A brief History of Bedford County

Copyright 2000 Peter Viemeister


Bedford County is located in southwestern part of the state of Virginia, between the cities of Roanoke, to the West, and Lynchburg, to the East. It is bounded on the North by the Blue Ridge Mountains with the majestic Peaks of Otter, and on the South by Smith Mountain Lake, and on the East by the James River.

Long before the coming of European explorers, native American Indians lived here, at least as far back in time as several thousand years B.C. The initial explorers in the 1600's reported finding tribes of Saponi, Tutelo, and Monacan.

The English colony of Virginia was divided into eight shires in 1634. The shires were subsequently subdivided into large counties, and then smaller counties. Bedford County was formed from Lunenburg County by an act passed Dec 13, 1753, to take effect on 10 May 1754, with the seat of government to be the community of New London.

The County was named Bedford, in honor of John Russell, the fourth Duke of Bedford, who was Secretary of State of Great Britain at the time.

Settlers came to Bedford to farm and to exploit the natural resources of timber and fertile lands, well watered by springs, creeks and streams fed by rains coming off the mountains.

Lula Jeter Parker, in _Parker's History of Bedford County_, records that "Campbell County was taken from Bedford County in 1782. Again, in 1786, Bedford gave of her territory for the formation of still another county, Franklin, to which Henry County also contributed". See description at History from Hamilton's & Viemeister - Books on-line gives description of Parker's book.

The county seat was moved in 1782 from New London, then near the Bedford-Campbell border, to a more central location, with a new log courthouse, on land donated to be the new Town of Liberty.

In 1786 John Lynch obtained charter to start a new town on the James River, which later became the City of Lynchburg.

In 1806 President Thomas Jefferson began construction of the octagonal summer retreat home, "Poplar Forest", on land inherited decades earlier by his late wife.

Much of the manual labor on the farms and plantations was done by slaves. From Slaves to Satellites notes that "In the 1850's, some 69% of all landowners owned slaves." See Slavery to Satellites - 250 years - Excerpts

_Historical Diary of Bedford_ records that on April 1, 1852 the Virginia & Tennessee railroad ran an excursion from Lynchburg to Forest Depot and back.

War between the states encompassed people of Bedford. A History of Bedford County (in the 1884 Hardesty's Encyclopedia) says "When the Richmond convention passed the ordinance of secession, April 17, 1861, Bedford County citizens enthusiastically ratified the action of their delegates to that body. The services of three Bedford companies were the first in the State tendered and accepted by Governor Letcher after the call for troops, and nine companies were in the field before the close of May, 1861." More info at History from Hamilton's & Viemeister - Books on-line gives description of this book, which contains some family histories and a roll of Civil War soldiers..

An estimated 15,000 Federal Union army soldiers, commanded by Gen. David Hunter and intent upon capturing Lynchburg, streamed over the Blue Ridge between the two Peaks of Otter, came into Bedford in June 1864. They skirmished to the outskirts of Lynchburg but "Hunter's Raid" failed its objective. The Peaks of Otter Life and Timesexplains. "General Hunter believed that the Confederate forces in the city were too strong for his tired and hungry men. The next day he retreated, followed by Confederate snipers, losing one hundred men as he passed back through Liberty and on into West Virginia." See Excerpts from The Peaks of Otter - Life and Times

Slavery ended during the war. After enduring a tedious economic recovery after the end of the Civil War, Bedford industry flourished in the 1890's and tourists enjoyed the mountains and resort hotels. Liberty changed its name to Bedford City. Excerpts from the 1887 _Sketch Book of Liberty, VA_

Bedford County escaped harm during the first World War, but agonized during World War II, as hundreds of its young men were casualties of battle. D-Day extracted a terrible toll: 19 Bedford men died on Omaha each in the D-Day battle at Normandy.

After peace returned, businesses prospered. A dam was built on the Staunton River, creating Smith Mountain Lake, which reached full pond in 1966. The lake stabilized electricity production and became a powerful lure for retirees and vacationers.

The legend of the Beale Treasure reemerged in national media. For more about the legend, click on Hamilton's & Viemeister - Excerpt from _The Beale Treasure_

Restoration began on Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest home.

The strong postwar economy had fostered growth in Roanoke and Lynchburg, and many city workers chose to make their homes in Bedford County, a place admired for its natural beauty, low taxes and low cost of living.

During the 1980's and early 1990's, Bedford was one of the faster growing counties in Virginia. As the population swelled, newer residents stimulated the need for more schools, more roads, and more law enforcement, changes which caused local government to expand and taxes to rise.

Now, Bedford is proud to be the site of the new National D-Day Monument. President Bush was one of 22,000 people at the dedication on 6 June 2001.

Genealogists can find family information by visiting the Courthouse and the Bedford City/County Museum


Historian Peter Viemeister is a resident of Bedford and author of _Start All Over - An American Experience_.