Gates County was a part of an area originally called “Albemarle”, named for George, Duke of Albemarle. Later, what is now Gates County was split into three separate entities: Hertford, Chowan, and Perquimans counties. Most of the land within the present boundaries was considered to be Nansemond County, VA, until 1728, when William Byrd had surveyed the “dividing line” between Virginia and North Carolina.
The area was in controversy between the two States until then, and both granted land to applicants. It was Chowan County, and a narrow strip of Perquimans, until 1759, when all the area west of Bennett’s Creek was cut off to Hertford County.
Before the settlement of this area by the Europeans, the Nansemond, Chesapeake, Chowanoc/Chowanoke, Meherrin and the Nottoway Indians made their homes here. They were a peaceful people, but once the settlers made their way into the area, unfortunately their days were numbered. After 1711, few Native Americans were found in the county, although there is a large population of Meherrins living in Hertford, Bertie, Gates, and Northhampton counties. It is not uncommon to find traces of these gentle people left behind in the fields of the county. Arrowheads and pottery shards are often found in open fields and along riverbanks.
In the early years of settlement, pioneers had to try to make a living off of land that was riddled with swamps and sandy soil that would not produce. The landscape made many pass in areas further south where land was richer, and had fewer wetlands. Those who stayed behind were a strong and resourceful lot.
The descendants of many of those persevering and strong of the difficult life, those who passed through knew them as friendly and hospitable people.
Many of the surnames represented in the county today originated from some of the earliest pioneers. Names like Brinkley, Eure, Riddick, Benton, Lane, Cowper, Cross and Norfleet, among many others, were the same names that George Washington and other notable Americans were familiar with when they passed through the area in the early days of this area’s history.
From 1728 through 1780, the area grew from a thick wooded and inhospitable land to an agrarian community with many of the same resources that many surrounding areas had. However, the physical characteristics made it difficult to grow into a prosperous urban center, because there were few navigable waterways.
The main commerce was in hogs sold in Nansemond Co., tar (pine pitch) made from the pine forests of the county, and timber from the thick virgin forests.
In 1779 the area between the Chowan River to the West and Southwest, South of the county of Nansemond, Va., West of the Dismal Swamp and North of Catherine Creek and Warwick Creek was separated into a county all it’s own. The physical land barriers of swamps or rivers made it difficult for residents of this area to travel to government seats in bad weather, and it was for this reason, among others that Gates County became an entity of it’s own.
Gates County was named for General Horatio Gates, a Revolutionary War hero. As commanding general at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, he delivered one of the most damaging blows yet felt by English forces in the war. However, in 1780 his failure at the disastrous Battle of Camden transformed him from one of the Revolution’s most esteemed soldiers into one of its most controversial.
In 1780 a courthouse, prison and stocks were built in Gatesville, at that time known as Gates Court House.
In 1830-1831 the Legislature passed an act, which changed the name of the county seat from Gates Court House to Gatesville. In 1836 the Federal style courthouse was built, which now houses the Gates County Public Library and Gates County Historical Society.
General William P. Roberts, who at age 20 was the Confederate’s youngest Brigadier General, was born in Gates County July 11, 1841. He commanded the N.C Cavalry, 12th NC Battalion, Georgia Battalion, Gen W.H.F. Lee’s Division, and Hampton’s Cavalry Corps Army of Northern Virginia. In 1875 he represented Gates County at the constitutional convention, and the following year he was elected to the state legislature. In 1880, he became a state auditor and served in that capacity until 1888. Roberts died in Norfolk, Virginia, on March 28, 1910, and was buried in the Gatesville Cemetery.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, the railroad opened Gates County to new opportunity. Shipment by rail was more efficient and allowed logging operations to move timber cheaply to markets, farmers to ship produce more readily and small towns to burgeon into prosperous communities. It remained this way until the railroads stopped running through the county in 1979, after highways made truck shipment cheaper than the rails.
Gates County has remained close to the same since it was formed in 1778. Other than obvious changes in technology, Gates still relies on the agriculture and timber industry more than any other commercial enterprise. Six of the nine largest manufacturers in the county all rely on the timber businesses, while the majority of jobs are in agriculture.
Many things haven’t changed much since the late 18th century. The county’s population hasn’t even doubled in over 200 years. In 1790 there were 5,372 people living here as compared to the 10,720 of the year 2002. That only adds to the small town feeling of this tight knit community, and the hospitality of the early pioneers is still present in the current residents, as is the resilience and perseverance of their forebears.
- Gates County to 1860 – free online electronic book; published in 1916
- see Gates County History from Wikipedia