Gloucester County is a county in the Commonwealth of Virginia, United States, located in the Hampton Roads area. Formed in 1651 in the Virginia Colony, the county was named for Henry Stuart, Duke of Gloucester (third son of King Charles I of England). Located in the Middle Peninsula region, it borders the York River and the lower Chesapeake Bay. Gloucester County is about east of Virginia's capital, Richmond. According to the 2010 Census, the population is 36,858. Its county seat is Gloucester Courthouse.
Gloucester County was the site of Werowocomoco, capital of the Native American Powhatan Confederacy (a union of 30 tribes under a paramount chief). It was home to members of the First Families of Virginia and leaders before the American Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson wrote early works for Virginia and colonial independence at Rosewell Plantation, home of John Page (his close friend and fellow student at the College of William and Mary). As the war ended with the British surrender at Yorktown (across from Gloucester Point), the county narrowly avoided being the escape route for British land forces led by General Cornwallis; a French effort kept British naval forces from assisting him.
Gloucester County is both rich in farmland and important to the Virginia fishing industry; it also has a retail center located around the main street area of the county seat. Despite its rural and small-town qualities, Gloucester County and adjacent Mathews County are considered part of the Hampton Roads region of southeastern Virginia. They are linked by the George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge, a toll facility across the York River carrying U.S. Route 17 to the Virginia Peninsula area. Gloucester County is nicknamed the "Daffodil Capital of the World"; it hosts an annual daffodil festival, parade and flower show.
The written history of Gloucester County began soon after the English settlement of Jamestown in 1607. Before then, the area was inhabited for thousands of years by hunter-gatherer indigenous peoples; artifacts have been dated to at least the late Woodland Period.
By the late 16th century, the Powhatan Confederacy had formed in the area. Werowocomoco, a stronghold of the Powhatan, was located on the north side of the York River in what is now Gloucester. This complex, stratified society depended on the cultivation of maize, beans and squash—crops which, in addition to game and fish, supported a dense population in a number of settlements. The Powhatan Confederacy was estimated to total 12,000 to 15,000 people in 30 tribes.
Arrival of Europeans
Around 1570, Spanish Jesuits attempted to establish what was known as the Ajacan Mission across the York River from Gloucester. They were killed by natives led by a Christian convert named Don Luis, who was affiliated with a village in the present York County (on the grounds of the Naval Weapons Station Yorktown) known as Chiskiack.
When English settlers arrived at Jamestown in 1607, they soon came into conflict with the native Americans (whom they called "Indians") as the newcomers competed for land, game and other resources. In late 1607, John Smith was captured and taken to Chief Powhatan at Werowocomoco, his eastern capital in Gloucester County. According to legend, Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas saved John Smith from being executed by the natives; however, some historians question the accuracy of much of Smith's account of that incident. Werowocomoco was confirmed as a capital of Chief Powhatan in a later visit, when Smith was accompanied by other Englishmen.
Lost site of Werowocomoco
After the chief moved his capital to a safer, inland location and abandoned the village around 1609, knowledge of the site was lost. Researchers tried to identify it by Smith's historic writings. The current site of West Point seemed to offer a clue to its location; from there, Smith noted the distance downstream to Werowocomoco. Based upon his description, at one time scholars thought the former capital was located near Wicomico (site of Powhatan's Chimney), about southeast of present-day West Point. Smith also noted that Jamestown was from Werowocomoco "as the crow flies." Using that measure, the site near Wicomico (like the site at Purtan Bay) is also about 12 miles from Jamestown.
In 1977, archeologist Daniel Mouer of Virginia Commonwealth University identified a site on Purtan Bay as the possible location of Werowocomoco and collected artifacts from the surface of plowed fields and along the beach. He found fragments of Indian ceramics dating to the Late Woodland Period, and determined that the area was the possible site of Werowocomoco.
More than 20 years later, another landowner authorized archaeological excavation on the property. Between March 2002 and April 2003, the Werowocomoco Research Group conducted excavations and analysis at the Werowocomoco site. The research group is a collaborative effort of the College of William and Mary, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and Virginia tribes descended from the Powhatan Confederacy. Initial testing included digging 603 test holes deep and apart. They found thousands of artifacts, including a blue bead which may have been made in Europe for trading. With the historical descriptions of Werowocomoco, researchers believe these discoveries have established the site of the capital. "We believe we have sufficient evidence to confirm that the property is indeed the village of Werowocomoco," said Randolph Turner, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources' Portsmouth Regional Office in 2003.
Two Gloucester-based archaeologists, Thane Harpole and David Brown, have worked at the site since 2002 and continue their involvement in the excavations. Archeologists have discovered a dispersed village community occupying the site from AD 1200 through the early 17th century. They recovered artifacts (including native pottery and stone tools), as well as floral and faunal food remains from the large residential community. The research group has also recovered English trade goods produced from glass, copper, and other metals originating in Jamestown. The colonists' accounts of interaction at Werowocomoco during the early days of Jamestown emphasized Powhatan's interests in acquiring English objects (particularly copper, which the Indians used to create their own objets d'art.
The project is noted for the researchers' consultation and collaboration with members of the local Native American tribes (the Mattaponi and Pamunkey, descendants of the Powhatan Confederacy. Such archeological sites often contain burials and associated artifacts important to these tribes.
Gloucester County has celebrated Werowocomoco and other Powhatan-heritage sites as part of the county's history. Both the newly-identified site on Purtan Bay and Powhatan's Chimney at Wicomico are within the territory which native Americans have considered to be Werowocomoco. In the Algonquian language the village of the chief was not a place name, but was more-correctly translated as a reference to "the lands" where he lived. Powhatan history included frequent relocations within a general area.
In 1619, the Virginia Company divided its developed areas into four incorporations, also called "citties" . At that time, most of the area which became Gloucester County would have been considered part of "James Cittie" (although it was not yet settled). In 1634, by order of King Charles I the colony was divided into the eight shires of Virginia. First named Charles River Shire by the English, York County was renamed in 1642 during the English Civil War. The Pamunkey called the river of their territory "Pamunkey"; residents retained that name for the portion upstream from West Point. The English first named the major river the Charles River; during the English Civil War, it became the York River). The colonial government granted early land patents in the area in 1639, but it was not until after 1644 that Gloucester was considered safe for settlement. George Washington's great-grandfather received a Gloucester County land patent in 1650.
By order of the Virginia General Assembly, Gloucester County was formed from York County in 1651 and consisted of four parishes: Abingdon, Kingston, Petsworth and Ware. It was named for Henry Stuart, Duke of Gloucester, third son of Charles I. Gloucester County figured in the history of the colony and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Kingston parish became Mathews County in 1791, and the remaining three parishes were retained in Gloucester; the county was split on what is now the eastern county line.
Plantations and historic sites
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Gloucester was a major tobacco-producing area; many of the old plantation homes and private estates have been preserved in good condition. These establishments are periodically open to public visitation during Historic Garden Week. Examples of colonial architecture are the Episcopal churches of Ware (1690) and Abingdon (1755), where Presidents Washington and Jefferson worshiped. Some early colonial buildings at the county seat on Courthouse Green continue to be used for public purposes.