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History of Sussex County, Virginia


History of Sussex County, Virginia

Where 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 times.

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.

Sussex 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 general.

All 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.

Through 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Sussex County Seal of 1804 is found

Independent-Messenger, Emporia, Virginia
February 26, 1976
Page 4

SUSSEX - 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 have survived.
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 dollars."

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 County."


SUSSEX COUNTY, A TALE OF THREE CENTURIES. Compiled 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.

County Officers: (Pages 239-243)

Legislative Officers:

Members of the House of Burgesses 1754-1776

Gray Briggs...........1754-1758

John Edmunds.......1754-1769

John Ruffin*................1754

(In place of John Edmunds who had accepted a surveyor's place.)

David Mason........1758-1776

James Bell............1770-1771

Richard Blunt.......1773-1774

Michale Blow......1775-1776

Members of Revolutionary Conventions

David Mason and Henry Gee

Members of State Senate 1776-1942


David Mason.....................1776; 1779-1781

Edwin Gray...............................1777-1778

Augustine Claiborne...........................1779

John Jones...............................1780-1783

Jesse Brown............................1784-1788

Joseph Jones...........................1788-1789

Thomas Ridley.........................1790-1800

Benjamin Wyche......................1800-1804

John Pegram............................1804-1808

James Trezvant........................1808-1812

Joseph Goodwyn.......................1812-1813

John Cargill..............................1813-1820


Benjamin W. Johnson..............1820-1821

William B. Goodwyn.................1821-1823

Edmund Ruffin........................1823-1826

John Y. Mason.......................1826-1831

Francis E. Rives.....................1831-1836

Joel Holleman........................1836-1839

Archiald Atkinson...................1839-1843

Robert Ridley........................1843-1844

William A. Spark.....................1844-1847

Thomas H. Daniel...................1847-1851

William B. Shands...................1852-1854

William W. Cobb.....................1855-1858


Thomas H. Urquhart...............1859-1863

Richmond F. Dillard.................1863-1865


George W. Bolling..................1865-1867


David G. Carr........................1869-1871

William N. Stevens........1871-79; 1881-82

Samuel Pickett.......................1879-1880

George P. Barham...................1883-1884

J. C. Dunn.............................1885-1888

Leonidas Yarrell.......................1889-1892


George W. Jackson...............1893-1896

R.B. Hartley.........................1897-1900

Alexander R. Hobbs...............1901-1916

Sidney B. Barham, Jr.............1916-1919


William B. Cocke..........1920-1924

W.O. Rogers...............1924-1936

Robert W. Daniel..........1936-1940

Garland Gray...............1940-1944

(The 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)



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