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When we were one

by Larry S. Chowning

For 17 years, from 1651–1668, Middlesex was part of Lancaster County.

The land we know today as Lancaster County was originally part of Northumberland County, and Middlesex County was part of York County. Why the early colonial government at Jamestown decided to take land on the south and north sides of the wide Rappahannock River and make one county is somewhat of a mystery, but understandable when considering the times.

The settlements of Northumberland, Lancaster and Middlesex all began about the same time as the Virginia Colony was expanding due to an increasing population.

imageWith English civilization came a justice system and courthouses, parishes and churches, and sheriffs and tax collectors. For this colonial system to work, settlements had to be in close proximity to each other. The county system of government had worked well in England, so it was instituted in the American colonies.

Northumberland County was formed October 12, 1648, and included all the land between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers. It is believed that the very early settlers came to Northumberland from Kent Island, Maryland, traveling across the Potomac and settling on the south side of the river. 

The land we know today as Lancaster was at the far southern reaches of Northumberland County, and was a fairly unsettled frontier.

Middlesex was at the far northern reaches of York County, which had been part of Charles River County, one of the eight original political divisions known as shires. Middlesex also was a relatively unsettled frontier.

Northumberland and York counties were large counties with county seats far from the people living in Lancaster and Middlesex. A need for another governmental county between Northumberland and York was evident. This could be accomplished by joining the frontier lands on the two sides of the Rappahannock River. 

The original Lancaster County was composed of what is today Lancaster, Middlesex, Essex, and Rappahannock (called Richmond County today). This land was very attractive for settlements. The colonial economy was driven by tobacco, and land on the north and south sides of the Rappahannock River had extremely rich soil for growing sweet-scented tobacco.
The first wave of settlers came in 1642. On the Lancaster side, John Carter received a grant on August 15, 1642, for 1,300 acres on what became Carters Creek.

John Matrum received the first grant in Middlesex for 1,900 acres on July 20, 1642. The property was on the Piankatank River and called Matrums Mount.

Indian uprisings in 1642 and 1644 delayed the establishment of permanent settlements in Lancaster and Middlesex, but in 1649 the English came to both sides of the Rappahannock and stayed. The first group came across the Piankatank in boats, and paddled and sailed along river shorelines looking for suitable land.

Rowland Haddaway, while testifying in a land suit at the end of the 1650s in Lancaster County court, gave some insight on how the first settlers arrived.

While sailing the Rappahannock on the north side of the river in search of land in 1651, Haddaway said, “Going into a Creek . . . we gave it the name of Haddaways Creek and I . . . did take up the land that Hugh Brent now lives upon, there being three Indian Cabbins upon the said land.”

Later Haddaway wrote of another promising clearing: “Abraham Moone asked Thomas Gaskins whether he liked the said land or would have any of the same.” Gaskins said, “No, for he thot it would drowne (flood);” to which Moone replied, “If you wil not, I wil have it myselfe [and he] took a book out of his pocket and did set the bounds.”


The first settlers had to move through virgin forest and thick and dense Tidewater undergrowth, a deterrent to land transportation. They settled in areas where there was either a natural clearing or meadow, or where Indians had already accomplished some clearing.

The settlers used the Indian technique of cutting out a ring of bark from around a tree, called girdling, to kill the tree. Then, they would plant tobacco in mounds in the rich soil under the dead, sparse branches.

The first band of adventurers came armed with guns and hoes, with the hoe being the most important tool. The cultivation of tobacco required a hoe, a strong back, and not much else. 

An entire season’s crop of seed could be held in one hand. Seeds were broadcast in ditches, and when plants were mature enough, settlers transferred them to hoed mounds of dirt.

imageWhen harvested, the tobacco leaves were hung out to dry in sheds. The sheds were long, narrow buildings with exposed rafters and as open to the air as possible, yet able to keep out rain. The roofs were covered with thin clapboard, rather than shingles.

Many of the first homes in Lancaster and Middlesex were a story-and-a-half high, made of wood, and with one room downstairs and a loft upstairs. Early dwellings sat almost on the ground, with only wooden pillars under the house. The roof lines were often crooked because, as the pillars rotted, the structure would shift. Later, bricks brought from England or manufactured in the colony were used for foundations.

The very early homes had dirt floors while most of the next generation of homebuilders installed wooden-plank floors. The roofs were made of oblong square shingles of cypress or pinewood. Roofs on small planter homes had a tendency to leak, so fur hides were used to cover dry goods inside the house. 

During those first 17 years, the Lancaster County Courthouse was established on the north side of the river. This presented quite a challenge for those living on the south side when they were required to appear in court. They had to cross the river in a boat on a March day with a chilly wind, while battling whitecaps that tossed ice cold water into the boat.

Separated by the river

The Rappahannock River was a social and economic wedge between the two communities. As churches and neighborhoods began to grow on both sides of the river, people felt isolated from those on the other side.

Small private ferries sprang up along the river bank, but the shallops and punts used to haul people across the Rappahannock were no match for a northeast or southwest blow. Many times people were stuck across the river for several days while waiting for fair weather to return home.

The inconvenience for the people on the south side of the river led to efforts to form a new county.

On July 10, 1667, Lancaster court records state: “A petition being this day presented to this court under the hands of some of the inhabitants of ye south side of the ye river in this county desiring that every other court might be kept on the south side in answer to the said petition this court do declare that it is very just and reasonable that the court be continued where it hath for many years past.”

It further stated: “If ye south side of this county shall be pleased to divide and make a county, they are left to their own libtie (liberty) when they think fit.”

Middlesex is formed

The years 1668 and 1669 were critical in the formation of Middlesex County. The exact time and day of the establishment of Middlesex County has been lost to time. There is no mention of a “Middlesex County” in the 1668 or 1669 Grand Assembly records.

imageHowever, Lancaster County court records and Christ Church Parish records provide strong evidence as to the time period. Since the courthouse and court system were established on the north bank, the most regular gathering of citizens on the south bank was at church. Through the Church of England, Middlesex residents took a political stand in 1668 to encourage the Grand Assembly in Jamestown to create Middlesex County.

On September 16, 1668, Christ Church vestrymen took official action and passed a historical resolution. “It is agreed upon that ye petition should be delivered by the consent of the parish to the Grand Assembly for the ratification of ye former act made for the county of Lancaster to be divided into two counties,” it stated.

Although Assembly records of 1668 have been lost to time, it is believed that Middlesex was formally created by the Virginia Assembly at the end of 1668, and in February, 1669, land patent books used the name “Middlesex County” for the first time.

Governor Robert Berkeley signed land grants for 158 acres to Richard Parrott on February 5, 1669, and another to Richard Whittaker for 158 acres on the same date. These grants stated the land was located in Middlesex County.

Thus ended the short stint when Middlesex was an official part of Lancaster County.

Information for this article was taken from Lancaster County Court Records; “A Place in Time—Middlesex County, Virginia 1650-1750” by Darrett B. Rutman & Anita H. Rutman; “Lancaster County Virginia Where the River Meets the Bay” by Carolyn H. Jett; “History of Virginia” by Robert Beverley; “The Vestry Book of Christ Church Parish, Middlesex County, Virginia, 1663-1767” by C.G. Chamberlayne; and “Cavaliers and Pioneers—Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants 1623-1800” by Nell Marion Nugent.

posted 10.01.2009

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