Our History

Welcome to Historic Heathsville!

The history of Northumberland County, the “mother county” of the Northern Neck, is both long and eventful.  English settlement began here some 375 years ago, only about three dozen years after the founding of Jamestown.  During the county’s first decades, the county court was held either in the homes of the more prominent justices, or in very small, rudely constructed, and only temporary courthouses elsewhere in the county

The first courthouse in Heathsville (although it was actually simply called Northumberland Court House until 1798) was built in 1681, almost two decades before the capital of Virginia was moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg.  Not only was this site fairly centrally located in Northumberland County, but it was also close to the head of the Coan River, which as an important tributary of the Potomac, had been both the seat of the largest tribe of Native Americans in the lower Northern Neck, and where the first English settlers made their home.

Detailed (and surviving) plans for the construction of the original courthouse in Heathsville, along with the original county jail, were worked out with their builder, John Hughlett, the immigrant ancestor of the founder of Hughlett’s Tavern (c1795).  Actually, the building of the courthouse led immediately to the establishment of at least one nearby tavern, already by June 1681.

The old courthouse (1851) that stands today, with the 1873 Confederate monument on its front lawn, is actually the third built on more or less the same spot.  Upstairs one can see an old courtroom, the walls of which are lined with old tablets listing the names of many early county leaders.  And   still standing nearby is the county’s Old Jail,  built in 1839, and on the eve of its closure in 1958 the third oldest county jail in Virginia still in use. The new Northumberland County Courts Building, erected in 1998, stands several hundred yards to the west of Hughlett’s Tavern.

Although the famous architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, had laid out a plan for the newly named town of Heathsville in 1798, the town largely remained a village of larger lots for the next few decades.  During the War of 1812, the British, in retaliation for their failure to take Baltimore, attacked and occupied Heathsville in 1814 while raising havoc in the waters surrounding the Northern Neck.  Despite its location on the geographic periphery of the commonwealth of Virginia, the greater Heathsville area was the host, in the 19th century, for several landmark private institutions devoted to education, including the Northumberland Academy (1818-ca. 1860), and later, as established for recently-freed African Americans, the nearby Howland (est. 1867), Holley (1868), and Stebbins (1870) schools.

A number of lovely houses were built in and around Heathsville in the decades prior to the Civil War.  (During the latter conflict, the town was once again the object of several military raids, this time by Union military forces.)  Many of the homes built here in the early 19th century—including Roanoke, Springfield, Oakley, and Sunnyside—survive to this day, and along with many of the town’s other homes and official buildings, were contributing structures to the designation of Heathsville as a National Historic District in 1991.  At that time, Heathsville was noted by a leading architectural historian as being “significant for having the largest assemblage of antebellum buildings in northeastern Virginia.”

Historic Heathsville is included on the National Register of Historic Places.  A detailed description of many significant historical aspects of the district is included.

John Heath Historical Marker   (Corner Northumberland Hwy. & Rowe’s Landing Rd.)

In front of Springfield is a Virginia Historical Marker (0-65) honoring John Heath.  Born in 1758 in Northumberland County, Heath attended the College of William and Mary, where he and four classmates founded the Phi Beta Kappa fraternity, of which he became the first president.  He later served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1793-97) while living at Springfield  and later moved to Richmond, where he served on the Council of State and as an advisor to several governors.  Northumberland County Courthouse and its surroundings were renamed Heathsville in 1798 in his honor.  Heath died in 1810.

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