The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Which County?

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1991

Issue: July, 1991

It took quite a few years for the present day county lines in Virginia to be formed. In the early days, some counties began on the east coast and spread out, open ended, with no definite western boundaries. As time passed and the western end of the state became more densely settled, areas petitioned to become a separate county and were cut off from the existing counties and given new names.

This is a very important factor to remember when you are researching your ancestors. If your ancestor was born in a time period before the present day county line was established, the records concerning your ancestor would be in the courthouse of the previous county. A good example of this is Wythe County.

When Wythe County was formed in 1790, the land itself had already been under five other county names: Orange County established in 1734; Augusta in 1745; Botetourt County was sectioned off in 1770 and in 1772, Fincastle County was established. Fincastle was divided into three counties in 1777, and the land in present day Wythe County became a part of Montgomery County. It is interesting to note that one of the two other counties was Kentucky! Washington County was the third. All of the present day counties we consider to be in Southwest Virginia were split from Montgomery and Washington.

Wythe County came into being in 1790 and was much larger than it is today. In 1793 land was split from Wythe to become Grayson County. (Later Carroll County was split from Grayson in 1842.) Tazewell County was split from Wythe in 1800. (Later Buchanan was split from Tazewell in 1858.) In 1861, a part of the land in Wythe and Giles Counties was split off to become Bland county.

If you follow the dates the counties were formed from existing counties, and match those dates with the dates of your ancestor's birth, marriage, death, etc., you will be able to tell which county courthouse to begin looking for information.

Of course it isn't exactly that simple. There are other factors that will hinder your research, such as instances of county courthouses burning and destroying records with the building. Pulaski County, established in 1839, is one such county where fires have made research difficult.

These tips are merely suggestions for beginners and "old hands" in genealogy research will have been practicing them for years, but we hope the dates we furnished in this article will help you in some way to find what you are hunting for.