Essex County Virginia

Historic Walking Tour

How Tappahannock got its name

In 1608, this area was first visited by Captain John Smith. The area was inhabited by Native Americans and when Captain Smith attempted to land here he was fiercely driven back to his ship. It was a Native American village and so he gave both the river and the village Native American names. The river became the Rappahannock, which meant "rise and fall" of water, and the village, set upon it, became Tappahannock, which means "town on the rise and fall of water". In the mid 1600's, a trading post was established by Jacob Hobbs. For a few years the area was known as Hobb's His Hole and later as New Plymouth. Eventually, the original name was returned in 1705. On and around the water still remain thirteen homes and buildings from these early days of Tappahannock.

Historic Town Walking Tour

The Tappahannock Historic Town Walking Tour is designed to take you back to the 17th, 18th and 19th century buildings all located within 3 blocks of one another in the central downtown area. The numbers on the map refer to the descriptions below and are not in chronological sequence. For a little more exercise, this sequence follows the evolution of the historic district:

  • Scots Arms Tavern - 1680
  • Ritchie House - 1706
  • Henley House (Emerson's Ordinary) - 1718
  • Beale Memorial Baptist Church - 1728
  • Anderton House - 1760
  • McCall-Brockenbrough House - 1763
  • The Old Debtor's Prison - 1769
  • Customs House - 1800
  • The Old Clerk's Office - 1808
  • Essex County Courthouse - 1848
  • St. John's Episcopal Church - 1849
  • St. Margaret's Hall - 1850
  • Roane-Wright-Trible House - 1850

Walking Map

Old Courthouse1. The 1728 Court House
(Essex County Government Offices), largely Greek Revival. The 1728 courthouse contains the original walls of the old courthouse. In 1875 the Tappahannock Baptists organized Centennial Baptist Church The building had been the scene in 1774 of the trial and sentencing to jail of four Baptist ministers for "preaching and expounding the Scriptures contrary to law."
Customs House
2.  Customs House: early 1800's, at the foot of Prince Street. Archibald Ritchie owned the lot. At the site, John Whitlock operated Whitlock's Ordinary in the 1760's and 1770's. It is now a private home.

Scots Arms Tavern3.  Scots Arms Tavern, c. 1680, the oldest building on the tour, has been owned continuously by the Derieux family for more than a century. It is now a private residence.

4. Ritchie House, c. 1706, at the northeast comer of Prince and Ritchie HouseCross Streets, reflects Archibald Ritchie's leading role in Tappahannock in the decades before and after the Revolution. The ornate paneling in the house was removed in the 1930's and is on permanent display in the Tappahannock and Essex Rooms at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware. The house is now the law offices (rear view of the building) of Dillard and Katona Attorneys and may be open by appointment.
Debtor's Prison
5.  The Old Debtor's Prison on the courthouse green next to the Essex County Courthouse was built prior to 1769. It now serves as the Essex Treasurer's Office.

6.  Essex County Courthouse: built in 1848 to replace the old Circuit Court Housecourthouse, now Beale Memorial Baptist Church. A 1926 renovation added a bell and clock tower. The Essex Court House contains the oldest records in Virginia, James B. Slaughter's recent history of the area, Settlers, Southerners, Americans: The History of Essex County, Virginia 1608-1984, recounts in detail the county's 350-year-old story. The courthouse has long contained the largest portrait collection in the county.
Old Clerk's Office
7. The Old Clerk's Office was built in 1808 next door to the courthouse. It is now the home of the Essex Women's Club. The photo to the left shows the Old Clerk's Office

Henley House8.  Henley House (Emerson's Ordinary), c. 1718. The original section had a center chimney and was probably built in the 1710's. The Emerson family began operating the tavern after purchasing the property in 1757. Grand fireplaces dominate both ends of the house. It is now a private residence and has been extensively restored by the architect George Jennings.
Essex Inn
9.  Roane - Wright - Trible House, a brick Georgian mansion built about 1850 by Dr. Lawrence Roane, is now The Essex Inn - a country inn in the heart of Tappahannock.

Anderton House10.  Anderton House, an early plantation house on St. Margaret's campus, one of the oldest occupied tracts in Tappahannock. Thought to have been built about the same time as the Brockenbrough house, circa 1760, the Anderton House takes its name from the family who owned it in 1947, when it was purchased by St. Margaret's. The Virginia Historic Landmarks survey states that the Anderton family added the southern wing in the 1890s, and that St. Margaret's added the balancing wing in 1971 and more recently, in 1988, the school added another wing to house faculty apartments and student accommodations. This building is not open to the public.

11.  McCall - Brockenbrough House: Archibald McCall bought the McCall - Brockenbrough Houselot from Robert Beverley in 1763 and built or heavily renovated an existing house. McCall, a successful merchant and county justice, remained loyal to Britain. He favored the British Stamp Act that inflamed Essex in 1766. Some of the county's foremost gentlemen led a mob into McCall's house. The McCall family fled to Britain for the duration of the war, returned afterward and restored his business and social standing. The Brockenbrough family purchased the property in 1813. It is now a private office on the campus of St. Margaret's School.
St. Margaret's School has preserved an endangered gem of Tidewater history and architecture. The Brockenbrough House (1763) underwent a $750,000 historic restoration project with the help of Calder Loth, Senior Architectural Historian, from the Department of Historic Resources, Jody Lahendro, Architect PC, and Henderson Construction. In response to the building's needs the school hired Jody Lahendro to draft a conditions survey. This survey now serves as the map for current and future restoration with a keen eye on preservation. If you would like to know more about this house, please call the Director of Development at 804-443-3357. SMS remains committed to preserving this community anchor and looks forward to future community partnerships in education and facility sharing.

St. Margaret's Hall12.  St. Margaret's Hall: Prior to 1850, Dr. Thomas Gordon is known to have built the center portion of what is now St. Margaret's Hall. The property was purchased by Judge T.R.B. Wright in 1876 and acquired by the school in 1921 from his widow. The wings were added immediately to accommodate all the various aspects of boarding school life. In 1944, the reading room wing was enlarged, and in 1975 the chapel and library were extended. However, the Gordon-Wright residence with its high ceilings, many-paned large windows, and wide-board floors, although now enclosed by additions, remains essentially as originally built. The building now houses the main St. Margaret's School administrative center including the head's office, reception rooms, classrooms, chapel, music and art studios.
St. John's Church
13.  St. John's Episcopal Church, built in 1849 under the rectorship of the Rev. John Peyton McGuire, is the only purely Gothic Revival structure in the county. St. John's is also one of the earliest churches of this style in Virginia. Shown by appointment.

Essex County Driving Tour

Vauter's Episcopal Church14a.  Vauter's Episcopal Church, 1731, is on Rt. 17 north of Loretto, 16 miles north of Tappahannock. St. Anne's Parish built the first half of the church in 1719, with an addition in 1731, making it one of the county's oldest structures and an illustration of the craftsmanship that existed among Virginia builders. After the American Revolution and the disestablishment of the Church of England, Vauter's Church passed out of service. In 1822 regular service resumed for the first time since 1776. The church was remodeled in 1827, when the box pews were reduced in height and the present two-deck pulpit replaced the colonial one of three decks. Vauters is the 11th oldest of 48 colonial churches still standing in Virginia. The masonry is among the finest of any colonial church. For more information about Vauter's Episcopal Church see Historic Homes in Essex County.

14b.  Wheatland was built in the early 1800's by John Saunders and overlooks Saunder's Wharf, the only steam boat wharf still visible on the Rappahannock River. It is not open to the public.

15.  St. Paul's Episcopal Church, erected in 1838-39, located 10St. Paul's Church miles west of town on Rt. 360, and Mt. Zion Baptist at Dunbrooke, built in the 1850's boast Gothic style embellishments on their traditional rectangular forms. Part of the ruins of the Old Piscataway Church were used in the construction of St. Paul's, the vestry was added in 1924, and it retains the rural simplicity of clear glass Gothic windows and it's Hobart unconventional pulpit.