March 25, 2012
Kempsville today is a busy place, with thousands of cars rushing through day and night. With roads changing names and intersections torn up and rerouted, it’s hard to imagine what it might have been like when ships laden with tobacco set sail from its docks.
When the town was the political center of Princess Anne County, boasting a new courthouse building; when it was a cornerstone of public education, hosting the county’s first public school; when it was a magnet for religious worship and Baptist and Episcopal churches were established.
Or when, on a cool November day at the dawn of the American Revolution, the first blood of Virginia patriots was spilled, and from that moment British rule in the largest of the American colonies began to crumble.
It all began because the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River gave Princess Anne County farmers ready access to a deepwater port from which to ship tobacco and other goods.
And because a fellow named George Kempe opened a store at a deep water landing in 1652, importing English goods, bricks and lumber. By the turn of the century there were numerous tobacco warehouses as Kempe’s Landing, as it became known, became a tobacco inspection site.
Then there was the puffed up and rather jumpy John Murray, the fourth earl of Dunmore. The last of the colonial governors had recently fled from Williamsburg and sailed into Norfolk Harbor with a small fleet of warships. From his ship, HMS Fowey, he blustered against the patriots, launched a raiding party to seize their presses and threatened to teach them a lesson.
”I really believe we should reduce this colony to a proper sense of their duty,” Lord Dunmore told his commanding general.
In October 1775, Dunmore got wind that there was a stash of gunpowder at Kempe’s Landing and sent troops to seize it. They came away empty handed, through, supposedly because Peter Singleton, an elegant officer with a fondness for cards, rode into town -- Paul Revere-style – to warn that they were on the way.
Next, Dunmore learned that militia were mustering at Kempe’s Landing and on November 15 personally led a force of British grenadiers and loyal militia to deal with the upstarts. The locals fired first but were quickly routed by the superior British force. One patriot, John Ackiss, became the first Virginian killed in the war. A couple of others may have drowned trying to flee across the river.
The victorious Dunmore set up temporary headquarters at the home of George Logan, a Scotch Tory. This is believed to be the still-standing Pleasant Hall, although others contend that Georgian Mansion was in fact built by Singleton.
At any rate, Dunmore then demanded that everyone in town take a loyalty oath. Many who did so swallowed bitterly as red cloth loyalty badges were pinned to their coats.
Dunmore held a lavish celebration at the Logan residence and then, flushed with victory, sent his troops to be slaughtered at Great Bridge by well-entrenched patriots. It wasn’t long after that he bombarded Norfolk and Set sail for England. It was the end of British rule in Virginia.
As for those who had suffered the most from the loyalty oaths? They held a “victory ball” in the summer of 1776 after news of the Declaration of Independence reached Kempe’s Landing. A plaque marks the spot of the dwelling where the celebration was held.
Most historic buildings in Kempsville were either destroyed by fire or developers who had them torn down. This includes the old jail, which for a time, was a private school and then, in 1848, the county’s first public school. As historian Stephen S. Mansfield puts it, “public education first saw the light of day” at that location.
Now the City of Virginia Beach is hoping to recapture some of Kempsville’s past by transforming the original crossroads into a small village of shops much like Williamsburg’s Merchant’s Square.
There should be plenty of interest today when city officials explain the plan during a 2:30 pm meeting of the Princess Anne County/ Virginia Beach Historical Society at Emanuel Episcopal Church,
Illustration: Artist Emily Whaley’s sketch shows what Kempe’s Landing might have looked like in the mid-eighteenth century. From the Virginia Beach Beacon.