Charles City County is located in the Richmond-Petersburg region east of Richmond and west of Jamestown, with a southern border on the James River and an eastern border on the Chickahominy River. It is part of the Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA).
This area had been a territory of indigenous peoples for thousands of years and various cultures. At the time of European contact in the 17th century, Algonquian-speaking Chickahominy American Indians inhabited areas along the river named after them, the Paspahegh lived in Sandy Point, and the Weanoc lived in the Weyanoke Neck area. The latter two tribes were part of the Powhatan Confederacy. They were all Algonquian-speaking tribes, the language family of peoples who occupied the Tidewater and low country. This was one of the three major language family groups of American Indians in Virginia.
After the English arrived, the Virginia Company in 1619 established Charles Cittie (sic) as one of the first four "boroughs" or "incorporations" in the region. West of James County, it was named for Prince Charles, second son of King James I of England, who became the Prince of Wales and heir apparent after the death of his older brother Henry in 1612. After his father's death, he became King Charles I of England.
1619 marked the arrival for the first enslaved Africans in the Tidewater area, who arrived at Weyanoke Peninsula. There they created the first African community in what became the United States. Weyanoke, Virginia continues as a small, unincorporated community.
The Virginia Company lost its charter in 1624 under King James I, and Virginia became a royal colony. Charles City Shire was formed in 1634 in the Virginia Colony by order of the King. Its name was changed to Charles City County in 1643. It is one the five original shires in Virginia which are extant in essentially the same political entity (county) as they were originally formed in 1634. Colonists developed the land as tobacco plantations and produced commodity crops for export. It required intensive labor, for which they recruited indentured servants from the British Isles and Africa, as well as slaves from Africa.
The original central city of the county was Charles City Point, which was in an area south of the James River at the confluence of the Appomattox River. The first Charles City County courthouses were located along the James River at Westover and at City Point. The latter's name was shortened from Charles City Point.
Beginning in 1703, all of the original area of Charles City County south of the James River was severed to form Prince George and several other counties. The incorporated town of City Point, then in Prince George County, was annexed by the independent city of Hopewell in 1923.
North of the river, the area remained Charles City County. During the late 19th century, numerous crossroads communities developed among the plantations to serve the religious, educational and mercantile needs of the citizenry of rural Charles City County. Crossroad communities, such as Adkins Store, Cedar Grove, Binns Hall, Parrish Hill, Ruthville and Wayside, typically included a store, church and school. (Public schools were not established until after the Civil War, when the Reconstruction legislature founded the system.) As in other parts of the Tidewater, common planters and merchants of Charles City County were attracted by the appeal of Methodist and Baptist preachers in the Great Awakening in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Several Methodist and Baptist churches were established in the early 19th century, mostly in the upland areas of the county. The county also had numerous Quaker settlers. The elite planters of the James River plantations tended to remain Anglican and Episcopalian.
The county has no "City", or any centralized city or town. Charles City Court House, which has a Charles City postal address, is the focal point of government. The building which served as the courthouse was constructed in the 1730s. Used until 2007, it was one of only five courthouses in America that was in continuous use for judicial purposes since before the Revolutionary War.
The English named the Weyanoke Peninsula after the Weyanoc, American Indians whom they encountered in the area. They were gradually displaced by colonial encroachment. They merged with other, larger tribes about the time of Bacon's Rebellion, in which colonists mistakenly attacked friendly Indians.
The Chickahominy River (pronounced chick-a-hom-a-nee), which forms much of the county's eastern and northern borders, is named after the historic Native American people whom English colonists encountered in this area. Their descendants still inhabit the region. Chickahominy means "coarse-pounded corn people" in Algonquian. At the time of the earliest English settlement, the independent Chickahominy people occupied territory surrounded by numerous tribes of the powerful Powhatan Confederacy, but were not part of it.
Numerous Native Americans of the Chickahominy and the Eastern Chickahominy tribes (both groups are officially recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia) still live in the county. The Chickahominy are the second largest Native American tribe in Virginia, with just under one thousand members. The Eastern Chickahominy tribe has about 130 members.
The majority of European colonists were English people who arrived as indentured servants and who owed labor time, often up to seven years, to wealthier patrons who had paid for their passage in order to gain land and laborers. The English government provided land grants to such patrons under a headright system, to encourage the settlement of more people in the colony. During the 17th century, hard economic times in England encouraged workers to risk going to the North American colonies. While in the early years the Chesapeake Bay Colony had a high ratio of men to women, gradually more women entered the colony, and people started creating families.
Some indentured servants paid off their passage and eventually owned land of their own. While some became planters (owning 20 slaves or more), they tended to have property in the upland section of the county. By the time most indentured workers had earned freedom and some rose to common planter status, the wealthiest planter families in the county already controlled the valuable riverfront property. This gave them ready access to the waterways, the transportation system for trade and travel.
With the growth of tobacco as a cash commodity crop, planters needed more workers, as it was labor intensive. During the late 17th century, the colonists began to import more African slave labor than arrange for indentured servants. As economic conditions improved in England, workers did not want to come to the colonies, where conditions were harsh. In the eighteenth century, slaves became the major source of agricultural labor in the Virginia Colony, then devoted to tobacco plantations. Twenty-three black slaves were known to have been brought to Charles City County before 1660.
The earliest record of a free black living in Charles City County is the September 16, 1677 petition for freedom by a woman named Susannah. The Lott Cary House in the county has long been honored as the birth site of Lott Carey, a slave who purchased his freedom and that of his children. Ultimately he became a founding father of the new country of Liberia in Africa.
Beginning as early as the 17th century, some planters freed individual slaves by manumission. But, most free mixed-race (then considered black) families before the American Revolution were formed by descendants of unions or marriages between white indentured or free women and African men, indentured, slave or free. By colonial law and the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, children were born into the status of their mother. Thus, the mixed-race children of white women were free.
Later, in the first three decades after the American Revolution, numerous planters in Virginia freed their slaves, including in Charles City County, whose Quakers, Baptists and Methodists worked for manumission. Both Quaker and Methodist preachers talked to slaveholders throughout Virginia to encourage them to extend the rights of man to slaves. Many free blacks settled together in today's Ruthville, Virginia, a crossroads and one of the first free-black communities in present-day Charles City County and the state of Virginia.
When the US Army decided to recruit black troops during the American Civil War, many freedmen and free blacks from Charles City County enlisted. In 1864 United States Colored Troops stationed at Fort Pocahontas soundly defeated an attack by 2500 Confederate troops commanded by Major General Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of General Robert E. Lee.
The unincorporated town of Ruthville was the center of the county's free black population for many years, even before the American Civil War (1861–1865). Following emancipation, the crossroads community added the Mercantile Cooperative Company and the Ruthville Training School. The United Sorgham Growers Club also met here. Earlier known by several other names, the name "Ruthville" recalls local resident Ruth Brown. Her name was selected for the local Post Office established there in 1880.
During Reconstruction, freedmen founded several benevolent associations, such as the Odd Fellows Lodge, Knights of Gideon, Order of St. Luke and the Benevolent Society, which were active in solving common civic problems.
In 1968, after passage of the federal Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the 1960s and federal enforcement of the black franchise, James Bradby of Charles City County was the first black Virginian to be elected to the position of County Sheriff.