Prior to 1714, Virginians were proscribed from settling beyond the Nottoway River due to the potential threat from Indians residing in the region. Settlement of this region was made possible in 1714, when Governor Alexander Spotswood corralled Virginia’s remaining Indians and brokered a treaty with North Carolina establishing a compromise over the location of the colonies’ shared boundary. In 1728 the boundary was formalized.
Intensive development of Southside Virginia was initiated in the 1720s and continued into the 1770s. In 1738, the Virginia General Assembly passed an act to encourage settlement of the region, which granted a 10-year tax exemption to anyone who settled in the next two years. This act also authorized the governor to grant naturalization papers to any aliens settling in the region. As a result, the area experienced a substantial growth in its population and dramatic increase in the number of land patents.
Southside Virginia’s initial settlement was due, in large part, to the decrease in the role of the Chesapeake region’s tobacco trade. By the 1730s, most of the Tidewater region’s fertile, river-accessible farm land had been sold. Land under tobacco cultivation gradually was exhausted as a result of years of intensive planting that depleted nutrients from the soil. Wheat began to replace tobacco in the Tidewater region. Planters from the Tidewater region who chose not to turn to wheat production, instead, migrated west into Southside Virginia in search of more fertile soils. This period of out-migration resulted in many of the former Tidewater planters who “settled a vast area of piedmont Virginia between 1740 and 1775 and, with the help of credit supplied by Scottish merchants, turned hundreds of thousands of acres of land into tobacco plantations”.
Settlement throughout the Southside region followed a typical pattern. The first stage in the settlement pattern was the arrival of a small group of pioneers, who squatted on the land and engaged in subsistence farming. These early settlers brought little wealth with them; most migrants had either owned little land and no slaves or had been former laborers. The second stage in the settlement pattern was the discovery by speculators who patented thousand of acres of land in the region. Many of the land speculators were absentee landowners, who either seated the land with “quarters” or rented their property to tenants. Four years after participating in the survey of the Virginia-Carolina dividing line, William Byrd II returned to the area he had named “Eden” to survey his own 131,000 acre tract, and to plan his “Blue Stone Castle” near the confluence of the Staunton and the Dan rivers, rivers that Byrd had named.
Most speculators attracted purchasers to buy smaller parcels of land located near population centers. More prosperous planters followed the squatters into Southside; this transition coincided with the construction of roads, which provided easier access to agricultural markets. The improved roads made the area attractive to more prosperous farmers from the east. The last stage included the out-migration of poor families and in-migration of more substantial planters. Finally, once the area supported a relatively dense population, land values and associated taxes rose.
By 1752, the population west of the Staunton River had increased to such an extent that the formation of a separate county was warranted. Halifax County extended from the Staunton River westward to the Blue Ridge, and was named for the Second Earl of Halifax, George Montague Dunk. In February of 1752 the General Assembly passed an Act ordering “that from and immediately after the tenth day of May next ensuing, the County of Lunenburg be divided into two counties, that is to say, all that part thereof lying on the south side of Black-Water Creek and Staunton River, from the said Black-Water Creek to the confluence of the said river with the River Dan, and from thence to Aaron’s Creek, to the country line, be one distinct county and parish, and called and known by the name of Halifax and parish of Antrim; and all that other part thereof on the north side of Staunton River, from the lower part to the extent of the county upwards, shall be one other distinct county, and retain the name of Lunenburg and parish of Cumberland.”
Thus was Halifax County created, the first of nine counties to be taken out of Lunenburg. As was related in an article in the Record-Advertiser last year, it was named for George Montagu Dunk, Second Earl of Halifax, First Lord of the Board of Trade, known as the Father of the American Colonies. Dunk was president of the Board of Trade from 1748 to 1761. The modern counties of Pittsylvania, Franklin, Henry, and Patrick were carved from Halifax County’s original boundaries (Loth 1986:181). Pittsylvania was the first, formed in 1766 from the western two-thirds of Halifax County.
Early settlement of Halifax County came primarily from two directions. Germans and Scotch-Irish migrated from the northwest from Pennsylvania, while English settlers came from Virginia’s Tidewater Region to the east. The western portion of Halifax County specialized in cereal, orchard, and dairy production during the antebellum era. Farmers in the western region joined with their ethnic counterparts in the Shenandoah Valley and sent crops to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
Within the eastern section of Halifax County, tobacco became the primary crop. Settlement within this portion of the county consisted predominantly of Tidewater planters who transplanted their cultural, social, economic, and political system to this new region. Each plantation strove to become a self-supporting unit, raising most of its own foodstuffs. This was due to several factors, including modest landholdings, limited capital to secure labor, and lack of adequate transportation systems.
Occupying a site that has been used for court purposes since 1803, the Courthouse holds hundreds of thousands of documents relating to the people and property of Halifax County, Virginia. The Courthouse was built in 1838 and is one of the Classical Revival court buildings erected by master designer and builder, Dabney Cosby and son, Dabney Cosby, Jr. They provided Southside Virginia with a variety of architecturally literate houses, churches and public buildings. Cosby abandoned the strict temple form for the Halifax County courthouse in favor of a T-plan and Greek Ionic order.
While there are currently no events listed specifically for Halifax County, search the VA250 Statewide Calendar of Events for a comprehensive listing of programs across the state.