The area now known as Essex County, Virginia was unwittingly explored by John Smith in the winter of 1607 and 1608, after his capture by members of the Powhatan Confederacy. He was taken before the Rappahannock tribe so they could determine if he’d been responsible for the murder of their chief a year earlier. Once he was acquitted and freed, Smith left their settlement, which was known as ‘Topahanocke’, or the ‘town on the rise and fall of water,’ and made his way back to Jamestown. He returned by way of the river in the summer of 1608. Evidence of this expedition can still be found in many of the place names along the Rappahannock. Within a few decades English settlers began to move up the river, and in 1645 Bartholomew Hoskins received a land patent for over 1,000 acres in what would become known as Essex County. This land also included what would become known as the town of Tappahannock. The first name the English eventually gave to the settlement was Hobb’s Hole or Hobb His Hole, named for landowner Captain Richard Hobbs and the deep spot along the banks of the river where he liked to anchor his ship. The fertile land brought in many settlers looking to grow tobacco, and they brought with them indentured servants from Europe and enslaved men and women from Africa. Large plantations and smaller farms were soon common in Rappahannock County (as it was originally known), with the Rappahannock River serving as the main mode of transportation, trade, and communication.
In 1676, Bacon’s Rebellion, an uprising against local indigenous tribes as well as Governor William Berkeley, brought conflict to Piscataway Creek, where an armed force made up of northern Virginia planters defeated a group of cavalrymen sent by the Governor on July 10th. Bacon’s Rebellion was put down later that year, and a number of imprisonments and executions followed. This time also saw an increase in taxes, which were greatly unpopular with the colonists. In 1682, the county purchased 50 acres of land from Benjamin Goodrich for the sum of 10,000 pounds of tobacco to establish a town. In 1692 Rappahannock County was split into two separate counties, Essex on the western side of the Rappahannock and Richmond on the eastern. The main settlement in Essex took on the name of ‘Tappahannock’ around 1705, and it soon became a center for commerce, vying with Fredericksburg as the primary port on the river. In 1706, Harry Beverley mapped out the town lots and street names that are still in use, and in the late 1720’s a courthouse was built in Tappahannock which still stands today. As the county’s immigrant population grew, the indigenous population suffered greatly. Disease and starvation killed many people, while some were taken and sold into slavery. Despite these impossible odds, the Rappahannock Tribe persisted in the area and finally received official recognition in 1983.
Conflict with other tribes allied with the French along the western borders led to the Seven Years’ War in 1754. To help cover the costs of this war, along with the overall cost of protecting the colonies, British Parliament passed the Stamp Act in March of 1765. This levied taxes on newspapers, legal documents, pamphlets, and anything else that was printed on paper, even playing cards. The colonies were already experiencing an economic downturn at the time, especially in Virginia due to a recession in the tobacco market. This new tax levied by Parliament, where the colonists had no representation, was met with stiff and sometimes violent resistance. Some of America’s earliest organized resistance to British authority took place in Essex County in 1766. Most of Virginia united in a boycott of the hated Stamp Act, with Essex and the Northern Neck vigorously supporting the boycott, however there were a few local businessmen who sought to cooperate with the new laws, including Archibald Ritchie, a successful Scottish merchant and arguably the richest man in Tappahannock. He openly declared his intent to comply with the law.
Men from both sides of the Rappahannock River gathered at Bray’s Church in Leedstown, Westmoreland, just north of Tappahannock, on February 27th, 1766, and drafted six resolutions stating allegiance to England but publicly stating their grievances with the Crown. Fourteen of these men were from Essex County, including Meriwether Smith. They called themselves the ‘Sons of Liberty’, a name which had started to spread throughout the colonies for those who opposed the Stamp Act. Shortly after passing the resolutions, a group of four hundred protestors, including most who signed the Resolutions, gathered in Tappahannock on February 28. The men lined up in formation outside of Ritchie’s home on Prince Street, which still stands today, and demanded Ritchie sign a public apology for his stance on the Stamp Act or else he would be stripped of his clothing and dragged through the street to the town pillory. Ritchie, after some resistance, read aloud and then signed the statement. The crowd dispersed peacefully, and Ritchie would later become a staunch supporter of the Patriot cause. The Stamp Act was repealed later that year, and the gathering in Tappahannock is believed to be the largest Stamp Act protest to have taken place in Virginia.
By 1774, Virginians began to show signs of autonomy including joint declarations and successful non-importation pacts; active patriotic groups like the Sons of Liberty; and organized meetings of representatives at the Raleigh Tavern after the dissolving of the House of Burgesses. Veteran politician John Upshaw presided over a meeting of Essex citizens on July 9th, 1774, to decide the county’s position on relations with England. What resulted was a declaration of rights of Virginians as British citizens. Seventeen resolutions were passed that pledged allegiance to the crown; stated the power to tax and judge could only be exercised by elected representatives from Virginia; expressed great sympathy for the people of British-occupied Boston; and initiated a non-importation pact on English goods. Corn was collected in Essex County over the next two months to aid Boston, and in September over 1,000 bushels were loaded onto a ship which was thrown off course due to a tropical storm and ultimately sold in the Leeward Islands. The proceeds of the corn sale were sent on to aid the city, arriving in Boston in March of 1775, just one month before the battles of Lexington and Concord. Samuel Adams himself wrote a letter to the people of Essex County thanking them for their help:
“This is one among many testimonies afforded to us, that the Virginians are warmly disposed to assist their injured brethren and fellow subjects in this place. This consideration has hitherto encouraged our inhabitants to bear in dignities with patience, and having the continual approbation of all the Colonies, with that of their own minds, as being sufferers in the common cause of their country, I am fully persuaded of their resolution, by God’s assistance, to persevere in the virtuous struggle, disdaining to purchase an exemption from suffering by a tame surrender of any part of the righteous claim of America.”
By the summer of 1775, British rule in Virginia was unraveling. After being forced from office, Governor Dunmore joined up with a fleet of British ships and commenced a campaign of plunder and destruction on Tidewater plantations. One of Dunmore’s loyalist supporters, Bartlett Goodrich, decided to try his luck raiding on the Rappahannock River in April of 1776. Goodrich captured a vessel of corn offshore of Tappahannock without any resistance, but local militia caught up with Goodrich several miles downriver, recovering the vessel and forcing Goodrich to flee. Later that year, the entire town of Tappahannock was seen to be illuminated on the night of July 15th, for word had reached the city of the British defeat at Charleston on June 28th.
Men from Essex and Middlesex formed the 4th Company of the 7th Virginia Regiment and joined Washington’s army in January of 1777. They would be involved in the Battle of Brandywine in September of that year, the Battle of Germantown one month later, and then endure the harsh conditions at Valley Forge that winter. The following June they fought in the Battle of Monmouth, and the next year were sent south to help defend Charleston, a journey that took three months. Charleston fell in May of 1780 after a 41-day siege, and those Continental soldiers who were captured were confined to prison ships, including the men from Essex.
Essex County also made notable contributions on the political front. Meriwether Smith was elected to represent Essex at the Virginia Convention of 1776 to determine the question of independence from England. Smith represented conservative Tidewater gentlemen with a proposal that dissolved current relations but did not fully declare independence. Edmund Pendleton, chairman of the convention, used much of Smith’s proposal but called for united colonies free and independent states in the statement that was adopted. Smith was again called on to help George Mason draft the Virginia Declaration of Rights that would later form much of the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution. Smith went on to serve in the Continental Congress in 1778 – 1780.
On the home front, Essex County was asked to provide 52 uniforms to help clothe the Continental Army, and many families donated food and supplies, with beef being one of the common donations from the county.
In September of 1781, 250 Essex County militia were sent to Yorktown to aid in the campaign against General Cornwallis, who had left the Carolinas after suffering losses due to militia attacks and disease. Surrounded and under siege, Cornwallis would surrender in October of that year.
The Treaty of Paris, once finally agreed upon, included a clause that allowed for British merchants to return to the country, collect old debts, and resume their businesses. This was a point of contention for many, and Essex County was no exception. Upon his return to Tappahannock after the war, Scottish merchant Joseph Williamson was met at the docks by a mob, and after making his way up Prince Street was tarred, feathered, and dumped into the Rappahannock. Governor Benjamin Harrison, hoping to quell any other attempts at retribution, indicted several members of the mob. The charges would eventually be dismissed thanks to the lobbying efforts of Spencer Roane.
With the outbreak of war in 1812, the experienced and powerful British Navy would effectively isolate the Chesapeake Bay, including the Rappahannock River. Families along the Rappahannock waited with anxiety as British units attacked plantations, Urbanna and Hampton in 1813. Fear increased as the British strengthened their forces at Tangier Island under the command of Admiral Cockburn and burned Washington in August 1814. The British sword would soon be turned on Tappahannock. On November 30, 1814, a force of eight schooners along with thirteen troop and supply ships were sighted off Middlesex. The heavily outnumbered Essex Militia with one cannon was no match for this force and after a short naval barrage of the town the few militiamen who remained retreated. During the three-day British occupation, nearly all the homes were ransacked and valuables either looted or destroyed, and some of the Ritchie family graves on Water Lane were desecrated. Thomas Ritchie was a well-known critic of England in his role as editor of the Richmond Enquirer. Afterwards, the British force continued to strike individual plantations along both sides of the Rappahannock. During this time, many enslaved men and women in the area sought out British troops so that they might be liberated. As in the Revolutionary War, the British not only freed many slaves, but also trained some of them as soldiers.
Local militia effectively ambushed a detachment of British troops at Jones’ Point, and learned from deserters that Urbanna was the next target. Brigadier General John Cocke ordered all militia units in the area to Urbanna, which dissuaded the British from attacking. The war came to an end less than a month after the attack on Tappahannock.
Essex County natives significantly influenced America in the early 1800s by their shaping of Virginia politics and business. This series of lawyers, politicians, and businessmen, sometimes called the Essex Junta, filled Richmond’s most prominent seats. A variety of names can be associated with the Junta, but the most influential were Spencer Roane, Thomas Ritchie, and John Brockenbrough. Spencer Roane was appointed to the Virginia Court of Appeals, at 32 years old the youngest ever. He firmly defended the Bill of Rights, including religious freedom and the right to free enslaved men and women. A county in western Virginia (now West Virginia) was named Roane and its county seat named Spencer in his honor.
Thomas Ritchie, Archibald’s son, was the editor and primary writer of the Richmond Enquirer from 1804 – 1845. Thomas Jefferson encouraged the establishment of the paper and said, “I read but a single newspaper, Ritchie’s Enquirer, the best that is published or ever has been published in America.” Ritchie supported extensive internal improvements to Virginia, public schools, and gradual emancipation of slaves. In 1845, President James K. Polk helped to bring Ritchie to Washington to edit The Union newspaper from 1845-1851.
Dr. John Brockenbrough, along with Ritchie, established Virginia’s first bank, Bank of Virginia, and helped to shape financial policies throughout the state. His Richmond home would later become the Confederate White House. Other Junta members included George Smith, a native son of Tappahannock, who was elected Governor in 1811 before tragically dying in the Richmond Theater Fire. William Brockenbrough and Francis Brooke also joined Spencer Roane on the Court of Appeals. Later in the Antebellum Period, R.M.T. Hunter and M.R.H. Garnett played critical national roles in the Civil War era.
By March of 1860 the Essex Sharpshooters had formed as a volunteer unit with about 100 men. After Virginia seceded, units rapidly formed to prepare for her defense. Local units were initially organized as “Major Ward’s Essex and Middlesex Battalion” under the command of Major William N. Ward, a local teacher and Episcopal minister. Eight of these original nine companies would form the nucleus of the 55th Virginia Infantry; their cavalry would be attached to the 9th Virginia Cavalry. The 55th used the labor of over 300 enslaved men to build Fort Lowry to defend the lower Rappahannock. The regiment then joined Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and saw its first real action during the Peninsula Campaign in June of 1862. The men of the 55th stayed with Lee through almost all the major battles in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. The Essex Light Dragoons were assigned cavalry duties in support of Fort Lowry. Special orders on December 18th, 1861, established the 9th Virginia Cavalry, who would eventually serve under General J.E.B. Stuart. Fort Lowry was abandoned in March of 1862 and not long after, one of the first documented attacks came in April 1862 by a flotilla of gunboats called the “Rappahannock Expedition” under the command of Lt. E.P. McCrea. The expedition attacked the abandoned Ft. Lowry and continued upstream to Tappahannock. They occupied the town and made Dr. Roane’s home (later the Trible House and now the Essex Inn) their headquarters.
In June of 1864 a raid against Essex was led by Colonel Alonzo Draper. Four gunboats, transport vessels and 500 African American troops of the 36th Regiment destroyed civilian boats, took livestock and supplies, and burned the mill of Senator R.M.T. Hunter. Draper’s Raid also feed many men and women in Essex who were still being held in slavery. Tappahannock suffered its last reported attack on 13 March 1865. A Federal side-wheel steamer with three cannons and 57 sailors attacked the town, destroying boats, the ferry, and a local bridge.
After the Civil War Virginia’s economy was devastated, and steamboats came to serve as a vital economic link for struggling Essex County. Several times a week, steamboats headed upriver stopping at Bowler’s Wharf, Ware’s Wharf, Tappahannock, Blandfield, Layton’s Landing, and Saunder’s Wharf before returning to Baltimore. The steamboats took on cargo from local farms, mills, canneries, and watermen, and they also carried passengers.
In 1921, St. Margaret’s, an independent Episcopal boarding school for girls, opened on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Tappahannock, incorporating several historic homes and buildings. As transportation changed and the automobile became commonplace, a new bridge that crossed the Rappahannock was finished in 1927. The opening of the Downing Bridge was one of the largest celebrations in Essex County history, providing a reliable link between the Middle Peninsula and the Northern Neck.
The area has continued to thrive during the 20th and 21st centuries, while still maintaining a small-town feel, rural character, and a great appreciation for the rich and complex history of the area.
While there are currently no events listed specifically for Essex County, search the VA250 Statewide Calendar of Events for a comprehensive listing of programs across the state.