Dividing the County of Henrico
Act for Dividing the County of Henrico into Two Distinct Counties
For the Ease and convenience of the Inhabitants of the County of Henrico in Attending Court and other public Meetings,
Be it enacted by the Lieutenant Governor, Council, and Burgesses of this present General Assembly, and it is hereby enacted by the Authority of the same,
That from and immediately after the twenty-fifth day of May next ensuing (1749) the said County of Henrico be divided into two Counties, that is to say, all that Part of the said County of Henrico lying on the south side of the James River shall be one distinct County and be called by the name of Chesterfield County.
This proclamation made by the House of Burgesses in 1749 officially established the boundaries of Chesterfield County. Excerpts from the earlier history of the region are necessary to see completely how the county and its people have evolved.
The area that now is Chesterfield County long was inhabited by Native Americans who hunted and fished along the banks of the James and Appomattox rivers. In 1607, when the English arrived at Jamestown, the region formed a border between the Algonquin-speaking Appomattox of the Powhatan Empire and the Sioux-speaking Monacans.
Henricus is Settled
Filled with high expectations of a new and better life of wealth and easy living, the settlers at Jamestown were ill-prepared for the harsh living conditions of the New World. They found severe weather, disease, famine and very little of any value to their corporate sponsor, the Virginia Company of London. Attempts at growing crops failed, wild game was not available and the colonists were forced to scavenge for food in order to survive.
In the fall of 1609, new colonists, including women and children, arrived. That winter saw the colony's population drastically reduced as a result of attacks and a siege by the forces of the Powhatan empire. The period of 1609-10 was known as "The Starving Time."
In the spring of 1610, conditions were so desperate that the remaining settlers had actually boarded ships to desert Jamestown when new ships filled with settlers and fresh supplies arrived.
Sir Thomas Dale, the new deputy governor, was instructed to find a more suitable place. He chose a position on a high bluff above the James River. The location was described as a "convenient, strong, healthy and sweet seat to plant a new Towne in."
The City of Henricus was established there in 1611 and named in honor of Henry Prince of Wales.
The Henricus settlers built a stockaded palisade for protection. This strong position served as the colony's capital during the martial law period from 1611 to 1614.
It was during this period of warfare that, in 1613, Pocahontas, one of Powhatan's daughters, was captured by Capt. Samuel Argyll.
Sir Thomas Dale entrusted her to the Rev. Alexander Whitaker, minister at Henricus. She came to live in his nearby house, learned the Christian faith and was baptized with the name of Rebecca. At Henricus, she was courted by John Rolfe. Their marriage helped establish a peace between the English and Powhatan.
During the height of the Citie of Henricus, the colony founded the first hospital in North America, Mt. Malady, and the first school, Henrico College. Servants were granted land and freedom - the beginning of the first private ownership of land, the future free enterprise system and democratic economy that made America unique throughout the world.
Rolfe, experimenting with local Indian tobacco and tobacco from Spanish Trinidad, produced a variety suitable for English tastes. The tobacco first was commercially grown in the Bermuda Hundred area and evolved as the first cash crop for the settlers.
The Henricus colony flourished until 1622, when Powhatan's successor, Opechancanough, killed one-third of the colony's population and burned the settlement. Remaining survivors moved to the plantations that had been established throughout the area.
Tobacco, Coal Boost Growth
As the region grew, tobacco production and the introduction of other industries helped to expand the colony's frontier. By 1700, several tons of tobacco were being exported from the Chesterfield area and other parts of Virginia each year.
In 1722, coal was discovered in the Midlothian region. This raw material was mined from open shafts, carried by wagons to the James River and loaded onto ships to be sent to England. Some of this coal probably was used in the blast furnace, the first in North America, established at Falling Creek in 1744.
By 1749, there were enough settlers or "tithables" - white males who owned land and property and paid taxes - living in the area south of the James River to support a second church parish. The tithes they paid supported the Anglican Church parish, which caused problems later.
On May 25 of that year, Chesterfield County was created.
Playing a Role in the Revolution
In the ensuing years, as the strain between England and the American colonies grew, Virginia found itself in the middle of the conflict. Restrictions on what could be produced in the colonies and taxes imposed on finished goods from England helped to stir up the impending revolt.
Many people in the colony also felt that they were being denied some of the basic rights that belonged to all Englishmen. One was the right to practice religion without persecution, which was granted to all Englishmen by the Act of Toleration passed in 1689.
In the early 1770s this issue became the center of controversy in Chesterfield and other counties in Virginia. In Chesterfield, seven Baptist preachers were arrested mainly for refusing to buy a license to preach. These fees were seen as forced taxes in support of the Anglican Church. One of the most famous preachers was the Rev. John Weatherford. In 1773, he was imprisoned for five months before he was released with help from Patrick Henry.
Chesterfield was directly involved in the American Revolution. In the early part of the war, most of the fighting occurred in New England and along the east coast. Hampton Roads and the Norfolk area were controlled by the British. Chesterfield County supplied men for the Continental Army, while the State Militia and State Navy protected the region from British patrols.
During the winter of 1780, General Baron Von Steuben set up a recruit training center at Chesterfield Courthouse to train Continental Soldiers for service with General Nathanael Green in North Carolina. In January 1781, British General Benedict Arnold led a raid up the James River to destroy supplies stored at the new state capital, Richmond. He withdrew to Portsmouth after burning the city's warehouses.
In April 1781, a larger force under the command of British General William Phillips led an assault through Chesterfield County in pursuit of General Marquis de Lafayette's Continental forces. This resulted in the destruction of a part of Petersburg, the training camp and Chesterfield Courthouse, and the burning of Manchester.
Civil War Brings Action
Chesterfield County's vital railroad lines supplied the Capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Midlothian coal fields provided the raw materials that kept the iron industries working.
In 1862, the Union Navy supporting General George McClelland's attack on Richmond was stopped by the Confederate artillery batteries at Drewry's Bluff. The fort then served as the Confederate Naval Academy for the rest of the war. In 1864, Union Army troops under the command of General Benjamin Butler attempted to capture Richmond by attacking through Bermuda Hundred. The Confederate Army under the command of General Pierre G.T. Beauregard quickly dug in and set up a defensive line of fortifications known as the Howlett Line. The Union Army was turned back and both sides dug in for the remainder of the war.
County Thrives in 20th Century
Through the 1900s, Chesterfield County thrived as a mostly rural area. Residents of Richmond sought out the Bon Air area during the summer to escape the heat in the city.
The county saw the growth of new communities and the introduction of many new businesses and industries.
Twice this century, the county lost part of its land, either through citizens' voluntary secession or forced annexation.
In 1926, citizens living in the area on the north banks of the Appomattox River sought autonomy. Residents felt over-taxed and under-represented. They petitioned the Circuit Court to approve a separate town. Emotions ran high when county officials learned of the plans. Garbage pick-up was halted and a half-constructed sidewalk was abandoned. But citizens prevailed and Colonial Heights became independent.
More than 40 years later, the county's borders were threatened again. After several years of court cases in which Chesterfield fought annexation, Richmond gained 27 square miles of the county. More than 47,000 people who once were county residents found themselves in the city's perimeters on January 1, 1970.
Upset by the annexation of so much valuable land and infrastructure, Chesterfield and its residents in January 1981 sought and earned immunity from further annexation.
Between 1970 and 1990, the county experienced tremendous growth. The population grew from 76,855 to 209,274. That growth brought challenges to county government, which strained to provide services.
Today, growth rates have leveled and the quality of life continues to attract newcomers and visitors.
Heading into its 250th anniversary celebration, Chesterfield County is an award-winning community that provides an excellent quality of life for its residents and many attractions for visitors.