The settlement and heritage of the county has been largely overshadowed by museum restorations at Jamestown and Williamsburg, Virginia’s first and second capital cities.
James City County’s claim to fame is Jamestown, where the first permanent English settlers in the New World built their fort. The capitals at Jamestown and then Williamsburg, which was formed from a portion of James City County and York County, were Colonial Virginia’s first and second government seats. But the story of James City County beyond the early Virginia capitals is little known to the millions who visit and thousands who have settled here.
James City County is one of three municipalities in the Historic Triangle, which celebrates Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. The other municipalities are the City of Williamsburg and York County.
People who Populated the First County
Beginning shortly after Jamestown was founded in 1607, the surrounding land was granted to adventuring settlers who were mostly English emigrants. Some were members of the middle to minor gentry and others had mercantile connections. However, the land that became James City County was largely populated by less well-positioned individuals who were increasingly crowded out of the Old World. Those with land paid for indentured servants and slaves who were needed to acquire more land and to labor on homesteads and in tobacco fields.
James Citie’s County is Formed
By 1634, the Virginia Company venture become a Royal Colony. Due to the necessity of governance, Virginia’s first counties were drawn up so that courts would be accessible to the colonists. Virginia’s first eight counties were Accomack, Charles City, Charles River, Elizabeth River, Henrico, James City, Warwick River, and Warrosquyoake (Isle of Wight). James City County’s seat at “James Citie,” or Jamestown, was also the Virginia colony’s first administrative center.
Virginia’s second capital city at Williamsburg was founded in 1699. It was built at Middle Plantation, located about six miles northeast of Jamestown on a ridge midway between the James and York Rivers. Although they are separate municipalities today, early James City County included Williamsburg.
Outlying James City County
From early in the 17th century until the American Revolution, James City County’s approximately 150 square miles of land included a few large plantations and many small farms where landowners, indentured servants, and slaves lived and worked. By the middle of the 18th century, James City County’s cropland was exhausted of nutrients due to tobacco cultivation and large planters pushed west. Other farmers consolidated early land grants, and remained in the area. Some slaves were freed and settled in identifiable communities.A few descendants of James City County’s earliest settlers, black and white, still live in James City County.
American Revolution and Civil War Cripple the Area
James City County’s first families endured two wars fought on the home front. The skirmishes and the aftermath of the American Revolution and the nearby Battle of Yorktown resulted in property damage and disease. Thousands of American, French, and British soldiers camped here and moved through the area using up large amounts of food and timber and spreading epidemics.
Then, between 1861 and 1865, the Civil War once again brought soldiers and devastation. Union troops stationed in Hampton fought to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. James City County was directly in the line of fire. Union troops held the City of Williamsburg. Encampments and crisscrossing of soldiers made the populace anxious about the welfare of their homes, farms, and families. Afterward, wounds to the people, buildings, and environment required time to heal.
Turn of the Century Emigrants to James City County
The devastation wrought by the American Revolution and Civil War as well as new technology changed the character of the county. A unique community created by the post-bellum state of affairs was Norge. Around 1896, a C&O Railroad executive and entrepreneur of Norwegian descent noticed an area of largely abandoned or cheap farmland midway along the spur of railroad line that ran southeast along the Virginia Peninsula from Richmond to Newport News. He speculated that if these lands were inhabited and farmed, more people and crops would need to be transported by the railroad. He promoted the land to Midwestern families who had come to America from Norway and encouraged them to resettle in James City County, where the weather was less harsh. Today, the Norge community is still occupied by many third and fourth generation descendants of the original Scandinavian re-settlers.
Other distinct communities in James City County include Grove, originally part of the extensive plantation land of the Burwells of Carter’s Grove and Kingsmill plantations; Croaker, a crossroads between the homesteads of independent and comfortably prosperous farmers in the Northern portion of the county near the York River – where the croaker fish was plentiful; and Chickahominy, near the site of an 18th-century shipyard and a 19th-century brick making company on the Chickahominy River, a tributary of the James.
Traces of the Past in the Present
Traces of James City County’s historic past are all around. Look for them in fragments of landscape that have thus far escaped the forces of man and nature. Hear the past echoing from place names. See preserved and ruined structures or their archaeological remains. Respect these things and their significance in the past as well as their meaning for the future.