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The First Eight Counties of the Colonies

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Melissa Slate
Word Count: 470 (approx.)
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For the genealogist, research can sometimes be a challenge. Sometimes a disappearing ancestor may not have disappeared at all, you may just be looking in the wrong spot. This can happen very frequently due to boundary changes to the counties over time. One of the first things that you should do in your research for each ancestor is to start with the last county in which your ancestor was located, and check the history of names for that county as far back as you can go. Do this again if you find that your ancestor moved. Some moves were not really moves, the counties just changed names.

In the Colonial period, as the numbers of early colonists grew, they spread out across Virginia. This made it necessary to hold multiple courts in more centralized areas, in order to handle the civil and legal matters of the area and decrease the travel time involved. In 1623/1624 court was held in Charles City, Elizabeth City (previously called Kecoughtan), and James City. By 1631/1632, the General Assembly found it necessary to add five more courts: Henrico, Warwick River, Warrosquyoake (later to become Isle of Wright), Charles River (later to become York), and Accawmacke (Accomack). These first eight areas of court were called shires, later to be called counties.

Accomack County was changed to the name Northampton in 1642. In 1663, it was split into two counties; the Northern section reclaimed the original name Accomack and the Southern end kept the name Northampton. In 1670, Accomack County was abolished only to be recreated in 1671. Are you confused yet? Northampton has the United States oldest continuous court records, and both counties were long known to be home to free blacks in Virginia even during times of slavery.

Charles River County was the forbearer to many counties and cities in Virginia and West Virginia due to boundary changes over time. It was one of the five original counties of the new nation that is still considered extant, meaning, in its original form. Charles City County is also considered to be extant.

In 1643, Elizabeth City Shire became Elizabeth City County and now the area is largely the independent city of Hampton, Virginia.

Henrico County is one of the original counties still considered extant.

James City County is considered to be extant.

Warwick River shire became Warwick County in 1643, but is now extinct. The area is contained within modern day Newport News, Virginia.

Warrosquyoake shire became Isle of Wright County in 1637. Southampton County, Greensville County, and Brunswick County were later created.

Virginia genealogy can be quite a challenge, and most of us will be able to trace one ancestor, if not several to Virginia. However, the search can also be quite thrilling if you know the boundaries over time. This knowledge will lead you on the right path in your records search

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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