Wythe and Southfield Districts in Elizabeth City County, Virginia

When a portion of Hampton, Virginia (then Elizabeth City County), was first named for George Wythe, the signer of the Declaration of Independence, it did not include the neighborhood now known as Wythe. At that time, what we now know as Wythe was not in the “Wythe Township” but the “Southfield Township.”

I believe this claim is correct, but I am still hunting for a map or complete description of the original boundaries of the Southfield and Wythe townships to prove it. If you have leads on this information, let me know. My research has been restricted by Covid-19 closures.

George Wythe, Wythe, and Southfield

I became interested in this topic while working on a forthcoming post on the religious history of Wytbe (pronounced “with”), my childhood home. The Olde Wythe Neighborhood Association’s Hampton’s Olde Wythe (2006) notes that Wythe was introduced as the name of one of the county’s three districts after the Civil War. It implies that “Olde Wythe” (and the rest of Wythe) were in the Wythe District. Upon further research, it seems that they were not in that district until realignments eliminated the “Southfield” district in 1887.

George Wythe’s birthplace, a plantation called Chesterville, was on the Northwest Branch of Back River. Its location is now on the campus of the NASA Langley Research Center. The marshy portion of the branch that borders the plantation site is also known as “Wythe Creek.” Chesterville was in the northern section of Elizabeth City County. The neighborhood that would be known as Wythe was very near the county’s southern tip. If the name “Southfield” made sense for any position of the county it surely included the future Wythe neighborhood.

George Wythe’s Chesterfield is indicated by the green area at the top. The later Wythe neighborhood by the gray area at the bottom. Until 1882, much of what would later be the southeastern section of the City of Newport News was in Elizabeth City County. The orange line approximates the county line before that date. The base map shows the county line in red as redrawn by the General Assembly in 1882 to place the future City of Newport News entirely in Warwick County. Newport News annexed another portion of Elizabeth City County in 1926. Basemap: Map of Elizabeth City County, Virginia: From Actual Surveys by E.A. Semple, Wm. Ivy and C. Hubbard (Philadelphia: E.W. Smith, [1892?]). Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/item/2011588010/

Virginia’s constitution of 1869 introduced a system of subdividing counties into townships. Elizabeth City County was divided into three: Chesapeake, Southfield, and Wythe. The township system was based on that used in the State of New York State. Virginia’s settlement pattern was very different than New York’s and after five years this Reconstruction experiment was abandoned. Townships became magisterial districts.

Elimination of Southfield and Growth of Wythe

Hampton was the county’s seat and largest community. In 1892 it was incorporated as a “town of the second class.” At this time district boundaries were redrawn, and Southfield ceased to exist. A new magisterial district called Hampton was created and made coterminous with the newly incorporated town. It encompassed part of the old Southfield district and part of the old Wythe district. The rest of the county was divided between the Wythe and Chesapeake districts. Everything east of King Street was Chesapeake. Everything west of King was Wythe. It was at this point, 1887, that the land where the Wythe neighborhood would later be developed became part of the area known as Wythe.

Since it was situated near the rapidly growing City of Newport News, southern portion of Wythe District along Hampton Roads was that area that residents most commonly meant when they referred to Wythe. This was reinforced when the the George Wythe Elementary School opened here in 1909. A Presbyterian Sunday school which opened near the school in 1922 also took the name Wythe and later became Wythe Presbyterian Church.

In the mid-1930s, Wythe Place and Wythe Crescent became the first subdivisions to use the name Wythe. Three of Wythe Place’s streets paid tribute to George Wythe. Wythe Parkway, Chancellor (named for the office he held in Virginia’s government) and Chesterfield (and echo of his Chesterville, his birthplace). The Wythe Shopping Center and Wythe Theater soon opened across the street from Wythe Place.

The Wythe Theatre sits prominently in front of the Wythe Shopping Center in the photo on this postcard by the Henry P. Cann & Bro. Co. of Baltimore, Maryland.

By this point, the use of the Wythe name capitalized on the popularity of the Colonial Revival throughout the nation. This was driven locally by the restoration of Williamsburg begun in 1928. George Wythe’s house on Palace Green was one of the city’s largest original buildings. It was restored and opened to tourists in 1939. This was the same year that the Wythe Shopping Center on Kecoughtan Road between Wythe Parkway and Chesterfield Road expanded to take the then innovative form of a strip with a parking lot. When new neighborhoods were developed elsewhere in Wythe District in the 1930s and 1940s, they took new names. Gradually this left the area along Kecoughtan Road with an unrivaled claim on the name Wythe..

Survival of the Broader Use of Wythe

In 1908, Hampton became an independent city. Under Virginia law it was completely separate from the county. At this point, the county was left with only two districts, Wythe in the west and Chesapeake in the east. This helps make sense of something that puzzled me as a child.

The highway maker erected in 1928 commemorating Wythe’s birthplace was on Kecoughtan Road (US- 60) in Southampton, just south (or west on US-60) of Sunset Creek. The marker stated that Wythe’s birthplace was eight miles north. I often wondered why the marker here when it was basically nowhere near his birthplace. The answer, I believe, was that this was near the spot where US-60 entered the Wythe District after leaving Hampton. I assume a city/county border sign was in the vicinity originally.

Wythe’s Birthplace marker after it was moved to La Salle Avenue near Kecoughtan Road. It has recently been replaced with a more detailed interpretive sign about Chesterville. Photo from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/440578776027912015/

This division of the county into Wythe and Chesapeake continued until the county merged with the city in 1952. Its official use survives today in a more limited way as the names for the two sectors used by the Hampton Police Department. The dividing line has now been moved West to La Salle Avenue with NASA Langley Research Center placed in the Chesapeake Sector. Thus, while the Wythe neighborhood is in the the Wythe Sector, ironically, Wythe’s birthplace is not.

Hampton Police Department patrol districts, from City of Hampton www.hampton.gov, August 13, 2020. The city limits shown here do not include Langley Air Force Base or the NASA Langley Research Center. These are inside the City of Hampton but not part of the HPD patrol area.

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