Prior to the arrival of English settlers, Hanover County was a hunting ground for the Pamunkey and Chickahominy Native American tribes. The area was settled by plantation owners and tobacco farmers in the late 17th century.
Founded in 1720, Hanover County is celebrating its 300th birthday in 2020. Enriched with history, it has 39 sites on the National Register of Historic Places or the Virginia Landmarks Register and 56 Virginia Historical Markers. Richmond National Battlefield Park maintains four Civil War battlefields in Hanover and Hanover County maintains Civil War battlefield parks on the North Anna River and Cold Harbor.
Hanover County’s symbol is the old Courthouse at Hanover Courthouse, which dates back to about 1740 and is one of the oldest in Virginia. Hanover native Patrick Henry gained fame as a young lawyer in its courtroom when he argued the “Parson’s Cause” case against the English Crown in 1763. This case is still re-enacted every summer in the historic Courthouse by actors associated with a non-profit organization called The Parson’s Cause Foundation. Also on the grounds of historic Courthouse are an Old Stone Jail that operated from the mid-19th century until the early 1960s and a memorial to Confederate soldiers that was dedicated in 1914.
Across Route 301 from Hanover Courthouse is Hanover Tavern, which originally served as an overnight stop on the stagecoach route between areas to the north and Richmond and Williamsburg during Colonial times. Visitors to the original Hanover Tavern included George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and Lord Cornwallis, who surrendered to Washington at Yorktown. Patrick Henry lived at the Tavern for several years after his marriage to the daughter of the Tavern’s owners. The oldest section of the current structure dates back to 1791. Barksdale Theatre, the nation’s first dinner theater, was founded in Hanover Tavern in 1953.
Henry, known as the “voice of the American Revolution” because of speeches like “give me liberty or give me death” was Virginia’s first governor and served five terms. He was born near Studley and lived in Hanover County for much of his life. Scotchtown, located west of Ashland, was his home during much of the Revolutionary period and is operated as a museum by Preservation Virginia. A number of events are held at Scotchtown throughout the year.
Thanks to Henry, Hanover has several sites on the Road to Revolution State Heritage Trail. Trail sites include Scotchtown, Hanover Courthouse, Hanover Tavern, Rural Plains and Polegreen Church.
On Rural Point Road near its intersection with Polegreen Road stands a steel skeleton outlining the original dimensions of the Historic Polegreen Church meeting house. The South’s first Presbyterians met at Polegreen Church off what is now Rural Point Road. Built in 1748, its members included a young Patrick Henry, who said that the Rev. Samuel Davies was his inspiration as an orator. Davis was a key figure in the struggle for civil and religious freedom in Colonial Virginia.
The Church burned to the ground in 1864 when it was struck by artillery fire during the Civil War. It may have been the first non-Anglican church in Virginia
During the Civil War Hanover County was a frequent battlefield as Union troops commanded by various generals attempted to fight their way to Richmond through the Confederate army commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee. There are many Virginia Civil War Trails markers here as well as roadside monuments called “Freeman markers” after Douglas Southall Freeman, who catalyzed the formation of Richmond National Battlefield Park in the 1930s. Richmond National Battlefield Park includes four battlefields in Hanover: Beaverdam Creek, Gaines Mills, Cold Harbor and Rural Plains at Totopotomoy Creek.
Some other interesting facts from Hanover’s history:
- The Town of Ashland was incorporated in 1858. Originally known as “Slash Cottage”, it attained popularity as a resort after a mineral springs was discovered there around 1851 where Randolph-Macon College is now located. Randolph-Macon College moved to Ashland from Boydton in 1868. Randolph-Macon is the oldest Methodist-affiliated college in the United States. The Ashland Museum tells the town’s story through words, images, voices and objects.
- Believed to have been built in the mid-1700s, Sycamore Tavern in Montpelier was a stop on the stagecoach route from Richmond to Charlottesville during Colonial times. Among those who stayed at Sycamore Tavern were Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
- Slash Church (1729) is considered the best-preserved wooden colonial church in Virginia and is the only one that has not been enlarged.
- Hanover County nearly boasted of a native son becoming president. Henry Clay, who was born off Mount Hermon Road and moved to Kentucky in his early adulthood, served in Congress for nearly 50 years and ran for president five times. Clay is remembered as one of the political giants of the early 19th century for his work in forging compromises between North and South that delayed the onset of the Civil War, which he predicted would be calamitous. In the 1950s, a Senate committee chaired by Sen. John F. Kennedy named Clay as one of the five greatest senators in American history.
- Hanover County had two villages which in the 17thand 18th centuries were considered as potential sites as the Virginia Capital. Newcastle Town was built on the banks of the Pamunkey River around 1739 and Hanover Town was first settled in the early 1740s. Hanover Town was badly damaged by British troops during the American Revolution little more than a ferry remained when General U.S. Grant’s Union troops crossed the Pamunkey River there in 1864. Newcastle suffered from the Revolution as well as silting in the Pamunkey River and nothing remains of both Colonial-era communities.