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The Birth and Change of Surry County, Virginia

As I have studied the early Watkins of Colonial Virginia, I have been confused by the names of the counties. Knowing very little about Virginia's history, I formed the opinion that the early Watkins folks did a lot of moving. While this might have been the case, it is also possible that some remained in one place and the names simply changed as the colony developed over the years. Following is some information about Surry County, Virginia from the December, 2012 edition of The Surry Side News which illustrates this point. This information is particularly interesting to me because my earliest known Watkins ancestor was James Watkins (about 1744 - 1799). He died in Sussex County, Virginia, but during his lifetime that area in which he died had been Surry County.

In the mid-1920's my grandfather A. W. Bohannan wrote an essay that he entitled Historic Surry. It was a hodge-podge of people and events that were important to Surry County during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I want to quote one paragraph in his essay:

The early settlements in what is now Surry County were called by the Jamestown colonists "the plantations across the water". To the first settlers, the colony was a miniature London lying on both sides of the James as London south of Thames is the shire (county) of Surrey. The colonists in writing home came to speak of settlements on the southside "over the Surry side." Hence the name of the County. In 1619 Governor (Samuel Argall) included the settlement on the Surry side in the corporation of Jamestown.

James City County 1635

This is a view of some Virginia Counties in 1635. Notice James City County as described in the preceding paragraph.

This means that from 1619-1652 Surry was actually part of the Jamestown Colony. In 1634 several shires or counties were separated from the Jamestown Colony and they sent delegates to the House of Burgesses. Surry was not one of the original counties of the Virginia Colony. Instead she continued to be part of Jamestown which was now called James City County. In 1634 eight counties were carved from the Jamestown Colony. The original counties of the now-called Virginia Colony were Henrico, James City, Charles City, Elizabeth City, York, Warwick, Northampton and Warrasqueake. In 1637 Warrasqueake County became known as Isle of Wight County.

Jamestown considered Surry part of the Jamestown Colony so the land South of the James was called James City County. From 1634-1652 Surry was part of James City County. During this time Surry was beginning to develop a personality of its own. Smith's Fort on Gray's Creek had been built to protect the settlers from Indian Attacks. Land tracts were issued by the Virginia Colony for wealthy land-owners to have plantations along the James. So by 1650 the land development across from Jamestown Island moved westward along the river to the Charles City line. At that time Charles City County were on both sides of the river as was James City County. In 1652 Surry became a separate county from James City. The plantations along the James River became an important asset to the Virginia Colony. Surry was one of the most significant counties as long as the Virginia Colony had Jamestown as its Capital. When it moved its capital to Williamsburg in the late 17th Century, Surry's importance began to wane. Surry in 1652 was the largest county in Virginia. Its borders extended to the North Carolina border. One eighth of the counties of Virginia were once part of Surry County.

Source: Bohannan, Bo., The Surry Side News, Surry County Virginia Historical Society, Vol. 12, No.4, Dec. 2012, p. 3

Surry County 1653

This map shows how the counties were named in 1653. Notice that James City is on the north side of the river and that the county on the southside of the river was now called Surry County.

I am including one final map as I said that my ancestor died in Sussex County, Virginia in 1799. Notice that if he lived just south of the Blackwater River that forms the boundary between Surry County and Sussex County, he could have been born in Surry County and died in Sussex County without ever moving from his birthplace.

Some Virginia Counties in 1799

This map shows the counties that existed in 1799. In 1754 Sussex County was split from Surry County with the Blackwater River as the boundary.

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