“Nobody knows how many funnels descended from the sky and swarmed over the land during that period since observers were few and the habit of recording such not prevalent.

David Ludlum

The above quote is from David Ludlum in his book Early American Tornadoes (1586-1870). During the months of May and June of 1834, at least three major outbreaks occurred. An unknown number of tornadoes slashed their way across southeastern Virginia. Some of the twisters were violent, leaving behind massive destruction and numerous fatalities. In this summary, we’re focusing on the tornadoes of May 5, 1834. We plan to write about the June events in a separate overview. This is the oldest event that Tornado Talk has tackled. Through analysis of newspaper reports, ancestry records, and information from historical societies, we have documented the details of this significant event in Virginia history to the best of our ability.

Maps and Statistics

This was a challenging event to map. We know that the tornado family tracked from west to east approximately 70-80 miles through Lunenburg, Nottoway, Dinwiddie, and Prince George Counties. In some places, the twisters were accompanied by microbursts and downbursts, and the damage was up to three miles wide. Our map doesn’t display a typical “tornado track.” There was just too much uncertainty in the exact placement of where the damage occurred.

Using plat maps and information from historical societies, we have placed markers at locations where damage was documented. Keep in mind that many families owned hundreds of acres of property, and finding the exact spot where the funnel traveled was impossible to determine with 100% accuracy. We found only one map that predated this event. That was from 1820 in Dinwiddie County. The remaining maps were created 30 years after the outbreak. Because of this, we could not locate every home or plantation listed in newspaper accounts. Also, some families may have moved after the tornado struck or sold some of their property and moved to another area. So, their names may not be on a plat map 30 years after the event. We tried only to map the locations we felt the most confident about.

Here is one of the plat maps we used. From the Library of Virginia, A correct map of Dinwiddie County: containing 317200 acres / by Isham E. Hargrave.

There is no rating given to these tornadoes by Thomas Grazulis in Significant Tornadoes, as he has not rated any tornado prior to 1870. For the purpose of the summary, an F-Unknown (FU) rating is being used.

The correct number of fatalities and injuries attributed to the tornadoes is unknown. Grazulis officially lists three deaths and 40 injuries. He does denote a report of possibly up to ten fatalities.

The damage accounts below mainly come from two newspaper articles. One is a reprint in The Philadelphia Inquirer of a May 8, 1934 article in the Petersburg, VA Intelligencer. The second account is from the May 22, 1834, Vermont Republican and American Journal.

Lunenburg County

The first area affected by the twisters was at Hungrytown, located about five miles north of present-day Victoria, near the Lunenburg/Nottoway County border. Heavy timber in the area was “torn up by the roots.” Several log homes were laid to waste, and their occupants, including children, were killed. Unfortunately, the exact total or names of the deceased at this location are not known.

Nottoway County

The storm quickly moved northeast into Nottoway County, and damage was reported near Nottoway Court House. The public road through that area was left “utterly impassable.” The tornado(es) moved just north and parallel to modern-day Route 460. It plowed through the Fitzgerald Plantation. The damage here is not known, but newspapers reported: “great injury was done, but no lives lost.”

The tornado thundered across the property of Mr. John Fitz. Sadly, one slave was killed, and more were injured. Next in line was the plantation of Mr. Justice, where multiple people were severely wounded, and one was killed. Per the Nottoway County Historical Society, at the “Windrow” house, a 6-year-old child was “blown away.” That house is still standing to this day!

The next report of damage we have in newspaper accounts is to the home of Joshua Hawks. The house was leveled, and Mr. Hawks was crushed to death. His wife was severely injured, and it was unclear if she was able to recover.

In Early American Tornadoes (1586-1870), David Ludlum noted that the greatest loss of life and property along the entire path was in Nottoway County. “An official report from a committee appointed to estimate the losses in that county, states that between seventy and eighty houses were blown down, three persons killed, and many seriously hurt, besides the almost total destruction of the large standing timber everywhere in the course of the whirlwind.”

Dinwiddie County

The tornado family crossed Namozine Creek into Dinwiddie County. The first property affected belonged to Herbert Reese. His new wagon was thrown by the violent winds, and the hubs were found at least 200 yards away. The plantation, except the dwelling house, was “blown to atoms.” Tragically, Frank Reese, the overseer, and three slaves were killed. Many others were “badly crippled.”

East of the Reese place was the farm of Jincy Crowder. Every building, including her house, was leveled. Old farmer Reams lived nearby; everything was ruined on his property except his house. There were no fatalities at either location.

The massive complex of tornadoes and downbursts continued to move just north of and parallel to Cox Road. Major damage occurred at the properties of Col. Jeters and Thomas Jordan. Several lives were lost at those two places, but the exact number is unknown. The storm crossed Cox Road at Pool’s Tavern, where two large buildings, a carriage house, and a workshop were swept away. Further down Cox Road, small buildings were vaporized at Kennon Price’s farm.

The next report of damage from newspaper accounts was that of a destroyed wheel-wright, smith shop, and other small buildings at Prosise’s shop on C.H. Road. The storm complex continued east-northeasterly, just missing the Lanter’s and Pegram’s properties by a quarter of a mile.

In this same vicinity, what was possibly some of the most significant loss of life and property in Dinwiddie County occurred. The William E. Boisseau Plantation was located approximately four miles SW of Petersburg. Mr. Boisseau was working in a field and saw a “whirlwind” approaching the house. He ran to get his family out of the residence and ushered them into the garden. The tornado roared in, and they were “knocked down by the flying wreck of their former dwelling.” Only a small portion of the brick foundation remained. William’s 15-year-old- half-brother, Henry, was killed, as was a female servant. William and his wife were severely injured by the weight of the debris.

Not only the dwelling house but the slave quarters, a stable, carriage house, corn crib, and kitchen were all smashed by the tornadic winds. The homes were described as “broken to pieces, scarcely any two pieces of timber to be found adhering to one another-most of the large pieces broken in two.” No tree was left standing on the sprawling property.

The twister plowed through a forested area approximately two miles long and 100 yards wide. Trees were snapped off or uprooted, and they were thrown “in opposite directions.” After exiting the woods, it unroofed the lumber house at the North Spring P.R.R, which is located near the present-day intersection of Interstate 85 and Squirrel Level Road, on the southwestern side of Petersburg. The massive storm then entered Prince George County.

Dinwiddie County

The tornado family crossed into Prince George County near the home of Mr. J.V. Wilcox. There is no mention of damage at this location. It roared to the east-northeast and leveled the stable and all of the slave cabins at the Augustine Burge Plantation. Several people were injured there, but there were no fatalities reported. At the nearby Baird Plantation, the wagoner, John, was killed when a tree fell onto him. All of the tenant homes were demolished, and the only thing left standing was the two-story house of Mr. Baird. The twister crossed over the residence of Mr. William Shands Jr. It decimated a cotton gin, stable, and kitchen. Several slaves were in the kitchen, and at least two were severely injured. “One of them was carried with the wreck of the house at least fifty yards.”

Ann Thweatt’s residence was located about two miles north of Prince George Court House. Her property took a direct hit. It was reported that “every house upon the place, with the exception of the family residence, and one other protected by a row of very large locust trees, was leveled to the ground or hurled in shattered fragments through the air. The lighter articles such as shingles, corn and tobacco from the cribs and barns, were blown, in some instances more than a mile.” One slave was killed, and twelve others were injured.

Damage was reported at Prince George Court House, but it may have been due to downburst winds. A gentleman who traveled the path in this county to document the destruction noted that the courthouse was just “within the outer circumference of the vortex.” It was reported that the northern wall of the jail was destroyed.

The tornado was visible from Prince George Court House as it swept through Ann Thweatt’s Plantation. It was described as “resembling a volume of boiling water, the whole mass moving eastwardly, yet rapidly whirling around, and at the same time in a state of internal commotion like water foaming and boiling over.”

The Petersburg Intelligencer reported the following about the extraordinary tree damage that occurred in parts of Prince George County. “So tremendous was the storm that, from Walnut Hill, Mr. J.V. Wilcox’s country residence, to Preston, the residence of Mrs. Ann Thweatt, you have a vista scarcely interrupted by a solitary tree, a distance of four or five miles. The forests, too through which the tornado passed, were wooded with as majestic a growth as can be found probably in Virginia.”

The tornado then tracked through another forested area, annihilated a half-mile wide by two-mile-long swath of trees, and then moved into the property of Benjamin Fenner. Out of the ten houses on his property, only three were left intact. The gentleman mentioned before, who was gathering damage details, described what he saw on the land of Mr. Fenner. “And here was furnished a convincing proof that the devastation was occasioned by a whirlwind proceeding, (in a nearly direct line) with a violent rotary motion, and not by a hurricane blowing from one point of the compass to an opposite one. Two of Mr. Fenner’s houses stood nearly opposite, on the east and west sides of his yard: these were unroofed and carried toward each other so as to nearly meet in the middle of the yard. This proof however, was afforded throughout the whole course by the trees, which at some points lay thrown with their heads generally to the east, and at other places, at a very short distance, they as generally fell to the west. Many particular trees were observed lying transversely to the general direction of those near them, and in many instances the trunks of the largest trees were twisted off at various heights from the ground, as if by some powerful engine.”

What appeared to be a weakening tornado moved east-northeasterly, blowing down the occasional tree or two until it finally dissipated in the vicinity of Tarby and Coggin’s Point about 1.5 miles west of Powell’s Creek.

Ancestry

Google Earth

Virginia Land Conservation Assistance Network

Diwiddie County Historical Society

Nottoway County Historical Association

Grazulis, Thomas P. (1993). Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991: A Chronology and Analysis of Events. St. Johnsbury, VT: The Tornado Project of Environmental Films. Page 557.

Ludlum, David M. (1970). Early American Tornadoes 1586-1870. American Meteorological Society. Pages 51-54.

Vermont Republican and American Journal. Windham, Windsor and Orange County Advertiser, May 22, 1834. https://www.newspapers.com/image/491205559/

The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 12, 1834. https://www.newspapers.com/image/346649999/

A Correct Map of Dinwiddie County by Isham E. Hargrave. G3883 1820 .H37. Library of Virginia., http://bit.ly/2CRiNJh.

“Map of Dinwiddie County, Virginia-1854.” The Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3883d.la001245/?r=0.31%2C0.126%2C0.137%2C0.083%2C0.

“Map of Dinwiddie County, VA-1864.” The Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3883d.cwh00028/?r=-0.242%2C-0.124%2C1.42%2C0.863%2C0.

“Map of Nottoway Co., VA..” The Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3883n.la001314/?r=0.184%2C0.007%2C1.191%2C0.724%2C0.

“Map of Pr. George, Surry, Sussex, and Southampton Counties.” The Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3883p.cwh00175/?r=0.147%2C0.121%2C0.419%2C0.255%2C0.

Preliminary map of Lunenburg County, Virginia. The Library of Congress. (n.d.). Retrieved March 2, 2022, from https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3883l.cwh00298/

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