Updated March 20, 2021
Although evidence suggests that some form of county government existed in Virginia by 1622, the Commonwealth's present structure of local government was begun in 1634, with the formation of eight shires or counties. These jurisdictions became the units of representation in the colonial legislature. The eight original shires were: Accawmack, Charles City, Charles River, Elizabeth City, Henrico, James City, Warrosquyoake, and Warwick River.
As the population of Virginia grew during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the General Assembly created new counties on the western fringes of the most heavily settled areas, and during the nineteenth century the General Assembly divided some counties into two or three smaller counties for the convenience of the people who lived there. These frequent changes in county boundary lines need to be kept in mind when doing research using public records. It is often stated that a particular Virginia county included all of Virginia to the west of it, and while that is legally true, there were often so few residents far to the west that few or no county records will contain documentary evidence for the region beyond the frontier. Knowledge of settlement patterns and of westward migration is necessary to guide researchers to the record groups that are most likely to contain the information that they need.
Virginia has a unique system of local government in that independent cities are politically and administratively separate from the county or counties in which they are geographically situated. Independent cities operate their own court system. Virginia's towns exercise only limited functions of self-government and are subordinate in most respects to the counties in which they are located. There are currently 39 independent cities in the Commonwealth.
When researching Virginia's GILLIAMs, remember that when a new county was formed, the records of the new county were not moved but stayed in the parent county.
For example, James GILLIAM received the following grant in Halifax County.
James GILLIAM, 94 acs. 7 Aug 1761
Halifax Co. on both sides of Smith’s River & down Bowings Cr., 10 Shill, Whereas by pat 12 Feb. 1755 gtd. William Anglin then in Lunenburgh Co. now Halifax and whereas William Anglin hath failed to pay Quitrents and to make Cultiv. & Improv. And James GILLIAM hath made humble suit and obtained a G. for the same,
Cavaliers and Pioneers, VI, page, 414
However, when James sold the land in 1770, the land then lay in Pittsylvania County.
2 Sep 1770
This indenture made this second day of September in the year of our Lord Christ, one thousand, seven hundred and seventy between
James GILLIAM of County of Cumberland of one part and David Hailey of County of Pittsylvania . . . lying and being in the County of Pittsylvania containing ninety-four acres bounded as followeth to wit: Beginning on north side Smith's River opposite to mouth of Bowings Creek, thence and over the said river as it meanders to a locust tree standing on the north side of the River . . .
Pittsylvania County, Deed Book 2, pages 10-12
Virginia has counties that no longer exist.
They were established by the state, provincial, or territorial government. Most of these counties were created and disbanded in the 19th century; county boundaries have changed little since 1900 in the vast majority of states. These counties need to be looked at when doing genealogy research. Pay close attention where the courthouse records went to if the county was abolished or combined with another county.
- Accawmack County was established in 1634 as a Original Shire. It was renamed to Northampton County in 1642
- Charles River County was established in 1634 as an Original Shire. It was renamed to York County in 1642
- Dunmore County was established in 1772 from Frederick County. It was renamed to Shenandoah County in 1778
- Elizabeth River Shire was established in 1634 as an Original Shire. It was renamed to Elizabeth City County about 1636. In merged into the Independent City of Hampton in 1952.
- Fincastle County was established in 1772 from Botetourt County. It ceased to exist in 1776 when it was divided to form Montgomery County, Washington County, and Kentucky County (now the state of Kentucky). Some Fincastle County genealogy records may be found in the Montgomery County.
- Kentucky County was established in 1777 from Fincastle County. It was abolished when it formed the State of Kentucky in 1780.
- Lower Norfolk County was established in 1637 from New Norfolk County. It was abolished in 1691. Records can be found in the City of Chesapeake
- Nansemond County was established in 1642 from Upper Norfolk County. It was Incorporated as the City of Nansemond in 1972 and merged with the City of Suffolk in 1974.
- New Norfolk County was established in 1636 from Elizabeth City County. It was abolished in 1637 and divided into Lower Norfolk and Upper Norfolk Counties.
- Norfolk County was established in 1691 from Lower Norfolk County. It merged into the Independent City of Chesapeake in 1963.
- Princess Anne County was established in from Lower Norfolk County. It merged into the Independent City of Virginia Beach in 1963.
- Old Rappahannock County was established in 1656 from Lancaster County. It ceased to exist in 1692 when divided to form Essex County and Richmond County. Records located in Essex County.
- Upper Norfolk County was established in 1637 from New Norfolk County. It was renamed to Nansemond County in 1646.
- Warrosquyoake County was established in 1634 as an Original Shire. It was renamed to Isle of Wight County in 1637.
- Warwick River County was established in 1634 as an Original Shire. It was renamed to Warwick County in 1643.
- Warwick County was established in 1643 from Warwick River County. It was abolished in 1952 when it became Independent City of Warwick. In 1958 the City of Warwick merged into the Indepentent City of Newport News.
- Yohogania County was established in 1776 from West Augusta territory. The County was ceded to Pennsylvania in 1785.
- Virginia's Acts of Assembly
- Doran, Michael F. Atlas of County Boundary Changes in Virginia, 1634-1895. Athens, Ga.: Iberian Publishing Co., 1987.
- Salmon, Emily J. and Edward D. C. Campbell, Jr., editors, The Hornbook of Virginia History: A Ready Reference Guide to the Old Dominion, 1994.