How These Orange County Communities Got Their Names

With over 33,000 people, Orange County is one of the most populous counties in central Virginia (Albemarle County notwithstanding). It was officially recognized in 1734, when Spotsylvania County was divided. The county was named for Prince William III of Orange. It’s known for two very historical places, Barboursville and Montpelier, home of fourth U.S. President James Madison.

At a point, Orange spread as far west as the Mississippi River and, possibly as far north as the Great Lakes. Some historians contend that, at this time it was the biggest county in American history. The county saw limited conflict during both the American Revolution and the Civil War, though it’s purported that Confederate General Robert E. Lee took up headquarters here. After the Civil War, the agriculture-driven Orange County started to focus more on livestock and dairy operations. Virginia designated over 30,000 acres in the western parts of the county, naming it the Madison-Barbour Historic District. This district–which includes Barboursville, Montpelier, and parts of the Monticello Viticultural Area–was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.



Barboursville is on land in Albemarle County and land in Orange County. It takes its name from Barboursville, the mansion designed by Thomas Jefferson for James Barbour, the influential statesmen who eventually became Governor of Virginia. The mansion burned 62 years after it was built, in a great fire on Christmas Day. The ruins are relatively well-preserved and serve as a regular tourist attraction, due in part to Jefferson’s hand in designing the building. The land on which the ruins are situated belongs to Barboursville Vineyard, one of the most important wineries in the Monticello Viticultural Area.


Gordonsville is an actual town, rare for most of the counties in the central Virginia area. It’s named for Nathaniel Gordon, who in 1787 picked up 1,350 acres of land. The seller? People allege that he was a cousin of James Madison. At the turn of the century, Gordon got a license to open and operate a tavern where people could eat and stay the night. Like many taverns at this time, it became a crossroads of information, travel, and political discussion. Thomas Jefferson himself referred Gordon’s Tavern (later known as Gordon Inn) as a “good house” sometime circa 1802, while recommending routes that went from the central Virginia area to the newly-built Washington, D.C. It was at the intersection of two highways, one a stage coach road from Charlottesville to Fredericksburg, and one a route that led from Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley. The inn burned down in 1859, was rebuilt as the Exchange Hotel, and is now the Civil War Exchange Museum. One of our favorite places in Gordonsville is the BBQ Exchange, a restaurant with some of the best BBQ this side of the Carolinas. Every February, their seminal Porkapalooza attracts thousands of visitors.

Locust Grove

The U.S. Census has this listed as Orange County’s largest population center. It was established by Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood way back in 1714 and at one point was considered the western frontier of Virginia. Spotswood built a home on part of the Rapidan called Porto Bella. The community is named for the prevalence of black locust trees in the area. The part of the Rapidan River which passes through Locust Grove was part of the Union-Confederacy frontline, and Union General Ulysses S. Grant had a headquarters around the area.


James Madison’s sprawling, 2,700-acre plantation. The precise origins of the name are uncertain, but we know Madison expressed a fondness for the word “Montpelier”, which comes from the French spelling for the term “Mount of the Pilgrim.” There’s also a French resort called Montpellier. Madison inherited the original building from his father, who built it around 1764; two stories of brick, laid in the Flemish bond pattern. It had many resources, i.e. smithy and tobacco crops. Madison was especially proud of the estate and added extensions to it throughout his life, including a Tuscan portico and single-story flat-roofed extensions to create separate living quarters. Madison died in 1836, and he is buried in the family cemetery. Montpelier was owned by the Du Pont family for most of the 20th century. In 1984, the National Trust for Historic Preservation took it over, aiming to restore/recreate the site’s 19th-century conditions, when James and Dolley Madison owned it. This is the result of a $25 million restoration effort. Montpelier is a National Historic Landmark and became an entry on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

Montpelier Station

This small community in Orange got its name from–you guessed it–James Madison’s home. It’s about 3.5 miles from the Town of Orange. Montpelier Station is home to the Montpelier Depot, an old train depot built by the Southern Railroad Company in 1910. The depot is remarkably well-preserved and provides considerable insight regarding the use and construction of these depots. It’s very close to the main entrance of the Montpelier estate.


The Town of Orange is one of only two towns in Orange County (the other being Gordonsville). It’s the county seat of Orange County, and derives its name from the same source, Prince William III of Orange. It was an incredibly strategic location during the Civil War, given the proximity of the Rapidan River. In fact, historians contend that for a period of over two years, from March 1862 to May 1864, it was effectively the northern border of the Confederacy. Robert E Lee had his headquarters there for awhile…he’s purported to have worshipped at the St. Thomas Episcopal Church over on Caroline Street. The church is actually still standing.


Just five miles from the Town of Orange, Rapidan gets its name very obviously from the Rapidan River. Indeed, it is located on either side of the River. The Orange and Alexandria Railroad also ran through the city. The presence of both the river and the railroad meant that the community took a beating during the Civil War.


We are unable to find a historically valid etymology for the beautiful community of Somerset.  We have read that it came from the surname of one of two men: either Thomas Somerset, who landed in Virginia in 1622 or William Somerset, who settled in Virginia in 1684. It’s home to Frascati, Philip Pendleton Barbour’s Federalist-style home and estate. It was built between 1821 and 1823 by John M. Perry, celebrated for working closely with Thomas Jefferson on Monticello and the University of Virginia in nearby Albemarle County. Philip Barbour had better luck than his father James Barbour, whose nearby mansion burned on Christmas Day in 1884.