Staunton River Tour
Halifax County, Virginia
Coles' Ferry

(Taken from Herman Ginther's book "Captain Staunton's River" - 1968 - with permission from the author.)

(Also see Dolley Madison and the Coles Family of Virginia.)

Coles' Ferry was probably the granddaddy of all the Staunton River crossings. Located some eight miles downstream from Brookneal as the crow flies, but somewhat farther by winding road, the old ferry was for many years the main crossing on the north-south route through this area as far back as colonial days.

In bygone years Coles' Ferry was a place of some importance. Besides the ferry, there was a general store and an "ordinary," or tavern, a resting place for travelers and their horses. Also, it was a post office that served the area and was the official address of many of the famous old Charlotte County plantations such as "The Oaks," the Rice home; "Woodburn," the Edmunds home; "Ridgeway Plantation," the Kittridge home, and others.

Charlotte County records show that John Coles had land grants on both sides of Staunton River as far back as 1740.

Two ancient stone mileposts stand beside a gully near the old McKendree churchyard in Halifax County, not far from Millstone church. The hand-carved inscription on one reads, "Right to Panels 22 Mls. Left to Meadsville 2 Mls." and on the other, "Left to Coles Ferry 17 Mls. Right to The Court House 8 Mls. 1828." The markers indicate that this almost forgotten place was once the main crossroads of Halifax County. The "Panels" referred to was the river crossing at Samuel Pannill's Green Hill plantation near Long Island.

In his book, "Halifacts," Dr. W. B. Barbour wrote that in 1753-1754 Halifax County Court was held at "Punch Spring" on the Coles' Ferry Road, near the present village of Crystal Hill. The place is believed to have gotten its name from a fine spring of cold water behind the house where court was held, and the abundance of mint that grew wild there, making it an ideal spot for the people who attended court to enjoy their mint juleps in the old Virginia tradition.

Isaac Coles
Partial image of a portrait of Isaac Coles contributed by Danny Ricketts.
Col. Isaac Coles was one of the first 11 congressmen and one of the 12 signers of the U.S. Constitution. Before he died he moved to Pittsylvania Co. and is buried northeast of Chatham off the Chalk Level Road. Click on the image to see a photo of the toomstone.
Our stories have said that Baron von Steuben halted with his troops at Coles' Ferry on his southward march during the Revolutionary War, and that George Washington, returning from a trip to the south, crossed the Staunton River there and rested for two nights in a house nearby.

William Cabell Bruce has been quoted as saying that he was told that the house where Washington spent the night was "Mildendo" in Halifax County near Coles' Ferry. However, Mr. Bruce did not definitely identify "Mildendo" as the house, since there were other Coles homes in the vicinity. In his diary, Washington wrote that he spent two nights as the guest of "Col. Coles." Robert Kell, who lives near Coles' Ferry on the Providence road in Halifax County, says it was the Isaac Coles' house on his place where Washington stayed, and Mr. Kell is probably right, as Dr. Barbour says that "Mildendo" was the home of Walter "Halifax" Coles, a brother of Col. Isaac Coles who lived nearer to Coles' Ferry.

This is a good place to take a look at some of the famous men whose names were associated with the early history of Coles' Ferry.

Who was this Baron von Steuben who halted there with his troops? The Encyclopedia Brittanica says: "Frederick William Augustus Henry Ferdinand Baron von Steuben, German soldier, was born at Magdeburg, Prussia, in 1730, the son of William Augustus Steuben, also a soldier. At fourteen he served as a volunteer in a campaign of the Austrian Succession War. He became a lieutenant in 1753, fought in the Seven Years War, was made adjutant-general of the free corps in 1754 but re-entered the regular army in 1761, and became an aide to Frederick the Great in 1762. Leaving the army after the war, he was made canon of the cathedral of Havelberg, and subsequently was grand-marshal to the prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. In 1777 his friend, the count St. Germain, then the French minister of war, persuaded him to go to the assistance of the American colonists, who needed discipline and instruction in military tactics. Steuben arrived at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on the lst of December, 1777, and offered his services to Congress as a volunteer. In March 1778 he began drilling the inexperienced soldiers at Valley Forge, and by May, when he was made inspector-general, with the rank of major-general, he had established a thorough system of discipline and economy.

"Results of his work were shown in the next campaign, particularly at Monmouth, where he rallied the disordered, retreating troops of General Charles Lee. His Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (1779) was of great value to the army. He was a member of the courtmartial which tried Major John Andre in 1780, and after General Horatio Gate's defeat at Camden was placed in command of the district of Virginia, with special instructions 'to collect, organize, discipline and expedite the recruits for the Southern army.' In April 1781 he was superseded in command of Virginia by LaFayette and later took part in the siege of Yorktown. Retiring from the service after the war, he passed the last years of his life at Steubenville, New York, where he died on the 28th of November 1794. New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey gave him grants of land for his services, and Congress passed a vote of thanks and gave him a gold-hilted sword in 1784 and later granted him a pension of $2400."

Can you imagine the Prussian soldier trying to discipline the fearless, fiercely independent mountain riflemen of Will Campbell with the blood of their Scotch Highland ancestors in their veins? He didn't, of course.

Then there was the fast, lifelong friendship and admiration that sprang up between the handsome, dashing Marquis de LaFayette and the rugged Virginia giant of the Revolution, Peter Francisco. And General George Washington, the father of his country, and Patrick Henry, the great and fiery patriot.

All of these men had these things in common: They loved liberty and they fought for it; and at one time or another they left their footprint on the banks of the Staunton River, at Coles' Ferry or nearby.

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William Cabell Bruce wrote in his "Recollections".

"One of my father's habits, when he was on his daily horseback rounds, was to stop, about mail-time, at a general merchandise store on his estate, known as the Coles' Ferry Store, and to spend about an hour there, conversing with his neighbors, of all sorts, who happened to be there, too. With all of them, the landed gentry, the landless whites, and even the illiterate negroes, he had enough in common to make them thoroughly interesting to him, in one way or another, and, at one time, besides, the Coles' Ferry Store was conducted by an Irishman, Mr. "Bob" Cronin, who was a most prolific purveyor of humorous anecdotes for him. From these and his other contacts, during the day, my father would often come home to dinner as richly loaded down with neighborhood gossip, humorous or otherwise, as is with honey the body of a bee that has spent an hour or so in a field of clover blossoms. His faculty of humor, to say nothing of his rare powers of perception and generalization, or his fine gift of literary expression, was such that, during his last years, I implored him, though in vain, to reduce his recollections of plantation life to the form of a book."

There is nothing left at ColesFerry except a tree-grown gully road that was once the main north-south route through this area, and two stone high-water markers, one erected in the flood of 1877, and the other placed there by P. H. McKinney in the flood of 1940. The markers show that the flood of 1940 was about three feet higher at Coles' Ferry than that of 1877.

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