Mathews County history and court records date back to the earliest known periods of America. The area was once near the heart of the empire of the Powhatan Indians. Powhatan’s base was in Werowocomoco, located on the northern shore of the York River, in the area of Colonial Gloucester County’s Abingdon Parish. Nearby Gloucester County was cut from York County in 1651. Mathews was established in 1700, and cut from from Gloucester in 1791, then containing only 94 square miles. It is the smallest county in the state, containing 86 square miles. It is bordered on the north by the Rappahannock River, on the west by the Mobjack bay and on the east by the Chesapeake Bay. It was originally named Kingston Parrish. In 1776 the last of the British Royal Governors, Lord Dunmore, was driven from Colonial shores by Continental army canons, at Cricket Hill, across from Gwynne’s Island. The County was named in 1791 after Thomas Mathews, by the Virginia General Assembly. Many of the early records of the county were destroyed during the Civil War.
Evidence exists that some form of the first Mathews Courthouse was built in 1792. Records indicate that officials ordered the sheriff of the county to pay builder and attorney Richard Billups, from a prominent local family, for the construction of a courthouse. Other sources suggest that the the earliest permanent structure may have been built as late as 1830. In the modern times a new court house has been erected, and being used, at a different location. But a historical courthouse square on the original location consists of a courthouse building in the style of the original courthouse, county administrative offices, and a debtors’ prison. In 1928, a monument to Confederate Soldiers was erected on the square by the Daughters of the American Revolution. All of these structures on the original square are now listed by the National Register of Historic Sites. The original courthouse was influenced by limited financial resources. The early structure was much less elaborate than the earlier courthouses found in population and resource-rich Williamsburg or Gloucester County. The original building was of brick and wood, consisting of three doors, and no windows. The style embraced the colonel past, was marked by innovative use of space, but had little resemblance to any of the other Virginia Historic Courthouses. There are also few windows shining light on early important court cases.
Selected early Mathews cases are noted in the Records of Colonial Gloucester County, VA. In 1793, Elizabeth Eddins had to pay a settlement 225 pounds of tobacco to Elizabeth Respess. A decree was ordered that Christopher Cully pay five pounds for the disturbance he caused; Judge George Wythe declared the judgment satisfied on November 20, 1794. In the same year Richard Billups was authorized to pay a rider thirty five dollars a year to report daily to the Gloucester Courthouse and deliver all of the county official, court and residents’ mail. In 1795, the estate of William Morris was valued at 367 pounds and bought by various parties. Cattle sold for nine pounds, a Negro girl for 30 pounds and a tea table set brought 8 pounds. Richard Respess sold 102 acres of land for 250 pounds.
Article edited for fine detail by Becky Barnhardt of the Mathews County Historical Society.