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New Research vs Old Myths

New Research


Old Myths

Below is a summary of the correspondence between Hugh Seay and Paul Shelton, an archivist at the Library of Virginia, concerning the current research being done by Paul on the history of the Halfway House. Upon completion of this research, the final version of the history of the Halfway House, complete with sources and documentation, is to be printed in the August 1999 issue of the Journal of the Chesterfield Historical Society.

Paul has graciously granted me permission, upon publication of the final article, to display a summarized version on our web site. Information on obtaining a copy of the entire article will be given at that time.

I am entirely indebted to Paul Shelton and Hugh Seay, both of whom are descendants of William Hatcher, for this very important contribution to the genealogical community.

- Nel Hatcher


While much has been written on the history of the Halfway House in Chesterfield County, little of it has been well documented. Several years ago at the request of my grand aunts, the Hatchers, I asked some friends to research the county records for information on the Halfway House. The result was erroneous in that it relied on secondary resources instead of a thorough search through the Order books, minutes, and ordinary bonds of the County Court. It perpetuated the myth that the old tavern dates to 1760, a myth that apparently originated with an interview my great grandfather E.T. Hatcher gave to the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the 1920s.

In 1993, as part of my job as an archivist at the Library of Virginia, I arranged the loose court records of Chesterfield. Once inaccessible, these valuable records are now available for research. I have not completed research on the Halfway House, but I have determined dates of operation for two distinctly different ordinaries by that name - one operated north of Kingsland Creek by Richard Gregory, near his plantation New Oxford (1815-1826), and the current structure two miles south, operated between 1827 and 1835 by Gregory's daughter and her first husband, William Hatcher, then from the late 1830s to the 1860s by Sarah and her second husband, John Peers.

I have also found evidence that an ordinary called "Halfway House" was in existence as early as 1807, operated by one Cole Powell. Whether it was the same structure used a few years later by Richard Gregory, or at a completely distinct location, I do not know. Prior to 1815, when Richard Gregory opened his ordinary, the toll road which is now Jefferson Davis Highway (Route 1) was only in the planning stages. Therefore, any structure located along Route 1 purported to have been a tavern could not predate Gregory's Halfway House. Virginia laws dating to the 17th century forbade the establishment of ordinaries at any places other that ports, seats of government, along major highways, or at crossroads. These laws were relaxed only after the start of the nineteenth century. It wasn't until the establishment of the Manchester-Petersburg Turnpike, constructed between 1814 and 1826, that either Richard Gregory's or William Hatcher's ordinaries would have been legal establishments under Virginia law.

Both Richard Gregory and William Hatcher were shareholders in the company that built the toll road. Gregory, already wealthy from inheritance, well placed marriages, and a long, successful legal career, had plenty of money to help build a stage business and a tavern. As he aged into his seventies in 1826, he apparently passed on the business to his neighbor and son-in-law William Hatcher, who built it on his property just north of Proctor's Creek, about two miles south of the original tavern. The actual transfer of locations for the Halfway House appears from the records to have been 1827 when William Hatcher paid the tax for his first Ordinary bond. Also, State maps produced in 1819 and 1827 show the Halfway House clearly located just north of Kingsland Creek along the turnpike (see map at Library of Virginia's web site ). but a map for 1828 shows it south of Kingsland Creek and just north of Proctor's Creek, recording the change of location to William Hatcher's property.

A careful look at the Ordinary bonds today shows that while Richard Gregory was the issuee of the bond for the Halfway House in 1815, his son Richard A(ugustus) Gregory made bond to operate it in 1821. Richard A. Gregory died the same year that his brother-in-law William Hatcher died (1835) and nine years before the death of his father. Apparently he gave up on running an ordinary about the time William Hatcher built his. It obviously was a family decision to transfer ownership and location since both ordinaries served in succession as stage coach stops and post offices. The chances that they coexisted at the same time, so close together, is highly unlikely.

In his 1844 will, Richard Gregory, then 88, refers to a structure on his property as the "old tavern," a clear recognition of the existence of Sarah and John Peers' Halfway House further south.

Sarah and her two husbands are buried together in the Hatcher burial ground down the hill from the tavern.

While most Virginians who operated taverns lived in them along with their guests, it is likely that the Hatchers lived in a separate home - possibly the old home place, Hatcherville, believed to have been located a short distance behind the Halfway House. It was apparently demolished early in this century. Fortunately, the tavern has survived - thanks entirely to the foresight and hard work of the Tennants, Benders, and Youngs, the Halfway House's twentieth century owners.

Erase the romantic notion of a colonial tavern. During the period prior to 1800, country taverns (more appropriately termed "ordinaries") would have been dreadful places to stay when travelling. the taverns one visits today in Colonial Williamsburg would have been the best public lodgings available because they were located at the seat of government for the colony. But out in the countryside of Virginia, at crossroads and ferries, ordinaries catered primarily to the poorer travelers. Descriptions of these places refer to the terrible food, poor service, bug infested lodgings, and noise of drunken lodgers. Travelers during the pre-Revolution period preferred to stop at a plantation and ask for a place to sleep. Plantation owners were more often than not willing to oblige because travellers were one's best source of news from outside their isolated communities. by the 1820s, ordinaries were more numerous, as were newspapers, so the Halfway House run by our ancestor, William Hatcher, in combination with his stage coach business, a store and post office, did quite well. The inventory taken after his sudden death (possibly epilepsy) in 1835 show a well furnished tavern, with barroom, ballroom and dining room, as well as lodging rooms on the third floor. He left Sarah with a thriving business that she, with the assistance of her second husband, John Peers, was able to keep in operation for many years afterwards.

- Paul Shelton


Note: The purchase, restoration, and current use of the Halfway House is not meant to be implied as "myth", only those references to its "history".


The Old Halfway House on the Petersburg Turnpike

The famous old Halfway House, stopping point for hundreds of notables, was built in 1760. In 1935 restoration of the old tavern was completed and it was opened with impressive ceremony. General Robert E. Lee, Benedict Arnold, Charles Dickens and others visited the tavern.

The following caption is quoted directly from the News-Leader.

THIS FAMILIAR and in recent years unattractive structure, which has stood on the Petersburg Pike since about 1760, has been purchased by W. Brydon Tennant who will have it restored to its condition when it was a popular tavern and stage ordinary, and will make it the headquarters of the Petersburg Pike League, an organization whose purpose is to improve and beautify the highway between Petersburg and the capital. Illustration by courtesy of the News-Leader.

Halfway House was built in 1760 on a grant of land from George II of England, by a patent dated 1743. Among its famous guests were Washington, Lafayette, Patrick Henry, Jefferson, Lee, Grant, James Whitcomb Riley and scores of others. In fact, as the horse change and rest stop for the Petersburg Coach, everyone who traveled South of Richmond, from the Revolution until late in the 19th century, stopped here, if only for rest and refreshment.

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Last updated February 19, 1999