In the heart of Virginia’s vast and wondrous Tidewater region, lies Gloucester County, Virginia—which has been at the heart of American history from the very outset, in ways that might surprise you. Indeed, Gloucester has seen the influence, clash and co-existence of diverse native and international populations during decisive moments in American, Colonial and World History. Truly, legend, lore and intrigue all come together in Gloucester. From ages past to the present day she has been a place of firsts and lasts. She is an ever-evolving but ever enchanting part of the vast Chesapeake Bay region of Virginia.
The lands, rivers and waterways known to encompass, flow through and border modern-day Gloucester were inhabited by Native American hunter/gatherers for thousands of years before the first Spanish missionaries or English settlers arrived here. They were the very first to know how lovely, rich and fertile this area was. In our lifetime, no eye has seen what lush beauty and natural abundance must have existed for these early inhabitants and settlers.
It is through Gloucester that the remainder of the Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck and points beyond were settled. It was truly a gateway for those Native American and English “first families” whose names we still recognize to this very day and whose sons and daughters have gone on to directly and indirectly change and enrich the lives of future generations of Americans.
History comes to life when we examine it through the eyes of those who lived it, witnessed it and recorded it, so many years ago. To write merely an article on Gloucester County history is a difficult task indeed, as there is so much to tell. VOLUMES simply cannot contain it all, but I will try my best to hit the high points and leave the rest for another day. The intrigue and human drama attached to Gloucester’s history is remarkably full of twists and turns that will leave you on the edge of your seat.
On Your Mark, Get Set, Sail
The race was on as the late sixteenth century saw increased nautical explora-tion and territorial expansion around the world by the major seafaring super-powers of the day. With that said— Gloucester saw some of these visionaries, explorers and privateers in an up-close and personal way.
The first “known” Europeans, to explore the waters of the Chesapeake Bay were the Spanish who accidentally encountered it while searching for an inland passage to Asia. Later, in 1524, Giovanni de Verrazano, an Italian in the employ of France, named the Chesapeake Bay the “Bahia de Santa Maria.” In 1562, Spanish cartographer Diego Gutierrez drew the first known map of the Chesapeake Bay. John White, an Englishman and governor of the vanished Roanoke Colony had also drawn maps of the Chesapeake Bay including details of the James and York Rivers. He also created watercolor renderings of native life, plants, animals and more that aided future expeditions— all before the dawn of the seventeenth century. These amazing resources and first-hand accounts must have been seen and utilized by Christopher Newport and Captain John Smith, who would later make their own mark on the New World and on Gloucester. John Smith’s map of the Chesapeake Bay would include the area now known as Gloucester and was by far the most accurate and detailed of all the Chesapeake Bay maps of the day.
With the Spanish steadily colonizing vast areas of the Caribbean, Mexico and portions of Florida, it was only a matter of time before they would make their mark in Virginia, unless someone beat them to it!
Spanish Jesuits Come to Gloucester
Around 1560 a young American Indian, said to be the son of a Native American Chief, was abducted out of coastal waters by the Spanish. Without a choice in the matter, he traveled to St. Augustine, Havana, and Mexico where he was educated and baptized Don Louis de Valasco. He was later sent to Madrid, Spain where he received additional education and had an audience with King Phillip II. It is said that he spoke continually of his homeland, near the present day York River. Although they had removed the boy from his native country, they could not remove “the country” from the boy.
The day eventually came when the young man’s captors sought to capitalize on his knowledge of his fellow natives, their language and the land from whence he had been taken—over ten years earlier. In 1570, a band of nine Jesuits led by Father Juan Baptista de Segura, Don Louis and one little Cuban boy named Alonso set sail to evangelize and convert the natives in the York river area of Virginia, using Don Louis as their interpreter/guide. It is doubtful that many of us can even imagine the anxiety, conflicting emotions and elation that Don Louis must have felt, knowing that he was finally going home.
Shortly after arriving at what the missionaries hoped would become the Ajacán (Axacán) Mission, near present day Queens Creek, Don Louis defected and returned to his native people. Realizing that Don Louis had returned to his people, the Jesuits did the best they could to survive while they waited for a supply ship to return. In a tragic twist, Don Louis returned to the mission with members of his tribe, brutally killing the nine Jesuit missionaries. What led up to this is unknown. Perhaps it was retribution for the abduction, perhaps Don Louis realized what would become of his people if the mission succeeded on a large scale. We will never know the dynamics in play that led up to the massacre.
Only Alonso was spared, perhaps out of pity, as Don Louis could certainly identify with him. After the massacre, Alonso was helped by a rival Chief until 1572, when the boy was rescued by the Governor of Florida, who had come to find out what had happened to the Spanish mission. The Governor, having heard from Alonso what transpired, searched for Don Louis, who proved to be elusive. Eight Indians were captured and identified as having participated in the brutal massacre as they were wearing some of the crucifixes and had other items that had belonged to the monks. The judgment against them was swift and sure. As a result of these events the Spanish left the area to concentrate on mission work in Mexico.
Had the Jesuit mission been successful and England not beat the Spanish in colonizing the coastal region of Virginia, we might all be speaking Spanish right now. It is utterly amazing how one event, one day and one decision can affect the lives of people for centuries to come, without even knowing it at the time.
The English Make Their Move
It was no accident that the English headed for and landed in the Chesapeake Bay, not far from Gloucester County. Although originally financed by investors and set up as a for-profit venture, the riches sought and found in the New World were not spices, silver or gold, but the land itself—tobacco, and the glistening waters, teeming with life—that greeted them upon their arrival in May of 1607. Imagine a band of ill-prepared men with grandiose visions and nothing to lose stepping foot onto Virginia shores for the first time. What they found must have astounded them.
How Gloucester Was Named
Gloucester was known by the English as James Cittie by 1619. In 1634, the name was changed to Charles River Shire by King Charles I. The Native Americans referred to the area as Pamunkie, which means “rising upland.”
As early as 1639 land grants were bestowed by Charles I to those adventurers of purse and person who garnered his favor and understood that the means to wealth was land ownership in the New World. Even though the land in Gloucester was not actually declared completely safe for settling until 1649, many took the risk and obtained vast land holdings in what would become Gloucester County.
In 1642, during the civil wars in England, the name of the county and river was changed to York, before CharlesI literally lost his head. The county was officially created in 1651 and named for Henry, Duke of Gloucester, who was the third son of Charles I. Early land grants were awarded to ancient planters whose family names would be recognizable to us today. The Great-Great Grandfather of George Washington, Augustine Warner I, was one of these men. Many of the families to originally settle the area still have a presence here through place names and historic homes that continue to grace the lands and waterways of modern day Gloucester.
Native magnolias, dogwood and a host of exquisite flowering trees also grow throughout the woodlands in Gloucester. Another unique characteristic of Gloucester are the vast rivers of daffodils that have naturalized throughout the rural lands of this truly beautiful county. The daffodils of Gloucester still bear glorious witness to the nameless, faceless settlers and indentured servants who brought these gilded treasurers all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to bloom in a brave new world!
Notable Places in Gloucester
Werowocomoco— Powhatan’s village, on the banks of Purton (Poetan) Bay— is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Archaeological excavations at the site have verified the existence of an extensive Native American settlement, encompassing fifty acres, from 1200 AD to the early seventeenth century. The site also coincides with the accounts of Captain John Smith and early maps which spelled the name of the bay as “Poetan” and described the site to a tee. The presence of English items from the Jamestown settlement also helped to verify the site as being the seat of Powhatan, who was fascinated by
Gloucester lore had long held that “Powhatan’s Chimney” was the site of Werowocomoco, although archaeological evidence has now proven otherwise. History records that John Smith ordered Dutch workers to build a house and chimney for Powhatan as part of an agreement between the two men, designed to quell tensions between them. As a result of information obtained from the Dutch, as well as Smith’s failure to provide the firearms Powhatan requested as part of a good faith exchange for corn (during a time of drought and famine) the trust between the men eroded. With the colonists requiring more corn and food resources and Powhatan growing weary of the “gimmy” mentality of the colonists, he quietly moved his headquarters to a more secluded location on the Chickahominy River, perhaps after the chimney had been built. He may have been influenced to make this move by his half-brother, Openchancanough, who wanted to see more distance between them and the English.
The collapse of the great chimney in 1888 facilitated the creation of the APVA (Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities), who later rebuilt the chimney. Whatever the case may actually be and whoever the builders were— the chimney stands today as a monument to two great men, two great cultures and the clash of those cultures that later ensued.
Abingdon and Ware Churches
Two of the eight remaining colonial churches in Virginia can be found in Gloucester. Abingdon and Ware churches have truly stood the test of time. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are known to have frequented the Church at Abingdon, which was built around 1755. It is the second church on the site. The interior was restored to its original colonial appearance in the 1980s. Ware Church was built sometime in the second quarter of the 18th century and served many of Gloucester County’s most notable citizens of the day. The exterior brick is laid in Flemish bond with clear blue glazed headers and gauged brick arches. Original woodwork remains on the interior as well. A breathtaking display of daffodils blooms on the grounds draws admirers every year, from far and wide.
Tyndall’s Point and the Gloucester Point
Tyndall’s Point was named for John Tyndall who surveyed the Chesapeake Bay with Captain John Smith and Christopher Newport. There were three known forts to have been built here throughout the years. In 1667, fortifications and a stockade were built to protect the area from attack by Dutch forces which were at war with England. It was officially named Fort James in 1671.
In 1781 fortifications were built by Cornwallis as a fall-back point for the British if they needed them during the siege of Yorktown. The Virginia Militia and French forces of the Duke de Lauzon led the attack against Tarleton on the Gloucester side. This forced a British retreat toward Gloucester Point. A sudden storm and a French blockade of the river prevented Cornwallis and Tarleton from ever meeting up and joining forces.
The fortifications built here can still be seen today. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science now occupies a large portion of the original site. The location was north of the Point— at a place known as “The Hook.”
As an interesting footnote, the Duke de Lauzon personally financed and organized his own para-military/foreign legion which consisted of two companies of infantry, one artillery company and two squadrons of cavalry. With an obvious penchant for a good fight and the desire to help America win its independence from Great Britain, he teamed up with French and American forces in the Battle of the Hook. He based his forces in Gloucester County, preventing a retreat of British forces from across the river at Yorktown. His men also had the honor of standing guard as the surrendering British forces gave up their arms. And now you know the rest of the story!
Gloucester Courthouse Historic District
One of the most charming and sophisti-cated colonial courthouses ever built in Virginia lies at the center of Gloucester’s Courthouse Circle and is a classic example of the exquisite craftsmanship, aesthetic design and brickwork utilized in 1766. Also on the court green are a host of daffodils and an oak tree planted in 1957 by the Garden Club of Gloucester, in honor of world-renowned botanist John Clayton, who facilitated the discovery and documen-tation of countless plant species in the New World. He also served as the Clerk of Gloucester County for 51 years, from 1722-1773.
Walter Reed’s Birthplace
Walter Reed was born in 1851, near Belroi, in a lovely white frame cottage typical of smaller houses found through-out the Tidewater Region of Virginia. He made the discovery that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes, which led to the demise of yellow fever as a lethal killer. His birthplace was acquired by the APVA in 1968. Local hospitals and other facilities are named in his honor and carry on his legacy of eradicating communicable diseases around the world.
Warner Hall, located on the Severn River was established in 1642 by land grant and was the home for generations of the Warner and Lewis families. It was the home of George Washington’s great grandfather and of his grandmother, Mildred Warner Washington. The current mansion seen today was built in 1905, replacing an earlier house destroyed by fire in 1845. Colonial stables of brick construction still survive as well as a walled Warner/Lewis family cemetery, which is owned and maintained by the APVA. George Washington and Queen Elizabeth II of England share common ancestors who lived, died and are buried at Warner Hall. Isn’t it ironic that the First American President and the reigning Queen of England would share an intriguing familial bond in Gloucester County, Virginia of all places?
Other sites and amazing historic homes include: Toddsbury, White Hall, Timberneck, the Shelly Archaeological District, Capahosic, the Rosewell Ruins, Roaring Springs, Little England, Lands End, Lowland Cottage, Kempsville, Exchange, Elmington, Auburn, Dunham-Massie, The Gloucester County Museum, Holly Knoll, Gloucester Women’s Club, Sewall’s Ordinary, Fairfield Archaeological Site, Airville, Burgh Westra, Abingdon Glebe house and many others not listed herein.
Notable Firsts and People from Gloucester Who Changed the World
“Wahunsencawh” Also Known as The Great Powhatan
The Great Chief Powhatan was, without question, one of the great people from Gloucester who changed the world. His dwelling place was at Werwocomoco— “the meeting place of the chiefs”— on the shores of the York River, at Purton (Poetan) Bay. Born in 1545, he inherited a chiefdom of four to six tribes that he expanded (through negotiation or coercion) to thirty-two by the time the English arrived at Jamestown. In his own words Smith described Powhatan as an emperor of sorts, a statuesque and well-proportioned man with a strong, lean body capable of any sort of work. Smith was obviously respectful of the man and the personal presence that characterized this great native King, who lived to be seventy years old and died in 1618.
It is estimated that Powhatan’s chiefdom numbered somewhere between 12,000 and 21,000 persons. Descendents of the Powhatan confederacy still dwell among us in the Middle Peninsula and Tidewater Regions of Virginia. Indeed, they are the true “first families” of Virginia. It is safe to say that Powhatan and his people were the key ingredient in the survival of the first permanent English settlement in America. Pocahontas figured prominently in all of this.
The Brave and Immortal Pocahontas
Throughout our lives we have all heard stories, whether real or embellished about Pocahontas. She was named Matoaka by her uncle Openchancanough. A life-sized bronze statue of her graces Main Street at Gloucester Courthouse as a continual reminder of her importance to the early founding of our nation and the saving of the early colonists from starvation. She was used as a pawn by the English who captured her around 1613 and held her hostage at Jamestown, where she met and was educated by John Rolfe, a widower. They later married resulting in a temporary peace between the English settlers and the Powhatan Confederation. In 1616, upon hearing that Pocahontas would be coming to England with her husband John Rolfe and young son Thomas, Smith took it upon himself to write the Queen of England a letter regarding his experience with Pocahontas, in the New World. His words are
“Most admired Queen—
…So it is, that some ten years ago being in Virginia, and taken prisoner by the power of Powhatan their chief King, I received from this great Salvage exceeding great courtesy, especially from his son Nantaquaus…and his sister Pocahontas, the Kings most dear and well-beloved daughter, being but a child of twelve or thirteen years of age…she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown: where I found about eight and thirty miserable poor and sick creatures, to keep possession of all those large territories of Virginia; such was the weakness of this poor commonwealth, as had the salvages not fed us, we directly had starved. And this relief, most gracious Queen, was commonly brought us by this Lady Pocahontas.”
Speculation has run rampant regard-ing the relationship that existed between Pocahontas and Captain Smith, which was most likely one of curiosity and a mere acquaintance. Much has been made about Captain Smith’s intentions and hidden agenda in writing this letter to Queen Anne. Could it be in a nostalgic moment, that Smith merely wanted Pocahontas, as Lady Rebecca, to receive as gracious a welcome from Queen Anne as she herself, her brother and her father had shown to him and his co-horts so many years before in Virginia? Or perhaps he was shamelessly promoting himself and trying to attach himself to her coat-tails.
Pocahontas’ life story is still inspiring four hundred years after her death. Her personal dignity in the face great tribulation, her resilience, generosity of heart and ability to build bridges with those who were very different than her native people rank her as one of the most captivating and intriguing women in American history. She will forever endure as the first and only true “American” Princess to set foot on foreign (English) soil. A life-sized statue of Pocahontas graces the garden at St. George’s Church, Gravesend, Kent, England.
Other Gloucester Notables
In 1714 the first coin made in the colonies was known as the “Gloucester Token.” This is bound to have greatly irritated the crown.
John Buckner, Gloucester County’s clerk of the court owned the first printing press in Virginia in 1682.
On July 14, 1770, one of the first Tea Parties took place in Gloucester County (on the York), with unanimous support from officials in both Gloucester and Yorktown.
Thomas Calhoun Walker (1862–1953) heard the emancipation proclamation read from under a honey pod tree as a small boy. As he grew, he sought every opportunity to work and educate himself. As a young man, he literally talked his way into admittance at Hampton Institute where he was initially rejected for lack of education. He went on to become one of the most well-loved citizens in Gloucester and the first black attorney to practice law in Gloucester County. He was a strong advocate for the importance of education, personal responsibility and land ownership for blacks. He was elected twice to the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors from 1891–1895. Walker was appointed as the Commonwealth of Virginia’s first black collector of customs in 1893 and became the only black to hold statewide office in President Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration.
Thomas Jefferson and George Washington spent many years in Gloucester County visiting either friends or family at Warner Hall and Rosewell. Rosewell, built by the Mann family of Gloucester, was the grandest colonial home ever built in Virginia. The ruins that remain to this day attest to its grandeur.
With so much yet to tell, the vast History of Gloucester and her marvelous estates are still relatively untouched.
I hope this article has uncovered some of the lesser known things that might provoke a greater appreciation and understanding of the forces that collided here and left their mark for future generations to ponder.