Prince George County was established in 1702 and was named in honor of Prince George of Denmark, Husband of England's reigning monarch, Queen Anne. It was formed from Charles City County, one of the original eight shires, and its boundaries stretched from south of the James River down to the North Carolina line.
Boundary definition of Prince George County was not completed until 1703. This area was one of the earliest settled regions of Virginia. The English first visited it in May of 1607, when Captain Christopher Newport led a crew of twenty-one men in search of the best location for their permanent settlement. As they sailed up the James River to the mouth of the Appomattox River, Newport noted that the area now known as Prince George would be a suitable location for the settlement. When he returned to the anchored fleet, he found that his impatient followers had already unloaded and begun settlement at Jamestown, without waiting for his advice.
In 1616, John Martin, one of the men who arrived in 1607, was among the first to receive a permanent land grant in the Prince George area. He was granted Brandon, a vast tract of land along the James River. Martin's Brandon was later sold to three men, one of whom was Richard Quiney whose son Thomas married Judith Shakespeare, daughter of William Shakespeare. The property later passed to Nathaniel Harrison in 1720. It was at this time that Thomas Jefferson, a good friend of Harrison's son, designed the main part of the house as it stands today. Brandon remained in the Harrison family until 1926 when it passed to Robert Williams Daniel. Brandon's Palladian-style mansion and renowned gardens are home to the Daniel family today, making this state and national landmark, which is still an active farming operation, the longest continuous agricultural enterprise in the U.S.
Another plantation in Prince George, which was established by the early settlers, is Flowerdew Hundred, a 1,000 acre tract of land acquired around 1619 by Sir George Yeardley. Since King James I had stressed the immediate need for mills and bakehouses in the new land, Yeardley built at Flowerdew the first wind driven grist mill in English N. America. In 1978 a post windmill overlooking the James River at Flowerdew Hundred was built to commemorate the original mill of 1621. It was commissioned by David A. Harrison III, Flowerdew's current owner, and was constructed by English millwright Derek Ogden. Over the years, Flowerdew has undergone several archaeological investigations conducted by the Flowerdew Hundred Foundation.
Prince George also includes the distinction of having the first privately owned farm in America, the William Cawson property where John Randolph of Roanoke was born. Nearby is located Appomattox Manor which until recently was the oldest property in America bearing the same family name of the original patentee, Captain Francis Eppes.
Prince George is also the home of the oldest Episcopalian church still standing and still being used as a house of worship in America. Merchants Hope Church was completed in 1657 and was named after the Merchants Hope Plantation that was located west of Martin's Brandon. Even though the church has undergone renovation and restoration, it is virtually the same structure today as it was when it was built 50 years after Jamestown was settled.
Another historic church that was originally in Prince George but has since been annexed by Petersburg is Old Blandford Church built in 1735. This church stands in Blandford Cemetery where approximately 30,000 Confederate soldiers as well as many early Prince George residents are buried. Blandford Church houses an art treasure of Memorial Windows contributed by 15 Confederate States to honor their dead.
Merchants Hope Church also played a part in Bacon's Rebellion. In 1676 at Jordan Point, Bacon and many outraged settlers protested against edicts of the royal governors and demanded home rule. They met at Merchants Hope Church where they signed petitions to Governor Berkeley demanding help against Indian attacks. Berkeley dismissed their petitions leaving Bacon and 211 volunteers to take matters into their own hands.
Prince George produced native son Richard Bland, who played a prominent role in events leading to the American Revolution. He published the earliest defense of the Colonists' attitude regarding taxation, served as Virginia's delegate in the First and Second Continental Congress, was a respected political leader and an authority on Virginia's history. It is fitting that Thomas Jefferson would regard him as a most learned and logical in public affairs.
Prince George did not escape the Revolutionary War. In the campaign of 1781, Cornwallis, Phillips, and Benedict Arnold were active in the area, passing through the country's estates and fields. The house at Brandon bears bullet scars from this war and was lucky enough to escape attempts by a British ship to damage it.
Edmund Ruffin was another one of Prince George's distinguished sons. He was a pioneer soil chemist, helped establish the first Virginia State Board of Agriculture in 1840, and earned the title "Father of Agricultural Chemistry". Fifty years later he acquired the reputation of having fired the first shot on Ft. Sumter.
During the Civil War, Prince George played a vital historical role. Appomattox Manor, in that area of the county known as City Point, served as General Grant's Headquarters and pentagon of the Union Army. It was here where Lincoln spent the last three out of four remaining weeks of his life in 1865.
After Cold Harbor, Grant needed to move his army into position for the siege of Petersburg and searched the James River for an appropriate place to cross. Flowerdew Plantation was chosen as the site where the Union Army would construct a 2100-foot long pontoon bridge in June of 1864. Two-fifths of the Army of the Potomac crossed this bridge at Wilcox Landing to Flowerdew, traveled through the Prince George Courthouse area, and prepared to take Petersburg.
The historic Battle of the Crater was also fought in Prince George, since that area did not become part of Petersburg until 1956. By the end of July 1864, Union activists under Union Generals Butler and Burnside planned a massive explosion to blow a hole in Confederate lines around Petersburg. This large explosion had a disastrous end for the Union troops, and more than 5000 men were lost on both sides.
In September of 1864, Confederate scouts had detected a three-thousand-head beef herd held in a Union cattle pen at Coggins Point on the James River. Confederate General Wade Hampton, acting on a suggestion by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, hatched a plan to pull off the Great Cattle Raid. He and his troops advanced to the area, engaged the enemy, surrounded the cattle herd, and drove them out of Union control southward behind Confederate lines. Thanks to Hampton's men and some real Virginia cowboys, hungry Confederate soldiers were able to enjoy their well-earned beefsteak feast.
Since the county served as a field of operations for both the Union and Confederate Armies, many buildings suffered extensive damage. The Prince George Courthouse was ransacked and burned with many of its record books and documents destroyed or carried away by treasure-seekers. Private estates such as Brandon and many county churches were also seized, ransacked, and damaged.
Prince George's role and contribution to the military and defense of our nation did not end after 1865. During WWI in June 1917 the U.S. Army began building Camp Lee, which was to serve vital infantry training, ground for American soldiers on their way to Europe. Camp Lee was also a pivotal training ground during WWII where it became the center of both basic and advanced training of quartermaster personnel. In 1950 it was re-designated Fort Lee, and its primary mission today is focused on quartermaster and logistics training disciplines.
Patrick Copeland had planned the very first public school in the area, but the Indian Massacre of 1622 destroyed the possibility. A real public school was not established until 1871 in Brandon, and by the end of that year twelve other schools had been set up in the county. The Prince George County School System has grown and prospered since those early plantation days and can boast such graduates as former Texas Rangers Manager Johnny Oates, Los Angeles Rams football player Larry Brooks, Air Force General John McBroom, and many other nationally known former residents.
Additional information about the history of Prince George County can be obtained from the Prince George County Historical Society.