Political Origins of Grayson County and Government
Table of Contents
Grayson County, Virginia was authorized on November 7, 1792, but was not formally organized in 1793. It was named for William Grayson, who had served in The Continental Congress from 1784-1787 and was one of Virginia’s first two United States Senators. The first permanent county seat was established at Old Town, in the eastern end of the present county. It was known, at the time, as Greenville, or Grayson Court House. When Carroll County was formed from the eastern district of Grayson in 1842, a debate ensued about where to locate the court house, there being a general concensus that a more centralized location was necessary. Independence was chosen in 1851 and has been the county seat since that time.
The law establishing Grayson County was passed by the Virginia General Assembly on November 7, 1792. This act reads1:
An act for dividing the county of Wythe.
Sect. I. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That from and after the first day of May next, all that part of the county of Wythe, within the following bounds, to wit: Beginning in Washington line, where it joins the Iron mountain, thence along the said mountain to a spur of the same, that forms Ewing’s mountain, keeping the ridge that divides the waters of Cripple and Bush creeks to the top of the said mountain; thence a straight course to the Poplar Camp mountain by Rose’s mill; thence to the mouth of Greasy creek; thence a straight course to Montgomery line, shall form one distinct county, and be called and known by the name of Grayson.
Sect. 2. A court for the said county of Grayson, shall be held by the justices thereof on the third Tuesday in every month after the same shall take place, in like manner as is provided by law for other counties, and shall be by their commission directed.
Sect. 3. The governor with advice of the council, shall appoint a person to be sheriff of the said county, who shall continue in office during the term, and upon the same conditions as are appointed by law for other sheriffs.
Sect. 4. The justices to be named in the commission of the peace for the said county ofGrayson, shall meet at the house of William Bouran, in the said county, upon the first court day after the same shall take place, and having taken the oaths prescribed by law, and administered the oath of office to, and taken bond of the sheriff according to law, proceeded to appoint and qualify a clerk, and fix upon a place for holding courts in the said county, at or as near the center thereof, as the situation and convenience will admit, and thenceforth the said court shall proceed to erect the necessary public buildings at such place, and until such buildings be completed to appoint any place, as they shall think proper. Provided always, that the appointment of a place for holding courts, and of a clerk, shall not be made unless a majority of the justices of the county shall be present; where such majority shall have been prevented from attending by bad weather, or their being at the time out of the county, in such cases the appointment shall be postponed until some court day when a majority shall be present. Provided also, that it shall be lawful for the sheriff of the said county of Wythe, to collect and make distress for any public dues or officers of, at the time the said county of Grayson takes place, and shall be accountable for the same in like manner as if this act had not been made.
Sect. 5. The court of the said county of Wythe shall have jurisdiction of all actions and suits, which are depending before them at the time the said county of Grayson shall take place, and shall try and determine the same, and award the execution thereon.
Sect. 6. The said county of Grayson shall be included in the district with the said county of Wythe for a court is to be holden at Washington courthouse. In all future elections of a senate, the said county of Grayson shall be of the same district as the county of Wythe.
A part of Patrick County was annexed to Grayson in 1810, this territory, all below the crest of the Blue Ridge, was in what became Carroll County in 1842. Division between Graysonand Carroll County occurred in 1842 primarily at the instigation of John Carroll, a member of the legislature from Grayson County, but who lived in the territory which became Carroll.
The Upper New River Valley territory was also subject to some other claims and schemes. In 1784 the North Carolina ceded its western territory to the national government, but soon withdrew the offer. The Confederal government pressured the states to cede their western territories to the central government to pay for the debts incurred from the Revolutionary War. Leaders in what is now Upper East Tennessee jumped on the chance to form their own government and soon organized the State of Franklin. The North Carolina legislature was vague in setting the eastern border of the ceded territory, but it was generally assumed to be the Crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hope that North Carolina will cede all beyond the meridian of the Kanawha, and Virginia also.”2 Despite its cession, North Carolina’s legislature soon revoked to act, before the Confederal government had the opportunity to accept the cession. Leaders on the Holston River organized a government and hoped to be recognized by the National Government.
William Campbell, of Washington County, Virginia, was enamoured with the Franklinites and desired to separate the southwest portion of the Old Dominion and join Franklin. Boundaries proposed for Greater Franklin were described as:
State to the South will include the inhabitants on the heads of Kanawha and Cherokee [Tennessee] rivers, to be bounded by a line extended due South from that part of Cumberland river where the meridian line drawn from the mouth of Salt river will touch it, until it reaches Elk river, down that river to the Tenasee, thence South [easterly] to the top of Appalachian mountain, eastwardly along same to a point from whence a north line extended would meet the Kanawha at the mouth of Little river near Ingles’ Ferry; and down that river to the Ronceverte [Greenbriar], westwardly along the boundary as abouve described for the Kentucky Country.3
As can be plainly discerned the proposed Greater Franklin plan included Washington and Montgomery Counties in Virginia, which of course would have included present day GraysonCounty. Despite widespread support in the Campbell faction of Washington County, little support was garnered for the idea in the Virginia legislature or in what was then Montgomery County. The Franklin movement had its own problems within the territory which it ruled. The Franklinites, however, set up a government, based on the North Carolina constitution of 1776. On of the acts of the Franklin legislature, dated March 31, 1785 effected the Upper New River Valley south of 36ø30′:
An act for erecting a part of Washington county and that part of Wilkes lying west of the extreme heights of the Appalachian or Alleghany mountains, into a separate and distinct county by the name of Wayne.4
This law created a county named after General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, which included what is currently Ashe, Alleghany and Watauga County, North Carolina as well as Johnson and Carter County, Tennessee.5 This territory had an estimated population, in 1785 of 1700.6The law did not direct the establishment of county courts or a place for holding court sessions, and information on Wayne County, State of Franklin is almost non-existent. No one, other than the State of Franklin, recognized Wayne County, and as is evidenced by the land record books and court records of Wilkes County, the majority of the resident of the Upper New River Valley continued to recognize Wilkes County as their legitmate local government.
The notion of a State of Franklin did not die in 1789, when North Carolina reestablished control over its western territory. In the early 1840s East Tennesseans attempted to revive the State of Franklin, and went so far as to propose the division of Tennessee into three separate states, Franklin in the east, Tennessee in the central and Jacksoniana in the west. Although the proposal never came to fruition, the legislature did direct the governor of Tennessee to open correspondence with the governments of Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia about the cession of their mountain territories to form a state of Appalachia, an idea which still appeals to many intellectuals and others in the region.7 The Franklin movement’s last strong hurrah occurred during the Civil War, when Unionist of East Tennessee petitioned the state legislature for the right of self determination, which would have resulted in a state similar to West Virginia.8 It is hard to understand how this did not come about.
The local political power base in Virginia as well as in North Carolina was vested in a body of men collectively known as the Justices of the Peace. A total of 44 men served as Justices of the Peace in Grayson’s County’s first 20 years of existence.9 In Virginia these Justices formed the County Court, which exercised executive, legislative and judicial power. The Justices of the Peace after Independence were usually those or the descendants of those who had supported the Colonial cause. As was discussed in the previous section the Whigs were a privileged class, firmly entrenched prior to the Revolution. The notion of separation of powers was reserved, in their minds, to higher political organisms than the county. To understand the function of the Justices and the county courts various quotes are presented below for understanding.
From Henning’s Justice, 3rd Edition, 1820 the following information on the function of the Justices of the Peace has been gleaned:
The term ‘Justice of the Peace,’ though familiar in England long before the settlement of Virginia, was not introduced into the laws of the colony until the year 1661. From the earliest period of our settlement (in 1607) to the year 1629, ‘commanders of plantations’ are alone mentioned in our laws, as persons authorized to exercise civil jurisdiction. They also possessed the supreme military command of the settlement. A commission expressing their powers and jurisdiction may been seen in the 1st vol. of the Statutes at Large, page 181. In the year 1629, ‘commissioners of monthly courts’ were appointed by commission from the governor, and had jurisdiction in civil cases and petty offenses only. In 1632, similar commissions issued to different parts of the colony, styling the persons appointed ‘commissioners,’ or the places to which they were assigned; and after specifying their jurisdiction, in matters civil and criminal, they were moreover empowered ‘to do and execute whatever a justice of the peace or two or more justices of the peace might do,’ according to the laws of England. The term ‘commissioners’ was, however, generally used in our ancient statutes, till by degrees that of ‘Justice of the Peace’ was adopted.10
The 15th Article of the Virginia Constitution of June 1776 provided:
The governor, with the advice of the privy council, shall appoint justices of the peace for the counties; and in case of vacancies, or a necessity of increasing the number hereafter, such appointments to be made upon the recommendation of the respective county courts.
This last entry clearly shows that the Justices of the Peace were a self-perpetuating body of men with little or no accountability, in reality, to the population of their respective counties. If a Justice of the Peace qualified to hold the office, it was usually for life. A Justice theoretically could be removed from office, by the Governor, however, no instance of it has been found in the Upper New River Valley.
The Calendar of State Papers has the following item:
His Excellency Henry Lee, Esq., Gov. of Va.:
We take the liberty to recommend to you and the honorable councill of state Phillip Gaines of Grayson, as a fit person to act as first Sheriff of that County. That Gentleman has acted as Deputy to the Sheriff of Wythe, in the past of the last named County, which is now struck off, to the great satisfaction of the people, and is well qualified (in our opinions) for the office.
We have the honor to be, Your Excellency’s H’ble Serv’ts.
To his Excellency the Governor of Virginia and the honorable council of state:
The Representatives of Wythe County take the liberty of recommending as proper persons to fill the office of Justice of the Peace for the County of Grayson, Minitree Jones, Enock Osborne, Flower Swift, William Boram, Nathaniel Pope, Matthew Dickey, Lewis Hale & Moses Foley. The three first named are already in the commission for Wythe, but by the division fall into Grayson. We conceive it best not at first to fill the commission too full. If more are found necessary, the court will be best able to recommend the most worthy.
We are your most ob’t H’ble Serv’ts. Wm. Calfee A. Smythe
Nov. 28, 1792.11
A county’s Justices of the Peace chose from among them five men to sit as the county court, which exercised dictatorial powers over the population, however, this was not widely perceived as such, and the powers were generally benevolently used. The reason for this rested in the fact that these men lived in the same communities as their “subjects.” It does, however, seem to be a fallacy, that they were the same as their “subjects.” The justices of the peace invariable were the wealthier citizens and may have had no concept of how difficult their tax assessments were to pay for the common man. The Justices and County Court also used their power to increase their own personal wealth. For example, William Bourn, proprietor of Point Hope Furnace, ensured roads were built and maintained to his furnace, while other iron forges were in existence at the same time, the same care was not made to ensure transportation was available to those forges.12
All Justices of the Peace were the only persons in a county eligible to vote for the high sheriff and clerk of court. These two positions were potentially the source of some abuse of power. Though no abuse was found to have occurred, the same men controlled the record keeping of the county, and it is not surprising. One case of abuse was brought against a constable in 1809 by a laborer. While the merits of the case are unrecorded, the constable retained his position.
Voting in the Upper New River valley was governed by the laws of the respective states. At the close of the American Revolution, voting was limited to white males over 21 who had to meet a host of property requirements. The idea of American Liberty was limited to free white men, and really was no different from voting requirements in England, making the notion of American Liberty the cause of the Revolution extremely absurd. The Revolution was a struggle for liberty for the privileged, not the common man or woman for that matter. In Virginia the voting requirements gradually liberalized and by the eve of the American Civil War, Virginia had enfranchised all white males over 21 years of age. During the same period British liberty out paced that in its former American colonies (e.g., elimination slavery in the Empire in 1833), the key difference in the American and British systems is that Privilege in the British system is open acknowledged, while in America a fact, but a fact roundly denied.
The Virginia Upper New River Valley was represented by Arthur Campbell (1743- 1811) at the constitutional convention of 1776. Campbell was taken by Shawnee Indians in 1757 and held in Great Lakes area, escaping in 1759. This explains his latent hostility toward Indians manifested in the Cherokee wars during and immediately following the Revolution. He was a prime mover in the establishment of Washington County in 1777 and served in the Virginia General Assembly in 1776, 1778, 1782-3 and 1786-8. He advocated separation of Washington County and other parts of Southwest Virginia’s frontier from Virginia and merging with the State of Franklin. He was condemned for treason for this position, but his advocacy of geographically common areas being included in the same political organizations would have been greatly beneficial to the power of the Western Virginia Gentry and perhaps the common folk.13
The Virginia Bill of Rights declared, “that all men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to the community, have the right of suffrage.”14 This was interpreted by the legislature as requiring some type of permanency to settled. To settled the issue in 1785 an act of the Virginia Legislature specified the qualifications of voters in the Old Dominion:
Every white male citizen, aged twenty-one years, being possessed of twenty-five acres of land with a house, the superficial content of the foundation whereof is twelve feet square, or equal to that quantity, and a plantation thereon, or fifty acres of unimproved land, or a lot or part of a lot of land in a City or Town with a house thereon, Any Elector qualified according to this Act, failing to attend any annual election of Delegates or of a Senator, and if a poll be taken, to give or offer to give his vote, shall pay one- fourth of his portion of all such levies and taxes as shall be assessed and living in this County the ensuing year…15
You will note that this act required a person to vote, a notion alien in modern society. Voting was also open by voice, there was no secret ballot. The voice voting invariably caused many altercations, some ending in death, on election day. This method tended to perpetuate the ruling class of the area as well. It would be difficult, if not impossible to vote against those, or those supported, by the Justices of the Peace, who had enormous power over the local population. This type system endured until the Constitutional Convention of 1851 radically altered the Commonwealth’s constitution and severely limited the power of the justices and made them directly accountable to the voters of the county. This same Constitutional Convention granted universal white males over 21, and eliminated property requirements.
Thomas Jefferson, framer of many of notions of liberty, was of the opinion that the constitution of 1776 was a short measure to an emergency and should have been redrafted when independence was secured. Tidewater Virginia planters were, however, in control of the Virginia legislature and the issue was effectively squelched until 1851. Some of the delegates to the constitutional convention of 1830 from Western Virginia advocated allocation of delegates to the general assembly based solely on white population. Eastern Virginia prevailed and representation continued to be based on total population, which in some counties like Warrick, was largely slave. The prevailing concern was that Warrick county’s approximately 100 freeholders had as much political representation as did Loudon County’s 1500. Jefferson and others advocated that good citizenship should be the only prerequisite for voting.16
The 1830 Constitution of Virginia provided the following for the composition of the General Assembly:
The House of Delegates shall consist of  members, to be chosen annually for and by the several counties. The  counties lying west of the Alleghany mountains to have 31 delegates; (Grayson County was entitled to one).
The other house of the general assembly shall be called the senate, and shall consist of thirty two members, of whom  shall be chosen for and by the counties lying west of the Blue Ridge of mountains.
The counties of Tazewell, Wythe and Grayson shall form a district…
Members of the house of delegates must have attained the age of twenty-five years, and members of the senate, thirty years.
Ministers of the gospel and priests of every denomination shall be incapable of being elected members of either house of assembly.17
There was no “one man-one vote” rule in effect at the time, and proportional power was maintained by the planter class in tidewater Virginia. Separation of Church and State remained an on-going concern of the Virginia power-brokers of the era.
The 1830 Virginia Constitution18 changed the qualifications for voting and provided for other offices as follows:
The voter must be possessed of freehold in land of the value of twenty-five dollars, (still about 25 acres), the evidence of title to which must have been recorded two months before he shall offer to vote, and every such citizen who shall own and he himself in actual occupation of a leasehold estate, with the evidence of title recorded two months before he shall offer to vote. The term of the leasehold must not be less than five years, and the annual value or rent of twenty dollars; and must be a housekeeper and head of a family within the county or election district, and shall have been assessed and paid taxes within the preceding year.
In all elections the vote shall be given openly and not by ballot.
The Governor is to be elected by the joint vote of the two houses of the general assembly. He shall hold office for a term of three years….
There shall be a council of state, to consist of three members any one or more of whom may act. They shall be elected by joint vote of both houses of the general assembly, and remain in office three years…19
Grayson County’s delegate to the constitutional convention of 1830 was William Oglesby (1785-1866). Oglesby was a Lutheran merchant, in business with the Nuckolls family, owned 307 acres of land, 11 slaves, 5 horses. His business dealings resulted in his being one of the most prosperous members of the Grayson Gentry. He also served in the House of Delegates in 1838-39.20
From the Amended Constitution of Virginia of 1851 the following has been abstracted:
Every white male of the commonwealth of the age of twenty-one years, who has been a resident of the state for two years, and of the county, city or town where he offers to vote for twelve months next preceding an election — and no other person — shall be qualified to vote for members of the general assembly and all officers elected by the people,… There is excluded, however, from this provision of universal male suffrage, the pauper, those of unsound mind and those who have been convicted of bribery in an election, or of any infamous offense.”
The governor shall be elected by the voters, at the times and places of choosing members of the general assembly…
A lieutenant governor shall be elected at the same time and places, and for the same term as the governor…
The 1851 Virginia Constitutional Amendments established County Courts with the following language:
There shall be in each county of the commonwealth a county court, which shall be held monthly, but not less than three or more than five justices, except when the law shall require the presence of a greater number.
The jurisdiction of the said court shall be the same as that of the existing county courts, except so far as it is modified by this constitution or may be changed by law.
Each county shall be laid off into districts, as nearly equal as may be in territory ad population. In each district there shall be elected, by the voters thereof, four justices of the peace, who shall be commissioned by the governor, reside in their districts, ad hold their offices for the term of four years. The justices so elected shall choose one of their own body, who shall be the presiding justice of each term of said court, and whose duty it shall be to attend each term of said court. The other justices shall be classified by law for their performance of their duties in court.
The justices shall receive for their services in court a per diem compensation, to be ascertained by law, and paid out of the county treasury; and shall not receive any fee or emolument for other judicial services.
The power and jurisdiction of justices of the peace within their respective counties shall be prescribed by law.21
The following was enacted in 1851 for County Officers, which were also made accountable to the populations which they were to serve:
The voters of each county shall elect a clerk of the county court, an attorney for the commonwealth, a sheriff, and so many commissioners of the revenue as may be authorized by law, who shall hold their respective offices as follows: The clerk and the surveyor for the term of six years; the attorney for the term of four years; the sheriff and the commissioners for the term of two years. Constables and overseers of the poor shall be elected by the voters as may be prescribed by law.
The officers mentioned in the preceding section, except the attorney, shall reside in the counties or districts for which they were respectively elected. No person elected for two successive terms to the office of sheriff, shall be re-eligible to the same office for the next succeeding term; not shall be during his term of service, or within one year hereafter, be eligible to any political office.
The justices of the peace, sheriffs, attorneys for the commonwealth, clerks of the circuit and county courts, and all other county officers, shall be subject to indictment for malfeasance, misfeasance or neglect of official duty; and upon conviction thereof, their offices shall become vacant.22
Thus after three generations Virginia reached some semblance of democracy for white men. It should be noted, however, that for the most part the previous county leaders had been benevolent and used their power wisely, if for their own benefit. Grayson County’s delegate to the 1851 constitutional convention was Samuel McCamant (born in 1803 in Pennsylvania), a lawyer worth $2000 in 1850. McCamant was not a slave holder in 1850, and was one of the poorest delegates to the convention, despite being well off for the Upper New River Valley.23
- Hennings Statutes at Large, Vol. XIII, pp. 559-61.
- Williams, Samuel Cole. History of the Lost State of Franklin. pp. 22-23.
- Williams, Samuel Cole. History of the Lost State of Franklin. pp. 44, 49.
- Williams, Samuel Cole. History of the Lost State of Franklin. p. 60.
- Williams, Samuel Cole. History of the Lost State of Franklin. pp. 49, 60.
- Williams, Samuel Cole. History of the Lost State of Franklin. pp. 275-276.
- Williams, Samuel Cole. History of the Lost State of Franklin. pp. 283-288.
- Williams, Samuel Cole. History of the Lost State of Franklin. p. 287.
- Alderman, John Perry. Carroll County: The Settlements 1765- 1815.
- Harman, John Newton. Annals of Tazewell County. pp. 30- 31.
- Calendar of State Papers, Vol. VI. p. 183.
- Grayson County Road Orders 1793-1834.
- Sutton, Robert P. Revolution to Secession, Consitution Making in the Old Dominion. p. 162. Summers, Lewis Preston. History of Southwest Virginia and Washington County. Pendleton, William C. Virginia Appalachian Politics, general themes.
- Pendleton, William C. History of Southwest Virginia and Tazewell County. pp. 363-364.
- Harman, John Newton. Annals of Tazewell County p. 32.
- Pendelton, William C. Virginia Appalachian Politics 1776- 1927 general theme.
- Harman, Annals of Tazewell County pp. 32-33.
- Pendleton. Virginia Appalachain Politics pp. 126-127. The ratification vote was 26,055 for the constitution and 15,563 against. Of the negative vote, 13,337 were west of the Blue Ridge. Appalachian Virginias were no more happy with the 1830 Constitution than they were with the 1776 version.
- Harman, John Newton. Annals of Tazewell County p. 33.
- Sutton, Robert P. Revolution to Secession, Consitution Making in the Old Dominion. p. 204.
- Harman, Annals of Tazewell County pp. 34-35.
- Harman, Annals of Tazewell County pp. 33-35.
- Sutton, Robert P. Revolution to Secession, Consitution Making in the Old Dominion. p. 222.