Settlement of the South Branch of the Potomac



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Early Settlers on the Potomac River, Augusta County, VA



Once the Blue Ridge barrier was breached, where the Potomac and the Susquehanna find their ways to the sea, the Indian road to the south became a thoroughfare into the unspoiled Virginia back country. By way of the McCullough path the more venturesome reached the fertile valley of the South Branch. ....This sweeping tide of settlement all took place within three decades - 1720 to 1750 - spreading westward as it swept south.

In 1745 these valleys, north of a line surveyed between the sources of the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, became part of a vast proprietary grant, known as the Northern Neck...The grant was an old one, having been made by Charles II in 1649, while in exile, to several his friends and supporters, including two members of the prominent Culpeper family. Over the years the Culpepers acquired the entire interest, and then through marriage it passed to the equally prominent and more enduring Fairfax family.

In 1719 this royal grant was inherited by Thomas 6th Lord Fairfax. The exact boundaries of the Proprietary had never been properly determined, partly because of disagreement over the language of the grant and partly because the geography of Virginia west of the Blue Ridge was almost unknown when the grant was made.

Thomas Fairfax was interested not only in establishing his inheritance, but also in getting the most out of the meaning of its terms with reference to the heads of the rivers involved - the Potomac and Rappahannock. Despite understandable opposition by the colonial government, Fairfax was politically successful in obtaining the most liberal interpretation of his patent and in the definition of the branches and sources of the two rivers.

In 1746 the back line as it was then called, was surveyed from the source of the Potomac's North Branch to that of the Rappahannock's southern branch, known as the Conway River. Quickly the Proprietor moved to have some of the best land within his newly acquired boundaries laid off as manors.

South Branch Manor, consisting of 54,596 acres, was surveyed by James Genn, the recorded date being March 31, 1747.3 It included the most valuable land along the South Branch from Royal Glen Gorge to The Trough as well as the lower reaches of Mill Creek and Lunice Creek.

On Oct. 17, 1746, the "Fairfax Stone" was erected at the source, or first fountain, of the North Branch of the Potomac; thence a line was afterward run to the source of the Rappahannock, the present West Virginia counties, within the grant being the whole of Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, Hampshire, Mineral, nine-tenths of Hardy, three-fourths of Grant and one-eighth of Tucker-an area of 2,540 square miles, or 1,625,600 acres. In 1747 Lord Fairfax employed the boy surveyor, George Washington, to lay off portions of these lands to suit settlers then arriving, and in this, and the two ensuing years, nearly 300 tracts were surveyed. Thus it was that George Washington, who led the American armies in the Revolution, and who was the first President of the United States, surveyed the first farms in West Virginia. Settlements were formed far up the South Branch of the Potomac, even into what is now Pendleton county, and daring frontiersmen sought homes beyond the mountains to the westward. In 1753 David Tygart and Robert Foyle settled on what is since known as Tygart's Valley River, now in Randolph county. The next year Thomas Eckarly and two brothers reared a cabin on Dunkard's Bottom on Cheat River, now in Preston county, and three years later Thomas Decker and others began a settlement at the mouth of what has since been known as Decker's Creek, on the Monongahela River, where Morgantown, in Monongalia county, now stands. From:Electric Scotland

The first white settlers came to this frontier region with a pre-existing commercial orientation, raising livestock and other agricultural products for external markets, as well as local exchange markets. The coming of the French and Indian War drove many of the early settlers back to the east. Positioned at a strategic point for Virginia’s frontier defense, the remaining farmers produced agricultural provisions for the military markets. Lord Dunmore’s War and the American Revolution further expanded the opportunities for farmers in the South Branch Valley to engage in commercial markets. After the American Revolution, a number of farmers in the South Branch Valley built large-scale commercial livestock operations, becoming the wealthiest farmers in western Virginia at the end of the eighteenth century. From:Lee 2008a

John VanMeter, whose descendents were among the earliest settlers of the South Branch Valley, was the first recorded European-American to enter into the South Branch Valley. In 1725, VanMeter came to the South Branch as an Indian trader. He was traveling south through Virginia with a band of Delaware Indians who intended to attack the Catawbas to the South. After a bloody meeting between the Delawares and Catawbas in what is today Pendleton County, West Virginia, VanMeter returned to his home in New York. He was impressed by the area, however, and advised his sons to move to the South Branch Valley and settle on lands around the Trough. His son, Isaac, came to the South Branch in 1736 or 1737 and claimed land south of the Trough by tomahawk rights. Isaac VanMeter returned to New Jersey, and he did not return to the South Branch until 1740.

After 1730, the Virginia colony changed its land policy and began to award large grants of land to speculators. These speculators received their grants in return for settling a number of families on the land. The settlement of the Valley of Virginia was rapid after this time. Land speculators like John VanMeter and his brother Isaac, Joist Hite, and others began to recruit heavily from the German and Scots-Irish settlements in southeastern Pennsylvania. The Virginia colonial government, both on its own and with encouragement from the Board of Trade, wanted to settle this Appalachian frontier with “natural born subjects,” as well as foreign Protestants, in order to secure the frontier militarily with settlement buffers.77 The South Branch Valley was part of the holdings of Lord Fairfax, who inherited the proprietary grant of the Northern Neck of Virginia from his mother’s family, the Culpepers, who received the grant from King Charles II. His title was confirmed by an Act of the Virginia Assembly in 1736. Lord Fairfax’s holdings in the South Branch were part of Augusta and Frederick Counties in Virginia. The Assembly had created Frederick County with its county seat of Winchester from part of Orange County in 1738.78 Fairfax laid out his land grant into six feudal-style manors, of which the South Branch, or Wappacomo, Manor consisted of 55,000 acres in the area that is today Hampshire, Hardy, and Grant Counties...

Within the manors, Fairfax set up tracts of land between nine and 625 acres. Settlers on these tracts, which averaged between 100 and 300 acres for most families, either held the land in fee simple or as a lease, paying Fairfax a down payment and an annual quitrent. The leases were granted for the length of the lives of the leaseholder, his wife, and a son or daughter. The leaseholder was required to seek permission to sublet or sell his lease, but this was generally disregarded and trade in these Fairfax tracts was common. Despite the quitrents and restrictions that Fairfax imposed on hunting, settlers still sought out Fairfax lands. Fairfax offered a good deal for a man of small means. A tenant could lease as much as land as he could pay for. Beyond payment of the quitrent, he was only required to build a house that measured at least 16x20 feet with a brick or stone chimney, to plant a fenced orchard of at least 100 fruit trees, and to maintain his fences. As Otis Rice notes in Allegheny Frontier, a number of the wealthy and prominent families of the Valley began their lives in the South Branch Valley as tenants to Lord Fairfax. The settlers who rented land from Lord Fairfax or were squatters on the land in the early 1750s had farms that averaged between 370 and 400 acres with none smaller than 181 acres or larger than 1,056 acres.

The first survey to establish the boundaries of Lord Fairfax’s land grant was made in 1736. Captain Benjamin Winslow and Major William Mayo led the surveying party, which suffered severe hardships of starvation during the expedition since there were few settlers or Indians with which they could trade. Fairfax’s grant extended to the headspring of the Potomac, but the survey party passed by the mouth of the South Branch. The surveyors believed that the North Branch was the main stream of the Potomac, due to the fact that it was wider than the South Branch. On Mayo’s Map of the Northern Neck of Virginia the lands along the South Branch were labeled “Shawnee Indian Fields Deserted.”

In 1746, Lord Fairfax hired a second party to identify the northwestern edge of his Northern Neck lands and correct the flaws of the 1736 survey. This boundary line ran from the head of the Rapahannock River to the head of the Potomac River; it was not, therefore, a natural boundary. Lord Fairfax chose his cousin, Colonel William Fairfax, and Colonel William Beverly, to serve as his commissioners; Benjamin Winslow, and Thomas Lewis were hired as surveyors. For the colony of Virginia, Colonel Lunsford Lomax, Peter Hedgman, and Joshua Fry served as commissioners; Peter Jefferson and Robert Brooke, whose father was a surveyor for the colony on the 1736 survey, were the Colony’s surveyors.

Settlement had been rapid between Fairfax’s 1736 and 1746 surveys, and many settlers established themselves in the area with little regard for Fairfax’s title. In 1736, the surveyors found a deserted wilderness broken only by a few Indian old fields and trails, although Kercheval claims in his History of the Valley of Virginia that the earliest settlers to the South Branch—all Scots-Irish from Pennsylvania—arrived in 1734 or 1735. By the time of Fairfax’s 1746 survey, however, a wagon road led into the settlements on the South Branch Valley. From Lee, 2008b