The Northern Neck is the northernmost of three peninsulas (traditionally called "necks" in Virginia) on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in the Commonwealth of Virginia (the others are the Middle Peninsula and the Virginia Peninsula). This peninsula is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. It encompasses the following Virginia counties: Lancaster, Northumberland, Richmond, and Westmoreland.
The inclusion of King George County in the Northern Neck varies among commentators. Historically the grant for the Northern Neck included all land between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, including far upstream of King George County — some 5 million acres. The boundaries of King George and Westmoreland counties have changed radically since their establishment, with significant exchanges of territory. Significant portions of the early King George County lay in what is now Westmoreland County.
The original Northern Neck land grant in 1661 was a land grant first contrived by the exiled English King Charles II in 1649. It encompassed all the lands bounded by the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers and, later, by a straight line (the "Fairfax Line") connecting their sources. This grant is significantly larger than the area currently known as the Northern Neck. The original grant was given to a proprietor. Semi-autonomy relative to the colonial government was provided by the proprietorial government until the American Revolution.
Most of the early development occurred on the eastern end of the peninsula where the Potomac and Rappahannock provided navigable waters. The autonomy and the excellent natural resources led the richest planters to establish tobacco plantations in the Northern Neck. Because of this influx of well-to-do planters, an aristocratic society grew earlier than in areas to the south. From this society, arose many leaders of the Revolution and the future young republic. These differences created strong antipathies between the regions.[page needed] Later as the remainder of the mid-Atlantic states became developed, the importance of the Northern Neck would decline. It was relatively isolated from main trade routes and cities. This isolation may be a product of the earlier antipathies related to the differences in society in the Neck and in the regions further south.
In 1687 a widespread slave conspiracy was crushed in the Northern Neck. During a mass funeral, slaves in the area planned to kill all whites and escape. The plot was discovered and its leaders executed. When authorities learned that they had plotted the uprising at gatherings for slave funerals, they prohibited such events.
The next year, the Northern Neck was the site of another attempted uprising, this one led by "Sam, a Negro Servt to Richard Metcalfe." A repeat offender, he had "several times endeavored to promote a Negro Insurreccon in this Colony." "To deter him & others from the like evil practice for time to come," the court ordered the sheriff of James City County to whip him severely, and return him to the Westmoreland County sheriff to be whipped again. Sam was sentenced to forever wear "a strong Iron collar affixed about his neck with four sprigs." Should he leave his master's plantation or remove the collar, he would be hanged.
Many important historical figures were born on the Northern Neck, including U.S. presidents George Washington (Westmoreland), James Madison (Port Conway in King George), and James Monroe (Westmoreland), as well as signers of the Declaration of Independence, Francis Lightfoot Lee and Richard Henry Lee, and the Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee. Richard Henry Lee was elected as the sixth President under the Articles of Confederation. Also residing in Westmoreland was Colonel Nicholas Spencer, member of the House of Burgesses, secretary and president of the Governor's Council, and on the departure of his cousin Thomas Colepeper, 2nd Baron Colepeper (aka Lord Culpeper), acting Governor.
Mixed vegetable and grain farming were adopted by the later colonial period. During the Colonial period, the Northern Neck was referred to as the "Athens of the New World" because of its collection of rich landowners dedicated to learning, gentlemanly society, and civic duty. They based their elite society on the exploitation of slave labor by Africans and African Americans.
The area later developed a strong seafood industry. Reedville was once the wealthiest town in the United States, due to its menhaden fishing industry. Before the era of modern highways, many passenger and freight steamer routes linked the Chesapeake Bay region and connected with the railroads developed after 1830.
During the American Civil War, Northern Neck and in particularly King George County were on the frontier between the Union and Confederate armies. As such, King George was an operating base for spies on both sides. The Union forces controlled the Potomac River and the north shore of the Rappahannock River further upstream for much of the war.
While trying to elude Union cavalry, on April 21, 1865, the co-conspirators John Wilkes Booth and David Herold crossed into the Northern Neck in King George County from Maryland after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln. Booth and Herold landed at the mouth of Gambo Creek before meeting with Confederate agents, who guided their passage to Port Conway. There, they crossed the Rappahannock River to Port Royal in Caroline County. Booth was killed and Herold captured a short distance away at Garrett's Farm.
Colonial Beach, a small incorporated town in Westmoreland County located on the Potomac River waterfront, developed as a popular tourist spot for the people of the Washington area in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It offered a beach, swimming, and gambling. The gambling facilities were built on piers extending into the Potomac River to ensure they were inside Maryland, as the state border runs along the southern low tide line of the Potomac River. With the end of gambling, Colonial Beach declined in popularity as a tourist destination. It and the rest of the Northern Neck still continue to attract dedicated outdoor enthusiasts for fishing and boating.
The region has 1100 miles of shoreline, containing beaches, marinas, old steamship wharfs and small towns that date to colonial times. Today small farms, vineyards and wineries are interspersed with retirement communities and rural businesses that share the land. Since the 1970s, wine-making has increased in importance in the Northern Neck. The federal government has recognized the Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace American Viticultural Area as a sanctioned wine appellation for wines grown in the five counties.
Significant portions of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge lie in the Northern Neck. It is also home to five state parks/natural areas, including Caledon Natural Area, Bush Mill Stream Natural Area Preserve, Dameron Marsh Natural area, and Westmoreland and Belle Isle state parks. The George Washington Birthplace National Monument is a national park.
- A.T. Johnson High School Museum - one of the first African-American high schools in the Neck, located in Montross
- Essex County Museum and Historical Society in Tappahannock - relates Neck history from pre-colonial through today
- George Washington Birthplace National Monument documents the life of local George Washington and agricultural practices of the colonial period
- Historic Christ Church in Weems - built in 1735, is one of the best-preserved of colonial Virginia's Anglican parish churches
- Kilmarnock Town Museum - local history
- Kinsale Museum - local history
- Museum at Colonial Beach - local history
- Westmoreland County Museum & Library - local history
- Richmond County Museum - local history
- King George County Historical Society Museum - local history
- Mary Ball Washington Museum and Library - features Lancaster County History with exhibits and speakers. The History and Genealogical Library has approximately 10,000 books and manuscripts, with emphasis on the Northern Neck, Virginia and Maryland colonial records, local family genealogies, plantations and churches, and all major state and local periodicals and magazines
- Menokin - home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, who signed the Declaration of Independence, located in Warsaw
- Morattico Waterfront Museum - features the Morattico Country Store, wharf, and crab and fishing industry along the Rappahannock River in Lancaster County
- Northern Neck Farm Museum - farming in the area
- Reedville Fisherman's Museum - local fishing industry
- Steamboat Era Museum - history of steamboats when the rivers were the most important transport routes in the state
- Stratford Hall Plantation - built in 1730, birthplace of Robert E. Lee, exhibits of his life
In 2004, the Menokin Bluegrass Festival was launched in Richmond County at the ruins of Francis Lightfoot Lee's ancestral home, Menokin. The festival attracts thousands of bluegrass fans every year to celebrate the Northern Neck's musical and historical heritage.
The Richmond County Fair, started in 1889, is dubbed the "biggest Little Fair in the South". It is held the last full week of August in Warsaw. The King George Fall Festival, founded in 1959, is held the second weekend of October in King George County. All proceeds from this event go to support the King George Fire & Rescue. The Fall Festival Committee is made up of representatives from all of the county's community organizations. The Fall Festival includes a parade through town, a carnival, a craft fair, a dance, and the Fall Festival Queen Pageant.
Stratford Hall hosts an annual Historical Haunts program. Activities include ghost tours of the Great House, pumpkin painting, various Halloween crafts, picture-taking with Frankenstein and a witch, and an 18th-century fortune teller.
Tourism is a significant source of economic activity in the Northern Neck region. Visitors are attracted to the natural resources, and history and heritage of the peninsula. Natural attractions include national parks, state parks, and agri-tourism, while a number of historic sites related to the nation's founders are open to the public. Colonial Beach, Westmoreland State Park, Rappahannock River National Wildlife Refuge and many other locations provide water access for fishing, boating, and yachting. The region has twenty-seven marinas.
Nine wineries are in the region and may be found on the Chesapeake Bay Wine Trail.
Other popular Northern Neck attractions include Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee and a fine example of a Virginia plantation, George Washington's Birthplace, the Westmoreland Berry Farm, and the Westmoreland State Park with Horsehead Cliffs. The historic Christ Church near Irvington dates to 1735, and is one of the finest examples of an Anglican parish church in colonial Virginia.
- Founded in 1951 by The Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society
- The Official Guide of Virginia's Northern Neck (2007), Northern Neck Tourism Council
- King George County Courthouse Wall Map
- Charles Henry Ambley, Sectionalism in Virginia 1776-1861, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1910
- Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), p. 32.
- Theobald, Mary Miley; "Slave Conspiracies in Colonial Virginia", Foundation, Winter 2005–2006
- George Washington Birthplace National Monument Introduction Film
- Visitor Center Westmoreland Virginia State Park signage
- Town & County Magazine, 26 January 2008
- Trebay, Guy (November 22, 2012). "Virginia's Lost History". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 June 2013.