First discovered by European explorers in the early 1600s, officially declared a county by Virginia’s Governor Patrick Henry in the Revolutionary War era, named for the Indian Chief Powhatan, father of the Indian princess Pocahontas and surrounded by historically significant Civil War sites, Powhatan County is steeped in American history.The first Europeans arrived in the area in 1608, when an expedition from the Jamestown colony exploring the James River encountered the local Monacan Indians. Much later, the area would be named after Chief Powhatan, a powerful chief of the Algonquian Indians from the Tidewater region of Virginia and the father of the Indian princess Pocahontas. Nearly 100 years after the Jamestown exploration, French Huguenots came to the area looking to escape religious persecution in Europe. The Huguenots settled along the James River near the site of abandoned Monacan Indian villages at the northern edge of the County. Many descendents of those early arrivals still live in the area.
Powhatan County was formed in 1777 when Governor Patrick Henry and the Virginia General Assembly created a new county from land that was part of three neighboring counties. The original courthouse was built in 1778, and the area was named Scottville to honor a local hero, Brigadier General Charles Scott, who served with George Washington during the Revolution. In 1836, the name of the County seat was changed to Powhatan to avoid confusion with Scottsville, located in nearby Albemarle County. Powhatan is the only county in Virginia to be named for an Indian leader.
During the War Between the States, Powhatan was spared the battles that raged around Richmond, but became significant during the waning days of the Confederacy. After the fall of Richmond retreating Confederate forces passed through the Courthouse area. Robert E. Lee also lived in the County during the summer immediately following the war. Today, there are five sites throughout the County that are part of the Civil War Trails system, bringing tourism to the area.
Several significant educational institutions have been associated with Powhatan. The University of Richmond traces its roots to Powhatan in 1830. Many historically significant homes and churches are found throughout the County, including 17 sites listed on the National or Virginia Historic Registry.
Where the Healing of the American Civil War Began
General Robert E. Lee, after his surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on April 12, 1865 at Appomattox, returned to the rented home where his wife and daughters resided on Franklin St. in Richmond. Broken financially, materially and in poor health, he resided there until the end of June 1865.
June 7, 1865, brought alarming news that he and several other high-ranking Confederates were indicted for treason by a grand jury in Norfolk. The news raced across the nation. The people of the South became enraged over the prospects of a trial. The generous terms of surrender extended by General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox were now in question. The potential of reopening the Civil War was on the horizon, for all Lee needed to do was give the command.
Lee turned to the one man who could help: General Grant. Grant threatened to resign if Lee or any of the paroled prisoners were prosecuted. He further stated that he was “honor bound to protect his paroled prisoners and should do so to the full extent of his power as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army.”
While residing in Richmond, Lee stated that he would like to find “some quiet little home in the woods.” He found that sanctuary in western Powhatan at a little cottage called Derwent, named for a beautiful lake in England. With the threat of treason still lingering, he and his family moved to Powhatan in late June. Through the efforts of Lee’s former enemy, General Grant, the charges of treason were never brought against him.
Derwent represents the beginning of the healing of the Civil War, for it was here that General Lee offered his advice, which became the law of conduct for those residing in the South. At Derwent, Lee wrote to former Virginia Governor John Letcher, “All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of the war and to restore the blessings of peace.” To a naval officer Lee wrote, “...I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country, and the reestablishment of peace and harmony...”
Of the hundreds of Civil War Trails signs that exist, the sign at Powhatan County at Derwent has been referred to by historians as the most noble for Lee’s inspiring words for national healing. From Derwent, Lee stimulated the vision, as well as the desire, for the South to lift itself from the devastation of warfare. Because of the inspiring efforts of General Lee to raise the nation from the ashes of war, Powhatan, where the healing of the American Civil War began, will be forever celebrated as the cradle of rebirth for what would become the greatest nation in the world, the United States of America.