Election Day is just around the corner. Voters will have the opportunity to select representatives to serve in various local and state government positions. Those elected to serve carry the weight of making decisions that will be beneficial to those they represent. There have been turning points throughout our history that continue to impact our lives today. One of the most significant decisions made by legislators in our area was the decision to create a new county in February 1832.
The story of the creation of Smyth County and the building of a courthouse is explained in great detail by Sally Harris in an article written for the “Virginia Cavalcade” in the Summer 1980 issue. Several elements of our local history are fading as the years pass and are worthy of review.
“Smyth County was formed in 1832 from Washington and Wythe counties. The movement to establish a new county matured in 1831 when citizens of Wythe and Washington counties, tired of traveling long distances to attend sessions of their county’s court, petitioned the General Assembly to form a new county that they believe would be ‘as to wealth, population, and territory, superior to most of the counties in the Commonwealth.’ They argued that the creation of a new county would in no way harm the mother counties and would have the beneficial result of making the courthouse of each county central to its population. The General Assembly agreed with the petitioners and created Smyth County in 1832. Washington County surrendered about one-third of its total area, contributing a larger amount of land than Wythe to the new county.”
So, how was this new county named? Mack Sturgill gave a brief history of the naming of other counties in our area. “Everyone knows that Washington County to our west, established in 1776, was named to honor General George Washington, future president of the United States; that Wythe County to our east, established in 1790, was named for George Wythe, first professor of law at the College of William and Mary, teacher of Jefferson, Monroe, John Marshall, and Henry Clay, and signer of the Declaration of Independence; Grayson County, located south of us, established in 1792, was named for William Grayson, Washington's Aide-de-Camp and revolutionary soldier, who had been educated at the University of Pennsylvania, Oxford University and the Temple in London; Bland County to our northeast, founded in 1861, was named for Richard Bland, graduate of William and Mary and the University of Edinburgh, member of the house of burgesses, who played a leading role in the Revolution, sat in the Continental Congress, etc.; Tazewell County to our north, founded in 1799, was named for the distinguished U. S. Senator Henry Tazewell, graduate of William and Mary, lawyer, elected to the house of burgesses, judge of state supreme court, and lawyer, and that Russell County, was founded in 1786 to honor the memory of General William Russell, Clinch Valley pioneer, Revolutionary soldier, member of the house of Delegates, and second husband of Elizabeth Henry Campbell.
“And now we come to Smyth County and the man for whom it was named. Petitioners desired that the new county be ‘called Smyth in honor and memory of the name of the late General Alexander Smyth whose name it thus becomes us to immortalize.’
“If General Smyth pales in comparison with the distinguished revolutionary soldiers, statesmen, and scholars for whom our neighboring counties were named, why did the citizens of this county wish to honor him by naming the county for him?”
According to Sally Harris’ article, Alexander Smyth was a “distinguished and popular Virginian. Born on the island of Rathlin, in Ireland, in 1765, Smyth had come to Botetourt County, Virginia, in 1775. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1789. After practicing in Abingdon, he moved to Wythe County in 1792 and in the same year was elected to the House of Delegates. Between 1792 and 1827, he was returned to the House for nine terms. Smyth was elected a member of the state Senate in 1808 and served in the War of 1812, attaining the rank of brigadier general. He also served in Congress from March 4, 1817, until March 3, 1825, and from March 4, 1827, until his death on April 17, 1830.”
“It was for his role as a lawyer, a writer, and a statesman that no doubt led those petitioners in 1831, a year after his death, to request that their new county be named Smyth to honor the memory of their beloved representative.”
After selecting a name by which the new county would be called, there remained much business to conduct. One of these decisions was the selection of a county seat and a name for the new town. Up until this time, citizens had been traveling to either Abingdon or Evansville (now Wytheville) to conduct county business and attend court. The duty of selecting a county seat was placed upon a commission of “five persons who were not residents of Smyth County.” These commissioners were chosen from the five neighboring counties. After studying the area, they decided the new county seat would be situated on land owned by William Hume in the Middle Valley near Staley’s Creek. They “defined the boundaries of the town and set off one acre in Hume’s grain fields as the site of the courthouse. The commissioners made a wise choice; there has never been a need to move the courthouse site.
“The courthouse town was named Marion to honor the revolutionary hero, General Francis Marion, who was popularly known as the ‘Swamp Fox.’ According to one tradition, the name was suggested to the commissioners by Freelove Cole Thomas, who lived on the South Fork and in whose home the commissioners spent an evening while deciding on the courthouse site. According to another tradition, the name was suggested by John Jacob Lampe, a member of the commission, who admired General Marion.”
The first county court was made up of 15 justices of the peace, who were appointed by Governor John B. Floyd. These men met in the home of John Thomas at Royal Oak on April 2, 1832, to “choose the officials of the court.” This home is often referred to as the first Smyth County courthouse, even though it was not “in the strictest sense of the term a courthouse.” Court was held in this location for two years, until a building could be completed.
The decisions of these early leaders have had far-reaching effects, just as choices made by our current leaders will last for generations. Every year, we have the opportunity to help direct the future of our community, our state and our country, by thoughtfully selecting leaders who we feel will make the best decisions on our behalf.
The continuing story of Smyth County’s formation will be discussed in the next String of Pearls column. If you have an ancestor who was instrumental in the early history of Smyth County and would like to share their story, I may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.