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The Peninsulas

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The land lying between the Potomac River on the north, Chesapeake Bay on the east, the James River on the south, and the fall line on the west is generally known as the Peninsulas. The area includes the Northern Neck (or Northern, or Upper Peninsula), the Middle Peninsula, and the Lower (or Southern, or “The”) Peninsula. Although some of the geographic definitions have changed over time, in general the Northern Peninsula encompasses the area between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers and includes King George, Westmoreland, Richmond, Northumberland, and Lancaster counties. The Middle Peninsula, defined as the area between the Rappahannock and York rivers, includes Middlesex, Mathews, Gloucester, King and Queen, King William, Essex, and Caroline counties. The Lower Peninsula, the land between the York and James rivers, includes the counties of New Kent and Charles City. (The eastern metropolitan area of the Lower Peninsula, which includes Williamsburg, Jamestown, Yorktown, Newport News, and Hampton cities, and James City and Yorktown counties, is covered in the Hampton Roads section.)

English settlers found the tidal rivers separating the peninsulas easily navigable, as had Native Americans. As a result, some of the first English settlements occurred in this area, especially along the rivers. The Native Americans had farmed the rich land and engaged in maritime fishery, and the early English colonists followed this pattern, although at a much larger scale. The settlers obliterated great portions of the peninsular forests to make way for crops, including tobacco. Some of the greatest early Virginia fortunes were made through farming and in land speculation. By 1756, a Board of Trade survey claimed 2,414 people in Northumberland County, 1,610 in Lancaster County, and 11,996 people in Richmond County. A range of architectural accomplishments—such as Westover, Shirley, Mount Airy, Rosewell, and Christ Church, Lancaster—along with many smaller but no less significant structures, reflect this early prosperity.

By the early nineteenth century much of the land had lost its productivity because of the overcultivation of tobacco. An economic depression, still evident in many areas, set in. River commerce, which provided a livelihood for some, began to disappear with the arrival of the railroads and vanished in the twentieth century. Shellfishing still provides some with employment, but it has greatly diminished in recent years. Several large military installations in the area today provide jobs for others. Although farming continues, many of the former fields have been overwhelmed by second-, third-, and even fourth-growth forests. The timber industry is increasingly dominant.

Summer homes began to appear in the late nineteenth century. Today, along many of the rivers and on the bay, resorts, yacht clubs, and second homes abound. Although the inevitable suburban sprawl surrounds the metropolitan areas of Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Fredericksburg, great portions of the Peninsulas remain rural and retain a feeling of remoteness. Some of the towns still have the character of life in the nineteenth, if not the eighteenth, century. The isolated courthouse and church are still the centers of community life.

The following entries are arranged along the major travel routes of the region, by county, beginning on the Northern Peninsula, west to east; then the Middle Peninsula, east to west; and then the Lower Peninsula, through New Kent County and west to east in Charles City County, along the north side of the James. (From this point, the traveler can move on to the Hampton Roads section.)

Writing Credits

Author: 
Richard Guy Wilson et al.

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