NCTC Cultural History
Early Colonial Period
Forty-two years after British colonists first landed at the site they named Jamestown, the British monarch-in-exile Charles II felt it necessary to be generous. His father, King Charles I, had recently been beheaded for, among other complaints, defying parliament, and religious zealotry that included having the noses and ears cut off subjects who refused to join the Anglican Church. Now young Charles had been forced by the victorious Puritan Roundheads to take sanctuary in Scotland and then France. He would wait 11 more years for the Restoration of the Monarchy, but in the meantime he promised a large land grant in Virginia, later known as the Northern Neck Proprietary, to six noblemen friends because of their support of the Crown in those troubled times. One hundred fifty years later, people living on Terrapin Neck near Shepherds Town, Virginia, would have cause to regret this generosity.
The new Proprietary was to include all the land between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers. Europeans didn’t have a clue as to where these rivers actually began, there being a vague notion at the time that the rivers had their headwaters in the Blue Ridge somewhere off to the west of the settlements on the coast. The exiled heir to the throne and his friends had no idea how much land had just been given away, provided of course that young Charles should ever re-establish the British monarchy. More than 80 years would pass before a commission in Virginia set out to find the head springs of the two rivers and thus determine the boundaries, it having become apparent in the meantime that the Potomac actually passed through the Blue Ridge at present-day Harpers Ferry and had its headwaters well to the west in the Alleghenies.
This type of land grant was not unprecedented - other colonial proprietors in the mid-Atlantic region included Lord Baltimore in Maryland and William Penn in Pennsylvania. In fact Lord Baltimore’s new proprietorship had been carved out of land originally promised to the Virginia colony, leading to frantic visits to the King and his court, as well as naval attacks in the Chesapeake Bay and several pitched battles between the competing British factions on several occasions through the 1650s. The British lords with interest in the New World competed for high stakes - proprietors were given full governing rights inside their granted lands, and could make large amounts of money selling tracts of land to settlers. A settler interested in a plantation lifestyle could receive land by grant from the proprietor, and could then keep, sell, bequeath, or entail that land so long as they paid an annual quit rent per acre to the proprietor during the duration of their ownership. The colony of Virginia, on the other hand, was a Crown Colony, ruled by the current monarch in power, and administered through a Governor and Council in Williamsburg, Virginia. (The King originally did not rule over Virginia as Sovereign of England, but instead the colony was considered part of his feudal manor holdings, which meant he ruled over Virginia as a feudal lord, like the proprietors.) Lands granted by the colonial Council in Virginia, with the governor’s stamp of approval, became known as King’s Patents. Land speculators in Virginia who had been given Orders of Council for large tracts of land to sell and distribute also offered another avenue for a settler to acquire a King’s Patent. The Virginia Council, as well as the Northern Neck Proprietary, and a number of large land speculators eventually operated land offices in Virginia from which settlers could acquire land. The Virginia Council had a strong interest in locating settlers on the margin of the colony both as a source of revenue through land sales and rents, and as a buffer to the wilderness and all its hazards, which explains their eagerness to give out large land grants to speculators on the periphery who could draw in those settlers.
It is unknown when the Virginia colonists first heard of the new proprietary, but no doubt the Virginians were dismayed at the prospect of losing control of yet another large tract of land, having already been forced to give up the northern portion of the Chesapeake Bay country to the Calverts and Lord Baltimore. The new Northern Neck Proprietary seems to have generated fewer violent sparks, perhaps because most of the land lay to the unknown west beyond the tidewater settlements, and there was not an immediate influx of new governing authorities marking boundaries and clamoring for resources. The relatively small number of settlers in Virginia generally stayed close to their tidewater plantations for many years because of fear of Indians, and the threat was real - some 350 colonists were killed by Indians in the Virginia colony in 1641 alone (Couper 1952).
Charles II returned triumphantly to England as King after the death of Oliver Cromwell. Many of his loyal followers had lost much of their property while he was in exile and responded by moving to one of the colonies across the Atlantic, but at least several were grateful for having been granted large tracts of land in the New World as partial compensation.
Joist Hite was born in Bonfeld, Germany, son of a local butcher and a member of the Protestant church (Jones et. al 1979).
By this year deaths and marriages had transferred the bulk of the Northern Neck Proprietary in Virginia into one family of the British peerage, Lord Fairfax (who had acquired it through marriage to a Culpeper). Lord and Lady Fairfax lived on large castled estates in England; they would never see their Virginia lands. Nevertheless, Lord Fairfax did employ agents in the Virginia Colony to administer the Proprietary and to see that the local Virginia Council did not infringe on his lands between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers as the Council handed out their own grants in the region. The Virginia Council often ignored the Fairfax claim to the land and gave out land grants within the disputed area anyway. At this time the Virginia Colony was selling frontier lands not only to individual settler families but also to land speculators, who provided a service by surveying the land and bringing in additional settler families. The land speculators, in tandem with their settlers, were required to survey parcels of land and have them recorded for the issuance of a patent by the Governor or Proprietor. There wasn’t always a strong distinction between the speculators and settlers because they often belonged to the same extended family. Once the governor issued a settler a patent, they then held a strong legal title to the land. In order to acquire a large land grant, land speculators were usually required to bring in a specified number of settlers to the colony by a specified deadline. The settlers then paid fees and rents to the large land speculators. The system necessarily meant that a lot of money traded hands; it also provided the potential for some of the middlemen to get rich, and created a strong financial incentive to attract settlers. Land patents from the Virginia Council and grants from the Fairfax Proprietary were mostly in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont areas of Virginia through the 1720's; the lower Shenandoah Valley on the western side of the Blue Ridge was largely unexplored before 1700, and will become the focus of the following narrative. Early Virginia history is replete with tales of European exploring parties setting out westward, walking up the moderate slopes of the Blue Ridge and gazing out over the Shenandoah Valley, supposedly uttering flowery phrases and waxing poetic over the lovely vision before them, followed by the congratulatory backslapping return with lusty tales of adventure describing hardships and toil for the ears of the more timid souls who had remained safely at home. You have to wonder, since a traverse of the Blue Ridge is hardly a Himalayan odyssey, if there were a few traders, trappers or Native Americans nearby thinking to themselves “big deal, my grandmother walks up there every week…”.
The rise of the tobacco plantation culture in the colonies, especially in Maryland and Virginia, required an ever-increasing pool of reliable labor. The European indenture system wherein a settler’s passage to the colony could be worked off over a period of years was not able to meet the demand for labor. Slaves had first arrived in Virginia in 1619, when a Dutch ship brought 20 Africans - with families, property, history, culture, hopes and dreams of their own - to Jamestown to be sold as slaves to the planters. By the 1690s large numbers of enslaved Africans began to be imported into the middle colonies. The majority of landowners were not slaveowners, and those who were generally could afford only one or two slaves that worked alongside white family members. Most of the slaves in the colonies were concentrated on a relatively small number of very large plantations (Dufour 1994).
In Britain, the Fairfax family, who had acquired the rights to the Northern Neck Proprietary in Virginia, asked for and received confirmation of their Proprietary from the King. They apparently hoped this would resolve once and for all who held title to the land between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers in that wild, uncivilized colony across the Atlantic. It didn’t.
A new system of land grants became available to immigrants coming into the Virginia colony, referred to as treasury rights. This allowed anyone to purchase land, 100 acres for 10 shillings. To retain ownership, an annual quit rent and occupation of the property was necessary. This replaced the old system of acquiring land by bringing in settlers, known as head rights.
Robert Carter, in Williamsburg, Virginia, became the agent of Lord Fairfax. Until his death in 1732, he was particularly effective at controlling or at least lodging legal complaints (caveats) against infringements on Fairfax Proprietary lands. He eventually held all the important positions on the governing Council of the colony while at the same time acting as Fairfax’s agent. His tenacity may have tended to reduce settlement in the lower Shenandoah Valley because of the difficulties in acquiring a clear legal title to the land. He and other Fairfax agents managed to steer many land grants toward members of their own families - thus adding significantly to the Carter, Fitzhugh, and Lee family fortunes in Virginia.
The Virginia colony passed a law forbidding the granting of patents in excess of 4000 acres; exceptions to this policy were sometimes given to companies and individuals. To the north in Pennsylvania, William Penn’s Proprietary had now expanded to almost the Susquehanna River. Native American groups (at least those that were paid) tended to be more tolerant of the Pennsylvanian settlers because of Penn’s policy of purchasing land from the local tribes. The English settlers in Virginia and Maryland, on the other hand, were referred to by the natives as "Long Knives" because of their habit of acquiring land by force. At this time the French were exploring and settling the Ohio Valley, and the Spanish were increasing their settlements in Florida and along the lower Mississippi.
Joist Hite, born in Germany, crossed the Atlantic and settled in New York with a number of other Dutch and German families, including his father and stepmother. He had married Anna Maria Mercklin 5 years before, and had worked as a linen weaver before setting sail from Rotterdam with several other local families; Anna had given birth to two children but they hadn’t survived. Many history texts describe him then as a wealthy, distinguished businessman with the financial wherewithal and influence to organize and finance the journey to the New World for many families, and was supposedly even able to provide his own ships; the histories then go on to describe his inevitable continued success and prominence as a real estate entrepreneur in the New World. It would be interesting to see where this fable originated, as recent scholarship points to a more humble origin - he has been documented as crossing the Atlantic as one of a group of indentured servants who worked for a time at a failed business venture in New York. By 1714 he was apparently a landowner with a growing family living north of Philadelphia, and about 3 years later he owned a plantation and gristmill outside the present community of Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, a few miles north of Philadelphia, and was doing some weaving on the side (Jones et al. 1979). His later efforts at administering a large land grant in the lower Shenandoah Valley of Virginia will prove to be a major chapter in the history of the land that has now become the National Conservation Training Center.
In Britain, the Fifth Lord Fairfax died, leaving title to the bulk of the Northern Neck Proprietary in Lady Fairfax’s hand, though her Culpeper family members retained a percentage of ownership as well.
Lady Fairfax died. Her 24-year old son Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax, became the sole Proprietor of the Northern Neck in Virginia. He owned only a 1/6 interest in the Virginia proprietary outright, the other 5/6 he held only for his lifetime. He had rather reclusive, taciturn bachelor tendencies, and often preferred to spend his time alone on his British estates rather than engage in the typical aristocratic functions of a young British peer.
The debate over exactly when a permanent community in the Shepherdstown area first developed has not been resolved - some authors put the date as early as 1706, others 1719, others still later in the 1720s. If in fact Europeans lived in the area before 1720, they seem most likely to have been itinerant groups that stretch the definition of "community", since they seem not to have built substantial cabins, churches, mills, or cleared extensive fields, or laid claim to more than a small amount of land and a very minor portion of the springs and water resources of the area; they may have lived more in the manner of the Native Americans who still established small temporary camps in the region at the time, perhaps trapping, hunting, trading and gardening to survive. In the early to mid-1720s there seems not to have been an established group of people willing to defend their claims to any large land holdings near present-day Shepherdstown, the evidence being the number of springs, creeks and rich bottom lands -the most valuable real estate- that remained to be claimed in the late 1720s by families such as the Van Meters, Morgans, Shepherds and others (these families, of course, may have purchased or bartered the rights to these water sources from earlier arrivals who didn’t intend to stay). So with due caution, the second half of the 1720s probably marked the arrival of the first long-term "settlers" into what became the Shepherdstown area. At the regional level, many of the early settlers coming into northern Virginia and northern Maryland were Germans most recently from the Lancaster and York areas of Pennsylvania. William Penn’s agents had been busy in the Rhine Valley of Germany attempting to lure settlers into Penn’s proprietary. After arriving by the shipload in Philadelphia and other ports, many of the newly arrived settlers stopped in the small established German communities in Pennsylvania such as York and Lancaster only long enough to ask for directions to the closest available land. Many of these settlers belonged to various sects of the Protestant faith seeking land and a place to practice free expressions of their faith, including Moravians, Quakers, Dunkers, and Friends. It is misleading in some respects to refer to them as "German", since many of them had spent only a short time in what was referred to as the Palatine area of Germany. Their Protestant faith had made them unwelcome in many parts of Europe, so they had sought refuge in the Palatinate and may have lived there less than a generation in many cases. William Penn’s agents no doubt found them an attentive audience. After negotiating the wilderness paths south out of Pennsylvania (Mason and Dixon would not mark the legal border between Maryland and Pennsylvania until 1763 – many considered Lancaster to be in Maryland), and their arrival on the other side of the Cohongoroota River in Virginia near the river ford, a few groups may have set about building cabins and clearing a bit of land for pasture and crops. The first arrivals had no readily available system in place to acquire legal title to the land they occupied, and had to depend on other settlers’ willingness to recognize their "tomahawk rights", which refers to their method of marking property claims by blazing marks on the trunks of trees. The new settlers would find it difficult to develop legal, cultural and social ties with Williamsburg and the other European-populated areas of Virginia because of the distance and lack of roads - therefore they were rather tenuously "Virginians" only in a narrow geographical context, and even that was debated for years until the leaders of the colonies agreed on which tributary constituted the main stem of the Potomac River. (Lawsuits debating the boundaries between Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania continued even up to the 20th century).
In a 1721 map made for Philomen Lloyd, the Secretary of the Maryland Colony, the area upstream of the mouth of the Monocacy River is described as “Potommeck above Ye Inhabitants” and shows the correct relative positions (and the present-day names) of the Conococheague, Opequon, and Antietam creeks. An interesting notation for an area near Opequon Creek about 8 miles west of NCTC near the present site of Bedington, West Virginia is “Opeckhon Creek: A Salt Soyl called ye Elk’s Licking Place. Great Droves of those Creatures resorting there to lick ye Earth”.
Settlement of the northern (Lower) portion of the Shenandoah Valley was given impetus in 1722 with the Treaty of Albany between Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the Five Nations Indians (the Iroquois Confederacy, which included such groups as the Mohawks, Senecas, Cayugas, Oneidas and Onandagas). The northern Indians agreed not to cross the Cohongoroota (Potomac), or the Blue Ridge, without a pass (only 10 passes to be issued at a time), upon pain of death or slavery. This treaty clearly made piedmont Virginia and Maryland just to the east of the Blue Ridge very desirable for settlement by recently-arrived Europeans, allowing greater European familiarity with the Shenandoah Valley on the other side of the long ridge. Indians were still allowed to travel through and otherwise utilize the Shenandoah Valley along their Warrior’s Path, which extended from New York to the Carolinas. The powerful Iroquois, centered in New York, had fought tenaciously for many years with other tribes in eastern North America for control over trade and other resources, and seem to have benefited from this treaty at the expense of some of the other tribes under their “protection” in the mid-Atlantic region, a strategy they pursued at various councils through the early 1750s. The northern Iroquois negotiators, who claimed to speak for all the Native American groups in the area including the Shawnee and Delaware, apparently were willing to sacrifice (for a fee) a large land area for which the Iroquois had a very tenuous claim even from the Native American perspective. The treaty still allowed the Iroquois Confederacy to outfit and send warparties south through the Shenandoah Valley to continue their long-term conflict for control over several southern tribes including the Cherokee and Catawba. European travel in the region was not constrained by any language in the treaty.
Charles Mounts Anderson, early explorer and operator of an Indian trading post on the Monocacy River near present-day Frederick, Maryland, was asked by the Maryland Assembly to provide a meeting place at his home for a council with a local Indian tribe. A John Powell was charged with inviting the Indians, and was "to go to Shuano town on Potomack, commonly called Opessa’s Town”; he was provided calico shirts and scarlet worsted stockings to be used as gifts to help induce the Indians to attend. The purpose of the proposed council was to negotiate with the Shawnee over returning slaves they had been harboring - but the Shuano (Shawnee) Indians chose not to show up on the appointed date, and Anderson’s partner Israel Friend was sent back to invite them to visit Annapolis instead (Archives of Md, vol. 25 p 443, 451). Opessa’s Town is now called Oldtown, located on the Potomac River between Hancock and Cumberland, Maryland, about 50 miles west of Shepherdstown. Charles Anderson had been in the Indian trading business since at least 1712, when he was recorded as entering into a lawsuit in Cecil Co, Maryland, with the widow of Indian trader Jacque LeTort, who lived at the Indian town at Conestoga, Pennsylvania (see Diller, n.d). Charles Anderson had been involved with negotiations over these same slaves since at least 1722 when the Maryland Council, hearing he was in Annapolis, had asked him to go to the Shuano town (Oldtown) with gifts of coats and socks, and a promise of a "chain of friendship" for "so long as the sun and moon shall endure," especially if they would give the slaves back (Md Archives, vol 25, p. 395).
John Van Meter and his family purchased a 200 acre tract from Lord Baltimore near present-day Frederick, Maryland. The Van Meters were of Dutch origin, and had been in the Dutch colonies near New York and New Jersey for several generations. All of John’s children were born on land the family owned in New Jersey, but the family had moved west to Maryland by the early 1720s. John, 43, and occasionally his younger brother Isaac were itinerant traders and plantation owners in the Monocacy River valley, and they no doubt had some contact with Charles Anderson’s Indian trading post there. The Van Meters were likely well acquainted with a fellow Dutch Swearingen family living nearby at the time. The Van Meters certainly became acquainted with another family living in the neighborhood - John’s daughter Elizabeth would marry Thomas Shepherd in a few years, and the young couple would, with Elizabeth’s parents and several of their neighbors and relatives, soon take up land on the other side of the Cohongoroota River near a ford along the old wilderness trail, which the Shepherds would years later develop as “Shepherdstown”.
May of 1726 marked the death of Thomas Swearingen, a slave-owning plantation owner living not far from the Potomac River near present-day Chevy Chase, Maryland (a northern suburb of Washington DC). He left behind 3 daughters – Margaret, Luranna, and Mary – and two sons including Thomas, who was 18, and Van, who was a young lad of 7. All the children were bequeathed land in the will: Margaret and Luranna each received 40 acres of “Hills Choys”, Mary received 96 acres of “Swearingens Pasture”, Thomas received 70 acres of “Forest”, and young Van received 70 acres of “Forest” and 20 acres of “Hills Choys”. Van Swearingen will become a major focus of the rest of this narrative.
Sometime this decade a small number of German immigrants and others from colonies in Maryland and New Jersey may have begun forming a community near Pack Horse Ford on the Virginia side of the Cohongoroota River, along the old wilderness trail that had been used for perhaps thousands of years by the native Americans, located a mile or so south of the land later developed by the Shepherds. These first Europeans left few traces of their time spent here, vague church records, explorer’s accounts and uncertain graves being the bulk of the evidence (see Dandridge 1910, Bushong 1941). There are records of Europeans exploring this area before 1729, though it may be stretching it a bit to call them a community before about 1730. Within a few years land sales and legal actions recorded at Virginia courthouses would provide better documentation of these and perhaps later arrivals, including the Morgans, Shepherds, Weltons and Van Meters. The Native Americans had not been forced to give up their use of the Shenandoah Valley at this time, by either violence or treaty, but the Europeans apparently felt that the small numbers of Natives who traveled through the area did not present enough of a menace to keep them from settling there. The Natives were getting anxious, though: in a letter to the authorities in Maryland complaining of white incursions near the Cohongoroota (Potomac) in 1731-32, several Indian representatives of the Five Nations, including one Capt. Civility, specifically mentioned that they had sold land only to Israel Friend, the trading partner of Charles Anderson, near Antietam Creek on the eastern (Maryland) side of the Cohongoroota near Pack Horse Ford (Md Archives vol. 28, p.10-11). They considered any other whites settling in the area to be trespassing and urged the Maryland authorities to stop the surveying of property.
Among those possibly “trespassing” was 19-year-old Thomas Swearingen, who apparently made a claim for 115 acres of land on Little Antietam Creek, south of present-day Sharpsburg and Keedysville Maryland, dating from on or before Nov. 1727 in what is now Washington County Maryland. He patented this property on June 12, 1734 (website for a map of the location: midatlantic.rootsweb.com/MD/washington/plats/platmap.html). The property, later known as part of a much larger tract called Fellfoot owned by Tobias Stansbury of Baltimore, was purchased by Stansbury from Thomas Swearingen and his wife Sarah in the 1750s (Fred.Cty Md DB E, p433). This is the first record indicating that the Swearingens from near present-day Chevy Chase were interested in a new plantation further north in Maryland on the western side of the Blue Ridge, again located only a few miles from the Potomac.
Peter Beller and his wife, likely recent German immigrants, were baptized in a German religious community near Lancaster, Pennsylvania after helplessly watching their young daughter die (Klein 1926). They would soon be migrating further southwest to the colonial frontier beyond the Blue Ridge. (This may be a different Peter Beller than the one who eventually owned NCTC property, but the timing and circumstances seem right. There was also a Peter Bellar who had owned, prior to 1712, the same piece of property north of Philadelphia later purchased by Joist Hite [Phil Deed Book F, Vol 2, p. 48]).
Brothers John and Isaac Van Meter, explorers and traders from the Monocacy River valley in Maryland (Isaac apparently spent most of his time in New Jersey), built a cabin about 2 miles west of present-day Shepherdstown, West Virginia near where Route 45 crosses Rocky Marsh Run. They had spent some time in the last several years making contacts with authorities in Virginia about acquiring a large land grant, which included talks with Robert “King” Carter, representing Lord Fairfax and the Northern Neck Proprietary. They no doubt agonized over who held the rightful claim, the Virginia Colony, or Lord Fairfax in Great Britain? John Van Meter became the Constable of Monocosie Hundred in Maryland in 1729, a position he would hold intermittently through 1734, suggesting that his Virginia cabin was a temporary dwelling at first. The Virginia cabin site eventually became his home in the mid-1730s and became part of a patented property of over 1700 acres that included most of the watershed of the spring-fed creek now known as Rocky Marsh Run. It’s interesting to note that John, who could presumably pick out the most desirable property in the entire area, deliberately picked out the wettest, marshiest site around, and for years his tract was referred to as the Van Meter Marsh patent. (Homeowners now living in this area are occasionally the subject of local newspaper articles during wet years – the marshy aspect of the landscape has apparently become less useful in recent years, and some would prefer that the perennial surface water, so attractive to the Van Meters, drained a little faster to the Potomac through the now-channelized sections of creek.) Before moving full time to Virginia Van Meter lived in what was known as the Monocasie Hundred which encompassed an area extending from the mouth of the Monocacy River where it joined with the Potomac up into Pennsylvania, including the area now known as Frederick, Maryland. After writing a letter to authorities complaining of “abuses” by the settlers in Monocacie Hundred, Constable Van Meter was given a couple of deputies, including one Joseph Mounts (Tracy and Dern 1987).
Back in Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia, Robert Carter unsuccessfully petitioned the King via the Virginia Council to stop issuing patents within or near the Fairfax Proprietary until the boundaries were determined. The colonists still didn’t know where the headwaters of the Potomac or Rappahannock Rivers were, and so couldn’t determine what lands were within the Proprietary; the Virginia Council perhaps saw a benefit in remaining obtuse about the boundary location for the time being. Many in Virginia preferred to interpret “head” of the Potomac as describing the head of navigation, which would make the Proprietary much smaller by including land only in the coastal plain. Fairfax, of course, preferred the “first fountain” definition.