Finding Virginia Sources–What you don’t know can mess you up!

What you don’t know about the geography of Virginia can mess you up!

  1. Every aspect of genealogy has its own lingo–and it seems cool to use the lingo in genealogy research materials.  If you don’t recognize these words, and if your dictionary does not include these words you will overlook important sources that cover your ancestors.
  2. In early Virginia,  areas–including river valleys–are often more significant than counties as a search area.  You will discover that your ancestors had interests in a much larger area than you ever recognized.
  3. Virginia is still mostly rural.  Large cities with metropolitan hinterlands were late in developing because of the plantation system and its access to navigable rivers and creeks.  And locations in court and property documents as well as newspapers referenced those same watercourses in lieu of addresses.

Because of these facts, this newsletter will identify the search areas of Virginia–you can print it off and tuck it in your research carrier so you can refer it to it often.  It will save you time and frustration.

Eastern Shore: between the Ocean and Chesapeake Bay.  Counties:  Accomack, Northampton.  Close contact to the Eastern Shore  counties of Maryland, especially in the sixteenth century–Somerset, Worcester and later,  Wicomico.  Country roads today are not always marked with state boundary signs so you may not know when you are actually in Maryland.

Tidewater Virginia: where all the watercourses from Chesapeake bay up to the Fall Line, flow in and out according to the tides.  The counties affected:   Henrico, Richmond City (excepting South Richmond), Chesterfield, Prince George, Charles City, James City,  Mathews, Gloucester, New Kent, King William, King and Queen, old Rappahannock, Middlesex, and Essex.  The modern counties of Newport News and Hampton, replace the old counties of  Warwick and Elizabeth City.

There is some confusion because part of the Tidewater is also referenced by the peninsula where the counties lay:  Middle Peninsula, between the Rappahannock and York/Pamunkey Rivers includes Mathews, Gloucester, Middlesex, Essex, King and Queen, King William, Caroline, and Spotsylvania. Lower Peninsula, between the York/Pamunkey Rivers and the James River, claims the counties of:  Hampton (Elizabeth City), Newport News (Warwick), York, James City, Charles City, and New Kent.

Northern Neck: between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers.  Although this area is affected by the tides, much of the land was granted exclusively to Lord Fairfax and controlled by him and his heirs until well after the American Revolution.  The Fairfax Proprietary also included counties to the western boundary of West Virginia, north of the Potomac River.  The Virginia Counties include:  Lancaster, Northumberland, Westmoreland, Richmond County, King George, Stafford, Prince William Fairfax, Loudon, Fauquier, Culpeper, Frederick, Clarke, and Warren.

Piedmont: where the Fall Line begins–north and west of Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Hanovertown, and northern Richmond City.  These towns and others grew up along the Fall Line because tobacco in large hogsheads was rolled along the rolling roads. Then it was loaded on barges,  bateaus, and ships for England and Europe.   Counties:  Loudon, Fauquier, new Rappahannock, Culpeper, Orange, Madison, Greene, Louisa, Albemarle, Flyvanna, Goochland, Nelson, Amherst, Bedford, Buckingham, and Campbell.  These counties cluster along the eastern Blue Ridge Mountains.

Southside: from the Dismal Swamp to the Fall Line along the Blue Ridge Mountains including creeks, rivers, and river valleys running eastward into the Tidewater.  Some of these watercourses are also affected by the tides.  Counties include:  Virginia Beach (Princess Anne), Chesapeake and Norfolk (old Norfolk County), Suffolk (Nansemond), Isle of Wight, Southampton, Surry, Sussex, Prince George, Chesterfield, Greenville, Dinwiddie, Brunswick,  Chesterfield, Amelia, Nottoway, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Powhatan, Cumberland, Charlotte, Prince Edward, Halifax, Pittsylvania,  Franklin, Patrick, and Henry. Note there is some overlap with the Piedmont area.

Great Valley of Virginia/Shenandoah Valley: between the western slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains  and the eastern slopes of the Allegheny Mountains including the counties of:  Berkley and Jefferson (now in West Virginia), Frederick, Clarke, Warren, Shenandoah, Page, Rockingham, and Augusta.  These are considered the Lower Valley counties because they are drained by the Shenandoah River and its branches that flow north into the Potomac. These counties were originally part of Orange in the Piedmont.

The Middle Valley counties are:  Highland, Bath, Rockbridge, Alleghany, Botetourt, Craig, Roanoke, Montgomery, and Floyd.   These counties are drained by the Upper James River and its tributaries.  The James flows eastward and empties into Chesapeake Bay.

Southwestern Virginia or “Western Waters”: the watercourses in Southwestern Virginia empty eventually into the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers flowing south to New Orleans and the Atlantic Ocean.  Counties include:  Montgomery, Floyd, Giles, Pulaski, Carroll, Bland, Wythe, Grayson, Tazewell, Smith, Buchanan, Wise, Russell, Scott, Lee, and Washington.

The boundaries of these areas are fluid because of the settlement patterns of your ancestors and the formation of new counties from the old territories.  So there is overlap of counties in more than one area.

Search tips:

  1. When you search a source for your ancestors, always check the Introduction, the footnotes, and even the county sections to determine which specific counties are included.
  2. Where adjoining counties are covered, check those sources too for references to your surnames.  That way you won’t miss the entries important to your research.
  3. Watch for sub-indexes.  The source may contain a general index and then sub-indexes for each county and Independent City included in the volume.

For additional comments on these search areas and justification for the counties included see Edgar MacDonald, “A Genealogical Geography of Virginia,” The Virginia Genealogical Society Newsletter XIX (Mar-Apr 1993):  1-3; and Carol McGinnis, Virginia Genealogy:  Sources and Resources. Baltimore:   Genealogical Publishing Company, 1993.

In another issue of  “Virginia is for Lovers” of Genealogy, we’ll discuss the District of West Augusta, which extended into western Pennsylvania and was included on Virginia maps until after the Civil War.  And the boundary dispute over western Maryland, which continued into the 20th century.   Your favorite Virginia genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS  Watch for new content on my Home Page, to be loaded shortly.

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