March 2005 Newsletter, Surry County, Virginia, Historical Society and Museums, Inc. Surry County Virginia Historical Society and Museums, Inc.
Surry County, Virginia, Historical Society and Museums, Inc.
P. O. Box 262, Surry, VA 23883   Phone (757) 294-0404
E-mail address: [email protected].
Location Map
We are here!
Newsletter and March 2005 Meeting Notice.

Please note that the meeting will be Monday, March 14, 2005, at 7:00 P. M. at the Surry County, Va. Recreation Center.

Our Speaker will be Dorothy Grubbs. Mrs. Grubbs, who spoke to us previously on her memories of Surry County, has developed another program on Surry, going back several generations. Her memory is phenomenal. Do not miss this opportunity to learn more of our past.
How fortunate we are to have our older citizens relate the past for us.

Correction to our Dec. 2004 newsletter. In the article on Rogers' Store open house we spotlighted the wonderful gift by the Bishop family. Unfortunately we spelled the name of their ancestors wrong. In every place we wrote Cornelious, we should have written Corselius Also, on picture #3, it should have read "grandmother Clara Josephine Hays Corselius". We apologize for these errors. We do our best to insure our history is correct.

Presidents report:
In 1949, my grandfather wrote an article in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography about the now-defunct town of Cobham. It was situated on the northeast area of Gray's Creek. This village was the result of a bill passed by the House of Burgesses in June of 1691. It said that each Virginia County set aside fifty acres of land for a town. Storehouses were to be built for products imported to the Virginia Colony as well as tobacco to be exported. Also the act included that the county would sell half-acre lots for its citizens to inhabit the town. The people of Surry decided that the best location for such a town would be at the mouth of Gray's Creek where commerce would be most efficient. This late 17th century community became known as the "Town of Cobham".

Today there is little evidence of the town. At the time my grandfather was living, during the first half of the 20th century, there was one little four-room house that defied the ravages of time. It was finally torn down in 1929.

A. W. Bohannan said that the ex-town of Cobham was mostly farmland. He reports that farmers, while plowing the fields, have run into old foundations, as well as finding locks, broken china, and even a long-barreled pistol.

This town of Cobham had its heyday during the 18th and early 19th centuries. The population of the town of Cobham is not known but since it was required that the landowner build a house on his half-acre lot, it had to be significant. This vintage village had warehouses, stores and maybe more than one ordinary. Cobham became an important port since Jamestown slowly was being abandoned in favor of Williamsburg.

Today, the name Cobham is still used for a magisterial district as well as the abandoned wharf between the original land tracts of Pleasant Point and Cedarfields.

The Surry County Historical Society is planning to reprint A. W. Bohannan's twenty-page article about the Old Town of Cobham, which we hope will be available before the Jamestown 2007 Commemoration.
Bo Bohannan

Bylaws Amendment: The Surry County Historical Society Board of Directors, at their regular meeting on February 14, 2005, voted to present to the membership an amendment to Article V, Section 4. Quorums. The section recommended to be changed reads as approved when we organized: "Ten percent of the members of the Corporation, including at least two officers, present at any regularly scheduled or duly called meeting of the membership shall constitute a quorum."

The board recommends changing the words" ten percent of the members" to "twenty-five members."

When the Society organized, we never dreamed we would have 500-600 members, scattered over around 40 states. Many can never get to our meetings. While we have not yet had a meeting without a quorum, we have come close several times. Bad weather or bad timing could jeopardize our ability to conduct business.

This bylaw change will be presented to our membership for approval at our May 9, 2005 meeting.

Murder in Surry County
by James Atkins

This is the most difficult article I have ever written for our newsletter. There were no winners. It was all ugly. It touches on the worst of our history. Yet it needs to brought forth. First, newspaper articles. JEA
The Daily Express, Petersburg, Va. Saturday morning, June 19,1858.

BRUTAL MURDER IN SURRY COUNTY- One of the most brutal and at the same time mysterious murders it has ever been our duty to record, was committed in Surry county, on Wednesday night last, the 13th inst[ant], at once depriving society of an admirable and worthy citizen, and a large family of a devoted father and protector. The victim was Mr. John W. Watkins, formerly a resident of this city, but for many years a successful farmer on his beautiful estate in Surry known as "Chestnut Farm" situated immediately on James River and about four miles from the county Courthouse.

About six o'clock on the above evening, Mr. Watkins set out on a walk around the farm. Remaining away unusually long, servants were sent out to look for him, but returned without having seen him: upon which apprehensions were entertained by his family that he had encountered some accident, and more particular search was instituted. The farm and vicinity were scoured in every direction, and several hours employed as useless labor: but at length, about 10 o'clock the body of the unfortunate man was found in a low ravine, some distance from the house, dreadfully beaten and disfigured.

His hat and cravat were missing, his coat and trousers jagged and muddied and covered with blood and dirt, had around his waist a rope was found tied, by which he had been dragged into the ravine. In this condition he was permitted to remain until morning, attended by a watch, when a jury was summoned, and an inquest held upon the view of the body. He was then carried home, where but a few hours before he had mingled with his family in all the pride of health and strength and unconscious of a single enemy among his fellow men.

As yet, not the slightest clue has been ascertained to the solution of the mystery. Being an invariably kind master, none of his servants are suspected, nor is any person known in the county with whom the deceased bore hostile relations. It is suggested that being a magistrate of the county, some criminal offender, who may have received Justice at his hands, might have been guilty of this deed, but the supposition is unsupported by any evidence whatsoever.

While Mr. Watkins resided in this city, he was known as a prominent tobacco merchant, and was originally from Amelia. He was at the time of decease about forty five years of age, leaving a wife and six young children.


The Richmond Christian Advocate, by Lizzie Lee, June 25,1858.

The late John W. Watkins of Surry Co. Virginia.

No human language will express the mingled sensations of grief, horror and indignation, excited in many minds by the murder of this excellent member "the Church of Christ". The preachers and their wives in which he manifested so deep an interest, and who has spent so many happy hours at his hospitable home, who have been cheered by his kindness and edified by his piety, as well as his neighbors who knew him as one of the best citizens, and a remarkably kind and lenient master, are all astonished beyond measure at this dispensation of Divine providence. But above all, his bereaved wife and six interesting children, who have lost by this awful stroke their chief earthly friend, a kind, indulgent husband and a loving father, are at a loss to understand why this terrible calamity should have been suffered to befall them. For if the very hairs of our heads are all numbered, and not a sparrow can fall to the ground without our Heavenly Father's knowledge, this deeply distressing event has not taken place without his permission, and hard as is the task, we must bow to the stroke, knowing that the lord reigneth, and that in the "great" day of accounts he will make plain to our understanding this and every other dispensation of his providence.

While we stand aghast at the horrible spectacle that is presented to our minds, and are bewildered by the thoughts that crowd upon us, our eyes almost blinded by tears, our hearts are comforted and soothed by the contemplation of his many virtues, which shone with so much brightness in his lovely Christian character. Even now, while I write these lines, I think I can see our dear departed brother, as I have often seen him, bowing to meekest attitude at the family altar, or in the house of god, or raising his voice to praise our great Creator. He was a humble Christian; indeed, I think humility was the most prominent feature in his character, and yet he did not shrink from the active duties of a Christian and a steward to the church of which he had been a consistent member from his youth. In the bosum of his own beloved family, by his own hearthstone, his deep religious life was most clearly seen.

It rejoices our hearts to know, that though in his last moments he was called to endure such painful suffering, even his murderers inform us that they were spent in prayer. Like Stephen, he died calling upon God.

And we doubt not that God whom he had served for so many years, was near him in that last trying hour, strengthening him for the conflict with the last enemy. And Jesus, our dear Saviour was there. And as the spirit which panted for higher and closer communion with God, sprang, forever free from the body which had so long confined it, angels took it safely and triumphantly within the pearly gates of the New Jerusalem. And now, while his weeping family and friends are mourning his departure, and refuse to be comforted, his glorified soul is bathing in the sea of eternal rest and peace before the throne of God.

Other documents relating to the time following the crime.

Travis W. Taylor of Surry County was appointed as administrator of John W. Watkins's estate. He continued to administer the estate for many years. The Surry County, Virginia Historical Society is fortunate to have a large collection of Travis W. Taylor's papers . The Thad Williams Collection of loose papers of Travis W. Taylor, administrator of the estate, gives the Society much information and insight into this terrible death.
There was great fear, apprehension and terror in Surry County as the result of this murder. Despite intense and widespread searching, the murderer was never found. Soon slaves were suspected of this crime and actions taken against them, with apparently no evidence.

The following invoice was paid by the estate of John W. Watkins
1858 The Estate of Jno. W. Watkins decd.
To the jailor of Surry County
July 24th To committing Isaac and Cato slavesby order of Court. .50
Oct. 5th To dietting [Hard?] Isaac and Cato to date 40 days each @ 35C per day28.50
Sept. 28th To committing Drew a slave for safekeeping to jail. .20
Oct. 5th To dietting [Sand??] Drew to date 8 days @35c 2 .80
Oct. 5th to releasing Isaac, Cato and Drew from jail .75
June 21st to committing Anna on susp. of murder to jail .25
June 29th dieting said slave to date 8 days @.35 2 .80
June 29th to releasing said slave from Jail .25
Dec 9th th 1858 $35 .60
Recd payment of T. W. Taylor admns
of Jno. W. Watkins decd.

The following Surry County Court Order was issued:

In Surry County Court 27th September 1858.

On motion of Travis W. Taylor administrator of John W. Watkins, deceased at the insistance of Mrs. Susan E. Watkins the court doth order that said administrator make sale of slaves Isaac Catoe and Drew, belonging to said decedents estate, said slaves being of notorious bad character and that the proceeds of sales of said slaves be by said administrator in certificate of debt of the State of Virginia.

A copy Teste

Wm. G. Underwood

Fear soon was overtaken by terror, and the Watkins family fled Chestnut Farm. Supposedly they moved to Richmond, Va. From the Thad Williams Collection we have the following invoice.

Carters Wharf Surry County Va. June 17th 1858.
Estate of John W. Watkins Dr
1858To Wm. Carter
June 17,to wharfage of negro Riddick to boat .25
3rdDo Do wife and 6 children to boat .75
"Do Do 2 maids to boat .50
"Do storage of 1 hogshead bacon .50

1859 feb. 28th Paid in full of Mr Travis W. Taylor adm in full[?]
I @ same[?]
Jno. Wm Carter[?]

Soon more slaves from the estate of John W. Watkins were sold. From the Thad Williams collection we have an invoice from Pulliam & Betts, notorious and well known slave auctioneers in Richmond, Va. Six slaves were sold, two to known slave merchants Jones & Buchannan. Likely they were sold further south to the cotton or sugarcane raising areas. Laws at that time demanded the sale of assets [including slaves] to pay bills and administrative cost of handling John W. Watkins estate.

Thus there were six more victims of this tragedy. Where were they sold to? Do their descendants today even know of their roots in Surry County? Can they be traced?
sale sheet

  Sales Made By Pulliam & Betts
  on account of T. W. Taylor adm. of Jno W Watkins    
1 Boy Emanuel, to John Frazer $1000.00
1 Do John to N M Lee$1045.00
1 Girl, Virginia to Jones & Buchannan$ 975.00
1 Woman & Boy Alonzo to Hoyt$ 605.00
1 Girl Sally Ann to Jones & Buchannan$1195.00  4820
  Wagon hire from the boat$       .75
  Board on 6 Negroes$      3.00
  Clothing on 6 Negroes$    29.25
  Commission 2 per cent$    96.40    129.0
  Nett proceeds paid T. H. Taylor. $4690  
Richmond Decr. 2d 1858
Pulliam & Betts

Information from Surry County Deed Book l4, pages 255 through 257, dated 2 January 1860 gives the disposal of Chestnut Farm. First is a deed between Susan E. Watkins, party of the first part and Franklin Davis and Benjamin Wilson, parties of the second part. It sold Chestnut farm for $8,000.00, apparently for cash, as part of the estate of Mr. John W. Watkins. Excluded was 1/2 acre for a graveyard. Apparently John W. Watkins was buried there. We think we know its location.

Second, on the same date, apparently Wm. C. Jones bought the farm for $6,000.00, with a note for $1000.00 for six years. Of interest is the fact that Travis W. Taylor, administrator of the estate, does not appear on any of the deeds. Perhaps we need to search further to determine if John W. Watkins had interest in the property, or if it was jointly held with his wife.

The above facts shows that it is likely Susan E. Watkins did not move back to Chestnut Farm. It is likely she stayed in Richmond, Va.. We know she did not move to Petersburg, as her children were boarded while in school there.

The estate was kept open through January 1, 1867, likely because of the six minor children involved. There are many records of his caring for slaves from the estate through 1864.

An invoice for June-Aug. 1858 from Dr. A. S. Edwards documents 14 medical visits. Most were for slaves and their children. One of note was a visit to Cato on August 20, 1858 while he was in jail. Why? The invoice for these visits, dated Dec. 1, 1858 was for $58.00.

Another invoice dated July 6, 1863 paid $46.80 for medical services to slaves by J. B. Southall.

The estate also paid others to keep slaves who could not take care of themselves. There are a number of invoices similar to the one below.

T. W. Taylor Admr. of J. W. Watkins Decd to J. J. Mcalister

To keeping negro woman Pishey and four children for the year 1864 $50.00
To amount paid by me to midwife

I recd. Payment of T. W. Taylor admr of J. W. Watkins decd

John J. Mcalister

It befell the estate to pay for education of the Watkins children. Invoices dated Aug. 13, 1862 and 1864 show room, board, tuition, books and music for the children in Petersburg, Va.

Of note is the fact that schools continued to operate through most of the Civil War. Impressions were that by 1864, southside Virginia had hunkered down and little or no public services were available. Obviously this was incorrect.

The final accounting of the Estate was Jan. 1, 1867. The estate's remaining assets were valued at $520.82 plus $244.38 of Confederate money, valued at $4.50. This was accepted by W. G. Underwood and Henry G. Watkins, likely a son of J. W. Watkins.

  1. This horrible event was murder, pure and simple.
  2. All records available give no closure. The murderer was never found or identified.
  3. Perceptions by those writing the records were that the murder was committed by a black. There was no evidence found.
  4. Similar to the actions after the Southampton Insurrection, slaves and free blacks in Surry county suffered from this murder. There were night riders, arrests and the sale of slaves, taking them away from Surry County. A number were sold to pay the expenses of the estate.
  5. Evidence shows that remaining slaves were well taken care of. Medical care was evident, and slaves not able to take care of themselves were cared for.
  6. The estate was kept open eight and one half years, until Jan 1, 1867. This was likely because of the six minor children whose rights had to be protected. Considerable money was spent educating the children.
  7. Complicating the handling of the estate was the Civil War. Travis W. Taylor was the first war-time captain and commander of Company 'G', 13th Virginia Cavalry Regiment, until his resignation in 1862. From many examples, he acted as agent for selling Confederate uniforms to soldiers.
  8. Chestnut farm was sold well before the Civil War. This probably meant that the cash, apparently $8,000.00 was in US dollars. This possibly could have meant much more value during the years after the death of Mr. John W. Watkins. We do not know how the money was handled.
  9. Complicating the handling of this estate was the money used. When the estate was opened in 1858, US Dollars were used. After the Civil War started, Confederate Dollars were used. When the war was lost by the South, Confederate money was valueless and US Dollars again was money of the realm. How did Susan E. Watkins handle the funds from the sale of Chestnut Farms? How did Travis W. Taylor handle the assets of the estate to ensure its value was maintained throughout these monumental changes in our economy?
  10. This was a tragedy for everyone involved. There were no winners, only losers. There were a few rays of hope for society. Let's hope we have learned something from this tragedy.
Footnote: If anyone has additional information or corrections to this article, it is welcome.
James E. Atkins

"New Design" Revisited

Considerable new information has surfaced on "New Design". Several Society members have contacted me with information on "New Design". In addition, I have talked with a number of our elder citizens and Society members who grew up in the area. They have the approximate ages of 98, 88, 86 and down to approximately 76. Their collective memory adds to the information given in our Dec. 2004 newsletter. We are closing in on the beginnings of "New Design".

The location: It is nearly 100% certain that the Rt. 615 - Rt. 616 is the location of "New Design".

First, it is miles closer to The Birch-Island Bridge than the other site, and was its voting precinct.

Second, it is much closer to the "new bridge" across the Blackwater River that was to be built in 1852. This bridge on Rt. 603 [Camera Road] , goes towards Spring Hill Mill Pond in Sussex County. It is called New Bridge or Three Bridges.

Incidentally, the bridge has apparently been moved from its original location. John N. Ramey platted his farm [Bowling Green] on Camera Road [Rt. 603] in 1884, 32 years after the new bridge was to be built. It shows the road going by his yard and back through the woods to the Blackwater Swamp. It shows [new road] approximately where the road from [New Design] likely would have run. It clearly shows [New bridge] upstream perhaps a mile or more from its present location. Old Timers, now deceased, have told me they remembered the remains of a bridge in this area.

Third, there are memories by several people of the remains of a long, single-story frame house in the field west of Rt. 615 before it turns right to Dendron at Rt. 616. It is highly likely the "New Design".

Early homes in Surry County before 1800 were very predictably one of three designs:

  1. Slaves, sharecroppers and the poorest farmers usually had a small one story house of two rooms, perhaps a small hall and a garret in the attic for sleeping. Few exist today.
  2. Next were story and a half homes, sometimes with a basement. Most were frame with a few of brick construction. Some had dormer windows in the high pitched roof. These homes were fairly standard for early successful but often not particularly wealthy citizens. Some exist today.
  3. Next were two story homes, of brick or frame construction. Generally there were two rooms or more up and down with a sizeable center hall. Some had basements, and often rear additions were made. Quite a number of examples exist today.
I can remember no examples of early large one story homes in Surry County. This design would have been unique. If you go south to eastern South Carolina you see many homes of this design. They commonly built large one story homes, well above ground level with large porches, sometimes on three sides. These homes supposedly provided better ventilation and were considered healthier.

Such a design would have been unique in Surry County. The sketch at the end of this newsletter is a composite of the memories of those "old timers" that I talked to. The house existed until around 1950. Memories are of it being very dilapidated and run down. H. B. Holdsworth remembered that a truck missed the turn towards Carsley and hit the front porch, collapsing part of it on the truck.

John Stiles is first named in records mentioning the "New Design" in 1800. Society member Fay Savedge searched the book, Heads of Families - Virginia, 1782. He was found in Mongohelia County in 1782, Chesterfield County in 1783 and Surry County 1784, on the list of James Kee and Lemuel Cooke.

She also searched Lyndon Hart's Wills, Administrations, Estate Accounts, Etc, Surry County, Va. 1730 -1800. It shows him as witness of the will of William Rose of Surry County, dated 16 March 1797, and appraiser of his estate on 28 October 1798.
It also shows him as appraiser of the estate of Perry Jordan on 15 July 1797.

Thus, John Stiles is firmly placed in Surry County at the time of first mentions of "New Design".


Sketch of "New Design"

We are sorry to announce the death of Rebecca Wilkins Rogers of Onancock, Virginia, on February 5, 2005. She and her son, Johnny Rogers, donated Rogers' Store at Carsley to our Society. Watt Rogers, who started the store ca. 1870, was Johnny Rogers' great grandfather.

New reprint: Old Homes in Surry and Sussex. This book by Mary A. Stephenson was published in 1942. It has been out of print for decades. Recently the few copies available for resale have brought over $150.00. It has been reprinted as a gift to the Sussex County Historical Society. This is your opportunity to get a reprint, with some revisions and corrections. Homes since 1942 that have disappeared or moved are noted. The Society is pleased to have this book available to our members and friends. Order it below at the BOOKS page!
Books2 We have many Surry BOOKS for sale. Most of them cannot be gotten anywhere else!
Take a look at the BOOKS Page!

Keep your Dues up to date. If your newsletter name label shows a date earlier than 3/05, it is time to renew your dues.      Support Your Society!
Membership information and application form.

Pages updated 20 May 2019. © Surry County, Virginia, Historical Society and Museums, Inc.   Contact Webmaster