Powhatan County has a rich history that includes Huguenot settlement, important centers of African American education, Robert E. Lee, and prison farms. Fortunately, the architecture that remains from this varied historical legacy has fared better here than in many localities. Bordered on the north by the James River and on the south by the Appomattox River, the county was formed from Cumberland in 1777. It was named for Powhatan the paramount chief of thirty-two tribes in Virginia and not, as had been the custom before the Revolution, for a member of the English nobility. However, during the period of contact between Native Americans and settlers, the area in question was settled by the Monacan, enemies of the Powhatan for whom their old territory is now named. When, by 1700, the Monacan had been effectively driven out, Manakin, one of their abandoned villages, became the site of the largest Huguenot settlement in Virginia (see PO11). Powhatan County's association with Robert E. Lee provides another historical moment. Lee passed through Powhatan on his miserable journey home after the surrender at Appomattox. A short time later, Lee, along with his family, returned to Powhatan County and spent a few recuperative months at Derwent (PO13) before he became president of what is now Washington and Lee University (RB16).
Like many of Virginia's counties, Powhatan was primarily agricultural and much of its architecture reflects its conservative, agrarian past. However, when Philip St. George Cocke moved here, he brought with him advanced architectural ideas. Cocke hired nationally prominent architect Alexander Jackson Davis to design his house, Belmead (PO15), a commission that led to Davis being hired to design the courthouse (PO1). Agriculture still plays an important role in the local economy, as do livestock and timber. But the county is increasingly populated by people working in nearby Richmond and in Henrico and Chesterfield counties. Powhatan is becoming yet one more bucolic bedroom community, and one that also has an almost unseemly number of prisons. Abundant and relatively cheap land near urban areas brings such facilities.
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