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  • Writer's pictureClarice MacGarvey

The Exmore - Chatham Connection; Dr. AW Downing & Downingsville

Updated: Apr 22

By Cara Burton


One of the highlights of spring is Virginia’s Historic Garden Week tour here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  This year, 2024, the tour focuses on Northampton County.  If you take the tour, you’ll enjoy seeing historic Chatham in Machipongo, which one usually only sees as the beautiful backdrop while sipping wine at Chatham Vineyards, which is located on the farm.  What you, and others may not know is the relationship of Chatham to the small town of Exmore.


Before Exmore was Exmore, the area stretching west from what is now Willis’s Wharf past Route 13 was a plantation called Downingsville.  Willis’s Wharf (the original spelling) has been known by several names over the years, Downing’s Wharf being one. Downingsville relates to the owner Edmund W. P. Downing (1776-1843) who bought the property sometime after 1810.[i]


One of Edmund’s sons, Arthur Wainhouse Downing (1815-1901), became a physician.  That son, Dr. Downing, bought Chatham, a 600-acre tract with a large home, sometime after 1850.[ii]  Dr. Downing had married Mary G. Parramore Upshur Bayly on November 7, 1837. Mary was the daughter of James Upshur Bayly and Esther Burton Parramore, whose middle and surnames are long familiar on the Shore. 


The Downings had ten children, seven surviving into adulthood.  One can imagine the active social life of the Downings, as documented in The Neglected Decade[iii]. This social life continued after moving from Downingsville to Chatham, a distance of eleven miles. Living with the Downings at Chatham during the Civil War were six of their seven young daughters, Two were of marrying age.


Dr. Downing was related to two other contemporary physicians:  (1) Dr. Thomas W. Young, who married Arthur’s sister Margaret Downing and (2) Dr. Arthur Wilson Upshur, who married Mary Parramore Upshur’s sister, Esther Burton Parramore Bayly.  Interestingly, two of Dr. Downing’s daughters married doctors.  Mary E. (1839-1866) married Dr. William T. Fisher.  Anna Elizabeth married Dr. Nathaniel Potter Henderson. Many people who live on the Shore today were delivered by family physician Dr. Arthur Wainhouse Downing Mears (1923-1977).  Dr. Mears was the great-great-grandson of the Dr. Downing of Chatham and his father was Dr. Burleigh Nichols Mears.


The move of Dr. Downing to Chatham highlights a turning point in Eastern Shore history.  He moved right before the Civil War, from an active seaside port (Willis Wharf) to Church Creek on the Chesapeake Bay side.  The 1860 Census of Slave Inhabitants [iv]counts Dr. Downing as owning 15 enslaved males, ages 2 to 65 years, and 14 enslaved females, aged 6 months to 75 years, plus 3 males and 2 females held in trust from two minor heirs.   He stayed on the Shore during the war.  He was 46 years old by 1861, had a family, large farm, and the Shore needed doctors.  On November 11, 1863, he was arrested along with three Accomack doctors, for refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to the United States Government.[v] He was released that day. 


Dr. Downing’s wife died a month later on December 20th.  She was buried with three of her children in the Downing cemetery in Downing’s (now Willis’s) Wharf.


In 1867, Downing married Mary G. Hoopes (1832-1911). She was the children’s governess from Pennsylvania who had been sent away during the war[vi].  They were married in Mclean, Illinois, which is likely where she had lived during the war.  Downing had four girls aged 9, 11, 15, and 17 to be cared for.  A fifth daughter married the month after her father’s wedding.


After the Civil War, Downing dabbled in politics.  In 1869, he ran for the office of Virginia Delegate against the “carpetbagger” Captain (U.S.) James C.  Toy, originally of Harford County, Maryland.  Toy moved to Eastville from Maryland shortly after being discharged and was elected to serve in the Virginia constitutional convention of 1867-1868.  Until then, Virginia had operated under military rule and the 1869 election was the first under the post-Civil War “Underwood Constitution.” (see endnote[vii])   “The election of Dr. Downing from Northampton to the House is almost hopeless,” reads the June 21, 1868 Richmond Dispatch[viii], “though we will make a strong fight, for Toy, the carpet-bagger in the Convention from here, is the [Union] League candidate for the house.” Indeed, Downing lost.


Delegate Captain Toy was an Eastville neighbor of Chatham’s Downing.  Toy was replaced in 1871 by Peter Jacob Carter, an African American from Northampton County, who was born enslaved.  Toy moved to Washington, DC in 1879 to work for the Government Printing Office.  Interestingly, his obituary makes no mention of his service as a Virginia Delegate.


In 1869, Dr. Downing was appointed to the position of Magistrate and “Overseer of the Poor” for Northampton County.  In April 1870, “his Excellency Governor [Gilbert C.] Walker” appointed Downing to a commission that was charged to “divide the several counties of the State into townships.”[ix]  We now refer to “townships,” a term brought from New England, as “Magisterial Districts,” which survive to this day.


Downing’s duties would have included the area of Exmore Station (originally Belle Haven Station) a stop on the railroad on the northern border of Northampton County.  The New York, Pennsylvania, and Norfolk (NYP&N) Railroad was formed and began acquiring land along its proposed route in 1883, with Exmore Station created in 1884.  Downing would also have profited from the fast-growing produce market that thrived with the increased access to northern markets brought by the new railway system.  The Birdsnest station was the closest to his Chatham farm, making shipment of produce to brokers and visits to family in Exmore convenient.  While the loss of his enslaved workers at the outcome of the Civil War likely diminished his wealth, the agricultural economic boom on the Eastern Shore helped his finances to rebound.


Part of the Downingsville Plantation, within which Exmore is located, was passed down to Dr. Downing’s daughter, Emma (1840-1913), who married William John Mapp (1839-1907).  Their son, Arthur Downing Mapp (1874-1958) inherited property on Main Street in Exmore which contained a large house.  It is believed that 3212 Main Street in Exmore also served as a tourist home run by his wife, Clara Hudson Mapp, in the early 20th century.  The Mapp tourist home was torn down by 1968 to build a larger building to accommodate the growing business of Lloyd’s Drugstore.  People today remember a “scary old house” on the property, which was the Mapps’s large Victorian overgrown by bushes.

Dr. Downing’s political activity fell out of the limelight after his local appointments, though it is likely he was active behind the scenes.  His 1901 obituary is very brief.  He lived to a ripe old age of 86 at the Chatham farm and was buried at the Downing family cemetery in Willis’s Wharf. 


You can learn more about the history of Exmore and the era of the Shore’s railway by taking the new self-guided history walking tour.  Visit to find the link to a free downloadable pdf.


[i] Whitelaw, Ralph T., Virginia’s Eastern Shore:  A History of Northampton and Accomack Counties.  Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968.


[ii] Ibid.


[iii] Adler, Doris, PhD, The Neglected Decade:  The 1850s on the Eastern Shore, Eastville, Va:  Hickory House, 1999.


[iv] U.S. Census, 1860, Slave Inhabitants, p. 30


[v] Doughty, Jerry, “A Breach of Southern Hospitality, Part 3 of a Series,” Machipongo, Virginia:  Eastern Shore of Virginia Barrier Island Center Newsletter, Spring 2012, p. 9-10.


[vi] Ibid.


[vii] Learn more about Reconstruction, the required state constitutional conventions, and post-war politics by reading, “Disfranchisement:  Suffrage During Reconstruction,” Encyclopedia Virginia,


[viii] Richmond Dispatch, June 21, 1868, p. 1.  Source NewspaperArchive.


[ix] Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 1, 1870, p. 3.  NewspaperArchive.

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