Jefferson County History
Jefferson County was created by an act of the General Assembly on January 8, 1801, from parts of Berkeley County. It was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who was then President-elect of the United States. One of America's greatest statesmen, Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia on April 2, 1743 and graduated from William and Mary College in 1762. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1767. He served as a member of the Colonial House of Burgesses from 1769 to 1774 and again in 1782; a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1775, 1776, and again from 1782 to 1785; drafted the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776; served as Governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781; and was appointed minister to France in 1785. He served in that capacity for three years. He was then the first Secretary of State during George Washington's Administration, was elected Vice-President of the United States during John Adams's Administration, and was elected the 3rd President of the United States in 1801. He was re-elected in 1805 (serving from 1801 to 1809). He also founded the University of Virginia. In an ironic and endearing twist of fate, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4 (Independence Day) in 1825.
The Mound Builders, also known as the Adena people, were the first known settlers in present-day West Virginia's eastern panhandle region (Berkeley, Jefferson, and Morgan counties). Remnants of the Mound Builder's civilization have been found throughout West Virginia, with a high concentration of artifacts in Moundsville, West Virginia (Marshall County). The Grave Creek Indian Mound, located in Moundsville, is one of West Virginia's most famous historic landmarks. More than 2,000 years old, it stands 69 feet high and 295 feet in diameter.
According to missionary reports, several thousand Hurons occupied present-day West Virginia, including the eastern panhandle region, during the late 1500s and early 1600s. During the 1600s the Iroquois Confederacy (then consisting of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, and Seneca tribes) drove the Hurons from the state. The Iroquois Confederacy was headquartered in New York and was not interested in occupying present-day West Virginia. Instead, they used it as a hunting ground during the spring and summer months.
During the early 1700s, West Virginia's eastern panhandle region was inhabited by the Tuscarora. They eventually migrated northward into New York and, in 1712, became the sixth nation to be formally admitted into the Iroquois Confederacy. The eastern panhandle region was also used as a hunting ground by several other Indian tribes, including the Shawnee (also known as the Shawanese) who resided near present-day Winchester, Virginia and Moorefield, West Virginia until 1754 when they migrated into Ohio. The Mingo, who resided in the Tygart Valley and along the Ohio River in present-day West Virginia's northern panhandle region, and the Delaware, who lived in present-day eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, but had several autonomous settlements as far south as present-day Braxton County, also used the area as a hunting ground.
The Mingo were not actually an Indian tribe, but a multi-cultural group of Indians that established several communities within present-day West Virginia. They lacked a central government and, like all other Indians within the region at that time, were subject to the control of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Mingo originally lived closer to the Atlantic Coast, but European settlement pushed them into western Virginia and eastern Ohio.
The Seneca, headquartered in western New York, was the closest member of the Iroquois Confederacy to West Virginia, and took great interest in the state. In 1744, the Seneca boasted to Virginia officials that they had conquered the several nations living on the back of the great mountains of Virginia. Among the conquered nations were the last of the Canawese or Conoy people who became incorporated into the Iroquois communities in New York. The Conoy continue to be remembered today through the naming of two of West Virginia's largest rivers after them, the Little Kanawha and the Great Kanawha.
Seneca war parties, and war parties from other members of the Iroquois Confederacy, often traveled through the state to protect its claim to southern West Virginia from the Cherokee. The Cherokee were headquartered in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee and rivaled the Iroquois nation in both size and influence. The Cherokee claimed present-day southern West Virginia as their own, setting the stage for conflict with the Iroquois Confederacy.
In 1744, Virginia officials purchased the Iroquois title of ownership to West Virginia in the Treaty of Lancaster. The treaty reduced the Iroquois Confederacy's presence in the state. During the mid-1700s, the English indicated to the various Indian tribes residing in present-day West Virginia that they intended to settle the frontier. The French, on the other hand, were more interested in trading with the Indians than settling in the area. This influenced the Mingo to side with the French during the French and Indian War (1755-1763). Although the Iroquois Confederacy officially remained neutral, many in the Iroquois Confederacy also allied with the French. Unfortunately for them, the French lost the war and ceded their North American possessions to the British.
Following the war, the Mingo retreated to their homes along the banks of the Ohio River and were rarely seen in the eastern panhandle region. Although the French and Indian War was officially over, many Indians continued to view the British as a threat to their sovereignty and continued to fight them. In the summer of 1763, Pontiac, an Ottawa chief, led raids on key British forts in the Great Lakes region. Shawnee chief Keigh-tugh-qua, also known as Cornstalk, led similar attacks on western Virginia settlements, starting with attacks in present-day Greenbrier County and extending northward to Bath, now known as Berkeley Springs, and into the northern Shenandoah Valley. By the end of July, Indians had destroyed or captured all British forts west of the Alleghenies except Fort Detroit, Fort Pitt, and Fort Niagara. The uprisings were ended on August 6, 1763 when British forces, under the command of Colonel Henry Bouquet, defeated Delaware and Shawnee forces at Bushy Run in western Pennsylvania.
Although hostilities had ended, England's King George III feared that more tension between Native Americans and settlers was inevitable. In an attempt to avert further bloodshed, he issued the Proclamation of 1763, prohibiting settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. The next five years were relatively peaceful on the frontier. However, many land speculators violated the proclamation by claiming vast acreage in western Virginia. In 1768, the Iroquois Confederacy (often called the Six Nations) and the Cherokee signed the Treaty of Hard Labour and the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, relinquishing their claims on the territory between the Ohio River and the Alleghenies to the British. With the frontier now open, settlers, once again, began to enter into present-day West Virginia.
During the spring of 1774 there were several incidents between the Shawnee and surveying parties traveling within present-day West Virginia which resulted in the deaths of several surveyors and Indians. Captain Michael Cresap led efforts to put down the Indian uprising, leading to what some called "Cresap's War." The most serious encounter took place in April 1774. Although there are conflicting accounts over what occurred, most accounts indicate that several Indians stole some property from white settlers near present-day Wheeling. In retaliation, several settlers from the area, led by Daniel Greathouse, an associate of Cresap's, followed their trail and came upon two Indians on the north side of the Ohio River. Believing them to be the thieves, the settlers killed them. The next day, April 30, 1774, the settlers found four Indians at a local tavern owned by Joshua Baker. The tavern was located on the southern side of the Ohio River across from the mouth of Yellow Creek which enters the Ohio River several miles above present-day Wheeling. After getting the Indians drunk, the settlers killed them as well. Four more Indians approached the tavern inquiring about the whereabouts of the missing Indians, among them was the brother and pregnant sister of Logan, the now-famous Mingo Indian Chief. The settlers killed them as well, and, reportedly, mutilated Logan's sister's body. After learning of his brother and sister's deaths, Logan led a series of attacks on settlements along the upper Monongahela River and in the neighborhood of Redstone Creek, where the settlers who committed the killings originated. Logan later admitted to killing at least thirteen settlers that summer. He was convinced that Michael Cresap was responsible for his brother's murder and the killing and mutilation of his sister, but it was later determined that Cresap was not responsible.
Following what the Indians referred to as the Yellow Creek Massacre, violence between settlers and the various Indian tribes spread across western Virginia. Virginia Governor John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, decided to end the Indian uprising by force. He formed two armies. He led the first army, which was comprised of 1,700 men drawn primarily from the upper Shenandoah Valley, including present-day West Virginia's eastern panhandle region. Colonel Andrew Lewis led the second army. It was comprised of 800 men, drawn primarily from the lower Shenandoah Valley. The two armies marched into western Virginia to meet the Indians, which was led by Shawnee chieftain Keigh-tugh-qua, also known as Cornstalk. Lord Dunmore's army took a more northerly route through present-day West Virginia and Colonel Lewis' army took a more southerly route. Aware of their presence, the Indians, comprised of approximately 1,200 Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo, Wyandotte and Cayuga warriors, decided to attack Lewis' army on October 10, 1774. They hoped to defeat Colonel Lewis' army before it united with Lord Dunmore's army. The attack took place at the confluence of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, at present-day Point Pleasant, in Mason County. During the battle, both sides suffered significant losses.
Although nearly half of Lewis' commissioned officers were killed during the battle, including his brother, Colonel Charles Lewis, and seventy-five of his non-commissioned officers, the Indians were forced to retreat back to their settlements in Ohio's Scioto Valley, with Lewis's men in pursuit. Meanwhile, Lord Dunmore arrived and joined forces with Lewis. Seeing that they were outnumbered, Cornstalk sued for peace.
Although western Virginia's settlers continued to experience isolated Indian attacks for several years, Cornstalk's defeat at Point Pleasant was the beginning of the end of the Indian presence in western Virginia. The Indians agreed to give up all of their white prisoners, restore all captured horses and other property, and not to hunt south of the Ohio River. They also agreed to stop harassing boats on the Ohio River. This opened up present-day West Virginia and Kentucky for settlement. Cornstalk was later killed at Fort Randolph near Point Pleasant in 1777 in retaliation for the death of a militiaman who was killed by an Indian.
During the American Revolutionary War (1776-1783), the Mingo and Shawnee, headquartered at Chillicothe, Ohio, allied themselves with the British. In 1777, a party of 350 Wyandots, Shawnees and Mingos, armed by the British, attacked Fort Henry, near present-day Wheeling. Nearly half of the soldiers manning the fort were killed in the three-day assault. The Indians then left the area celebrating their victory. For the remainder of the war, smaller raiding parties of Mingo, Shawnee, and other Indian tribes terrorized settlers throughout northern and eastern West Virginia. As a result, European settlement throughout present-day West Virginia, including the eastern panhandle, came to a virtual standstill until the war's conclusion.
Following the war, the Mingo and Shawnee, once again allied with the losing side, returned to their homes. As the number of settlers in present-day West Virginia began to grow, both the Mingo and Shawnee moved further inland, leaving their traditional hunting ground to the white settlers.
European Pioneers and Settlers
John Lederer, a German physician and explorer employed by Sir William Berkeley, colonial governor of Virginia, was the first Englishman to set foot in present-day Jefferson County. He explored the region in 1669. In 1707, Louis Michel made a map of the future site of Jefferson County and, in 1712, Christopher Baron de Graffenreid entered into present-day Jefferson County during his expedition up the Potomac River.
The first permanent English settlement in present-day Jefferson County was attempted in the Shepherdstown area in 1719, but no official records were kept of the settlers' names. Their presence is suggested by a letter written in 1719 from the residents of "Potomoke" (now known as Shepherdstown) to the Philadelphia Presbyterian Synod requesting that a minister be sent to the town.
In 1727, several German immigrant families founded the town of New Mecklenburg, renamed Shepherdstown in 1798 in honor of Captain Thomas and Elizabeth Shepherd. Thomas Shepherd had received a patent on October 3, 1734 for much of the land in that area and he was the town's leading citizen until his death in 1776. Other early settlers included John and Isaac Van Meter who obtained grants to large tracts of land in the county in 1730.
Shepherdstown claims to be the oldest town in the state. Both
Shepherdstown (then known as Mecklenburg) and Romney (in Hampshire County) were chartered by the Virginia General
Assembly on December 23, 1762. However, Romney claims that it is the oldest town in the state because its earliest
settlers arrived before Shepherdstown's earliest settlers arrived. However, it is difficult to substantiate Romney's
claim, and both towns claim the title of oldest town in the state.
Important Events in Jefferson County during the 1700s
As mentioned previously, in 1748 sixteen year old George Washington surveyed the eastern panhandle region for Lord Fairfax. Washington was impressed with the region and, in 1750, bought land there. Through the years, he continued to acquire more land in the area, and, at one point, owned nearly 2,300 acres in the eastern panhandle region. Washington's half brother, Lawrence, also owned land in the county, and when he died without any heirs in 1752, he left much of it to his brothers, George, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles. Samuel Washington's home, known as Harewood, was located in present-day Jefferson County. The home featured an exquisite marble mantelpiece that had been given to George Washington as a gift by General Marquis de Lafayette. George Washington gave it to Samuel as a present. Harewood was also the site of Dolly Payne Todd and James Madison's marriage.
When the American Revolution began, Virginians Daniel Morgan of Frederick County and Hugh Stephenson of Berkeley County (later Jefferson County) organized two regiments of Virginia volunteers to join General Washington's forces in Massachusetts. Stephenson and Morgan, both veterans of Lord Dunmore's War and friendly rivals, organized their regiments quickly in an attempt to reach General Washington first. Morgan's regiment was the first to arrive. Stephenson's regiment was easily distinguished on the field of battle. They embroidered Patrick Henry's famous slogan "Liberty or Death" on their shirts. Tragically, many of the Berkeley/Jefferson County volunteers where present when the British captured Forts Washington and Lee. Many of the prisoners died after being treated harshly.
One of the most famous American Revolutionary War leaders resided in present-day Jefferson County prior to the war. Horatio Gates (1729-1806), General Washington's second in command, lived at "Traveler's Rest" near Kearneysville prior to the war.
James Rumsey was another famous resident of present-day Jefferson County. He lived in Shepherdstown and was the first man to propose using steam instead of wind to propel vessels. He built a steamer and sailed it on the Potomac River in the presence of George Washington and others on December 3, 1787, twenty years before Robert Fulton, who is generally regarded as the inventor of the steam boat, made his first successful steam voyage. Rumsey patented his invention and traveled to London in 1790 in an attempt to find investors willing to finance the construction of additional steam ships. Several ventures failed, primarily due to poor workmanship on the steam engines. He remained in London for nearly two years. On December 20, 1792, he made a presentation explaining his invention to the Society of Mechanic Arts in London. During the presentation, he burst a blood vessel and died the next morning. During his time in London, Rumsey met Robert Fulton who later modified Rumsey's design and made steam navigation a success.
Shepherdstown was also the home of West Virginia's first newspaper, the Potomak Guardian and Berkeley Advertiser. It began publication in 1790 and was owned by Nathaniel Willis.
Important Events in Jefferson County during the 1800s
One of Jefferson County's highest priorities during the early 1800s was improving the county's roads and waterways. By the 1830s, a turnpike had been constructed that connected Shepherdstown to Middleway and a stage line ran from Washington D.C. to Leesburg (then part of the county). The early 1830s also saw the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to Harper's Ferry and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the canal's competitor, arrived a year after the canal opened in 1834. In 1835, the Winchester and Potomac Railroad linked the county with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Harpers Ferry. The new roads, railroads, and canals opened the Jefferson County area to economic expansion.
Harpers Ferry, named for Robert Harper, who settled there in 1734 and established a ferry to cross the Shenandoah and the Potomac Rivers, was the site of John Brown's famous insurrection. At 10 p.m., under the cover of darkness, on Sunday, October 16, 1859, John Brown, his two sons, Oliver and Watson, and nineteen others (seventeen white men and five black men) seized William Williamson as he stood guard on the Potomac Bridge leading to the Harpers Ferry Armory. Brown and his men then took possession of the Armory Building. At about 1 a.m., on Monday October 17, 1859, they went to Lewis Washington's home, took him captive, and announced that his slaves were free. They also went to John Allstadt's home, took him and his son prisoner, and announced that their slaves were free. When Harper Ferry's residents woke up that morning, they discovered armed men patrolling the streets and arresting anyone approaching the Armory. Finding the telegraph wires cut, messengers were sent on horseback to the neighboring towns for help. A train passing through the town from Wheeling was stopped and then allowed to continue. The trainmen spread word at the next stop that the town had been taken. A volunteer company from Charles Town, commanded by Colonel Baylor, arrived shortly after noon, took control of the bridge and surrounded the insurgents, who had retreated into the Armory. Later that day, two companies arrived from Martinsburg and the Armory was attacked, with both sides exchanging fire until nightfall. Five members of the three companies attacking the Armory were killed, as were three insurgents, including John Brown's son, Oliver. During the early evening hours, the companies surrounding the Armory restored the telegraph lines. Word of the insurrection then spread quickly across the nation.
Colonel Robert E. Lee was dispatched from Washington, D.C. to put down the rebellion. He led a hundred United States Marines. When he arrived on Tuesday, October 18, 1859, he sent J.E.B. Stuart to the Armory's front door with a note demanding Brown's surrender. When Brown refused, Stuart reportedly leapt dramatically to the side and signaled the attack. The Marines charged the Armory, killing several of Brown's men and seriously wounding Brown, who was clubbed unconscious during the attack. Of the twenty-two insurgents, ten were killed at Harpers Ferry, seven, including John Brown, were captured, taken to Charles Town, tried, and later hanged in December 1859 for treason, and five escaped. Those opposed to slavery hailed John Brown as a national hero, and those supporting slavery viewed him as a villain. Many others supported Brown's objective, but condemned his actions. Many historians consider John Brown's actions at Harpers Ferry a precursor to the Civil War.
Jefferson County was a center of activity during the Civil War, primarily because of its geographic location, especially its proximity to Washington, D.C. and the presence of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad within its borders. During the war, many of Jefferson County's towns repeatedly changed hands, and each time they did the retreating forces typically destroyed the town's main buildings and infrastructure.
It is interesting how Jefferson County, whose residents largely supported the Confederacy, became part of West Virginia. A statewide referendum was held in October 1861 to determine if a state Constitutional Convention should be held to form a new state. The referendum passed and a Constitutional Convention was held on November 26, 1861 in Wheeling. When determining the state's boundaries, the delegates, realizing the importance of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad to West Virginia's economic prospects, included the eastern panhandle in the state.
When the West Virginia Constitution was put to a vote many of Jefferson County's citizens did not even know that the question of whether to remain with Virginia or join the new state of West Virginia was being put to a vote. When the vote was taken the Union Army controlled the county and opened just two precincts for voting. Those known to be Confederate sympathizers were under house arrest, and were not allowed to vote. Jefferson County voted 248 for and two against joining the new state of West Virginia. At that time, the county had nearly 2,000 registered voters, but most of them were under house arrest.
After the War, Virginia demanded that Berkeley and Jefferson counties be returned because they had not been a part of the original annexation approved by Congress. Many Jefferson and Berkeley county residents also expressed their desire to remain a part of Virginia. As the controversy over Berkeley and Jefferson counties continued, West Virginia's state legislature, in January 1865, moved the Jefferson County seat from Charles Town to Shepherdstown, primarily because Shepherdstown's residents were ardent supporters of becoming part of West Virginia. The Shepherdstown West Virginians even had a plan to form a new county to be called "Shepherd" if the citizens of the southern portion of the county did not comply with their wish to remain part of West Virginia. The controversy over Jefferson County's location in West Virginia finally ended in 1866 after both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives ruled in favor of West Virginia's claim to the land. In an attempt to mollify those wanting the county to be returned to Virginia, the county seat was moved from Shepherdstown back to Charles Town.
When the county seat was moved from Shepherdstown, the town's residents decided to establish a school in the now empty courthouse. The school was originally called the "Classical and Scientific Institute," but its name was changed to Shepherd College in 1872. In exchange for state support, Shepherd College's trustees offered the state free access to the courthouse building. The state accepted the offer and Shepherd College became a state normal school. In 1904, the college moved from the courthouse/McMurran Hall to a new building called "Knutti Hall," named to honor its principal, J.G. Knutti.
Recent Important Events in Jefferson County
In 2000, Shepherdstown drew the attention of the entire world as it hosted the latest round of the U.S. brokered Israeli-Syrian peace talks. The talks included Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shaara. President Bill Clinton served as mediator. The talks did not produce any conclusive agreements, but they represented an important step toward peace.
The Jefferson County Seat
Charles Town, Jefferson County's seat, was chartered by the Virginia General Assembly in October 1786. It was named in honor of Charles Washington, George Washington's youngest brother. Charles Washington moved to the area in 1780. His home, known as "Happy Retreat," was a favorite rest stop for the wealthy and famous. Charles Town was laid out on eighty acres of land owned by Charles Washington. Charles Town was the location of John Brown's trial and execution.
Bushong, Millard Kessler. 1941. A History of Jefferson County, West Virginia. Charles Town, WV: Jefferson Publishing Company.
Engle, Stephen Douglas. 1989. Thunder in the Hills: Military Operations in Jefferson County West Virginia, During the American Civil War. Charleston,
WV: Mountain State Press.
Jefferson County West Virginia Historical Tour. 1951. Ranson, WV: Whitney and White.
The Washington Homes of Jefferson County, West Virginia. 1975. Jefferson, WV: Jefferson County Historical Society.
Dr. Robert Jay Dilger, Director, Institute for Public Affairs and Professor of Political Science, West Virginia University.
Steve Kovalan, undergraduate history and political science major, West Virginia University
October 23, 2002.