If a visitor asked who Charlottesville was named for, he might get a quick reply from a knowledgeable resident.
"Why, that would be Queen Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenberg-Strelitz, wife of King George III," the local would say.
The same question gets quite a bit harder when it concerns some of the smaller outlying towns and villages. Chances are pretty good that an inquisitor will be greeted with a blank stare and nary a word if asking how Free Union got its name.
A good guesser might suppose it was a jab at the British during Revolutionary War days. Some might surmise it was coined during the Civil War. After all, Virginia came really close to siding with the Union during that conflict.
Vera V. Via's vision
But no, neither of those wars had a thing to do with the name. Thanks largely to the research done by Vera V Via, we know the name had a much more peaceful genesis.
For many years, beginning in 1948, Via wrote a history column for The Daily Progress named "Looking Back." One of her interests was researching and tracking down how various villages, hamlets and towns in Albemarle County got their names.
Of particular interest to Via was Free Union, seeing as how that was her home town. She started her sleuthing shortly after an article appeared in The Progress in 1956 noting that Free Union was the only village in the nation with that name.
Via quickly determined that hadn't always been the case. As late as the 1890s there had been a Free Union in Kentucky.
However, around the turn of the century, the town disappeared from the maps of the Blue Grass State. Via - was never.able to determine why the town vanished, but that doesn't mean she didn't give it a good try.
In Search of a name
The persistent historian sent letters to the chamber of commerce and the postmaster in the nearest town in an attempt to find out what happened. Her inquires went unanswered.
Via then focused her an discovering some Interesting facts behind the hamming of her favorite hamlet in the hills. Her research revealed that towns get their names in a variety of ways.
Perhaps a name came from a prominent landmark or, as was often the case was derived from the name of a family who settled there. One certainty was the place name never became official until a post office with that name was established.
If the name of the town is to the liking of the postal service, for whatever reason, it gets changed. Such was the fate of Free Union.
To begin with, Via revealed to her readers that the present site of the village was not where the original had sprung up. The initial settlement, consisting of Fretwell's Store and Garrison Meeting House, was about two miles west.
Sometime in the early 1800s, a free black man known as Nick set up a blacksmith shop at the crossroads where Free Union is now. Soon a few other buildings sprang up and it became known as Nicksville.
During the 1830s the Methodists and Baptists established churches near the blacksmith shop. The Baptist Church was a union meeting house and was called Free Union Church.
Via pored through old Charlottesville newspapers and found notices of religious meetings at Free Union Church as early as 1840. By the end of that decade, it was reported that 31 families lived within a two-mile radius of Nicksville.
It was clear that Nicksville was growing. A sure sign that a place had gone from a few buildings to a village was the establishment of a post office.
Via felt a post office came to Nicksville soon after the Civil War when, a number of them were opened throughout Albemarle County However, it likely came sooner than that, as records indicate the first postmaster of Nicksville was Henry Harris, who received his appointment on March 8, 1847.
But the location of that first post office is not known. What is certain is that when the post office arrived, it made things a lot easier for the locals. Previously they had to pick up their mail at Ivy Depot, several miles away.
When the post office arrived it also presented a problem. There was a Nicksville already in the county with a post office. The two places were spelled differently, but were pronounced the same.
Nicksville had to change its name. When it came to name changing, the custom at the time was to give the honor to a local school teacher. So it was that the privilege was presented to Patty Cosby.
Via couldn't find any evidence as to why the teacher chose Free Union for the new name. She theorized that it probably had to do with the already long established name of the nearby church.
The history buff went back to old newspapers and began looking for the earliest references she could find to the name Free Union. They started to pop up in the 1870s and 1880s.
One of the earliest was in an edition dated Dec. 1, 1870. The story concerned an "Election Day riot in which seven men were arrested in Free Union on charges of disorderly conduct.
Another newspaper tidbit that appeared later on found it rather strange that Free Union didn't have a bar. Apparently some enterprising soul took notice of the story and soon the tiny village had a wooden structure on the edge of town where a person could get a stiff drink or two.
By the mid-1880s Free Union had gotten big enough that someone wouldn't miss it if they happened to blink at the wrong time. During a working day the sound of saws and hammers could be heard coming from two shops that built wagons and coaches.
The village also could boast of having two distillers, a couple of liquor salesmen, two mills, two doctors, an undertaker and a couple of dozen farmers in the immediate area. During her research, Via learned that the Old Buck Mountain Road that led into Free Union had a few other names as well. The narrow road had been called both Polecat Alley and Lover's Lane.
It was clear there were some creative people in the area, and they had a way with names. But change comes hard for some folks, especially when a place has carried a certain handle for a long time.
Nicksville might have been changed to Free Union,,but that didn't mean you had to call it that. Via was born in 1914 and she knew people when she was a tyke who were still calling her hometown Nicksville.
The name Nicksville is long gone now, and that's probably a good thing. After all, there's a Nicksville, Ariz., but the only Free Union is right here in Albemarle County.
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