Amherst Courthouse

Sweet Briar College student Jessie Barry (left) and Emily Smith (right) sift through soil searching for artifacts at the archaeology site in Nelson County on Sunday morning. Sam O'Keefe/The News & Advance

As the autumn afternoon threatens rain, there’s evidence of a fire.

Chunks of molten glass and charcoal are removed from a hole in the ground, as well as ceramic fragments with their glaze burned off.

Numerous pieces of the past are littered throughout the property.

Over the weekend, a team of around 30 archaeologists and Sweet Briar College students descended on a Nelson County farm to glean information on the lost village of Amherst Courthouse.

It would have been an ideal stopping point for travelers, with its nearby spring, access to the original Stage Road that led to Lynchburg and long vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Crouching beside a round hole nearly three feet deep Sunday, Randy Lichtenberger, director of cultural resources for the surveying and engineering firm Hurt & Proffitt Inc., pointed out clues to the town’s long-forgotten history.

Perhaps the signs of a fire long ago indicate the location of a building that tumbled into itself after a conflagration, he said.

Lichtenberger has been interested in the history of Amherst Courthouse, later known as Cabellsville, for more than a decade.

After acquiring a 19th-century diary written by a member of the Cabell family, early settlers of Nelson County, he joined the Cabell Foundation, a genealogical organization. He learned of the old Amherst Courthouse site from the foundation’s Facebook page.

His duties at Hurt & Proffitt often entail archeological research, and Lichtenberger received a grant to study the site from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources this summer.

Behind the two-story home of the property’s current homeowners, Lauren and Ronald Anderson, lies a partially hidden line of bricks suggesting a building’s foundation.

Approaching the front of the house is a brick walkway, hidden for years under a few inches of topsoil that Ron Anderson slowly exhumed at an earlier time, along with a brick pad whose purpose is unknown.

In a plot of ground that now houses the family’s tomato plants, researchers have dug a hole that reveals pieces of brick and gray chunks of mortar.

“We’re just starting to scratch the surface on our research,” Lichtenberger said.

In 1761, Amherst County was formed from Albemarle County, and was made up of the territories of present-day Amherst and Nelson counties.

A county seat was chosen in the center of the jurisdiction — near present-day Colleen in Nelson County.

According to a report made by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration of Virginia, the first court at Amherst Courthouse was held at “Henry Keys Ordinary,” a tavern. A physical courthouse would be built later.

In 1803, the town was named Cabellsville, and there might have been additional buildings within the settlement including a jail, a lawyer’s office and an inn.

“All we can do is kind of guess what may have been out here,” Lichtenberger said Sunday.

The splitting of the county in 1807 proved to be the death knell for the village.

No longer was Cabellsville in Amherst County, nor was the town in the geographical center of the newly-formed Nelson County.

The same year, a new location for the Amherst County seat was moved to the present-day Town of Amherst. In Nelson County, the county seat was moved to nearby Lovingston, and a courthouse was completed in that village in 1810.

The degradation of buildings would have happened relatively quickly, according to archeologist Liz Paull.

“Once the economics goes away, the people go away, ” she said.

Reve Carlwile Jr., a volunteer on the dig, felt a special connection to it. An early relative was in the Amherst militia and might have traveled to Amherst Courthouse to fill out deeds or other business.

“I feel like I’m walking in some of my ancestor’s footsteps,” Carlwile said.

Artifacts were placed into two main categories: architectural, such as bricks, nails and mortar; and domestic, comprising of ceramics, glass and even a few bullets.

Once the dig is complete, artifacts will be transported to Sweet Briar, where they will be cleaned, labeled and analyzed.

The old Amherst Courthouse site has been in Lauren Anderson’s family since the early 1900s. Anderson’s sister, Gayle Clements Lucado, remembers their grandmother digging flowerbeds at the property and tossing bricks that she had found into nearby fields.

“We are so interested to find the village and courthouse,” Lauren Anderson said. “It’s been calling to us for years.”

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Contact Sherese Gore at (434) 385-3357 or

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