Romney, Oldest Town in West Virginia

By W. S. Laidley Esq.

20th Century View

By the term "town" we do not mean as the word is sometimes used a sub-division of a county such as a township or district but we mean a collection of houses located close together inhabited by families and in which also business is conducted without regard to the fact that it is established by an Act of the Legislature but of such size as to enable it to and to have a name or designation and without regard to the size whether better named a village town or city. That part of West Virginia within the counties of Berkeley and Jefferson was first settled and they were formed from the original county of Frederick which was taken from Orange. The settlement in Frederick began about 1732 as far as is known and extended over the mountain west on the South Branch of the Potomac and the County of Hampshire was formed at an early day (1754.)

Fredericktown afterwards called Winchester had only a few log houses in 1738.

There was another town called Newtown afterwards known as Stephens City that began at a very early date which is also in Frederick County and was a rival for the honors of being the county seat of Frederick but was beaten in the race by Winchester.

But of the towns that are now in West Virginia the oldest would be either in Jefferson Berkeley Morgan or Hampshire, in so far as we have any information and we believe the contest may be narrowed to the towns of Shepherdstown in Jefferson and Romney of Hampshire.

As to the settlement of Shepherdstown or as it was first called Mecklenburg there seems to have been some doubt some mystery and by some of the good people of that municipality it is claimed to have been peopled at a time beyond which the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.''

It is claimed that the Indians established here a crossing or rather they followed the track of the buffalo which here found a place that the Potomac river could be forded and that the Indians maintained the said trail and that there were a party of German mechanics somewhere some time which followed that said trail and landed on the south side of the river and there made their abode and that they called it Mecklenburg. In the early days of the settlement of Frederick County it was known as the "Pack Horse Ford" and this name would naturally be supposed to have been the older of the two.

In the early days when there were no roads for wagons nor wagons for roads the transportation from Frederick county to the Eastern markets and there were no Western ones was carried on by pack horses and following the trails they had to come to this point to be able to go over the river as there were no bridges nor ferries and it thus obtained the name of "Pack Horse Ford." Had there been then a town there known as Mecklenburg it is hardly possible that it would have been called a ford.

Kercheval wrote a history of this country and of its settlement and tells who were the first to come and settle in this part of the valley and he makes the beginning in 1732 and there is no insinuation of there having been any settlement there previous to that date.

There have been later writers that have attempted to make it appear that there were settlers prior to this date and they all go back to the settlement of the German mechanics at Mecklenburg but are not able to give any date of their coming. Morris wrote a "history of this part of the valley and he says that the place was settled before 1732 but he is unable to furnish any date of their arrival nor can he give the name of one of said settlers or mechanics nor has he ever furnished a fact or circumstance that even tends to sustain his claim. He says they did not procure the title to any of the lands on which they settled because it was not convenient to find a land office there being no court house nearer than Spotsylvania but as the only way was to get a grant from the Governor they would have been compelled to go to Williamsburg which was even more inconvenient.

There is not claimed any grant or deed or will nor any house or oilier monument to indicate their presences before 1732 except the one little grave stone which was found some five or six miles from this point where there never was a town the monument to Catarina Biererlin who was born in 1687 and was evidently a good German Roman Catholic and it is claimed that she died and was buried in 1707. This stone does not say so now whatever it may have once said and there are so many conflicting expressions as to what it did say that it proves nothing.

But when it is remembered that at this date it was not known that the Potomac extended through the Blue Ridge that no one in Virginia knew anything whatever of anything west of said mountains and that it was an impossibility for anyone to have been there or to have lived there it is useless to discuss this claim at this time.

Hite and others went there in 1732 and they began at once to bring people to settle there and from this date down there has been no trouble in tracing the settlers and especially those who obtained land and settled thereon. When it is known that Hite and the Van Meters were related by marriage and Thomas Shepherd's wife was a Miss Van Meter that Cornelius Ettinger married a Miss Van Meter and the two sons of Hite married the two daughters of Mr. Ettinger and that Abraham Hite another son married of Mr. Ettinger and that Abraham Hite another son married a Miss Van Meter it will be seen that there were no antagonistic relations between Mr. Shepherd and the Hites.

Hite's business was to colonize the country as rapidly as possible for when he located a family on these lands he secured one thousand acres and he had a contract or orders to locate one hundred and forty thousand acres he surveyed the same in tracts to suit purchasers and assigned the survey and the Governor made the grant to the assignee and in all the grants of this kind the facts are therein stated. The first grant made to land west of the Blue Ridge was made August 20 1734 to Jos Hite for 1020 acres and is recorded in Grant Book No. 15 page 276. On the next day there was granted to John Smith 420 acres and to Rus Smith 150 acres and to Henry Willis 2030 acres all of whom were Hite assignees.

The next time the Governor was called upon to issue grants was October 3 1734 when a large number were issued among whom were Thomas Shepherd 220 acres Richard Morgan two tracts Stephen Hollingsworth Morgan Morgan Alexander Ross and others who have been mentioned as having been there before 1732 but the fact that they were purchasers of land from Hite in 1734 will not bear out this claim, but contradicts the same. We mention these facts to show that the owners of the soil were not there before 1732 and they never made any mention of finding any thrifty German mechanics having made a settlement at the Ford. The next time and circumstances that would have brought to light this fact had it existed was in 1748 when Washington was sent by Lord Fairfax to make surveys in the same vicinity and who was all over the country and wrote down everything he saw that had any bearing on the quantity or value of the land and it is nowhere mentioned that a German settlement nor any other kind was found on the Potomac at this point. Then came the French and Indian war.

The Indians left the country and retired west of the Alleghenies in 1754 and found the French in the war against the English and Braddock brought his army and Washington went with him with the Virginians and the men of the valley joined to march west with the said army. There is no mention of any settlement having been found there on the river nor were there any soldiers found to join in the march against the French and nothing to indicate that there were either men or anything else at this point on the river. All these are opportunities so to speak in which the settlement would have been discovered and made known and in all that has ever been written there is not one word to designate a town at the point claimed and which would have been noticed had it been there.

There is no doubt but that Thomas Shepherd secured the title to the land at the place known as the Pack Horse Ford and that Richard Morgan secured two tracts near to or adjoining that of Shepherd's.

In the seventh volume of Henning's Statutes page 609 there will be found the following account of the General Assembly dated in 1762 which speaks for itself and says something bearing on this point:

"Whereas it is represented that Thomas Shepherd of Frederick County hath laid off about fifty acres of his land on the Potomack in said county into lots and streets for a town and has disposed of many of said lots the purchasers whereof have made their humble application that the said land may be established a town being pleasantly and commodiously situated for trade and commerce. Be it enacted that the same be established a town by name of Mecklenburg and when the freeholders shall have built upon and saved their lots according to the condition of their deeds it shall be entitled to all the rights of other towns &c."

This shows that Mr. Shepherd owned the land that he laid part it off into lots and that the purchasers had to build on them or they would not save them according to the conditions of the deeds, which deeds made by Shepherd were recorded in 1762.

This shows that the lots had not then been built upon and when built upon Mecklenburg would be entitled to all the rights of other towns. It was a prospective town not one already built. It was one in future.

Does anyone believe that if there had been houses with a thrifty German settlement which had been there as claimed some thirty or forty years that no mention would have been made in this act of the fact that these people desired to be included within the said town?

It does not seem possible for us to date the beginning of this town Mecklenburg afterward named Shepherdstown earlier than 1762 and it must have been "a very little one" then. Now what about Romney?

Hampshire was settled soon after Frederick began and Romney was to Hampshire what Winchester was to Frederick.

It was the center around which they all clustered for mutual protection How many people were there is not-known but Lord Fairfax one day saw a drove of fat hogs pass through Winchester and learned that they came from the South Branch insisted that the similarity to Hampshire of England was so great that the new county must be so named. No doubt there was a town in Hampshire when the county was formed and no doubt that town was Romney.

In said volume of Henning's Statutes, page 598 the town of Romney was established and the act states that Lord Fairfax had laid out one hundred lots of one-half acre each and had sold lots and the purchasers had built thereon and desired to be made into a town and it was done. Here is the fact that the buildings were there in 1762 and as the county had existed since 1753 it is more than probable that the town had existed from that time or before.

Our conclusion therefore is that Romney is the oldest town in West Virginia, some have said that it obtained its growth some time since, but this all wrong it is still gradually spreading out over the beautiful valley. Shepherstown has the normal school and is otherwise a delightful place while Romney has the Institution for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind. Each has a river and a railroad each is located in a rich farming country and each old enough to take care of itself.

West Virginia AHGP

Source: The West Virginia Historical Magazine Quarterly, Charleston West Virginia, 1901.


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