“The past is a foreign country; They do things differently there.”
Lesley Poles Hartley
The name Fluvanna means “Anne’s River.” Both the Rivanna River and the westward fork of the James (west of Columbia), known as the Fluvanna River, were named in honor of Queen Anne of England. These rivers created boundaries for the new county that came to be called Fluvanna.
In the early 1700’s towns such as Richmond and Fredericksburg were springing up on the fall lines of rivers such as the James and the Rappahannock. The lands to the west were largely unsettled and did not experience any influx of settlers until around 1725.
It wasn’t until 1777 that Thomas Jefferson presented a petition to the Legislature to create a new county from the currently existing Albemarle county. After the Act of 1777 created the county, the Legislature directed Wilson Miles Cary and other leading citizens to hold their first court at the home of Thomas Napier between the Rivanna River and Racoon Creek. In time, that site became the county seat and would also become the site of the County Courthouse.
Wilson Miles Cary had just moved his family to his Fluvanna plantation, Carysbrook, because the British were too close to his Williamsburg home. This newcomer, with ties of kinship to the Jefferson family, set himself up as a leader of the new county. Thomas Napier, also from a Tidewater family, was a Dissenter to the Church of England and a founder of Lyles Baptist Church. Cary was loyal to the Established Church of England and took a dim view of such heretics. Naturally these two argued much over the founding of Fluvanna. (It is interesting to note that Baptists were largely persecuted in Colonial Virginia and this inspired Jefferson and Madison to urge for freedom of religion and separation of church and state in the new government.)
In those days, a courthouse was the seat of government and justice and also the center of all county activity. The court buildings reflected the economy of the times and often were the pride of the countryside. They were a gathering place for citizens, and a center for commerce. There was typically a tavern nearby and a church vying with the courthouse for first place in the lives of the local people.
The first Fluvanna court sessions were held in the homes of early prominent citizens. Early miscreants were probably locked up in barns and other sturdy buildings. In 1778, the construction of a temporary courthouse was begun with completion in 1780. At that time, it was also deemed necessary to build a jail or, as it was called then, a gaol. Plans were drawn up but, this jail wasn’t built. There was a temporary jail built in 1779. There must have also been a whipping post then as there is record of a woman being sentenced in 1779 to twenty-five lashes for failing to pay ten pounds that she owed. The first record of criminals being locked up appeared in 1780. Two men were locked up and later hanged — probably from a tree as the county didn’t pay for gallows to be built until later. A few years later a stock and pillory were built.
In 1781, the British Queen’s Rangers, under John Graves Simcoe, came to the Courthouse and arrested Fluvanna’s leading rebel, Thomas Napier. They may have searched the lowly buildings for records but would have found none since they were at the Rising Sun home of John Timberlake. Simcoe and his troops spent little time in Fluvanna as their main objective was capturing the arsenal at Point of Fork.
As for Fluvanna, it would take the new century of the 1800’s and the efforts of men like John Hartwell Cocke and Walker Timberlake to complete the construction of a new Courthouse and the Stone Jail.
(Most of this article was taken from Fluvanna County Historical Society Bulletin Number 78)
I hope this article gives some insight into the founding of Fluvanna County which also coincided with the founding of a new nation. I also hope it gives some insight into life in Colonial Virginia and particularly Fluvanna. To learn more about early Fluvanna I suggest you visit Palmyra and see the Old Courthouse and the Old Stone Jail.
Bill Jones – Fluvanna County Historical Society