Southside Region

Southside Virginia includes the Roanoke River watershed, south of the James River
Southside Virginia includes the Roanoke River watershed, south of the James River
Source: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, The State of Virginia from the best Authorities (by Samuel Lewis, 1794)

Southside is traditionally defined as the region south of the James River, east of the Blue Ridge, west of Tidewater, and north of No' Carolina. In the early 1700's the colonial governors were accused of favoring development of the region north of the James River, and "Southside" was the frontier at Southampton and Brunswick counties. Governor Spotswood built Fort Christianna, but he purchased land in the Rapidan/Rappahannock watershed and started his Germanna colony there.

If you accept the James River and North Carolina boundaries, then the northern and southern edges of Southside are relatively easy to define. However, the residents of Chesterfield and Powhatan counties (and even Petersburg, Colonial Heights, and Dinwiddie) might prefer to be classified as part of the Richmond-centered "capital region" now.

Sunlight on the Southside (1934) starts with:
The title chosen for this work, makes appropriate some explanation of what is meant by "The Southside." The Southside is territory on the south side of James River but just exactly what area is referred to when the term is used is not always clear.
After multiple efforts to clarify the region's boundaries, the author concluded with:
The section from Lynchburg to Richmond, City Point and Petersburg; and from Danville to Emporia, and beyond, has clear right to classification as a part of the Southside. Making something in the nature of a composite of the views expressed by the distinguished authorities consulted, it would seem that the counties of Greenesville, Dinwiddie, Prince George, Surry, Sussex, Southampton, Chesterfield, Brunswick, Mecklenburg, Lunenburg, Nottoway, Amelia, Powhatan, Cumberland, Buckingham, Prince Edward, Charlotte, Halifax, Pittsylvania, Campbell, and Appomattox are entitled to be regarded as comprising the Southside; while neighboring counties eastward and westward in greater or less degree have the traditions and social characteristics which give the Southside its unique position in the history, the politics and the literature of the State.

Even before the construction of the James River and Kanawha Canal, Lynchburg was economically linked to Richmond. With the construction of the South Side Railroad and the Richmond and Danville Railroads before the Civil War, the Appomattox River watershed was linked closely to Petersburg and the Chesapeake Bay economy. So perhaps you could define Southside by a different watershed other than the James, and say everything south of the Nottoway/Appomattox and Roanoke/James divides is "Southside" now.

One characteristic of the Roanoke River watershed is the number of large hydropower reservoirs. There may be as many large powerboats in Southside as you see in Tidewater... Those reservoirs are actually enhancing the water quality downstream. As noted in a US Geological Survey report, A Spatial Characterization of Nutrient Concentrations for the Albemarle-Pamlico Drainage Area, North Carolina and Virginia:

Nutrient concentrations generally decreased downstream in the Roanoke River, which drains an 8,473-square-mile predominately forested and rural basin. The Roanoke River Basin is about 32-percent agricultural land and 5-percent developed land. The decrease in nutrient concentrations in the Roanoke River reflects the influence of several lakes downstream from major point-source nutrient contributions to the basin. These lakes trap phosphorus associated with particulate matter, and algae assimilate some of the dissolved nutrients.

It's harder to draw the line on the eastern and western edges. One possibility - draw the eastern line on the watershed divide separating the Chesapeake Bay drainage from the Chowan/Albermarle Sound watershed. However, this would separate the northern and the southern halves of the modern-day cities of Suffolk, Chesapeake, and Virginia Beach. Few people would consider Back Bay, adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean, to be a section of Southside - it's clearly part of the Tidewater region.

The regions could be separated by a cultural feature - Interstate 95. But Southampton County was the scene of a slave revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831... and creeping suburbanization from Norfolk has not reached that far west - yet. A better alternative might be the statistical boundary defined by the Office of Management and Budget, the Norfolk--Virginia Beach-- Newport News Metropolitan Statistical Area. That would leave Southampton in Southside, separated from Isle of Wight, Suffolk, and other communities further east.

There's a historical basis for that boundary. During the Civil War, the Blackwater River was the dividing line between the Union-occupied territory and Confederate Virginia. The Confederate picket lines were porous enough for thousands of "contrabands" - as the Northern generals categorized the enslaved blacks - to flee east out of Southampton County, across the Blackwater River and into freedom.

Technically, however, they had to avoid travelling further east if they wanted to stay legally free. At the start of 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in all of Virginia "except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the c ounties of Berkeley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Anne, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth." Slaves who crossed the river into the Union camps in Isle of Wight or Nansemond (now part of the City of Suffolk) were freed by Lincoln's proclamation. However, if they kept travelling east and crossed the Dismal Swamp and entered Norfolk County (now part of the City of Chesapeake) or the cities of Portsmouth and Norfolk, they entered a region occupied by the Union in 1862. Lincoln avoided disturbing local arrangements in Tidewater by exempting slaves in that region.

As a result, the status of Tidewater slaves could have become an issue, if the South had managed to stalemate the war and negotiate a settlement rather than surrender. At Yorktown, about 85 years earlier, Cornwallis abandoned to the "rebels" most of the Virginia slaves who had escaped into the British lines during the American Revolution.

Perhaps you could define "Southside" by the range of tobacco growing. Three comercial sales "belts" for Virginia or brighht tobacco have been defined by the tobacco industry - the Old Belt, Eastern Belt, and Border Belt. West of the Blue Ridge into Kentucky and Tennessee, farmers grow burley tobacco. It is a darlker leaf, air-dried rather than flue-cured.

The western edge of Southside butts up against the Blue Ridge. on the northern edge, Franklin County could be considered part of Southside... but it's known more for moonshining in the mountains rather than for its tobacco. After all, Lynchburg was a major tobacco processing center, and that city is south of the James River.

Drop south towards the North Carolina line and you'll run into the county seat of Patrick County, Stuart. It is in the Pee Dee River watershed - wastewater from the town flows through the Carolinas before reaching the Atlantic Ocean, far south of the Albemarle Sound.

Economically, you could make a case that the communities west of Halifax County are part of "Southern Piedmont" industrial region rather than more-agricultural, forested Southside.. That's the conclusion of Dr. Jim Fonseca, who defined The Nine Regions of Virginia, in an article published in the Virginia Geographer.

He based his regions on the boundaries of planning districts. Southside consisted of three districts - Southside (13), Piedmont (14) and Crater (19) - while the Southern Piedmont-Valley Industrial Zone included four districts - New River Valley (4), Fifth (5), Centra l Virginia (11), and West Piedmont (12).

By that definition, Petersburg was lumped together with South Boston and Halifax, which were split from the Danville Metropolitan Statistical Area. Obviously, the names of the planning districts don't match the names assigned to the regions in the article... another clue that it's as much art as science to define the regions of Virginia.

A decade later, it is clear that the economic boundaries have meaning. The impacts from post-NAFTA closure of textile plants are of serious concern in Halifax, Pittsylvania, and Henry counties. In contrast, east of the river, businessmen in Chase City and South Hill in Mecklendurg County are focused more on the emergence of microtobacconists such as Bailey's, hoping that a new way of curing tobacco can maintain the economic value of that staple crop in the region.

Even further east, the rural roads are filled with timber trucks carry pulpwood to mills in Roanoke Rapids (North Carolina) and Franklin - plus numerous vehicles trailering boats for use on Buggs Island reservoir - rather than tractor trailers loaded with materials for producing sweatshirts and other "fleece goods."
State Senate Districts in Southside
original map from Senate of Virginia

Another way to define "Southside" is by State Senate districts. In particular, the elected representatives from the 15th, 18th, 19th, and 20th districts would traditionally be considered as representatives of Southside Virginia interests. The State Senators from the 23rd and the 11th districts would also be considered close allies, if not card-carrying members of a Southside Caucus.

Transect Along Route 58

Only two of the counties and cities along the North Carolina border were among the fastest- growing communities between 1980-94:
Community   Population
Manassas   95.4%
Spotsylvania   92.0%
Stafford   75.2%
James City   65.5%
Loudoun   64.1%
Chesterfield   59.3%
Virginia Beach   59.1%
Prince William   58.7%
Gloucester   55.6%
Greene   51.1%
Chesapeake   45.0%
Fairfax   43.9%
Fauquier   41.2%
Frederick   40.5%
Bedford   38.4%
Fluvanna   36.5%
King George   36.0%
Hanover   34.4%
York   32.4%
Warren   30.8%

In addition, Newport News (22.3%), Isle of Wight (21.1%), and Suffolk (11.9%) were among the top 50 Virginia communities that grew within that time - all part of the urbanizing Tidewater region. Greensville (with 16.0% growth) was also in the top 50, but that reflected a unique population shift - the opening of a state prison, rather than urban growth.

Even though Virginia overall grew nearly 20% between 1980-92, there were nearly 50 communities that lost population during those dozen years. The Route 58 corridor had 40% of those communties that decreased in population:

Community   Population
Portsmouth   -.2%
Carroll   -.7%
Patrick   -.7%
South Boston   -1.0%
Henry   -1.3%
Grayson   -2.7%
Halifax   -4.2%
Norfolk   -4.9%
Bristol   -5.0%
Lunenburg   -5.4%
Danville   -5.4%
Lee   -6.0%
Sussex   -6.3%
Southampton   -6.8%
Emporia   -7.2%
Scott   -7.5%
Wise   -8.6%
Martinsville   -12.1%
Norton   -13.8%

Obviously Virginia's growth was not even throughout the state... and the Southside and Southwest regions lost population to the Tidewater, Richmond, and Northern Virginia regions. The distribution of the wealth of the state was also unequal (counting the cities and counties of Fairfax and Roanoke separately):

Community   Per Capita
Money Income
(1989 $$$)
Falls Church   $26,709
Arlington   $25,633
Alexandria   $25,509
Fairfax   $24,833
Fairfax   $21,929
Loudoun   $20,757
Fauquier   $19,195
Manassas   $18,554
Goochland   $18,312
James City   $18,139
Henrico   $18,019
Prince William   $17,833
Lancaster   $17,698
Albemarle   $17,448
Chesterfield   $17,423
Rappahannock   $17,260
Poquoson   $16,930
Roanoke   $16,627
Hanover   $16,463
Stafford   $15,917

One way to distinguish Southside from Tidewater is to look at the map of planning district commission boundaries. However, PDC's are voluntary associations. Surry County is included in both the Crater and the Hampton Roads PDC now - and would have been considered "Southside" in the 1700's and perhaps as recently as the 1990's....

You can also delve into statistics such as general revenue for local government finances based on the County and City Data Books.

Lee -
Scott -
Washington -
Grayson -
Carroll - $19,299 Patrick -
Henry -
Pittsyvania -
Halifax -
Mecklenburg -
Brunswick -
Greensville -
Southampton -
Suffolk -
$59, 648
Chesapeake -
Virginia Beach -

in 2016 the urban centers of Richmond and Lynchburg plus their suburbs had access to televsion and internet services via cable (blue area on map), but Amelia, Cumberland, and Buckingham counties relied upon slower DSL and wireless technology
in 2016 the urban centers of Richmond and Lynchburg plus their suburbs had access to televsion and internet services via cable (blue area on map), but Amelia, Cumberland, and Buckingham counties relied upon slower DSL and wireless technology
Source: Virginia Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance, Coverage Maps



Regions of Virginia
Geography of Virginia