Find a wealth of colonial-era history on the banks of the Dan River and among the surrounding lands in Southside Virginia and Piedmont North Carolina.
English settlers began pushing inland in the early 1700s. The communities of the Dan River Basin took their current shapes in the 18th century, around the time the 13 colonies began to assert their independence from Great Britain.
The boundary line between North Carolina and Virginia was drawn by William Byrd II during a surveying expedition in the 1720s. You can find a historical marker in Henry County near Ridgeway that reads, “William Byrd Pitched His Camp, November, 1728, While Determining The Virginia-North Carolina Boundary Line.”
However, according to Joyce Staples of the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society Board, North Carolina and Virginia lawmakers didn’t officially adopt the boundary until 1790 and 1791, respectively.
Patrick Henry, the patriot and first governor of Virginia, has close ties to the State Crossings region, too. You probably know of Henry from his famous speech in which he proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Henry lived in the State Crossings region for a while, and his name now adorns two Virginia counties in the Dan River Basin.
The Dan River Basin was home to other pieces of colonial history as well, including Nathanael Greene’s Crossing of the Dan during the Revolutionary War, and the establishment of the Carolina Road, or Great Wagon Road, a former American Indian path that became a route for settlers and a predecessor to U.S. 220.
Here find a county-by-county list with local colonial history and detail about the formation of each county:
Caswell County, North Carolina
Caswell County formed from Orange County in 1777. It was named for Richard Caswell, the first and fifth governor of North Carolina, who played a big role in the state’s colonial history.
As a Patriot officer in the Revolutionary War, Caswell led North Carolina militiamen in the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge. In 1780 he became a major general of North Carolina troops.
Caswell County contributed significantly in personnel and material to the war effort, but was only marginally a site of actual combat. After the 1781 Battle of Guilford Courthouse, General Cornwallis brought his British forces through Caswell County in pursuit of a Patriot force across the Dan River. The pursuit stretched Cornwallis’s supply chain so far that it effectively erased his fighting power.
Franklin County, Virginia
Formed in 1785 from parts of Bedford and Henry counties, Franklin County was named for Pennsylvania patriot Benjamin Franklin.
Many historians credit Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam as the English discoverers of the Franklin County area in the 1670s. Batts and Fallam found evidence of another explorer who had passed through Franklin County before them, but they were the first to keep a diary of their journey.
Halifax County, Virginia
Halifax County formed in 1752, and was named for George Montague-Dunk, 2nd Earl of Halifax.
Halifax County became the site of a major moment in colonial history. American General Nathanael Greene executed “The Crossing of the Dan,” a brilliant tactical maneuver there. Luring the British troops far from their supply base in Charleston, South Carolina, the Patriots raced to the Dan River at Irvine’s and Boyd’s ferries on February 1781. Greene’s troops crossed in prepositioned ferries and boats only hours ahead of the British light calvary. The frustrated British retreated to Hillsborough, North Carolina, while Greene used the delay to gather new troops, horses, and needed supplies.
People celebrate the Crossing of the Dan annually at The Prizery in South Boston. There, you can find displays, speakers, and events at the Dan River site, and enjoy lunch afterward. And you can also attend a Meet and Greet dinner on Friday night before the event. Visit the permanent exhibit located on the 3rd floor of the Prizery. This year’s event occurred February 16.
Henry County, Virginia
Lawmakers carved Henry County from Pittsylvania County in 1777. The county was first named Patrick Henry County in honor of Patrick Henry, the first governor of Virginia. He owned a 10,000-acre plantation named Leatherwood Plantation, for Leatherwood Creek. Henry lived at Leatherwood for five years between his third and fourth gubernatorial terms.
Henry County also played an important role in colonial history through its location on the Carolina Road. Beginning in the mid-1700s, the Carolina Road, also known as the Great Wagon Road became the primary corridor for settlers traveling from Pennsylvania to the Carolina backcountry. The Carolina Road followed the path of the Smith River that runs through Henry County to North Carolina.
Patrick County, Virginia
Patrick County formed in 1791 from Henry County. The county’s colonial history pre-dates its official establishment, however. When it was still part of Halifax County, the area was home to one of the Virginia colony’s first frontier forts. Fort Mayo was built on the banks of the North Mayo River. A Virginia state historic marker marks its former location. George Washington once visited Fort Mayo in 1756 during the French and Indian War (1754-1763).
One of Patrick County’s most prominent early settlers was Col. Abraham Penn (sometimes written Abram Penn). Penn led a company under Col. Andrew Lewis at the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774. Then he moved to Beaver Creek Plantation in Henry County. But then he moved a few miles farther west to what is today Patrick County. During the American Revolution, Col. Penn ordered some 300 militiamen under his command to march south to aid General Nathanael Greene at the battle of Guilford Court House. After his death in 1801, Virginia lawmakers named the Abram Penn Highway for him.
Another notable resident of Patrick County in colonial times was William Letcher, a patriot and militiaman who was killed by British loyalists. His grave, the oldest in the county, can be seen in Ararat.
Person County, North Carolina
Person County formed in 1792. It was named after Thomas Person, a patriot and Revolutionary War general.
Person County also connects to the war and colonial history through Lt. Col. Stephen Moore, who was captured and held on the prison ship Torbay. After his release, Moore purchased property in the south of Person County and his plantation Mt. Tirzah (or Mount Beautiful). His home, built in 1778, still stands.
Pittsylvania County, Virginia
Pittsylvania County formed in 1767 from part of Halifax County. It was named for William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1766 to 1768.
In 1777 the western part of Pittsylvania County became Patrick Henry County. In 1777, the county seat moved from Callands community to a more central location to present-day Chatham. Since the change in location occurred during the Revolutionary War, the county delayed new construction until 1782. When it was built, the new, white pillared red-brick courthouse cost 4,000 pounds of tobacco. Today, the Chatham’s town hall stands at the site of the original courthouse on 16 Court Street.
Rockingham County, North Carolina
Rockingham County formed from Guilford County in 1785. The county was named for British Prime Minister Charles Watson-Wentworth, the Marquis de Rockingham, who was Prime Minister during the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765.
Alexander Martin, a New Jersey native who moved south, first to Salisbury and later to what is now Rockingham County, also lived in the region. Martin received a 436-acre grant on the Dan River in 1761 and eventually built his home there. Martin served in the North Carolina House of Commons in 1773 and 1774, and in the second and third provincial congresses in 1775. He was appointed a lieutenant colonel in the 2nd North Carolina Continental Regiment and later joined Washington’s army in 1777. After the Battle of Germantown, he was arrested for cowardice but ultimately acquitted. Martin went on to serve in the North Carolina Senate, as state governor, and as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He served again as governor, as a U.S. Senator, and in the state senate before dying in 1807 at his Rockingham Plantation, known as “Danbury.”
Rockingham County includes a couple of structures related to colonial history. The Penn House, a 12,500-square-foot dwelling in Reidsville, operates as an event venue. The Troublesome Creek Ironworks became the grounds for Nathaniel Greene’s troops in preparation for the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. President George Washington later visited the ironworks to have breakfast with its founders.
Stokes County, North Carolina
Stokes County broke off in 1789 from Surry County. The county was named for John Stokes, a Virginia state militia officer and North Carolina attorney, politician, and judge.
Stokes fought in the Battle of Waxhaws, where the British slaughtered surrendering Patriots. He survived but suffered grave injuries, including a lost finger and numerous gashes on his arm, shoulder and head. A soldier asked if he expected quarter. Stokes answered, “I have not, nor do I mean to ask it; finish me as soon as possible; whereupon the soldier transfixed him twice with his bayonet.”
Stokes suffered as a prisoner until May 1, 1783. Then, seven years later, George Washington appointed John Stokes, on August 2, 1790, to be the first judge of the United States District of Western North Carolina.
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