West Virginia Judiciary

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Chief Justice's Column

January-March 2017

The Origins of Tucker County, West Virginia

by Chief Justice Allen H. Loughry II

Although not a conventional topic for a “From the Chief” article, I thought many of you might find this interesting because it traces the history of a prominent legal family in Colonial Virginia, one member of which is the namesake for Tucker County.

West Virginians cherish our past and revere the pioneering men and women who settled our mountains and built our state. As a proud son of Tucker County, I have always been fascinated in particular with the history of the area where I grew up, and so I have long been familiar with the name of the man for whom the county was named—Henry St. George Tucker.

In 2013, during my first few weeks as a Supreme Court Justice, I came upon a book of handwritten court orders from the 1830s and discovered that many were signed by Tucker. Seeing his signature time after time in the order book—his personal mark on the history of Virginia—I realized I knew the name, but not much about the man.

My curiosity led me to the West Virginia Archives at the Culture Center in Charleston. As I sorted through documents related to Henry St. George Tucker, I located a copy of an 1855 petition to create a new county from the land then in northern Randolph County, still part of Virginia until 1863. The petition was signed by dozens of residents, including, surprisingly, my great-great-great grandfather, Aaron Loughry, Sr. That unexpected personal connection further sparked my curiosity.

As I continued my research, I quickly discovered that the adopted county name of Tucker was suggested and approved by men who respected Henry St. George Tucker, his work, and that of his family. This was no surprise as the Tucker name was well-known throughout the Colonies.

The original St. George Tucker, Henry’s father, was born in Bermuda in 1752 and came to Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1771 to study law at William and Mary College. Admitted to the bar in 1775, Tucker happened to be in St. John’s Church in Richmond when Patrick Henry gave his famous “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!” speech. St. George Tucker’s brother, Thomas Tudor Tucker, however, settled in South Carolina and eventually represented that state in the first two Congresses and was the Treasurer of the United States from 1801 until 1828.

Using his contacts in Bermuda, St. George Tucker was an active smuggler on behalf of the patriot army and citizens during the Revolutionary War. He was also a colonel in the Chesterfield County, Virginia, militia, fought in the battle of Guilford Court House, and was wounded at Yorktown.

In 1778, St. George Tucker married a wealthy widow, Frances Bland Randolph, and by doing so, acquired large estates in Chesterfield County. St. George Tucker later became a successful lawyer and represented Virginia along with James Madison and Edmund Randolph at the 1786 Annapolis Convention, the meeting that began the movement to replace the Articles of Confederation with the U.S. Constitution.

Succeeding George Wythe (a signer of the Declaration of Independence) as a law professor at William and Mary, St. George Tucker wrote numerous essays during his tenure explaining how to apply Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the laws of England (an influential 18th century treatise on the common law of England) to an independent American judicial system. Separate from his work at the College, but just as influential, Tucker wrote political commentaries, pamphlets, and even poems. Soon after the publication of Blackstone, he became judge of the highest court in Virginia in 1803 and President James Madison appointed him the U.S. District Judge for Virginia in 1813, a position he held until his resignation shortly before his death in 1827. As a testament of his many accomplishments, the Henry St. George Tucker House is now used as the Donor Reception Center at Colonial Williamsburg.

Carrying on the tradition of an interest in law, St. George Tucker’s sons, Henry St. George Tucker (1780-1848) and Nathaniel Beverley Tucker (1784-1851)—and the next two generations of Tuckers in Virginia—were lawyers, law professors, writers on political and other topics, and served in public office.

Henry St. George Tucker, born in Williamsburg in 1780 during the Revolutionary War, was a Cavalry captain in the War of 1812. He later studied law at the College of William & Mary before opening his own law practice in Winchester, Virginia. Serving as a judge for the Superior Court of Chancery for the Winchester and Clarksburg Districts from 1824 to 1831, he may have traveled through the region that would later bear his name.

A Republican, he was a United States Congressman from March 4, 1815, to March 3, 1819, and a Virginia State Senator from 1819 to 1823. After refusing an appointment to the United States Supreme Court from President Andrew Jackson, Tucker was named President of the Supreme Court of Virginia (later renamed Chief Justice) by the Virginia Assembly. According to an article on the Virginia Supreme Court’s website titled “A Short History of the Supreme Court of Virginia,” Henry St. George Tucker was the first president after the court’s name was changed to the Supreme Court of Appeals in 1831. He held that position until his resignation in 1841.

Henry St. George Tucker went on to write books on natural law, constitutional law, and the laws of Virginia. He taught law at the University of Virginia from 1841 to 1845, while authoring the University's 1842 honor system for students. Resigning in 1845 because of poor health, he would later die of natural causes in 1848, only eight years before the new county of Tucker would be named in his honor.

Upon seeing the signature of Henry St. George Tucker in the order book after joining the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia in 2013, I had no idea that he and his family were so prominent in the Virginia judiciary throughout the years. I also assumed that his time on the bench was confined to hearing cases in Richmond, Virginia. However, I learned that legislation passed by the Virginia Assembly in 1831 required Virginia’s highest court to meet annually in Lewisburg, in Greenbrier County. When West Virginia became a state, the order books from that court became the property of the new state and made their way, eventually, to Charleston. This explained why I found the Virginia Supreme Court orders signed by Tucker in the 1830’s in our Supreme Court vault, even though we did not become a state until 1863.

As Henry St. George Tucker discovered while riding between courts, Virginia’s Randolph County was vast and mountainous, with residents of northern Randolph County finding the trip to the county seat in Beverly long and arduous. The 1855 petition signed by my great-great-great grandfather, Aaron Loughry, Sr., stated that residents were at a “most grievous disadvantage” in traveling as many as forty-five miles across steep mountains and whitewater rivers to the county seat for business. A copy of this petition is located in the West Virginia Archives in Charleston.

The difficulty of acquiring a sufficient number of signatures from a widely scattered and isolated population for submittal as a formal petition to the Virginia Assembly must have been daunting. Moreover, it must have seemed unlikely to even those individuals signing the petition that, in the stormy years leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, the Virginia Assembly would address their concerns. Yet, historical records indicate that after recognizing the petition in January of 1856, the Virginia Assembly took less than two months to establish the new county, as reflected in Hu Maxwell’s 1884 History of Tucker County.

A Virginia Assembly delegate from Lewis County, John Brannon, moved to name the new county “Tucker” in honor of Henry St. George Tucker on January 14, 1856. The final bill creating the county passed on March 7, 1856, establishing the new county's seat of government in the town of Westernford which, according to Mr. Maxwell, was renamed “St. George” in honor of Henry’s son, St. George Tucker, the Clerk of the Virginia Assembly at the time. The younger St. George Tucker, like his father, had studied law at William and Mary and had previously served as Clerk of the Virginia Senate. The county seat was moved to Parsons, a town incorporated in August of 1893, although the county records had been moved from St. George to Parsons—some say illegally—on the night of August 1, 1893. But that’s a story for another day.

As I riffled through the mountains of books, learning about the rich history of Tucker County, I found it fascinating to learn more about its namesake as well as my great-great-great grandfather’s involvement in the creation of the county. It was also unexpected to discover that while I am fortunate to currently be able to serve as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, that the man I was researching was once the Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court.