Welcome to Chesterfield County!
Chesterfield County traces its past to the Native Americans who lived here for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the first English settlers in 1611 to establish the second permanent settlement in the New World. It also is the place of Revolutionary War engagements and major Civil War campaigns, and boasts of many firsts, including the first commercial cultivation of tobacco, the first ironworks and the first commercially-mined coal in North America. Find out about all this interesting history and more!
Chesterfield is a place of incredible beauty - there is so much to see and do. With the James and Appomattox rivers forming much of its borders, there are countless opportunities for boating and fishing. The county is the location of Pocahontas State Park, which is rated among the top 10 campsites in the country, and the Dutch Gap Conservation Area, an 800-plus-acre bounty of woodlands, wildlife and waterways on a 4.5-mile trail loop. Dutch Gap also offers locations for peaceful relaxation in an open-air oasis. The county provides more than 4,000 acres of green space among its 60 public parks and numerous athletic complexes make it an ideal host for sports events and tournaments. Chesterfield County’s central location is just south of Virginia’s capital, Richmond, and is convenient to interstates 95, 85 and 64.
Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia
The Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia, established on Sept. 23, 1981, serves as the center for Chesterfield County history. The mission of the historical society is to collect, preserve, interpret and promote Chesterfield County’s unique past. The historical society provides exhibits (in the museum and Magnolia Grange are in partnership with Chesterfield County), information to support educational goals and quality programs.
Chesterfield Historical Society Library
The Chesterfield Historical Library is a research facility focused primarily on the history of the county and its families. Located at Historic Trinity Church, it is open to the public, free of charge. The library maintains manuscript collections, vertical files, maps and pictures. The collection has been carefully assembled and preserved through the years by members and friends of the Historical Society.
Historic Programs and Activities
Chesterfield County boasts unique attractions for visitors to enjoy ranging from Revolutionary War and Civil War historic sites, historic museums and houses, and a wide range of historical landmarks. It is proud of the many firsts that have been documented here, from the first iron furnace and commercially mined coal to the first hard surfaced road in Virginia, the second railroad established in the state, and one of the last preserved African American schoolhouses in the county. Parks and Recreation manages more than 18 separate historic sites and 5,100 acres of parkland at 59 park sites. Approximately 2,500 visitors each year attend its historical programs, activities and events. Learn more about historical programs in Chesterfield.
Fallen Military Heroes
Find information regarding roads and facilities named in honor of Chesterfield County's fallen military heroes, along with their stories and commemorations.
Historic Firsts in Chesterfield
|1607||Sir Christopher Newport explored the James and Appomattox Rivers along the Chesterfield borders five days before the Jamestown was settled|
|1612||Tobacco was first cultivated scientifically in America at Bermuda Hundred by John Rolfe.|
|1614||Bermuda Hundred was incorporated as the first town in America.|
|1619||Falling Creek was the site of the first iron furnace in the New World.|
|1621||Falling Creek was the site of the first lead mines in America.|
|1622||Mount Malady near Dutch Gap was the site of the first American hospital.|
|1709||Midlothian produced the first commercially mined coal in America.|
|1795||Bosher’s Dam near Bon Air was the first large multipurpose dam in Virginia.|
|1807||Midlothian Turnpike was the first paved road in Virginia.|
|1811||The first commercial tramway in America, the predecessor of the railroads, was operated from the Brown, Page and Burr gunpowder plant on Falling Creek to its storage magazine a mile away.|
|1812||The first school for deaf mutes in the United States was located at Cobbs on the lower Appomattox.|
|1831||The Midlothian to Manchester Railroad was the first in Virginia.|
|1862||Cpl. John B. Mackie was the U.S. Marine Corps’ first recipient of the Medal of Honor, which he was awarded for his brave and courageous conduct while on board the USS Galena during the May 15, 1862 battle of Drewry’s Bluff.|
|1864||Bermuda Hundred Civil War Campaign - the only campaign fought entirely in one county.|
|1921||Father’s day was originated by three ladies from Drewry’s Bluff.|
|1934||The first wayside park in Virginia featured the Old Stone Bridge over Falling Creek, completed in 1826.|
Founding of Chesterfield
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 and 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.
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.
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.
Creation of the County Seal
In 1870, the first action of the first Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors was to direct a seal to be created, "to wit: a coal miner leaning on his pick under a pine tree with a flowing river at his feet." This was chosen as the County's Seal because it was the first place in the nation where coal was mined commercially.
As a result of the industrious labors of miners, other "firsts" occurred in Chesterfield: Midlothian Turnpike, the first paved road in Virginia, was built in 1807 to carry carts of coal; and in 1831, the first railroad, the Midlothian to Manchester Railroad, was built to haul coal to Virginia's ports.
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.
Historic Chesterfield Events Timeline
A group of approximately 250 Virginia Indians, known as Arrohateck, live near the area now occupied by Henricus Historical Park. They are part of the Powhatan Chiefdom whose population exceeds 13,000 in coastal Virginia. Sir Christopher Newport explores the James and Appomattox rivers five days before Jamestown is settled, along what are now Chesterfield County’s borders.
In September 1611, the English settle on a bluff on the James River, about 80 miles upriver from Jamestown. Sir Thomas Dale, the leader of the expedition, names it Henricus, in honor of Henry, Prince of Wales, and builds a fort with extensive palisades.
“Eighty miles up from our river from Jamestown I have surveyed a convenient, strong, healthie and sweete site to plant a new towne.” -Sir Thomas Dale
Coxendale is established on the southern bank of the James. It grows to include five smaller forts, the first hospital and Reverend Whitaker’s parsonage, Rocke Hall. Mount Malady is established at Henricus as the first hospital in the New World.
Pocahontas, reportedly one of Chief Powhatan’s favorite children, is captured by Captain Samual Argall. Initially, she is taken to Jamestown and subsequently is taken to Henricus. She is cared for, and instructed in Christianity, by Rev. Alexander Whitaker. Pocahontas converts to Christianity, is baptized and takes the Christian name Rebecca.
Dale goes to war against the Appamatuck tribe south of Henricus and settles in some of their property, naming this area Bermuda Hundred. It is incorporated as a town and there begins the first system of private land ownership. The first successful tobacco crop is cultivated by John Rolfe and tobacco ensures the economic survival of the colony. Pocahontas meets, and is courted by, John Rolfe, whom she marries in April. The Peace of Pocahontas forges a treaty between the English and the Powhatan Indians.
Pocahontas travels to England with her husband and infant son Thomas to meet King James. While there, she contracts an illness, possibly tuberculosis or smallpox, and dies at the age of 22. She is buried in Gravesend, England.
English colonists receive land grants and begin independent plantations. The increased numbers of settlers, poor crops and increased evangelical efforts, rekindle the Indians’ fear of the English. When Opechancanough becomes chief in 1618, the stage is set for renewed hostilities. Small Indian raids begin upon the settlers and Opechancanough gathers support from other tribes. Former Virginia Governor George Yardley and Governor Francis Wyatt try diplomacy to resolve the issues to no avail. The first 20 Africans arrive in Virginia in 1619.
The Virginia Company of London charters the first college in the New World to offer higher learning to both colonists and Indians. Also, good bog iron was found along Falling Creek in 1608 and construction of the first industrial ironworks in the New World begins in 1619 when about 150 ironworkers and their families arrive.
On Good Friday, March 22, the treaty signed between Indians and the English ends when the Powhantans attack throughout the Virginia colony. The ironworks are destroyed and almost 60 are killed including women and children. Henricus is severely damaged, and most of the settlers in Bermuda Hundred are slain or wounded. Recovery is slow after the Indian attacks and King James revokes the Virginia Company’s charter in 1624.
The first Africans are brought to Bermuda Hundred by landowners Francis Epps and Thomas Harris.
Swift Creek Mill is built by Henry Randolph, who acquires a large tract of land in Bermuda Hundred on Swift Creek in 1655. Randolph was born in England and migrated to Virginia about 1640. It is believed to be the oldest grist mill in the country.
Bermuda Hundred town plan denotes the central square as the slave market.
Westward expansion begins when 100,000 acres along the James River are given to the Huguenots, peaceful religious refugees from France. Their settlement, Manakin Town, is located at the site of a former Monacan Indian town. During this period the Monacans and other Indian tribes traded with the settlers. In 1701, coal is found near the town. It is used locally for many years before being commercially mined in 1709, the first commercially-mined coal in the New World.
The House of Burgesses establishes Chesterfield County, naming it after Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield. Stanhope is an English statesman, essayist and philanthropist.
Attempts to rebuild Falling Creek Ironworks fail before Archibald Cary establishes a furnace and foundry at the site. Iron is produced until the site is converted to a grist mill.
Francis Eppes VI, Thomas Jefferson’s brother-in-law, builds a Georgian-styled plantation, Eppington, along the Appomattox River. Jefferson is a frequent visitor who praises Eppes as the "nation’s first horticulturalist." In 1782, after the death of his wife, Jefferson leaves his youngest daughters Maria (Polly) and Lucy, and some of the Monticello slaves at Eppington Plantation during his appointment as minister to France. Lucy dies in 1784 at age two of whooping cough and is buried at there. Polly marries Francis Eppes’ son, John.
Baptist preachers imprisoned a Chesterfield County court house.
Bosher’s Dam near Bon Air is the first large multipurpose dam in Virginia.
Salisbury, a one-and-a-half-story frame house with two asymmetrical brick chimneys, is built by Thomas Mann Randolph. Patrick Henry leases Salisbury and lives there while governor of Virginia, 1784-1786.
President George Washington visits Chesterfield County at Manchester and Osborne’s Landing.
Midlothian Turnpike is the first hard surfaced road in Virginia.
The first commercial tramway in America, the predecessor of the railroads, is operated from the Brown, Page and Burr gunpowder plant on Falling Creek to a storage magazine a mile away.
The first school for deaf and hard of hearing people in the U.S. is established at Cobbs, the Bolling home on the lower Appomattox. It was discontinued in 1819.
Castlewood is built by Parke Poindexter, who serves as clerk of the court from 1812 until 1847. Castlewoods five-part design bears no likeness to any other recorded dwelling in Virginia.
Magnolia Grange, a Federal-style house, is built William Winfree and is known for its distinctive architectural features. It was named for the magnolia trees that once graced its lawn.
Mid-Lothian coal mine owners, frustrated by the challenges of transporting coal by horse and wagon, seek a better method of transport. Nicholas Mills, Beverly Randolph and Abraham Wooldridge build a tramway. By 1835, the Mid-Lothian Mines has several 11-foot-wide shafts on its 404 acres of property, the deepest being 722 feet. The 150 employees are expected, with the aid of 25 mules, to raise 1 million bushels of coal per year.
In February, the Chesterfield Railroad Company obtains a charter from the Virginia General Assembly. Construction is completed on the Midlothian to Manchester Railroad in 1831, the first in the state. It uses horses, mules and gravity to move the 160 cars. By 1836, 25,903 cars and 84,976 tons of coal are transported annually. It is reputed to be most profitable railroad in the world.
Clover Hill (Winterpock) coalfield opened.
More than 300,000 bushels of coal are raised from Pump Shaft at Mid-Lothian Mines. Capacity of work is estimated to be 1,000,000 bushels per annum.
”My friend, guide, and self, each with a lighted lamp, sprang into a basket suspended by ropes over pulleys and frame-work, above a yawning abyss seven hundred and seventy-five feet deep. The signal was given … and down, down, went we … In one minute – it seemed five – we came to the bottom with a bump! The underground superintendent made his appearance, covered with coal-dust and perspiration; his jolly English face and hearty welcome augured well for our subterranean researches.”
July 13, 1843 tour of Mid-Lothian Mines
Historical Collections of Virginia
The first and oldest African-American Church in the county is the First Baptist Church of Midlothian. It was organized in 1846 by the slaves and free blacks who worked for the coal mining companies. The first church is built at the Mid-Lothian Mines and was originally named the First African Baptist Church of Coalfield.
Chester is founded as a railroad town, Ettrick as an industrial village and Midlothian as a mining community.
An explosion in the pump shaft at Mid-Lothian Mines kills 55 men.
Explosion at Clover Hill coal pits kills 69.
First Board of Supervisors Meeting on July 30. Elected were Chairman S. Brooks (Midlothian District), David Woods (Bermuda District), J. Ivey (Clover Hill District), J. R. Robertson (Matoaca District) and John Murphy (Dale District).
Dutch Gap canal opens for shipping. Excavation began in 1864.
Manchester becomes and independent city.
Explosions at Grove Shaft kill nine workers.
A legal first in Virginia occurs in the county when African American George Lewis, age 19, is granted a ‘jury of his peers’ made up of citizens from the African American community. This historic black jury finds Lewis guilty of second-degree murder and sentences him to prison for 18 years.
The Victorian village of Bon Air, French for “good air,” lies along Buford Road. It is founded by principals of the Richmond and Danville Railroad as a Victorian resort for Richmonders to escape from the conditions in an industrialized downtown.
Another explosion at Mid-Lothian Mines takes the lives of 32 day-shift miners in the Grove Shaft, leaving 109 fatherless children and 26 widows and mothers.
Virginia State University, Virginia’s first state-supported school of higher learning for African-Americans, is founded on March 6, 1882, when the legislature passed a bill to charter the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. In the first academic year, 1883-84, it has 126 students and seven faculty, one building, 33 acres, a 200-book library and a $20,000 budget. In 1902, the legislature revises the charter act to curtail the collegiate program and changes the name to Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute. In 1923, the college program was restored, and the name is changed to Virginia State College for Negroes in 1930. In 1979, it became Virginia State University.
The Bright Hope Company extends the former Clover Hill Railroad from Chester to Bermuda Hundred to transport coal, timber and agricultural cargo, as well as provide regular passenger service.
The centerpiece of Bon Air, the Bon Air Hotel, burns down.
The Virginia State Board of Charities and Corrections condemns the three-cell county jail known as The Bastile (build in1842), and orders the Board of Supervisors to repair or replace it.
Construction of a new six-cell jail is completed. This jail remained in use through the 1960s. It is still part of the County Museum complex. It has been restored and offers tours and special exhibits.
The first high school in the county, Chester High School, is established. It was known as the Chester Agricultural High School from 1908-1927. Then it went back to the original name, Chester High School, and was renamed Thomas Dale High School in 1941.
The city of Manchester is annexed by Richmond.
A new courthouse on Ironbridge Road replaces the original 1750 courthouse.
Mrs. E. A. Swineford, Kate R. Swineford and Ruby G. Winfree receive a charter for the National Father’s Day Association in May and choose the second Sunday in June as the date. The wearing of a red flower is selected as the symbol for Father’s Day.
The first known public school for black students in Midlothian was built circa 1877 which was a log building on land belonging to the Midlothian African Baptist Church. Prior to 1923 the original schoolhouse was replaced by a small frame building in 1925-1926 made possible by a matching grant funded by Julius Rosenwald Fund. The school occupied a new brick building in 1948. State historic marker unveiled in 2019.
Pleasant View School is an early twentieth century African-American schoolhouse built with the financial support of the Black community. The school was used until 1947. It represents one of the last preserved early black school houses in the county.
The country, in the grips of the Great Depression, has millions unemployed. The Civilian Conservation Corps, CCC, developed as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, puts more than 500,000 young men to work in forests, parks and rangelands across the country, including Chesterfield County.
The first wayside park in Virginia is the Old Stone Bridge at Falling Creek, completed in 1826.
McGuire Veterans Administration hospital opens.
The National Park Service donates the park developed by the CCC to Virginia State Parks. It is renamed Pocahontas State Park operating with the Department of Forestry.
From 1948-1970, George Washington Carver High School serves all African-American students in the entire county, many who left home as early as 5 a.m. to walk miles to reach the bus that would get them to school by 9 a.m.
1,250 acres of farm and marsh land become Presquile National Wildlife Refuge to protect migratory fowl.
The Board of Supervisors appoints a County Museum Committee.
The county’s first school integration is at Ettrick Elementary. Reuben D. Pierce and James Brewer are the first black students.
The old Swift Creek mill is converted into the Swift Creek Mill Playhouse, a restaurant and dinner theater. The site is preserved as a historical landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The groundbreaking for Chesterfield County Museum occurs. The museum is a replica of the original 1750 Chesterfield County Court House. The museum opens in 1980.
The Bon Air historic district is designated by the Board of Supervisors.
The County Museum opens on July 4, the culmination of Chesterfield County’s 1976 Bicentennial Project.
The Chesterfield Historical Society of Va. of Virginia is founded with 253 charter members.
Magnolia Grange is purchased by the county for $181,000. The Chesterfield Historical Society of Va. of VA pledges to restore and furnish it as a plantation house museum.
Henricus Historical Park is founded as a living history museum, a recreation of the 1611 Citie of Henricus.
A new master plan, funded by the state and Chesterfield County, expands Pocahontas Park and makes it the state’s largest park with more than 7,950 acres and two small lakes
Eppington Plantation is donated to Chesterfield County by the Cherry family.
Historic Castlewood is designated as the headquarters and research library for Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia.
Transfer ceremony held for acquisition of Historic Point of Rocks Park, site of a Union hospital during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign in 1864 and the Strachan home.
Pleasant View African American School was listed as a County Historic Landmark.
Mary Randolph - The Virginia House-wife
A Chesterfield County Role Model for Women of the 19th Century
Article by Nancy Carter Crump, Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia
"The government of a family bears a Lilliputian resemblance to the government of a nation. The contents of the Treasury must be known, and great care taken to keep the expenditures from being equal to the receipts. A regular system must be introduced into each department, which may be modified until matured, and should then pass into inviolable law. The grand arcanum of management lies in three simple rules: 'Let every thing be done at the proper time, keep every thing in its proper place, and put every thing to its proper use.'" - Mary Randolph
So began Mary Randolph's preface to The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook that became so popular it has rarely been out of print since it was first published in 1824.
Born in 1762 at Ampthill, her grandfather's Chesterfield County plantation, now the site of the Dupont Company (the house itself was dismantled and moved to Richmond in 1929), Mary Randolph was a member of the Virginia elite, with roots extending back to the colony's formative years. As the eldest child of Thomas Mann and Ann Cary Randolph of Tuckahoe in Goochland County, she grew up surrounded with all the wealth and comforts enjoyed by other members of her class. She and her numerous siblings were tutored by Peter Jefferson, father of the nation's fourth president, to whom she was related by both blood and marriage.
Along with her formal education, Mary was trained in the proper household management expected of upper-class women of the time, women who were brought up to supervise large manor houses with surrounding support buildings and numerous servants. While women then were relegated to secondary positions within the family hierarchy, they were in truth the mainspring that kept the household running. These women had enormous responsibilities as well as formidable knowledge, part of which was an awareness of food preparation and elegant entertaining. This knowledge would sustain Mary Randolph throughout her adult life.
In 1780, Mary married a cousin, David Meade Randolph, and they settled in Chesterfield County near Bermuda Hundred at Presquile, a 750-acre plantation that was part of the Randolph family's extensive property along the James River. While David Randolph saw to the cultivation of his plantation, gaining a reputation as the best farmer in the country, as well as a noted inventor, Mary assumed a conventional role, supervising the household, entertaining their many guests and acquiring a reputation as a lively hostess who set an exquisite table. While living at Presquile, Mary bore four sons.
Over time, life at Presquile, situated along the swamp lands of the James, proved difficult. According to a contemporary source, the swamps produced noxious fumes that brought on "frequent and dangerous diseases. Mr. Randolph is himself very sickly, and his young and amiable wife has not enjoyed one month of good health since she first came to live on this plantation." By 1798, the family had moved to Richmond, where they built a house, christened Moldavia (a combination of their two given names) by a friend. Presquile was sold out of the Randolph family three years later.
Richmond welcomed the young couple. Mary, already well known for her accomplishments, "charming manners, and [...] masculine mind," quickly established a reputation as one of the city's leading hostesses. As the United States marshal of Virginia under two administrations (that of George Washington and John Adams), David gained attention as an outspoken Federalist, and Moldavia became a center for Federalist society. The Randolphs entertained lavishly. With Mary's knowledge of fine food and entertaining, invitations to dine at the Randolphs' table were coveted.
Mary's skills as hostess and cook were so well known, in fact, that they were brought to the attention of Gabriel Prosser, a slave who in 1800 attempted an unsuccessful revolt in northern Henrico County and Richmond. Supposedly, his plans included wiping out as much of the area's white population as possible, but according to local legend, Mary Randolph would have been spared to serve as Prosser's queen - and his cook! Perhaps this is when she acquired the nickname Queen Molly, by which she was affectionately known to her friends.
Thomas Jefferson's election to the presidency in 1800 marked the end of David Meade Randolph's career as federal marshal. The two men were on opposite sides of the political fence and Jefferson removed Randolph from office immediately after his inauguration. This, along with business reversals, caused a rapid decline in the Randolphs' fortunes and by 1802, they had listed Moldavia for sale.
Within a few years, their financial situation had become critical, and Mary stepped in. She was determined to see her family taken care of, and took what was then a highly unorthodox step for an upper-class woman. In March, 1808, an advertisement appeared in The Richmond Virginia Gazette: "Mrs. Randolph has established a boarding house in Cary Street, for the accommodation of ladies and gentlemen. She has comfortable chambers, and a stable well supplied for a few horses." Putting her abilities as a hostess together with her knowledge of good food and elegant presentation, Mary achieved instant success. The Randolphs' boarding house was considered a place where "wit, humor, and good-fellowship prevailed, but excess rarely."
By 1819, the Randolphs had given up their business enterprise and moved to Washington, where they lived with one of their sons. There, Mary Randolph decided to compile her culinary knowledge to paper and, in 1824, her book The Virginia Housewife was published. It won immediate success; a second addition followed within a year, and Mary was preparing yet another when she died in January 1828.
With Mary's advanced culinary knowledge, her splendid recipes and detailed advice to housewives, the book remained a standby, going into many editions throughout the 19th century. It continues to appear in facsimile even today.
While The Virginia Housewife is seen by some as a quaint reminder of culinary traditions long gone by, the book is viewed by today's social historians as an important historical document in which dining habits of the Virginia elite can be examined. As noted culinary historian, Karen Hess, wrote, "The most influential American cookbook of the 19th century was The Virginia Housewife [...] There are those who regard it as the finest book ever to have come out of the American kitchen, and a case may be made for considering it to be the earliest full-blown American cookbook. [It] may be said to document the cookery of the early days of our republic."
Chesterfield County can take pride in claiming Mary Randolph as a native daughter, an exemplary woman and role model. Her courage and determination, her willingness to step off her pedestal to see that her family survived, and her ability to plunge into the world of business, mark her as a pioneer and role model to those who followed.