On this day, October 12, 1648, the Grand Assembly, meeting in the capital of the Colony of Virginia, Jamestown, declared that all of the land between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, from the Chesapeake Bay to a line drawn between their headwaters far to the west, to be Northumberland County, naming the region after the northernmost shire in England, Northumbria.
The Assembly’s action was prompted by colonists from Maryland coming to the Northern Neck, which led to the fear that Maryland would try to claim the peninsula for itself. As a result, places that would become Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun, as well as other localities, were briefly part of Northumberland County. Thus began the modern history of the Northern Neck.
Northumberland’s rule over the full extent of that vast territory was short-lived, as Lancaster and Westmoreland broke away from the “Mother County” and received their charters from the Assembly in 1651 and 1653 respectively, thereby leaving Northumberland to the size it has remained to the present day. Because of Northumberland’s 438 miles of shoreline, it has the second-longest waterfrontage of all Virginia counties, surpassed only by Accomack on the Eastern Shore.
The mouth of the Potomac River, from Smith Point in Northumberland to Point Lookout in Saint Mary’s County, Maryland, constitutes the widest river estuary in the world. Due to erosion caused by the Potomac’s waves pounding against the Northumberland shoreline, the estuary’s width continually increased before modern erosion-control measures were adopted.
Until recent times, Northumberland had no traffic lights; now it has two, at Burgess and at Callao. The county is one terminus of Route 360, the other being Danville, thus making it the only U.S. Highway in the lower 48 states that does not cross a state line. As I have noted previously, Tocky Lane at Remo is the shortest state route in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
In the late 19th century and into the 20th century, Reedville, due to the menhaden industry, was the second largest port of registry for ships on the East Coast, exceeded only by New York City. Cockrell Creek is the largest and finest harbor on the Western Shore of the bay between Annapolis and Hampton Roads. After the 1920 census, the population of Northumberland declined, and it did not recover to the 1920 level until the 1990 census, the latter increase largely attributable to the influx of retirees.
The burgeoning fishing industry at Reedville at the turn of the 20th century led to the development of plans to build a railroad down from Fredericksburg, but the plans never materialized. If they had, the Northern Neck would be a vastly different place from what it is today. One legacy of that dream can be found in the model railroad exhibit at the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum.
A quarter of a century ago, the board of supervisors established a committee to commemorate and celebrate Northumberland’s 350th anniversary. I had the pleasure to chair the group which hosted activities over a fourteen-month period. Local artist Bill Martz produced a commemorative print containing scenes he had drawn of some of the county’s historic sites. Walking tours of the villages afforded folks the opportunity to learn more of our history, as did a series of lectures.
On October 12, the committee hosted a gala dinner under a tent on the grounds of the new Courts Building in Heathsville. The featured speaker for the evening was former Virginia Congressman and Secretary of the Army, John O. Marsh, a descendent of the county’s early settlers, who with his wife, Glenn Ann, maintained a home in Reedville. The event was honored by the presence of former Governor Gerald Baliles.
Today, Northumberland County is 375 years old, and happily going strong, another testimony to the dynamism of tradition.