Before 1600, the Chickacoan Indians lived on the peninsula for at least ten thousand years, but everything changed in 1607. After helping to settle Jamestown, Captain John Smith explored the Potomac River, where he was captured and later released by the Chickacoan chief, Powhatan. In 1608 he explored the Rappahannock River. As other settlements began to expand around Jamestown, including Charles City, Elizabeth City, and Henrico, the more distant Northern Neck became a type of reservation for the Chickacoan. For about thirty years after Smith explored the area, no recorded Europeans settled the peninsula.
Jamestown granted the right for some Virginia colonists to settle the island of Kent, in the territory that would soon become Maryland. The Potomac River became Virginia’s northern boundary when the Maryland Charter was established in 1632, and Maryland became a royal colony. Soon Kent Islanders (Virginia colonists who had settled there before the Maryland Charter) found their land confiscated by the new governor, and as oppressed Protestants in Catholic Maryland, returned to Virginia and settled at Coan on the Potomac side of the Northern Neck. John Mottrom left Maryland between 1635 and 1640, sailed south across the Potomac, and settled at the mouth of the Coan River. This colonist is considered to be the first European to settle on the Northern Neck.
In the 1640s and 1650s the nature of life on the Northern Neck changed abruptly. While some natives managed to sell or deed their river lands to white settlers, according to at least one account, some were starved into submission when access to the water and its resources was denied them. The civilized natives, who built huge settlements and cultivated the land of the Northern Neck, were considered savages and were pushed inland into the forests. They were completely driven out of the area, and virtually out of existence.
In 1648 the county of Northumberland was established, and spanned the entire Northern Neck. Lancaster County was created from Northumberland in 1651. In 1656, Old Rappahannock County was organized from Lancaster County. Finally in 1692 Richmond and Essex Counties was formed from Old Rappahannock, which was then eliminated. Richmond was north of the Rappahannock River, and Essex was south. A family living in Richmond County in 1700 may have lived in the same spot since the 1640s, and resided in Northumberland, Lancaster, Old Rappahannock, and Richmond County at one time or another.
The first seventeenth century courts were held at the plantations which began to grow on the shores of the Coan and Corotoman Rivers, and on the Currioman Bay. Meanwhile, land patents and headrights were given to those who transported people to the area (land was patented when royal or public land was first given to individual owners, then owners deeded the land after that). Settling Virginia was heavily marketed in England. Any person who could afford to pay his way to the colony received 50 acres, and if he paid the way for others, he would receive 50 acres for each person. Ship captains made a killing.
There was fraud in those days. Headrights were awarded for multiple trips and intra-colony travel, as well as emigration. Some were awarded for slaves and native servants. Occasionally several people received land for the same headrights. Sheriffs of the county courts dispensed local justice, collected taxes, served as treasurers, and supervised elections. Protection was provided with the earliest form of Neighborhood Watch. The counties were divided into military districts, and “Colonels” commanded the county militias, in which all free men served.
The Anglican Church divided the counties into parishes, and before counties kept records the parish priest maintained vital statistics. Farnham Parish covered Old Rappahannock County, and the administrator of the parish began keeping records in 1662. In 1684 the Parish was divided into North and South Farnham Parishes, separated by the Rappahannock River. So in 1692 North Farnham Parish covered Richmond County and South Farnham covered Essex.
Vast forest lands were cleared for the cultivation of the money crop, tobacco. Some emigrants apprenticed themselves to plantation owners in exchange for eventual land holdings and other property. These indentured servants (and, by the end of the century, slaves), were imported to work the plantations. Within just three decades, settlements and plantations completely replaced the native villages, and the way of life on the Northern Neck was changed forever.
This northernmost peninsula of Virginia became the ancestral homes for some of America’s greatest colonial families: the Washington’s, the Ball’s, the Carter’s, the Gates, the Lees, the Hanks, and many more. Besides the Drapers, related families started their American adventure here, including the Stones, the Mitchells, the Harrisons, and others.