Hampshire County, WV History

Hampshire County History

Hampshire County was created by the Virginia General Assembly on May 1st, 1754 from parts of Frederick and Augusta counties (Virginia) and is the oldest county in the state.

Although its creation was authorized in 1753, it was not actually organized until 1757 because the area was not considered safe due to the outbreak of the French and Indian War (1754-1763). According to Samuel Kercheval's A History of the Valley of Virginia (Strasburg, VA: Shenandoah Publishing House, 1925), the county was named in honor of several prize hogs. The story goes that Lord Fairfax, who owned the Royal Grant to the area, came upon some very large hogs in Winchester and asked where they had been raised. He was told that they were from the South Branch of the Potomac Valley (now Hampshire County). He remarked that when a county was formed west of Frederick that he would name it in honor of Hampshire County, England, famous for its very fat hogs.

The First Settlers

The first native settlers in West Virginia's Potomac Highlands (Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, Mineral, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph, and Tucker counties) were the Mound Builders, also known as the Adena people. Remnants of the Mound Builder's civilization have been found throughout West Virginia, with many artifacts found in the Northern Panhandle, especially in Marshall County.

A more thorough presentation of the first native settlers in West Virginia can be read on-line here. The following is a brief overview of that history:

  • Several thousand Hurons occupied present-day West Virginia 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 and used it primarily as a hunting ground.
  • During the early 1700s, the Shawnee, Mingo, Delaware, and other Indian tribes also used present-day West Virginia as a hunting ground. West Virginia's Potomac Highlands was inhabited by the Tuscarora. They eventually migrated northward to New York and, in 1712, became the sixth nation to formally be admitted to the Iroquois Confederacy. The Cherokee Nation claimed southern West Virginia.
  • In 1744, Virginia officials purchased the Iroquois title of ownership to West Virginia in the Treaty of Lancaster.
  • The Delaware, Mingo, and Shawnee sided with the French during the French and Indian War (1755-1763). The Iroquois Confederacy officially remained neutral, but many in the Iroquois Confederacy allied with the French.
  • When the French and Indian War was over, 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 Proclamation was, for the most part, ignored.
  • During the summer of 1763, Ottawa Chief Pontiac led raids on key British forts in the Great Lakes region. Shawnee Chief Keigh-tugh-qua, also known as Cornstalk, led similar raids on western Virginia settlements. The uprisings 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.
  • 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.
  • In April 1774, the Yellow Creek Massacre took place near Wheeling. Among the dead were Mingo Chief Logan's brother and pregnant sister. Violence then escalated intoLord Dunmore's War.
  • On October 10, 1774, Colonel Andrew Lewis and approximately 800 men defeated 1,200 Indian warriors led by Shawnee Chief Cornstalk at the Battle of Point Pleasant, ending Lord Dunmore's War.
  • The Mingo and Shawnee allied with the British during the American Revolutionary War (1776-1783). One of the more notable battles occurred in 1777 when a war party of 350 Wyandot, Shawnee, and Mingo warriors, armed by the British, attacked Fort Henry, near present-day Wheeling. Nearly half of the Americans manning the fort were killed in the three-day assault. Following the war, the Mingo and Shawnee, once again allied with the losing side, returned to their homes in Ohio. As the number of settlers in the region grew, both the Mingo and the Shawnee move further inland, leaving western Virginia to the white settlers.

Hampshire County's European Pioneers and Settlers

During the early 1700s, several fur traders and explorers were known to have traveled through Hampshire County, but their names were not recorded. By 1735, six families had settled in the Springfield area, including the families of James Howard, John and James Walker, Jonathan Coburn, James Rutledge and a Mr. Forman (possibly William).

In 1738, John Pearsall (or Pearsoll) and his brother Job built cabins near present-day Romney. It was reported that Job paid Lord Fairfax five shillings for his 323-acre homestead. Initially, their settlement was known as Pearsall's Flats. Within a few years, they were joined by the following seven families: Blue, Good, Hunter, Johnson, Kuykendall, Parker, and Rodgers. By 1748, nearly 200 people lived near Pearsall's Flats.

At that time, Lord Fairfax realized that he had an opportunity to earn income by laying off his land in the area into lots and requiring those residing there to pay him for the land or to pay rent. In 1748, Lord Fairfax sent a surveying party, led by James Genn and including 16 year-old George Washington, to survey his lands along the Potomac and South Branch Rivers. Washington spent three summers and falls surveying Lord Fairfax's estate, including present-day Hampshire County. Washington's diary indicated that he was in present-day Romney on October 19, 1749. Oral traditions claimed that Washington laid present-day Romney out into lots at that time, but written records credit James Genn for surveying and laying out the town.

Important Events in Hampshire County during the 1700s and 1800s

Because he was a British citizen, all of Lord Fairfax's land holdings were confiscated by the state of Virginia at the close of the American Revolutionary War (1776-1783). The state then auctioned off the land. Between 1788 and 1810, a total of 1,986 land entries were recorded in Hampshire County. As settlers continued to enter the county, the state decided to build a state road from Winchester to Romney, passing by Capon Bridge and Hanging Rocks. The road's construction was a boom to local economic development as several stage lines began operations, providing settlers more ready access to eastern markets. In 1796, a post office, headed by John Jack, opened in Romney.

The opening of the Northwestern Turnpike, a toll road connecting Winchester, Romney, Moorefield, Beverly, Kingwood, Pruntytown, Clarksburg, and Parkersburg, was a major event in Hampshire County. The Turnpike reached Romney in 1830, and Parkersburg in 1838. It assisted in the promoting the area's economy, and significantly reduced the area's isolation from the eastern seaboard. By 1845, daily stage and mail service was established between Winchester and Parkersburg. Romney was a popular rest stop along the Turnpike, and a number of inns and taverns were built in the town to accommodate the many travels passing through the area.

Hampshire County's residents generally sided with the South during the Civil War. On May 18, 1861, the Hampshire Guards and Frontier Riflemen left Romney to join other Virginia regiments forming at Harpers Ferry. During the course of the war, Hampshire County raised thirteen Confederate companies and only one for the Union. Following the war's conclusion, on Sept. 26, 1867, Hampshire County dedicated what is perhaps the first Confederate Memorial in the United States. It still stands in Romney's Indian Mound Cemetery.

Although there were no major battles fought in Hampshire County, Romney changed hands at least 56 times during the war. This places Romney second behind only Winchester, Virginia as the town that changed hands the most during the Civil War. On June 11, 1861, Romney changed hands twice in the same day. Some historians speculate that Romney actually changed hands more than Winchester, Virginia, but there are no surviving records to support the claim.

In the late 1860s and early 1870s, Professor Howard H. Johnson of Franklin, Virginia (later Pendleton County, West Virginia), a blind teacher, was instrumental in bringing a school for the deaf and blind to Romney. Johnson had attended a school for the deaf and blind at Staunton, Virginia and recognized the need for a school in West Virginia. Beginning in the late 1860s, he lobbied the state legislature to provide funding for the project. On March 3, 1870, Johnson's dreams became reality when the West Virginia State Legislature appropriated $8,000 for the creation of a school for the deaf and blind in the state. Several towns, including Romney, Clarksburg, and Parkersburg, lobbied to have the school located there, but Romney was chosen when it offered the buildings and grounds of the Romney Literary Society. The school opened on September 29, 1870 with thirty students, twenty-five of them deaf and five of them blind. Currently, the main campus consists of 16 major buildings on 79 acres of land.

The Hampshire County Seat

The first Hampshire County court meeting took place on June 11, 1755 in a private home located about five miles north of present-day Romney. Thomas Byran Martin, a nephew of Lord Fairfax, presided at the meeting. There are no records of the court's meetings from 1755 and 1757, presumably because most of the county's residents fled the county during the French and Indian War.

In 1762, Lord Fairfax sent a survey party to Romney to formally lay out a new town, then known as Pearsall's Flats, into 100, half-acre lots. He then renamed the town Romney, in honor of a port city on the English Channel. The Virginia General Assembly formally recognized the town's formation on December 23, 1762. Some confusion ensued for several decades concerning the ownership of land within the town as counterclaims were made by the original settlers and those who purchased lots laid out by Lord Fairfax's surveyors.

Apparently, the town did not have a formal town government until December 4, 1789. At that time, the General Assembly passed an act providing Romney a board of trustees comprised of: Isaac Parsons, Isaac Millar, Andrew Woodrow, Stephen Colven, Jonathan Purcell, Nicholas Casey, William McGuire, Purez Drew, and James Murphy. The 1810 federal Census indicated that Romney had 295 residents. The 1850 federal Census revealed that the town's population had gown slowly over the years, reaching 456 people.

The county's first courthouse was constructed in Romney in 1833, and replaced in 1922.

Romney claims to be the oldest town in West Virginia. Both Shepherdstown (in Jefferson County, and then known as Mecklenburg) and Romney 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 incorporation was listed before Shepherdstown's in the Virginia Statutes at Large and its earliest settlers arrived in 1725 while Shepherdstown's earliest settlers did not arrive until 1727. However, given the paucity of written records in the era, it is difficult to substantiate the claim that Romney's earliest settlers arrived before Shepherdstown's earliest settlers, and both towns continue to claim the title of oldest town in the state.

References

Branch, Shelden W. 1976. Historic Hampshire. Parsons, WV: McClain Printing Company.

Maxwell, Hu and H.L. Swisher. 1897. History of Hampshire, West Virginia. Morgantown: A. Brown Boughner Printing.

West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. 2000. "In-Depth History: 1870 – 2000." Romney, WV: West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.

Accessed on-line at: http://wvsdb.state.k12.wv.us/in-depth_wvsd&b_history.htm.

Author

Dr. Robert Jay Dilger, Director, Institute for Public Affairs and Professor of Political Science, West Virginia University.