In 1761, as the French and Indian War was winding down, Amherst County was formed from Albemarle County. The county was named for Jeffrey Amherst, a British commander in North America during the later part of the war and absentee governor of Virginia from 1759 to 1768. Amherst, a particularly pretty county with well-watered gently curving hills and steep mountainsides, is bounded on the northwest by the Blue Ridge Mountains and on its south by the James River, which served as a water route to Richmond. Farm products, especially tobacco, were transported down the James and, later, on the James River and Kanawha Canal.
Early-nineteenth-century prosperity produced handsome neoclassical houses in Amherst, Madison Heights, and Clifford. Tobacco, wheat, and sawmilling were mainstays of the county's early economy. Copper, iron, and slate made extractive industries also important. Now service occupations and some manufacturing are the core of the county's economy and the relatively few remaining farms mostly raise livestock and hay. The once-agricultural county is fast becoming a bedroom community for commuters who work in Lynchburg.
Twentieth-century social conflicts have left an architectural mark in Amherst County. Virginia's sad fixation on racial purity forced surviving members of the Monacan tribe farther into mountain communities such as Bear Mountain. For generations the Monacan were denied their racial and cultural heritage by a state determined to uproot them. In the late nineteenth century, a mission (AH6) at the foot of Bear Mountain helped unite the Monacan, then known pejoratively as “Issues,” who are now working for a strong tribal center. Sleepy on the outside, pretty Amherst County, like the rest of Virginia, is often a surprising place.
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