Is Urbanna really a “historic” town? Yes—according to
the National Register of Historic Places. Documents from the U. S. Department
of the Interior and stored in the Library of Congress indicate that Rosegill
Plantation, the Urbanna Historic District, the Colonial Courthouse, Lansdowne,
the Wormeley Cottage, and the Old Tobacco Warehouse are all included on
the National Register.
Rosegill plantation consists of an impressive range of 18th century buildings:
a washhouse, the dwelling house, the kitchen, and a storage house. Rosegill
has been occupied since the mid-17th century, when Ralph Wormeley I patented
3200 acres of land. The buildings standing today stylistically date between
1730-1750 and are a significant relic of colonial plantation architecture.
The extensive nature of the original complex, coupled with its associations
with some of the colonies’ most prestigious individuals, makes Rosegill
potentially one of the state’s richest archaeological sites as well
as one of the oldest and most historic estates in America.
In 1991 the Urbanna Historic District, including four buildings listed
on the National Register, was established. The boundaries of this district
are Virginia Street on the north, Rappahannock Avenue on the west, Watling
Street on the south, and Urbanna Creek on the east. Within this district
there are 65 historic buildings. The building on the northeast corner of
Virginia and Cross Streets that burned in 2008 was included in the list.
Urbanna was one of the twenty towns created by an=2 0act passed by the
Colonial House of Burgesses in 1680 to encourage the creation of port towns
that would open trade with the Colonies. The town was officially named
Urbanna in 1706. The district has one of Virginia’s eleven surviving
Colonial courthouses, dating from 1748, as well as two mid-18th century
residences (Lansdowne and Wormeley Cottage), and a rare surviving 1760’s
brick storehouse known as the Old Tobacco Warehouse. The town also has
a much-altered 18th century tavern and two early 19th century dwellings
(Sandwich and the Gressitt House). It has as well a number of late 19th
century and early 20th century dwellings, commercial buildings, and a church
representing such architectural styles as the Queen Anne, Carpenter Gothic,
Romanesque Revival, Colonial Revival, Bungalow, and American Foursquare.
Urbanna was eligible for inclusion on the register by the history of its
founding and development as representative of towns in Virginia during
the 18th and 19th centuries. The town has retained the irregular grid pattern
of streets typical of the time period in which it was founded. Urbanna
also has a variety of structures that represent the diversity of architectural
styles over the last 300 years.
Although initially Urbanna’s commercial
activities revolved around the tobacco trade, the economy then shifted
toward retail sales--and especially later in the century-- toward the
fishing industry and tourist trade. By the early 20th century, the town
was known for its oyster beds and packing plants as well as being a summer
At the beginning of the 21st century, nearly all the authentic structures
remain intact. Urbanna is a historic port town with an old-fashioned
The Chesapeake Bay was formed during the
last Ice Age when the Susquehanna River roared through a deep gorge to
meet rising sea levels to the south. Native Americans began hunting,
farming and fishing along the shores of its tributaries around 1,000
It was the Nimcocks who first settled what
would come to be known as Urbanna. Nimcock means “Indians who live
in towns.” The Nimcocks lived in huts in fenced villages designed
to thwart attack.
Jamestown was established a few millennia later
in 1607. Captain John Smith set out from there to explore the Chesapeake
Bay watershed, which he called “a place where heaven and earth never
agreed better to frame man's habitation.”
The first “come heres” soon followed
In 1649, Ralph Wormeley patented 3,200 acres
on the Rappahannock, including the lands the Nimcocks had cleared for their
settlement and crops, forcing the tribe upriver. Landowners like
Wormeley established plantations on Virginia’s navigable rivers,
which they used as private ports, shipping tobacco directly to market without
the inconvenience and expense of going through an official port of entry.
The 1680 Acts of Assembly at Jamestown changed
They ordered local officials to establish 20,
50-acre port towns, at a cost of 10,000 pounds of tobacco each, through
which all trade would take place: Varina, Charles City, Surry, Jamestown,
Patesfield, Nansemond and Warwick along with plantations in Elizabeth City,
Norfolk, Yorktown, New Kent, Gloucester, Tappahannock, Stafford, Accomac,
Northampton, Lancaster, Northumberland—and the small part of Ralph
Wormeley’s Rosegill that would, in 1705, be named Burgh of Urbanna, “City
of Anne.” The town was named in honor of England’s Queen Anne.
Seven buildings in town have been in continuous
use since the colonial period. Four of them are on the National Register
of Historic Places. All are located in Urbanna’s historic district. The Old Tobacco Warehouse, which now
serves as the town’s Visitor’s Center, is where planters exchanged
tobacco for immediate cash and credit to purchase imported goods for sale.
Next-door is the Gressitt House, where Urbanna’s Harbormaster
once lived. Across the street is Little Sandwich, believed to have been
the port town’s Customs House.
Up the hill you’ll find Middlesex County’s
original courthouse. It’s one of only 11 colonial courthouses
still standing in Virginia today. The handsome Georgian mansion next door
to the Post Office is Lansdowne, home of Arthur Lee, one of the
storied Lees of Virginia. Along with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane,
Lee represented the Continental Congress at France’s Court of Versailles.
Colonial travelers spent the night at The
Tavern on Prince George Street for five pounds of tobacco or six
pence. Legend has it that Patrick Henry once addressed townspeople from
its steps. The clapboard Wormeley-Lee-Montague Cottage (now
a shop) is believed to be the oldest surviving house in Urbanna.
On either side of town are two National Historic
Register colonial plantations: Ralph Wormeley’s Rosegill and Hewick.
Christopher Robinson, who built Hewick in 1678, was a member of the Governor’s
Council, Secretary of State of the colony and an original trustee of the
College of William & Mary. Wormeley and Robinson were among the
most influential men in colonial Virginia.
As the international sailing vessels of the
colonial tobacco trade yielded to Chesapeake Bay schooners, then steamboats,
then the pleasure boats of today, one thing remained constant: Urbanna’s
history and fortunes are one with the Bay.
Want to learn more about Urbanna’s history?
Pick up a brochure and take a self-guided walking tour. Visit the Virginia
history collection at the Urbanna Branch of the Middlesex County Library.
Or buy the book. Urbanna: A Port Town in Virginia 1680-1980 is
a handsome, hardcover volume published to commemorate the town’s
tri-centennial. You can get your copy at the Town Office, local shops and
the Visitor’s Center.