History of Sussex County,
of Sussex County, Virginia
We Came From
A Synopsis Of The History Of Sussex County
By Gary M. Williams, Sussex County Clerk of the Circuit Court
Sussex County was created in 1754 by an act of the General Assembly
of Virginia, being formed from Surry County. It came by its name quite
naturally in that it was named for the English shire of Sussex, which
is south of the shire of Surrey on the Thames from London, just as Virginia's
Sussex is south of Surry on the James River.
The county leads the state today in lumber production, and much of its
496 square miles is wooded. Pork, peanuts and cotton follow as mainstays
of the county's economical well being. In the beginning tobacco was
a chief staple, with hogshead rolled from the distant plantations here
by oxen to the wharves on the James River in Surry. By the end of the
antebellum period Sussex was one of the three top cotton producing counties
in Virginia, and in recent years it has emerged again as an important
cotton producer. The first commercial crop of peanuts in the United
States were reputedly grown here in Sussex in 1842 by Dr. Matthew Harris
(1798-1860) on his plantation between what is now Waverly and Wakefield.
Peanuts were the salvation of Sussex's recovery from the devastation
of the Civil War, for during the postwar period the crop really gained
its widespread commercial demand. The first factory in America for cleaning,
grading and marketing peanuts was built in Waverly in 1880 and burned
in the 1930s. The production of hogs has been a mainstay since colonial
The early years of the county saw considerable breeding of thoroughbred
horses from retired race horses imported from England. Until the rise
of Kentucky, Sussex was fertile ground for producing fine horses. Indeed,
the great stud horse Shark, who was the "greatest sire in America,"
died on the plantation of Thomas Hunt in Sussex in 1795. The last significant
breeder of blooded horses was Benjamin Wyche, who died in 1817.
played an active role in the achievement of American liberty. Colonel
David Mason, who represented Sussex for years in the Virginia House
of Burgesses in Williamsburg, was a member of the committee that drafted
Virginia's first state constitution in 1776, which incorporated the
immortal Virginia Declaration of Rights. Colonel Augustine Claiborne,
the first county court clerk, resigned his position in order to be "a
strenuous supporter of the Revolution". He aided in the clothing
of troops for the Continental Army and in providing homes for distressed
Norfolk citizens burned out by Lord Dunmore. During the last year of
the war, in 1781, Lord Cornwallis, coming up from the Carolinas into
Virginia by way of the old Halifax Road that skirted the western portion
of the county, met the turncoat Benedict Arnold, British commander of
Petersburg, on the banks of the Nottoway River near modern Stony Creek.
The local parish parson, the Reverend William Andrews, who had opened
meeting of the local revolutionaries with prayer, joined the British
redcoats as they moved through Sussex. He became chaplain of the British
garrison at Yorktown and left with the British army after the surrender.
William Charles Cole Claiborne (1773-1817), one of the most notable
county natives, was the youngest man ever elected to the Congress of
the United States. He cast the crucial vote for Thomas Jefferson in
the disputed Presidential Election of 1800. He later served as territorial
governor of Mississippi and Louisiana before being elected the first
governor of the state of Louisiana in 1812. Less famous individuals,
but noteworthy in their own day, were John Y. Mason (1799-1859) and
John R. Chambliss (1807-1871), both of whom were closely tied to Sussex
County. Although born at "Homestead" in Greensville County,
Mason's paternal ancestors and relatives were of Sussex, his home, "Fortsville,"
was here and he served as Commonwealth's Attorney for the county. He
was perhaps Virginia's leading late antebellum statesman, being president
of the state constitutional convention of 1851, president of the James
River and Kanawha Canal Company, Attorney General of the United States
and U.S. Secretary of the Navy, in addition to being both a circuit
court judge and federal district court judge. Chambliss was born in
Sussex at "Silver Hill," but removed to Hicksford (now Emporia)
as a young man. He was nevertheless the first elected Commonwealth's
Attorney for Sussex and Greensville in 1852, and in having represented
those counties at the constitutional convention of 1851, was one of
the most vocal proponents of making public offices elective throughout
the state. (Prior to 1852 only members of the General Assembly were
popularly elected.) During the Civil War, Chambliss represented Sussex
and other counties in the Confederate Congress. His son was a Confederate
of Sussex County was known as Albemarle Parish during colonial times,
and all of its citizens were required to support the Anglican, or Established,
Church with their taxes and their attendance. The church wardens, rather
than the government, took responsibility for the care of the poor. The
communion silver used at St. Andrew's Church near Yale still survives
and represents one of the most complete sets of colonial church silver
in America. Also, the register of births and deaths kept by the Rev.
William Willie has also survived as a great genealogical reference to
the colonial residents of the county. Growing dissatisfaction with the
Established Church during colonial times led to the establishment in
Sussex of some of the earliest Baptist and Methodist churches in Virginia.
Antioch near Yale, originally known as Raccoon Swamp Meeting House,
is regarded as the oldest Baptist church in eastern Virginia, being
established in 1772. Sappony Church near Stony Creek, followed, being
established in 1773. Its first pastor was the Reverend James Bell, who
had relinquished his post as a member of the Virginia House Of Burgesses
to devote himself to a new ministry. Bell Road in Sussex, which runs
by the site of his home, is named for him. At Jones' Chapel, the site
of which is located on Comans Well Road near Interstate Route 95, thousands
were converted by itinerant Methodist preachers, including Bishop Francis
Asbury. Lane's Chapel, which was located near Airfield Mill Pond near
Wakefield, is the third earliest documented Methodist church in Virginia.
At Ellis Chapel, which was located near Waverly on Walnut Hill Road,
Virginia Methodists, at their annual conference held there in 1783,
first went on record as opposing the consumption of alcoholic beverages.
The Quakers also left their mark on the spiritual history of the county.
Concentrated near Seacock Swamp near the Wakefield area of the county,
they were at the forefront, along with the Methodists, in efforts to
emancipate the slaves who formed the majority of the county population.
Nearly four hundred slaves were freed in Sussex County by will or deed
during the first three decades following 1776. One of these Quakers
was John W. Watkins, county surveyor from 1817 to 1830. He, like many
of his neighbors, moved to Jefferson County, Ohio, along with their
freed slaves, to live on free soil. Michael Bailey, who was clerk of
the Sussex County Court from 1785 until his death in 1798, was one of
the Quakers who freed his slaves, but was discharged from that religious
group for not attending meetings and for serving as a public official.
Jarratt and Stony Creek was built, in 1832, the nation's first interstate
railroad, the Petersburg and Weldon-now CSX Railway. Through Wakefield
and Waverly in 1853 were laid the lines of the Norfolk and Petersburg
Railroad, later called the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad and
more recently the Norfolk Southern Railway. These railroads put four
towns in Sussex on the map, as these communities began to grow by the
establishments of depots. Waverly, the oldest town, was chartered in
1879. Wakefield was incorporated in 1902; Stony Creek, in 1915; and
Jarratt received its charter in 1938. General William Mahone, who built
the Norfolk railroad through Sussex, is memorialized by having Route
460, which parallels it, named in his honor. His wife, Otelia, is remembered
for naming the depots established along the way: Waverly for Sir Walter
Scott's series of romantic novels and Wakefield for Oliver Goldsmith's
Vicar of Wakefield. Mahone, a native of Southampton County, was educated
in Sussex at Littleton Academy, distinguished himself as commander of
the successful Confederate counterattack during the Battle of the Crater
in 1864 and was the prominent political leader of the Readjuster Republican
party in postwar Virginia.
Sussex County was the scene of much military activity during the Civil
War. Its local cavalry unit, the "Sussex Light Dragoons" borrowed
their name from a preceding Revolutionary unit in the county. Its members
became a part of the Thirteenth Virginia Cavalry. In May of 1864, Jarratt's
Depot was destroyed by Union cavalryman, August Kautz, who demolished
all buildings there except the tavern of Humphrey Grigg, which still
survives. General John R. Chambliss, Jr., helped save the day for the
Confederates at Sappony Church in June 1864, where his great-grandfather
was a pastor and where he and General Wade Hampton thwarted 20,000 federal
soldiers in their efforts to destroy the railroad. But destroying the
railroad, which was Richmond's lifeline, was the persistent quest of
the Union army, and repeated skirmishes and attacks continued in Sussex
during the latter years of the war. It was en route to Hicksford to
destroy the railroad bridge there in December 1864 that Union soldiers
destroyed some of the records at Sussex Courthouse and one of them carried
off the county seal, only to return it in 1901. All but two record books
of the Circuit Court, which met then in sessions of only twice a year,
were destroyed, and one of those books was mutilated with a sword and
thrown out on the Courthouse green. George W. Prince, the county Court
Clerk, foreseeing the imminent danger, had carefully hidden most of
the county's most vital records elsewhere. A hospital for Union soldiers
was established in one of the dwellings adjoining the Courthouse green.
Union General Governeur Warren, returning from his successful raid on
the railroad at Hicksford, made his headquarters at "Invermay,"
the home of Dr. William Briggs, just a mile south of the courthouse.
His statue overlooks the battlefield at Gettysburg, where he made a
successful repulsion of Confederate troops. Confederate General Wade
Hampton had boosted Southern morale in September 1864 with his slick
swiping of 2,000 head of cattle herded on the James River in Prince
George County and routing them through the backwoods of Sussex County.
Beefsteak Road commemorates part of that pathway. In the wake of Union
military activity in Sussex County, over fifty black men escaped from
their plantations and enlisted as soldiers in the United States Colored
Troops. Likewise during these latter days other men in slavery enlisted
to save the embattled Confederacy. While white citizens of the county
were virtually unanimous in their devotion to the Confederate cause,
it is clear that the black citizens were very much divided in loyalties.
A good many local citizens suffered in the winter of 1864, when Union
troops destroyed many dwellings in the Courthouse area, including slave
quarters, and forced natives into a freezing snowfall, a retaliation
after finding the corpses of Union soldiers who had been killed and
mutilated by Confederate guerrillas.
Reconstruction brought sweeping changes to the political arena in Sussex.
A new constitution was required for Virginia's return to the Union,
and in 1870, public schools were mandated, along with a board of supervisors
and a single county court judge to replace the old magistrates of the
antebellum county court, who had been the leaders of the county since
colonial times. This caused the old courthouse to be extensively remodeled
into upper and lower compartments. Also introduced was the secret ballot.
During antebellum times, voters publicly professed their choices as
they were canvassed (and many candidates for office had politely voted
for their opponents). The electorate was drastically changed momentarily
from just white men to a majority of black men, due to the disenfranchisement
of virtually all men who had supported the Confederacy. William N. Stevens
(1850-1889), who had moved to the West Hope vicinity of the county from
Petersburg, was the first black official of Sussex County. He was elected
to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates from Sussex in 1869, and
in 1881, until he accepted a federal job in 1883. He was leagued with
the Republican party under the leader of former Confederate general,
William Mahone. The Republican party and significant black political
involvement in the county lasted until around 1900. A new state constitution
in 1902, with its imposition of a poll tax for voting.
Accompanying the Reconstruction was the establishment of numerous black
churches. First Baptist Church at Little Mill was so called became it
was indeed "the first regular Baptist Colored Church in Sussex
County." Its land was deeded in 1868 for one dollar and "for
the cause of religion" by Thomas A. Harrison. Frederick Knox, one
of his former slaves, along with son Africa Knox, were among the first
trustees. In 1872, Wilbourne Baptist Church received its deed from Madison
Wilborne, a black carpenter who had been born free during slavery times.
(His nephew, Madison Lowry (1851-19131), ran for a seat in the Virginia
House of Delegates from Sussex in 1877.) In 1878, New Hope Baptist near
the Courthouse acquired land for its church. Hunting Quarter Baptist
appears to have been formed about 1881, while Little Mount Baptist followed
in 1882. The growth of towns in the county contributed to an increasing
number of both black and white churches in the county.
twentieth century, now nearing its end, has ushered in changes which
have swept the lifestyles and viewpoints of the citizens of Sussex County
into a large mainstream with the rest of the state, the country and
the world. Sussex County saw the dawn of the century as the same slow
agrarian county it had always been, still largely dependent upon the
horse for getting about. Segregation of the races was accepted and not
challenged. Women did not vote. Each magisterial district had its own
school board. The county looked after its own roads. One of the prominent
leaders of the county at the beginning of the century was Jesse Felix
West of Waverly (died 1929), who had served as the last County Court
judge, then became judge of the Circuit Court and subsequently a justice
of the Supreme Court of Appeals. He gave the keynote address at the
dedication of the Confederate monument in 1913. Twenty of the county's
young men were killed in the First World War (1914-1919), including
handsome William Franklin Chappell, whose oratorical skills as a teenager
had shown his great potential as a future leader in the county.
Despite its small population, Sussex exhibited considerable political
shrewdness in this century. From 1920 until 1991, with the exception
of only a few years, Sussex was represented in the senate of Virginia
by one of its own citizens: William B. Cocke of "Smithfield"
near the Courthouse, 1920-1924; William O. Rogers of Waverly, 1924-1936;
Garland Gray of Waverly, 1940-1945, 1948-1971; and Elmon T. Gray of
Waverly, 1971-1991. Senator Rogers (died 1951) served on the Senate
Finance Committee and was instrumental in the construction of Route
460 through the county. After his tenure in the Senate, he served as
county treasurer until his death. Senator Garland Gray (1902-1977) became
one of the most powerful and influential men in the Commonwealth. He
is best remembered for his chairmanship of the commission called to
deal with the problem of public school integration in 1954. He was in
the "high command" of the Byrd Organization and was the leading
Democratic candidate for governor in 1957, but he deferred to J. Lindsay
Almond, Jr., in the interest of party unity. His son, Elmon T. Gray,
succeeded him as senator, serving on the Senate Finance Committee. He
figured most prominently statewide perhaps for his stance on preserving
Virginia Military Institute, his alma mater, as an all-male institution.
He was instrumental in the establishment of the southeast Virginia 4-H
Conference Center near Wakefield.
Great Depression, which began in 1929, and America's entrance into the
Second World War (1941-1945), touched the county with the accompanying
deprivations and sacrifices. Twenty-five young men of Sussex County
paid the ultimate price during the Second World War, two of them falling
on the coast of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Sussex men also gave
their lives in Korea and in Vietnam.
As late as 1950, most automobiles were black in color and did not travel
long distances frequently. Richmond was a day trip only a few times
a year, for most citizens who went there. Most school children wore
dungarees and tee shirts until the mid-1950s. Some mothers made dresses
for their daughters out of flowered feed bags. There were no Jones to
keep up with, but the disparity between the economic levels of whites
and blacks was very noticeable. Many blacks lived in shacks and did
not have indoor plumbing.
The 1960s saw the beginning of significant changes in the public schools.
Central High School near the Courthouse opened in 1960 as a replacement
of the old Sussex County Training School in Waverly, which had been
the county's lone black high school and had produced its first graduates
in 1927. Fifteen small black elementary schools west of the Nottoway
River closed in March of 1961, with the opening of Central Elementary
School. The new Ellen Warren Chambliss Elementary School at Wakefield,
also initially a black school, opened in 1962. The new Annie B. Jackson
Elementary School at Waverly opened in April 1965, and in the fall of
1965, a new Jefferson Elementary School opened at Jarratt. The old white
high schools at Wakefield and Jarratt, which had been producing high
school graduates from 1910 and 1912, respectively, closed in 1964 to
merge with Waverly and Stony Creek high schools. Many white Wakefield,
refusing to give up their school, established Tidewater Academy in 1964
to resist the movement towards consolidation. Waverly High School, which
had its first graduating class in 1908, and Stony Creek High School,
which saw its first graduates in 1912, were closed in 1970, when Sussex
Central became the county's only high school. Although total integration
of the entire county school system was accomplished that year, it was
in the fall of 1965, with token integration at Stony Creek and Waverly
high schools, that the public schools were actually integrated for the
first time in the county's history.
Inevitably, the structure of county life continued to change in the
1970s with the election of the first black members of the Board of Supervisors
in 1975: Joseph F. Newsome of Courthouse District and Glover W. Pegram
of Stony Creek District. Millard Stith, Sr., had been the first black
appointed to the School Board in 1971. In 1984, the Board of Supervisors
gained its first black majority; in 1991, blacks constituted a majority
on the School Board. The transition to a biracial government has been
harmonious and one dedicated to the advancement and wellbeing of all
of the citizens of Sussex County.
There have been six landmarks in the county named to the Virginia Landmarks
Register and the National Register of Historic Places. The old courthouse
(completed in 1828 by Dabney Cosby, who came to Sussex after completing
the building of the University of Virginia under Jefferson), along with
the 1817 and 1923 clerk's offices, the 1800 Dillard House and the 1810
Bannister House, collectively have been designated the Sussex Courthouse
Historic District. The Miles Carpenter House and Museum at Waverly recognizes
the county's noted folk artist who lived there. The four other landmarks
are plantation houses which have survived and are significant for their
architecture and historical background. These are "Chester,"
"Fortsville," "Hunting Quarter" and "Little
Town." "Chester," near Homeville, built in 1793 by Captain
William Harrison (1747-1822) of the Revolution, is noteworthy architecturally
for its huge double chimneys joined on two levels by connecting closets.
Its interior woodwork has also survived. "Fortsville," the
home of John Y. Mason near Grizzard, also dates to the late eighteenth
century, being built by Lewis Fort, Mason's father-in-law. "Hunting
Quarter," was built after 1745 by Captain Henry Harrison of the
French and Indian War. Captain Harrison (died 1772) was a brother of
Benjamin Harrison, the signer of the Declaration of Independence. According
to tradition, a cane which belonged to President William Henry Harrison
(1774-1841), the nephew of the builder, hung over one of the mantels
in the house. "Hunting Quarter" remained in the possession
of the Harrison family until 1887. "Little Town," home of
the Bailey family and built in 1814 by James C. Bailey, who succeeded
his father as county clerk and who served the longest as such, a mere
twenty-six years, is the only early brick dwelling to survive in Sussex.
County Seal of 1804 is found
February 26, 1976
- A long search for the post revolutionary war seal of Sussex County
has been climaxed with success. The seal recently was found tucked away
in the safe of a former clerk of the Circuit Court of Sussex County.
"We have found the seal of Sussex County of 1804," Miss Anne
Dobie Peebles, cochairman of Sussex County's Independence Bicentennial
Commission, told the Sussex county Board of Supervisors at their meeting
last week.It is significant, Miss Peebles said, that after a search
lasting nearly a quarter century, the seal has come to light in time
for the county bicentennial celebration. "The seal was in the effects
of the late clerk, Jesse Hargrave," Miss Peebles said. Miss Peebles
said she had been looking for the seal since 1954 when the county had
its bicentennial celebration.
The seal has been authenticated by authorities at Colonial Williamsburg.
Mr. and Mrs. George Harrup of Yale, Sussex County, who found the seal
along with the other effects left to them by the late Mr. Hargrave,
gave it to the county bicentennial commission.
"The seal was authorized by the county court, which was the board
of supervisors in those days, in 1802," Miss Peebles said.
Sussex County was cut from Surry County in 1754. The seal, which cost
$25 and is made of pure silver, was put in use in 1804 when the county
was 50 years old. The seal's mineral value today is about $800, Miss
Peebles told the supervisors.
Miss Peebles asked the supervisors to determine a safe method and place
of keeping the seal, after which the commission will turn it over to
them. Old court seals, it seems, are very rare in Virginia today. Records
indicate that many of Virginia's original shires and oldest counties
had their respective seals, but few of these symbols of local authority
Only two seals that predate the Civil War are known to exist today.
The other, Miss Peebles said, is the King William County seal. Also,
the impressions of only four seals that were used before the Civil War
have been known to survive until now. They are found on documents from
the counties of Albemarle, Brunswick counties. King William County thus
is the only known in Virginia to have both the seal and its impression
in wax on a legal document. Such seals, Miss Peebles said, were attached
to documents of more that average importance. They were used to certify
the registration of free blacks, to recommend militia officers to the
Governor, and to certify copies of deeds and wills, for example. Their
infrequency of use and the fact that the seals were attached to documents
that went OUT of the clerks' offices explains their scarceness.
The seal, about the size of a half-dollar, is solid sterling silver.
The impression is reversed, of course, as the seal was intended to be
pressed into wax. It features the figure of Justice holding scales and
seated. The inscription is simple - "THE SEAL OF SUSSEX COUNTY"
with the date 1804. There is no motto.
In the archives of the Virginia State Library, Gary Williams, current
county clerk and the other cochairman of the county bicentennial commission,
found information containing the origin of the seal. According to the
material Williams found, the justices of the County Court of Sussex,
with Littleberry Mason presiding, authorized the obtainment of a county
seal at a session held on November 9, 1801. Archibalt Thweatt, the Commonwealth's
Attorney, and one John Allison, were directed "to procure a county
seal for the use of the Clerk of this Court not to exceed Twenty-five
On August 5, 1802, $25 was appropriated by the court for Thweatt's expenses.
At a session held February 12, 1804, Thweatt and Allison presented the
county seal, and the Court "ordered that the Clerk receive the
said seal which is to be used by him as the official seal of Sussex
SUSSEX COUNTY, A TALE OF THREE CENTURIES.
by Workers of the Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration
in the State of Virginia. Sponsored by The Sussex County School Board,
Talmage D. Foster, Superintendent, 1942. 401 pages.
Officers: (Pages 239-243)
of the House of Burgesses 1754-1776
place of John Edmunds who had accepted a surveyor's place.)
of Revolutionary Conventions
Mason and Henry Gee
of State Senate 1776-1942
David Mason.....................1776; 1779-1781
PRINCE GEORGE, DINWIDDIE
N. Stevens........1871-79; 1881-82
SUSSEX, SURRY, PRINCE GEORGE
B. Barham, Jr.............1916-1919
SUSSEX, SURRY, PRINCE GEORGE, AND HOPEWELL
names of members of the House of Burgesses were taken from The Colonial
Virginia Register by William G. and Maray Newton Stanard. The list
of men who served in the Senate and House of Delegates was found in
A Register of the GTeneral Assembly of Virginia by E.G. Swem
and John W. Williams and The Gneral Assembly of Virginia by E.
Griffith Dodson. Other lists in the appendix were gleaned from the following
sources: manuscript lists in the Archives Divison of the Virginia State
Library; the Albemarle Parish Register and the Albemarle Parish
Vestry Book; Sussex County order books, will and deed books, and
personal property books; the Warrock-Richardson Almanackand the
Franklin Almanack; Reports of the Secretary of the Comonwealth; Bulletins
of hte Virginia State Library; Men of Mark in Virginia by Lyon G.
Tyler. Page 239)