, and Accawmacke." In 1634, according to the clerk Richard Hickman's notes, lieutenants were added to the monthly court structure especially "to take care of the warr against Indians" and thereby reinforce the military command authorities. That same year, according to the first volume of William Waller Hening's Statutes at Large (1809–1823), a collection of Virginia's colonial laws, "The country divided into 8 shires, which are to [be] governed as the shires in England. The names of the shires are, James City, Henrico, Charles City, Elizabeth Citty, Warwick River, Warrosquyoake, Charles River, [and] Accawmack." (Of those eight counties, four are still known by their original names: James City, Henrico, Charles City, and Accawmack, which now consists of the counties of Accomack and Northampton. Of the other four, Elizabeth City is now the city of Hampton; Warwick River the city of Newport News; Warrosquyoake the county of Isle of Wight; and Charles River is York County.)
Date of County Formation
Because Hening's Statutes at Large states that the colony was divided into eight shires in 1634, that year has traditionally been known as the beginning of county government in Virginia. County-style government existed in Virginia before that time, however. Kukla discovered that the statement regarding the shires was not written in 1634 as previously supposed, but in about 1722 by the clerk Richard Hickman, who was employed in the office of the secretary of the colony. At the time, Hickman was conducting research for a history of Virginia that his employer, Sir John Randolph, proposed to write, and he had consulted old records for his research. With the loss of so many early records—because of the various statehouse fires in Jamestown in the 1600s, along with the 1747 fire at the capitol in Williamsburg, the records destruction during the American Revolution (1775–1783), and the April 1865 burning of the General Court in Richmond and the records contained therein—it is not possible to reconstruct the records that Hickman viewed.
County Courts Established
In 1641 the General Assembly passed a law requiring officers of the court to take their oaths of office before holding monthly courts. Thereafter, the county courts performed the functions as the court of record for deeds, wills, and estate settlements; they also resolved disputes over land and debts. The final piece of the puzzle concerning the formation of Virginia's counties appears in an act of June 1642 in which the General Assembly concluded "that the … monthly courts [are] to [be] call[ed] countie courts, and the commissioners to be stiled commissioners of the countie courts." Thereby over a twenty-year period Virginia evolved from small settlements with military commanders to counties with monthly courts and commissioners of the peace.
Further Growth and County Formation, 1642–1776
Colonists first expanded to the Northern Neck area, which by 1645 had become Northumberland County. The population in the eastern part of Virginia swelled, and more counties formed as people settled along the Tidewater rivers, so that by 1702, four of the original shires and Northumberland County had parented an additional fourteen counties. County growth was slow between 1703 and 1730, when only seven counties were formed: Spotsylvania, King George, Hanover, and Brunswick in 1720; Goochland and Caroline in 1728; and Prince William in 1730. The locations of these newly formed counties, however, show that the colonial population was growing to the north, northwest, south, and west.
County growth continued in the years leading up to and during the French and Indian War (1754–1763): Halifax and Dinwiddie were established in 1752; Sussex, Prince Edward, Hampshire, and Bedford in 1753; Loudoun in 1757; Fauquier in 1759; Amherst and Buckingham in 1761; and Charlotte and Mecklenburg in 1764—an additional twelve counties. According to the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763 to end the war, settlement to the west of the populated areas was supposed to cease, and although county growth slowed, settlements continued to move west despite the injunction. Pittsylvania County was formed in 1766, Botetourt in 1769, and Dunmore, Berkeley, and Fincastle counties in 1772, bringing the total number of Virginia counties created under the colonial government to sixty-one.
In general, the colonial government in Virginia created new counties as populations grew large enough to sustain them. This was not the case in North and South Carolina, where county formation in the west did not keep pace with population growth, leading to corruption in North Carolina and a lack of courts and law enforcement officials in South Carolina. This, in turn, contributed to the Regulator movements of the 1760s, during which colonists grew disillusioned with the government and rebelled in the hope of regulating their own affairs. In Virginia, however, residents of the Piedmont and the western part of the colony were satisfied with the rate of county formation.
In the 1770s, as Virginia stood at the threshold of independence, the colony had grown in population from 350 people in 1610 to more than 450,000, and its counties extended from the Eastern Shore to what became the state of Kentucky and from the Maryland border to the North Carolina border.
May 1611 - Sir Thomas Dale, appointed Virginia's marshal, arrives in the colony with about 300 well-armed soldiers. He immediately issues orders to erect palisades at the James River settlements to secure them from attack.
1622 - Governor Sir Francis Wyatt establishes military commanders to administer the various settlements; these commanders in turn set up monthly courts to transact official business.
Early 1622 - The General Assembly passes a bill to establish lower courts in the various settlements throughout the colony to help relieve the governor and his Council from certain responsibilities.
March 22, 1622 - Indians under Opechancanough unleash a series of attacks that start the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. The assault was originally planned for the fall of 1621, to coincide with the redisposition of Powhatan's bones, suggesting that the attack was to be part of the final mortuary celebration for the former chief.
September 1632 - An act in the September session of the assembly establishes monthly courts in remote parts of the colony.
1634 - The colony is divided into eight shires: James City, Henrico, Charles City, Elizabeth City, Warwick River, Warrosquyoake, Charles River, and Accomack. Lieutenants are added to the monthly court structure "to take care of the warr against Indians."
1641 - Because monthly courts are being held without its officers first taking the oath of office, the General Assembly passes a bill requiring court officials to do so.
June 1642 - An act of assembly changes monthly courts to county courts, concluding Virginia's twenty-year progress toward county formation.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Salmon, E. J. County Formation during the Colonial Period. (2012, August 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/County_Formation_during_the_Colonial_Period.
- MLA Citation:
Salmon, Emily Jones. "County Formation during the Colonial Period." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 Aug. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: August 30, 2012 | Last modified: August 30, 2012
Contributed by Emily Jones Salmon, retired senior editor in the Education and Outreach Division of the Library of Virginia, co-editor of The Hornbook of Virginia History (3rd–5th editions: 1983, 1994, and 2010), and co-author with John S. Salmon of Franklin County, Virginia, 1786–1986: A Bicentennial History (1993).