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What’s in a name? For the Bugg family, pride

SoVaNow.com / October 24, 2012
Is it Buggs Island Lake or Kerr Reservoir? Why are the dam and lake named for a North Carolina Congressman when they are located primarily in Virginia?

Today, most people call the dam the John H. Kerr Dam, but cannot tell you why the concrete and steel monolith sited in Virginia is named for a North Carolinian — presuming they’ve ever heard of Kerr.

Ronnie Bugg of Chase City insists “it is Bugg’s Island Lake and Dam, named after my relative Samuel Bugg III. He bought the island just upstream from the dam in 1752.”

In fact, Bugg has made it his mission to restore the family name to the dam project, spending hours researching old records and deeds that document the Buggs’ claim to the island and lands on both sides of the Roanoke River. His 96 year old uncle, Roland Pickett Bugg, while still living in the area, has left it up to Ronnie to insure that the historic name of Buggs Island is not lost forever.

Bugg knows gaining official recognition (outside of Virginia, which kept the Buggs Island name) is an uphill battle, but believes it’s worth it. After all, the dam project was initially named for his family’s island.

In 1944, the 78th Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1944. The Act authorized the Corps of Engineers to build two reservoirs, one being “The Buggs Island Reservoir.” A 1948 report from the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) continues the reference and explains the basis for it — because “the dam was located immediately upstream from a small island in the Roanoke River known as Buggs Island, whence the project derives its name.”

Bugg acknowledges the project may not have been built but for the efforts of the North Carolina congressman who worked to secure funding for the project. Still, he believes his family deserves to have their name tied to the project — especially in light of their long association with the area. Besides, Bugg says, “Most of the lake and the dam are in Virginia.”

Michael Womack, Operations Project Manager at Kerr Dam for the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), acknowledges that three-fourths of the project, which includes the dam and lake, is located within the territorial boundaries of Virginia, while only one-fourth is located in North Carolina. And he readily acknowledges the project was initially named for the Bugg family island.

Family lore, says Bugg, places Samuel Bugg I in the area in the 1670s. He is purported to be a cousin of Nathaniel Bacon of Bacon’s Rebellion fame. After the rebellion decimated the local Occoneechee tribe, Samuel Bugg I headed downstream, where according to legend he traded his gun to an Indian for the island now known as Bugg’s Island.

The deed books, however, show Samuel Bugg III purchasing the island in 1752 from John Hyde of Lunenburg County.

Ronnie Bugg says the family continued to acquire land on both sides of the Roanoke River near the area of the current dam, including China Grove Plantation and Elm Hill Plantation. Even though some of the lands were sold off after the death of Samuel Bugg III — Bugg has a copy of the original deed transferring Elm Hill from the estate of Samuel Bugg III to Sir Peyton Skipwith around 1780 — their landholdings are substantial.

In the 1940s and early 1950s, while the Buggs Island project was under construction, Ronnie Bugg, his uncle Roland, and other relatives were no longer living in the area, but they still owned Bugg’s Island and other land around the dam.

Bugg believes it is not the lack of family members living in the area that brought about the name change. It is, instead, politics and the defeat of a Congressman in 1952.

Kathryn and Jeffrey St. John wrote in “The History of Mecklenburg County” that Democratic Congressman John H. Kerr, the man for whom the dam is now named, won an “unprecedented reversal in the Republican-controlled House” in 1946 in an effort to restore funding to the dam project earlier cut by the House Appropriations Committee.

Six years later, the 82nd United States Congress, now under control of the Democrats, renamed the project the John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir in honor of the congressman from Warrenton, North Carolina. He had been defeated for re-nomination a few months before the $100 million Buggs Island Project was dedicated in October 1952.

Despite the clear need for flood control in the area, the Act of Congress outraged then-Virginia State Senator and future Governor Albertis S. Harrison, Jr. of Lawrenceville. As he pointed out, the majority of project involved land in Virginia. Therefore, in 1952 he introduced a joint resolution in the Virginia Senate proclaiming that the body of water created by the dam shall “forever more” be known as Buggs Island Lake. The resolution passed unanimously through both houses.

Sixty years later, Virginia continues to refer to the waterway as Buggs Island Lake, but the USACE, who control the lake and most of the surrounding lands, knows the waterway as Kerr Lake.

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The Hayes' and the Bugg's are relatives. It is my understanding that at one time the Hayes' owned Buggs Island. I am the grand daughter of Lewis Joseph Hayes, neice of Sarah Hayes of Mecklenburg, County Virginia


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