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  Thursday, March 23, 2017  
   
 

 
Mathew's County, Virginia: The Pearl of the Chesapeake

 

By Karin Andrews

For thousands of years, prior to the first visits by known and unknown explorers or before the first English colonists arrived in the lands known today as Mathews - Native American tribes of the great Powhatan Confederation, inhabited these lands and waterways. In the earliest days of our nation, long before we became a true republic, Kingston Parish was established in the midst of this former “wilderness” on the Chesapeake Bay. Surrounded almost completely by water, this remote peninsula known as Mathews County has remained for the most part, wild and unspoiled. It is little wonder that for hundreds of years, the main mode of transportation in Tidewater, Virginia was by water.

Mathews County− previously known as Kingston Parish was named for Major Thomas Mathews, a Revolutionary War Veteran and also the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. In 1790 he introduced a resolution for the formation of a new county – comprised of Kingston Parish and a portion of Ware Parish. The resolution was passed and in 1791 Mathews was officially formed from Gloucester County.

Mathews is bordered by the Piankitank River on the north, Mobjack Bay on the south, The Chesapeake Bay on the east and the North River on the west. These lands and waterways are scarcely above sea level, with some of the most beautiful inlets, marshes, bays, streams and rivers, in all of Tidewater, Virginia. They are pristine, teaming with life and have become a destination for those seeking to experience the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries in an up close and personal way. Although the times have changed, the lure of Mathews was the same in the earliest days of English Settlement as it is today.

From its very earliest days Mathews and Gloucester have been inextricably intertwined, by necessity, yet Mathews has a distinct identity all its own and a determination that can be seen to this very day, in those born and raised in these parts. It is little wonder that Mathews is known as the “Pearl of the Chesapeake”, as its location on the eastern most tip of the Middle Peninsula has sheltered and protected this lovely bay-side community from the whims of change. It is steadfast in retaining its own unique and very rural identity. In this part of the world all roads really do lead to, and end, in Mathews!

Early Shipbuilding and the
Revolutionary War

During the Revolutionary war, Mathews was a shipbuilding hub for the Continental Navy due to its location and the massive live oak trees that covered the area at one time. Known for its natural rot resistance and strength – the oak trees found here were ideal for use and the creation of great sailing ships. The entire Chesapeake Bay region was known for its shipbuilding towns and ports of call.

The End of Colonial Rule in Virginia

In 1776, Cricket Hill, (which is near Gwynn’s Island) was the site of an important naval battle which led to the end of Colonial rule in Virginia. Lord Dunmore (the last Colonial Governor of Virginia) and his fleet along with British loyalists and Maryland’s former British Governor who was on the run, had dug in on Gwynn’s Island in an attempt to re-take the entire region for Great Britain. They were brilliantly met in battle and overrun by Continental Forces, under the command of General Andrew Lewis, at Cricket Hill. This decisive battle forced both Lord Dunmore and Maryland’s Colonial Governor, to flee the Colonies and return to Great Britain.

A Shipbuilding Legacy

By 1791, Mathews alone, was producing twelve, massive sea worthy sailing ships – each weighing twenty-tons each, in addition to all the other types of boat and sailing vessels that must have been produced for more utilitarian purposes. These great tall ships were sleek and could cut through the ocean and bay waters with the greatest of ease. Before the war of 1812, these very smooth, swift moving ships were identified as, “Virginia Built”. After the war, they became known more widely as “Baltimore Clippers”.

This booming industry was responsible for putting Mathews on the map as one of the great ship building ports on the Chesapeake Bay. This industry would go on to support other industries and farming, which in turn created a great livelihood for many. While the ship building industry continued, all prospered. Williams’ Wharf was a bustling wharf until the last steamboats ceased their operations in the Chesapeake Bay.

The Port of East River

Seeing Mathews as we do today it is wonderful to imagine the great ships that must have plied these waters so long ago. From 1802 to 1844, Mathews was a bustling seaport with over 10,000 sea going vessels calling at the “Port of East River”.

In 1801, a young U.S. Congress, only in its second term, authorized funds for the construction of a new lighthouse at the southern-most tip of Mathews County. It stands near Bavon, near the point where the Chesapeake Bay and Mobjack Bay converge. It was necessary to aid ships navigating through to the York River, Mobjack Bay and to ships traveling north to other ports on the Chesapeake Bay.

1n 1804, Etzy Burroughs of Stafford County was commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to construct a new lighthouse on an island almost 250 acres wide. Mr. Burroughs was no stranger to lighthouse construction, as he had built the Old Point Comfort Light at Fort Monroe and also a lighthouse at Smith Point at the mouth of the Potomac River.
On January 17, 1805, New Point Comfort began operations. Although the lighthouse was damaged during the War of 1812 and also the Civil War, it was repaired and has endured. Hurricanes, storms and other natural disasters have wreaked havoc on the island, which has now all but disappeared, along with its other associated structures.
New Point Comfort was used as a navigational aid until 1962, when the U.S. Coast Guard replaced it with an automated beacon. This beautiful bayside beacon is now under the care and stewardship of concerned citizens who have established a foundation for stabilizing and saving this great historic and maritime beacon. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, its historic value is priceless. New Point Comfort still stands as a testament to the vision of President Thomas Jefferson and also to the great era of sea going vessels that relied on New Point Comfort as a navigational aid in calm or stormy seas.

Mathews Today
 
Although times have changed, Mathews has seen a revival in recent years. Although always known for its historical, farming, sea-going, maritime and ship-building past, Mathews has become a haven for those seeking tranquility in the best years of their life and also for conservationists, naturalists and artists of every kind.

Without question, Mathews has retained its age old appeal because of its remote location but also because of the quality of the citizens that call her home. Whether born-heres or come-heres – Mathews has a quiet, determined and charming allure that draws you back time after time.

The Mathews County Visitor & Information Center, located in Historic Sibley’s Store (c. 1898) is a great place to start on your journey to discover Mathews. Here you will find everything you need or want related to Mathew County’s history and locally produced art. The Gwynn’s Island Museum features some very interesting naturalist exhibits and the Mathews Maritime Museum features exhibits and information about Mathews’ maritime legacy.

The Mathews Maritime Heritage Trail is a living exhibit of waterways that can be experienced by boat or kayak. Mathews has some of the best waterways on the Chesapeake Bay for taking in the breathtaking natural beauty that is preserved here.

The Mathews Art Group, with features more than 50 local and regional artists, including P. Buckley Moss, is a huge draw for Mathews as are the Mathews Market Days events that take place here each year. There are fine restaurants, yacht clubs, country inns, bed and breakfasts, gift shops, galleries and so much more in Mathews.

There is even a cultural arts school that offers classes to young and old in all arts and crafts genres.Virginia’s Lil Ole Opry is a big deal at Donk’s theatre, where you can spend an evening enjoying down home, foot stompin, knee slappin’, and hand clappin’ fun. Music shows held twice a month feature local and national talent.

The old County Courthouse, built in 1795, is still used today. The surrounding courthouse green, like so many courthouse squares in Tidewater Virginia, feature monuments and plaques to honor fallen soldiers. The old churches, most notably Kingston Parish – have their own unique stories to tell of who lived, who died and who worshiped there.
In closing, Mathews is a destination in itself. It has often been said that “One does not go to Mathews unless one is going to Mathews”. Experience Mathews and you’ll find yourself coming back again and again!

There are so many stories from the present and ages past about Mathews and her determined citizens that have made a lasting impression upon me. I encourage you all to take the time this fall, to visit Mathews and encounter America’s great historical and maritime past and present!