Where did Cumberland County get its name from?

Published 7:53 am Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Where did Cumberland County get its name? That’s a question which comes up often and it all goes back to the Duke of Cumberland, William Augustus. Recently, the Historical Society received a portrait of Augustus, donated by Dale Robinson, now of Miami, Florida. This was donated in honor of his ancestor Sen. John (Lipscomb) Robinson, who lived in Cumberland County until 1908. 

But who was William Augustus? The Duke of Cumberland was born on April 15, 1721 in London, England and was the third and youngest son of King George II. After he had succeeded in smashing the Jacobite uprising, his followers made him a national hero in the colonies. Cumberland County, Virginia is one of many counties, towns and other areas named in his honor. 

By the time of the Jacobite Rebellion, Augustus was commander-in-chief of the British forces fighting France on the American continent. In 1745, as Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempts to regain the crown for his father, James Stuart, gathered momentum, Cumberland was recalled to put down the rebellion.  

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After his success, the Duke of Cumberland was nicknamed “Sweet William” by his supporters but “Butcher Cumberland” by his opponents. Things didn’t end well for the Duke, however. After he retired from military life in 1757, he was imprisoned for debt and eventually died in the Fleet Prison on Oct. 31, 1765. 

Pieces displayed in Cumberland County 

The portrait of William Augustus is on permanent display at the Cumberland museum. It’s one of several pieces you can find at the museum, which is located in the old clerk’s office at the courthouse complex on U.S. Route 60. 

There’s a couple other items currently on display, including a collection of Madame Alexander dolls, which portray the hostesses and First Ladies at the White House from George Washington to Lyndon Johnson. Each one is dressed in the style from the period of history in which they lived. 

Also at the museum, there is a smaller collection of Madame Alexander dolls, each depicting characters from familiar rhymes and books, as well as dolls from other countries dressed in the style of their homeland. You can also find antique dresses and furniture at the museum, all donated by the McRae family, who lived at Locust Level, located on Route 45 South in Cumberland. The McRaes were prominent citizens in the county and were instrumental in the construction of the current public library. 

The museum also has miscellaneous portraits on hand of former Clerks of the Court, along with military portraits and other items. 

More about the Society’s history 

So what is the Cumberland County Historical Society? We’re a group that formed in 1981, after feeling that a continuing effort must be made to uncover and record as much of Cumberland County history as possible. We’ve made it our mission to not only search for the historical past but to document current events. 

The Society has published two hard-backed books, Cumberland County and Its People and Cumberland County and Its People Vol. II. The Society has also published four supplement and 27 historical bulletins, all documenting current events and uncovered historical facts about Cumberland County. 

It is dedicated to family history and genealogy and will aid folks who are looking for their roots.   Society meetings are held on Sundays at 2 p.m. in February, April, June, October and December and are open to the public.

In conjunction with the Cumberland County Museum Board, the Historical Society operates the County museum. The museum is open most afternoons to visitors and researchers alike and those interested in visiting may call 804-492-3348 to make sure someone will be available to them.

Finally, the Historical Society would welcome the loan of any items to display at the museum.  Historical items are always welcomed but the historical society would also be interested in unusual collections and in displaying the handiwork of our citizens (i.e. quilts, woodwork, etc.)

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of monthly columns by the Cumberland Historical Society, providing information both about the Society itself and some of the artifacts in its collection.