275 Years of Chesterfield: A Quick History Lesson

Chesterfield will celebrate a major milestone on May 25, marking 275 years since the county was chartered by the Virginia General Assembly.

Prior to the arrival of English colonists, the area that now is Chesterfield was inhabited for thousands of years by Native Americans who hunted and fished along the banks of the James and Appomattox rivers. In 1611, the second permanent English settlement in the New World, Henricus, was established on a high bluff above the James River.

Henricus colonists founded the first hospital and school in North America, both of which predate Chesterfield. Tobacco that was commercially grown in the Bermuda Hundred area became their original cash crop. By 1722, coal was discovered in Midlothian, leading to creation of the continent’s first blast furnace at Falling Creek in 1744.

Five years later, Chesterfield’s official boundaries were officially established by proclamation from the House of Burgesses.

Chesterfield was the site of other major milestones: Midlothian Turnpike, the first paved road in Virginia, was built in 1807 to carry carts of coal; and in 1831, the first railroad, the Midlothian to Manchester line, was constructed to haul coal to ports on the James River.

Much of the initial growth resulted first from the labor of indentured servants, then enslaved people, and continued in coal mining, farming and other industries.

Ruins from a coalmine at Mid-Lothian Mines Park

Chesterfield played a significant role in both the American Revolution and the Civil War, providing troops for the former and raw materials for the latter.

In April 1781, British soldiers under the command of General William Phillips led an assault through the county in pursuit of General Marquis de Lafayette’s Continental forces, resulting in the destruction of Chesterfield Courthouse and a recruit training center that had been established there by General Baron Von Steuben.

In 1864, the Union Army attempted to capture Richmond – the capital of the Confederacy — by attacking through Bermuda Hundred. The Confederate Army, under the command of General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, turned it away by digging in and setting up a defensive line of fortifications known as the Howlett Line.

In 1870, in recognition of Chesterfield’s status as the first place in America where coal was mined commercially, the inaugural Board of Supervisors directed the creation of a county seal with a coal miner leaning on his pick under a pine tree with a flowing river at his feet.

Despite its roots in industry, however, the county remained overwhelmingly rural for the next century-plus before first experiencing significant population growth during the 1970s, ushering in its “modern era.”    

When Richmond annexed 27 square miles of Chesterfield in 1970, more than 47,000 county residents suddenly found themselves living within the city’s boundaries. (It was the second time Chesterfield had lost part of its territory; Colonial Heights was established as an independent city on formerly county land near the Appomattox River in the 1920s.)

Even so, Chesterfield’s population increased from 77,045 to 141,372 between 1970 and 1980. By 1990, it had more than doubled to 209,599, a period of rapid growth that challenged the local government’s ability to provide public services for the new residents.

As of the 2020 Census, more than 370,000 people called Chesterfield home. Since then, according to population estimates by U.Va.’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, the county has gained an additional 23,000 residents – nearly twice as many as the next-closest Virginia locality, Loudoun County.

They’re drawn here by high overall quality of life: safe neighborhoods, excellent schools, comparably affordable housing, recreation and entertainment, first-class public facilities, low local tax rates relative to the quality of services provided and increasingly robust employment opportunities.

A series of events is planned throughout this year to celebrate Chesterfield’s 275th anniversary, honor our past and look to a bright future. Follow Chesterfield County Government on social media to stay up to date on the celebrations.