The Early Days of the Board of Supervisors
For as long as most people can remember, York County has been governed by an elected board of supervisors. No one really knew when this governing body actually began. I sometimes wondered about this myself. I often looked over old court records and found out that before the Civil War, York County was ruled by a court and a selected group of jurors. So, when was the board of supervisors born?
Here is how I found out. My grandfather served on the York County Board of Supervisors from 1952 when he took over John Smith’s unfinished term to his death in December 1963. He had just been defeated in the November 1963 election. I was curious about what issues he might have considered and voted on in his term on the board.
I was interested in what records of the Board of Supervisors were available and just how far back they went. I asked former supervisor Jim Funk who referred me to Ellen Simmons of the county administrator’s office.
Mrs. Simmons was very helpful and allowed me to view several volumes of the minutes of the Board of Supervisors. As of this writing, I have spent several hours reading these records and still have not gotten to what my Grandfather did.
Here is the story of the early days of the York County Board of Supervisors taken from their minutes.
First, I want to give a little background on why York County went to this particular form of government.
In 1870, Virginia adopted a new state constitution. This was the time of the end of reconstruction and Virginia was ready to re-enter the Union. The state basically had to start over from nothing.
After the end of the Civil War, Virginia’s governor was Francis Peirpont. He was the governor of the Western counties of Virginia that had remained loyal to the Union during the war. In reality, a Union general governed Virginia named John M. Schofield. Virginia was part of the First Military District. .
In 1868, it Virginia was allowed to vote on whether or not to adopt a new constitution. The voters overwhelmingly voted in the affirmative. The new constitution took affect in 1870. One of the things that the 1870 Constitution called for was a revamping of county governments. Instead of being ruled by a court of selected jurors, Virginia’s counties were to be governed by an elected board of supervisors.
The York County Board of Supervisors first met on October 3, 1870. The members were:
Samuel Wornom of Poquoson
William Ware of Grafton
Washington Fields of Nelson
H.M. Waller of Bruton
This was to be the organizational meeting of the new board. Mr. Wornom made a motion nominating Mr. Waller as the chairman and he was duly elected. One interesting note about this first board was that Washington Fields; the Nelson district supervisor was an African-American. He owned a great deal of property around the Yorktown area, including a large tract near the Moore House.
One of the first things that the board had to consider was the lack of boundaries in Yorktown. Many of the land boundary lines were wiped out by the erection of earthworks during the early days of the war. At that time, the Board of Trustees governed most of Yorktown. In 1870, only two Trustees remained. The others either moved away or died. The Board of Supervisors had to give a list of names for the state General Assembly to consider. One of these names was that of Washington Fields.
Another early consideration of this first board was the building of government buildings in Yorktown. The York County Courthouse was destroyed in an explosion on December 16, 1863. The county was fortunate that the records were stored in an icehouse in West Point during the war and did not suffer the fate of records of other counties that stored their records in Richmond. When Richmond burned during the Confederate evacuation, most county records burned with it.
It was decided to build three buildings. First was going to be County Court clerks office, next a courthouse and finally a jail.
The new clerks’ office was to be sturdy and “fireproof”. Money was raised for this construction by selling timber from county owned property near the Poorhouse. The Poorhouse tract was located between what are now Ella Taylor Road and Showalter Road. The remaining buildings had to be financed by tax levy. The board was deadlocked two to two over whether or not to have this early tax hike. . It was agreed that the York County Circuit Court judge be given a “ special” deciding vote. He voted in the affirmative and the tax issue passed. A courthouse was built on the same property that had the York County Courthouse since colonial times. This courthouse remained in use until New Years Eve, 1940 when it burned. A jail was built behind the courthouse that remained in use until the late 1930s, when it was razed and a USO building was built in its place.
The early Board of Supervisors also had many other accounts to consider. Some of these were:
Major Moore for work on roads 9.00
Thomas Amory –Constable… 1.60 for arresting a man for lunacy and summonsing a doctor and witness.
Edward Blair received 64.50 for “cutting down Fort McClelland”
J.W. Smith received 5.00 for acting as Justice of the Peace and acting coroner and holding an inquest on the body of William Scott.
These early Board of Supervisors records also give a window on the history of York County. One example of this was that on March 1, 1872 the board granted William Halstead the sum of 29.36 for the construction of a small pox hospital. William Carter received 26.93 for the construction of coffins for small pox victims who were paupers. This shows that during this time period there was a small pox epidemic among the poor people of York County. The area of part of what is now the Naval Weapons Station was known as Halstead’s Point. The disease also showed up further down the county as Dr. R.H. Power received a sum of money for treating victims in the Grafton area.
Another interesting point is that on June 8, 1871, they highly recommended that the special police were no longer needed as the court had already appointed a group of constables and they “ were duly qualified for the discharge of their office”. I have yet to find any information on these “ special police. Until the late 1890s, constables handled law enforcement. During the early 1900s, the county sheriff began to take over law enforcement duties. Before that, the sheriff only handled court duties.
I have found that that these records are very interesting, especially during emergencies. Just after the 1933 hurricane, the Board of Supervisors held several special meetings to deal with the damage. I look forward to reading these records and looking through this particular window into York County history.