Natives of note

In this 400th anniversary year, we are hearing a lot about Thomas Dale, Chief Powhatan, John Rolfe, Nathaniel Bacon and other prominent figures in Henrico history.

But what about notables such as John James Beckley, Herman Melton, John Minor Botts, Opossunoquonuske and Jane Bolling Randolph?

What's that, you say?

These names aren't familiar at all?

Well, thanks to a team of researchers from the Henrico Library, you can find out about their roles in county history with just a few pecks of the keyboard.

To mark the 400th anniversary, the team recently compiled a list of more than 100 people who have helped shape the development of Henrico County.

Working from an idea originating with Beverly H. Davis of the 2011 Commemoration Advisory Commission, the committee of librarians devised a set of standards, researched nominations submitted by commission members and the general public, designed a database and wrote descriptions.

The response to the Notable Henricoans Database (NHDB), said Assistant Library Director Christine Campbell, has been "overwhelmingly positive."

"Patrons are delighted to find this resource collated in one place with such rich and diverse entries," said Campbell.

To date, the NHDB website has had 2,802 hits since its September debut. Among the feedback from patrons was a comment passed on by committee member Andrea Brown, who said that a man interested in history and genealogy praised the database for its well-written and well-researched entries.

"He feels the database is an important resource for people to learn about their community and the persons who were important in the development of Henrico County," said Brown. "He thinks every county should have a similar database, because the NH one captures information that would not be easy for the layman to find."

As it happens – now that Henrico has received state and national recognition for the NHDB – it's quite likely that other localities will create similar databases, using Henrico's as a model.

The National Association of Counties recently awarded Henrico County Public Library its Outstanding Achievement Award for the NHDB, while the Virginia Public Library Director’s Association awarded HCPL its
Outstanding Public Relations Award.

The citations noted that while the information about local individuals had previously been scattered throughout various documents, it is now easily accessed through the database, and will serve as a model for online publishing of local historical information.  

Officials at Henrico County Public Schools have also taken notice of the NHDB's usefulness, and will introduce all fifth-grade students to the NHDB when they study Henrico County history at the beginning of the school year.

Servants, generals and queens
The NHDB has proven useful not only for schoolchildren, library patrons, and local officials looking for a model system. Committee members who researched the nominees and wrote the entries said they also found it an enjoyable learning experience.

Lead Research Librarian Mike Shoop counted Jane Bolling Randolph and Herman Melton among the favorite subjects of his research. Randolph, an 18th century descendant of Pocahontas, left behind the earliest surviving culinary manuscript in America, while the African-American Melton worked as a lab assistant at the Medical College of Virginia during the era of segregation.

In addition, said Shoop, "It was surprising to discover that General George Pickett [famed for Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg] was born and raised in Henrico – I had not been aware of that." He also enjoyed his research on John Minor Botts, a Henrico lawyer and politician jailed by the Confederate government for his Unionist leanings, and on Abraham Wood. "[Wood] arrived in Henrico as an indentured servant," said Shoop, "and had a successful career that included discovering and naming the New River in 1654."

Among other interesting notables Shoop cited were John Pleasants, who donated land for the first Quaker Meeting House in Henrico; Opossunoquonuske, a.k.a. "Queen of the Appamattocks," one of the first Virginia Indian leaders to meet with the English in 1607; and Alice Proctor, "who managed to repel her attackers during the Indian Massacre of 1622 and save her home."

Christmas mothers, explorers, governors
Committee member Andrea Brown remarked that she especially enjoyed researching John James Beckley and Mittie McGraw Nelson. 

Appointed by Thomas Jefferson as the first Librarian of Congress in 1802, Beckley – the man for whom Beckley, West Va. is named – served as clerk of the House of Representatives as well. Beckley has also been called the first professional campaign manager for his efforts to organize support for Thomas Jefferson as president.  

Mittie McGraw Nelson, the first Henrico Christmas Mother, was somewhat of a challenge for Brown to research.

"I had some difficulty obtaining her first and last names due to the custom of married women being listed as a 'Mrs.' and not under their own names," said Brown, who eventually found Nelson's first and maiden names in a 1978 newspaper obituary. Then she used a number of newspaper articles to research the origins of the Christmas Mother program and the reasons Nelson was elected as the Mother.

Other librarians remarked that they enjoyed learning about John Garland Pollard, the 51st governor of Virginia, and Thomas Batte, who explored the New River Valley in 1671 looking for a path through the Appalachians.

Kay-Lyn Merritt noted that a favorite subject of her research was John Cussons of Glen Allen, who built the 125-room hotel named Forest Lodge at the intersection of Mountain Road and the railroad tracks. 

"In the summers when my children were young, we drove to the swimming pool on Brookley Road and passed the old building almost every day," said Merritt.  "I knew it must have an interesting history and enjoyed finding out about how Cussons worked to make  Forest Lodge a destination resort, and how his cantankerous personality alienated his neighbors." 

As a member of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (LGBG), Merritt said she also took a personal interest in the story of Grace Arents, whose Bloemendaal Farm began as a rural retreat for sickly youth and is now the site of LGBG. "I hadn't realized," said Merritt, "the extent of her philanthropy and what a difference she made in education and social improvement in Richmond."

A third favorite of Merritt's was Edward Thurston Mankin, who owned the brick foundry in eastern Henrico that supplied bricks for the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg and is today owned by a couple who operate it as a bed-and-breakfast and wedding site. 

Bound to grow
Perhaps the best thing about the database, say librarians and committee members, is that it is an ongoing, living thing with ample opportunity for public interaction.

Each month, for example, the library includes a "tidbit question" in its online newsletter to promote the NHDB. Drawn from information in a database entry, the question wins the first correct respondent a prize.

What's more, says Campbell, the database is in no way complete. Aware that they may have missed notable Henricoans – and that future notables are still living and therefore ineligible – the designers made it easy to submit corrections or nominate others for inclusion through the website.

Before they can be included in the database for public access, however, the entries must first be approved by the Commission. Of 233 entries in the database, 149 have been approved to date.

"I always like to state that notable Henricoans from Pocahontas to Jimmy Dean, and everyone in between, are represented in the database," says Christine Campbell.

And as Mike Shoop points out, the list will continue to grow and get better.

"We have quite an assortment of other interesting folks waiting in the wings for addition to the database as well," says Shoop. "So there’s more to come!"
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