History of Charles City County, Virginia
Charles City adopted the slogan “Four Centuries, Three Cultures, Two Rivers in One County” as a part of the commemoration of America’s 400th Anniversary. The slogan provides a capsule summary of the most important elements of our history. A visit to Charles City is like a journey back in time. It is a place where you can discover historical events spanning the four centuries that have made our nation. It is a place where you can experience the three cultures that first formed our union. The county is embraced by two rivers of the sort that made exploration, settlement and trade possible and that still provide a taste of the natural wonders the first Europeans experienced. And the county is one of the oldest in America founded on the idea of representative government – the idea that made America.
Algonquian-speaking Native Americans migrated here from the north at least 800 years before the first Europeans arrived, taking up land that had been occupied by other tribes as early as 10,000 years before. In 1613 Europeans planted a settlement at West and Shirley Hundred on the north side of the James River. Settlers planted six more settlements in quick succession along the same shore. The native inhabitants were scattered, but in diminished numbers they clung to the land.
From the early seeds of European settlement, great tobacco plantations grew and with them the need for labor. During the late 1600s and early 1700s, the labor of enslaved Africans quickly replaced that of English indentured servants. During the 1800s the Civil War brought emancipation to these slaves and other changes in the way residents earned their livelihood. Logging, fishing and small-scale farming became the primary way of life for Charles City residents well into the 1900s.
Today, only a small number of county residents continue to draw their livelihood from the forests, the water and the land. Yet, Charles City residents remain tied to this land, a timeless setting and the birthplace of ancestors.
Charles City was home to the Chickahominy, Paspahegh and Weyanock Native Americans when the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery entered the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in 1607 and sailed up the James River. Those English settlers planted new settlements along the James River. In 1618 Governor Yeardley traded with a Dutch vessel for her cargo of “20 and odd” Captive Africans, almost half of whom were brought to the Borough of Charles City and settled across the James River at Flowerdew Hundred, a European settlement on Weyanock lands. Thus, Charles City became one of the first meeting grounds of three cultures – three cultures that have moved over the course of four centuries from confrontation to community. Today her people are a braid, woven of strands whose roots run back to the nape of America.
When the first English explorers ventured up the James and Chickahominy Rivers the fish, fowl and wildlife they observed appeared marvelous and fantastical to them.One-hundred-foot tall Loblolly Pines towered from banks above the river, giant sturgeon swam in the waters and great flocks of Passenger Pigeons blotted out the sun. In the forests the Englishmen found wild turkeys weighing 30 to 60 pounds and traveling in flocks of 40 or more. In the waters Capt. John Smith reported catching Sturgeon measuring up to 9 feet in length. In Charles City today, as in the rest of North America, the old growth forests and Passenger Pigeons are gone, but countless other bird, wildlife and plant species that inhabited this place when the English arrived still inhabit the land, the skies and the waters. Since the first quarter of the eighteenth century the county has comprised an area of 204 square miles bounded by the James River on the south, by the Chickahominy River on the east and north, and by Turkey Island Creek on the west.
The idea that people should be represented by their government is the idea that made America – an idea born at Jamestown and in Charles City in 1619. Charles City County is one of the oldest governmental units in America. Named after the son of King James who later became King Charles I of England, it was one of four “boroughs” or “incorporations” created by the Virginia Company in 1619. The first Charles City County courthouses were located along the James River at Westover and City Point. It was to those courthouses that the Virginia Colonists came to cast their ballots for representatives in the House of Burgesses, applying that extraordinary notion, that people should be represented by their government.
Charles City’s colonial-era courthouse was constructed in the 1750’s and is one of only five courthouses in America that have been in continuous use for judicial purposes since before the Revolutionary War. Its walls have heard the voices of men like Benjamin Harrison V, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, and John Tyler, the 10th President of the United States. Its walls also have heard the voices of voters casting their ballots – voters who for more than three decades have filled a majority of the county’s elective offices with persons of color. What better place to look for living proof that America is a nation founded not upon an estate, but upon an idea?
A Coat of Arms
Two laurel wreaths in a central gold badge represent the two Charles City born Presidents – William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. The cross symbolizes the first American missionary to Africa, the Rev. Lott Cary, who was born a slave in Charles City and became a founding father of Liberia. Green borders the central badge reminiscent of the green fields of a rural county. Eight stars on the green – seven silver and one gold – are emblematic of Charles City’s role as one of the eight original shires.
The torch, a symbol of learning, and two wings, symbols of liberty stand for the free public schools started in Charles City in 1870.
Two stalks of maize [corn], represent an indigenous food supply important both to Native residents and European immigrants.
Two turkeys, symbolize the fowl that provided flesh, bones and feathers to the Native people.