West of the Blue Ridge Series: Winchester’s Founding

The music selection for this installment is “Northfield.

“Winchester is built on a small hill; it is a collection of brick houses and painted frame houses. Well cultivated plantations, adjoining each other, surround the base of the cone on which the town is situated; on the side of the mountains which form an amphitheater, other plantations can be seen. A black and deep soil, which requires only light tillage, yields abundant harvests. Nature is in all her magnificence there!” –Ferdinand Bayard, 1797

Away, I'm Bound Away
Jenny Powers, curator for the “Away, I’m Bound Away” exhibit, January 12, 1995.

The land grants in the Shenandoah Valley were planned as a buffer between the eastern established settlements of Virginia and the French colonies and Native Americans to the west. German, Swiss, and Scotch-Irish immigrant farmers were recruited to settle the Shenandoah Valley in the 1730s. The vast land grants to settlers like Joist Hite, Alexander Ross, and John and Isaac Van Meter (with stipulations for them to recruit one family for every thousand acres) practically ensured the newcomers to the Valley would not be English elites, like the majority of the Tidewater Virginians, but self-reliant and independent farmers from more modest backgrounds.

The new settlements were located in a travel route designated by the Treaty of Albany for the Native Americans, and unsurprisingly, conflict arose between the two groups. Settlers pleaded to the Colonial government for assistance. In 1738, Frederick and Augusta counties were formed – the first counties created west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The formation allowed settlers to organize and protect themselves with a local militia.

Exhibit launches birthday fete
Three generations of direct descendants from James Wood review a plan of the original 26 lots laid out in downtown Winchester at the “James Wood and the Founding of Winchester” exhibit, April 1994.

About the same time, James Wood was commissioned in 1734 by the College of William and Mary to survey Orange County, the “parent” county for Frederick. Although his early life remains shrouded in mystery, this surveying commission is his oldest documentation in the colonies. As part of his privilege as a surveyor, Wood claimed 1241 acres in the area that would become his home Glen Burnie and the future site of Winchester.

Wood had already received his commission to be clerk of court for Frederick County, but there was no court to speak of initially. The Colonial government had waited to order the establishment of the county court, reasoning that the people who had settled here were “not yet understanding the English language.” The settlers continued in a state of judicial limbo until tensions between the Iroquois and the settlers forced the issue in 1743.

As a surveyor, and therefore a prominent citizen who had likely amassed some wealth from his industry and appointed offices, Wood received court approval to form Winchester’s original lots in the modern-day downtown. In March of 1744, Wood announced he had surveyed twenty-six half-acre lots and two thirty-three foot streets (Loudoun and Boscawen) to create a county town. As part of the agreement, Wood donated parcels for public use, encompassing the lots between today’s Loudoun, Cameron, and Boscawen streets and Rouss Avenue. The Treaty of Lancaster, also signed in the founding year of 1744, helped quell the disputes between settlers and the Iroquois and drive peaceful trade through the town.

Despite Winchester appearing on paper as a sure bet for the county seat, Thomas, Lord Fairfax, the proprietor of the Northern Neck, had other ideas. As described by T. K. Cartmell, “We know that many of the present inhabitants of the old town have had handed down to them the belief that Lord Fairfax actually sliced off from his immense holdings a sufficient quantity of land, and gave, or dedicated, it for the use of the citizens of the County for the purpose of a county seat, that eventually developed into the far-famed Valley City. Such impressions are wrong; and should have been corrected years ago.” Fairfax indeed gave nothing to Winchester and wanted Stephensburg (Stephens City) to have the honor of county seat. It was established in 1758 and according to one description, “was settled almost exclusively by Germans, whose descendants long preserved the customs and language of their ancestors.”

James Wood and the Founding of Winchester Exhibit
“Ye Public Lotts of Winchester,” enlargement from the Neill Wood original of the same name, 1932.

The court selected Winchester through the lobbying of James Wood, who “served a toddy to the judge with the deciding vote.” Winchester became the Valley’s leading commercial, judicial and governmental center within several decades. The first courthouse was built between 1747 and 1751. Concentrated residential and commercial patterns in the town, an early water system (1808) and paved streets (1809), two weekly newspapers and a book publishing industry were indications of Winchester’s increasing urbanization. The vigorous economy encouraged a number of artisans, merchants, and tavern keepers to settle there. Equally important were the free African-Americans that Winchester attracted after 1782 when Virginia law made the private manumission of enslaved individuals permissible. By 1785 the Lower Shenandoah Valley was no longer the edge of the frontier.

Join us for the next installment looking at some of the agricultural history of the Valley on October 15!