Hickey’s Ordinary was the last stop on the Great Wagon Road before entering North Carolina for many years. Wagons filled with families usually camped somewhere along the Smith River in southern Virginia. Known as the last leg of the trip: colonial families were anxious to cross over into North Carolina and begin picking out suitable land claims and home sites. The area close to Fort Trial consists of several military roads dating to the French and Indian War. Other narrow routes connect the local area to the main highway leading into Petersburg and points east. The period for the majority of these early paths’ date before 1747. The families would view Smith River on the right and spot a dirt road to the left just beyond Fort Trial. This old road was known as Hickey’s Road. Everyone knew about this last stop for supplies along the Great Wagon Road.
After rounding the left turn, several wooden structures would appear on the horizon. One can picture wagons parked and livestock in the corral. Possibly a few old lively tunes were playing in the background as some of the children played outside. The fragrant scent of fresh hot meals simmering on the fire would fill the air. During the peak season, Hickey’s Ordinary was a bustle of activity filled with all types of noises and chatter. The store was a popular stopping point for supplies for over forty-five years. The last inn before reaching North Carolina. The last tavern before entering North Carolina. The last store selling gunpowder, dry goods, cloth, various tools, and much more. Hickey sold all of the supplies that the families needed before settling on the frontiers of Carolina. Hickey’s Ordinary accomplished the task and met the needs of most migrating parties. John Hickey must have had some hindsight to the future or just good luck on his side. The traffic along the road rapidly grew due to the tremendous number of families migrating south. Hickey remained popular throughout his lifetime, and profits soared.
Who is John Hickey? What do we really know about him? Many sources state that John Hickey was born in Middlesex, Virginia, between 1711 to 1713. These same sources claim John’s father as John Hickey, Sr. The father married and had several children but, it’s uncertain how many. Hickey Sr.’s death seems to record 1723 in Middlesex, Virginia. If this is true, young John Hickey was just a child around ten when his father died. The older records housed in Middlesex County were damaged and burned during the Civil War. So, the early history of John Hickey and his family still have missing pieces and lacks the required proof. By 1740, John is a peddler in Lunenburg County, Virginia. He learns colonial trading skills with success and begins to expand his enterprise. In just a few short years, Hickey transforms his humble beginnings; from peddler into a well-organized major supplier in southern Virginia. A successful supplier must acquire the knowledge of his consumers, know what they need and what they desire. At the same time, the supplier must know the ship’s cargo, arrival dates, purchasing the correct quantity at the best price. A colonial supplier must relate to all of these things comfortably. Utmost importance lies with his British subjects and the ability to maintain friendly relations and acquire trustworthy friends within the business. John Hickey achieves all of this in less than ten years.
To reach the southern Virginia frontier with supplies was not an easy task. In the past, packhorses dotted the landscape with various items packed in sacks and barrels. But Hickey visioned a different dream that required a road. In June of 1747, a petition by John Hickey to the court of Lunenburg County appears on the records. A road extending from Staunton River to the Mayo Settlement at the foot of Wart Mountain was approved. Known as Hickey’s Road, it measured just over one hundred miles in length and provided clearance for wagons to reach the region. With any successful business, a basecamp or headquarters must accompany the plan. Hickey acquired a large land tract southwest of Smith River and placed his home on a knoll overlooking the valley below. He continued operating his business and eventually established a mill, an ordinary, and a store on his property. Hickey instructed his crew to build a fort to protect his family and neighbors. Other new forts in the area were Fort Trial, Fort Mayo, and the fort along Blackberry Creek. These forts averaged twelve miles apart and no more than twenty-five miles. John Hickey’s popularity continued to grow as wagons appeared on the roads with migrating families heading south to North Carolina.
The Moravians traveled through the area in 1753 and noted John Hickey in their diaries. They described him as friendly and greeted them first on the road. In 1756, Hickey received a visit from George Washington, as he inspected the military forts in the area. Washington’s expenses from his overnight stay at Hickey’s Ordinary amounted to 21 shillings and 3 pence. Hickey enjoyed the fruits of his labor for many years. He married and fathered at least eleven children; eight sons and three daughters. How many migrating families stopped at Hickey’s Ordinary? We may never know that answer. For forty-five years, the Hickey enterprise carried on until his death in December of 1784. His family carried on the business for several years, mainly by his eldest sons, James and John. But the next generation had new dreams, and eventually, the lands were sold to other families moving into the area. According to Henry County land records, the original land tract was sold by 1800 to the Turner family. The fort fell in disarray, and soon the remaining buildings began to deteriorate as well. John Hickey: once referred to as the prince merchant, is buried in an unknown location in Henry County, Virginia. His original homesite offers little clues to what was there all those years ago.
What was the area like for our ancestors? What things did they see when they entered upon Hickey’s land? One can only imagine these things today. The average store of the day had many items for sale or trade. Prices varied from the 1750s to the American Revolutionary War years. Flour, for instance, saw an increase of 50% in most areas by 1778. Higher British taxes affected all purchases after the French and Indian War. Due to the longevity of Hickey’s Ordinary, he made sure his shelves were stocked and ready for the weary travelers. Did your ancestors visit John Hickey?
John Hickey was a man with a vision who lived in one of the most adventurous periods of our history. He witnessed the rapid growth of Virginia as the population moved further west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Hickey settled in the wilderness frontier in southern Virginia and secured safety by constructing forts and building roads. He witnessed the battles and attacks by the French and saw the demise of the native tribes before he died. He proved that opportunities were available to his children, and his personal success was testimony to all who knew him. John Hickey was not a war hero, and he didn’t change history for the world. But with documents and various materials, we are given the opportunity to learn more about him. Thanks to these records and the research, we can appreciate the life of John Hickey and those who knew him.
- A History of Henry County, Virginia by Judith Parks America Hill published by Regional Publishing Company Baltimore, Maryland 1976
- Henry County, Virginia Register of Deeds Records
- Hickey’s Road by Carol Baker Wahl published 1997 Article posted by Mitchells Publication
- History of Halifax County, Virginia by Wirt Johnson Carrington published by Appeals Press Incorporated Richmond, Virginia 1924
- History of Patrick and Henry Counties, Virginia by Virginia G and Lewis G Pedigo published by Regional Publishing Company Baltimore, Maryland 1977
- Journal of George Washington 1756 stored at the National Archives Washington D.C.
- Kegley’s Virginia Frontier by Frederick Bittle Kegley published by Southwest Virginia Historical Society 1938 p.115
- Moravian Diaries of 1753 transcribed by Adelaide Fries stored at Moravian Southern Province Archives Winston-Salem, North Carolina
- The James Hickey Family by Olan R. Lewis 1988
- Wages, Prices & Cost of Living by Carroll D. Wright published by Wright & Potter Printing Company, Boston, Massachusetts 1889 pp. 594, 20, 110.