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Pittsylvania County: A Brief History Of Our Community

The largest county in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Pittsylvania was established in 1767. It was named in honor of William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, in recognition of his support of the American colonies during the Stamp Act crisis. The county was formed from the western lands of Halifax County and took its current size in 1777 when the land that would become Henry and Patrick counties was separated from it.

English, Irish, Welsh, Scotch, German, Scots-Irish, and enslaved Africans, nearly all of them farmers, settled the area, primarily growing tobacco as their cash crop. Although the area had been inhabited for centuries by American Indians, by the time the Europeans arrived there were few remaining.

Pittsylvania County contributed soldiers and supplies during the American Revolution and the now-vanished town of Peytonsburg was one of the nine official Virginia supply depots during the War.

In the decades following American independence, Pittyslvania’s tobacco production boomed and by 1840 it was the largest producing county in the state. Tobacco has remained an agricultural mainstay of the county and Pittsylvania-grown tobacco is still regarded as among the best in the world.

A look at some dried tobacco, which used to be Pittsylvania’s main cash crop. Photo courtesy of Brian Carlton.

Before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, a substantial majority of the residents of Pittsylvania County opposed secession. But in the crisis that followed the attack and President Lincoln’s mobilization of state militias, most Pittsylvania citizens became advocates of secession and Pittsylvania County contributed greatly, and tragically, to the Confederate war effort. Over 3,300 Pittsylvania men and boys served in the Confederate army, with nearly 80% of them serving as “front-line troops” (compared to 60% in the South as a whole). Of those who served, 25% died in service and, all-told, about 75% were either killed, wounded, imprisoned, or suffered a life-threatening illness while serving. At the time of the Civil War, nearly half of the county’s population was black, the great majority of whom were slaves. The period of reconstruction that followed the war was characterized by poverty and racial tension, with black citizens participating in the political process with mixed success until the Virginia Constitution of 1902 essentially disenfranchised them. In the 20th century, Pittsylvania experienced the ups and downs of an economy focused on tobacco and textiles, enduring world wars and the Great Depression, while wrestling with the effects of centuries of injustice. Today Pittsylvania County is a vibrant, increasingly prosperous community, with an expanding and diversified economy. With an undying affection for our heritage and history, the people of Pittsylvania look optimistically toward the future.

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