West of the Blue Ridge Series: Agriculture

Your music selection for this installment is “The Black Nag/Morrison’s Jig.”

Kurtz Cultural Center Exhibits
Entrance panel to “West of the Blue Ridge” with scythe from Edward Durrell Collection, COSI, Ohio’s Center of Science and Industry and “Over the Blue Ridge” photograph by James N. Holmes.

In 1729-1730, Jacob Stover petitioned to create a 13th colony from the Virginia interior and bring Swiss-German farmers as settlers. This was a departure from the pattern of settlement in the east of Virginia, where grants were typically made to the wealthy English. The petition to the Colonial government struck at a fateful time. The Shenandoah Valley had been a place of escape for slaves fleeing a James River plantation in 1727. Although they were captured, the idea of the Valley becoming a haven for escapees had been planted in Virginia Governor William Gooch’s mind. This petition offered a way to settle the land and simultaneously not endanger the English elites.

Gooch denied the petition for the new colony, but approved immigrant farmers settling the Valley. The grants were to be made to “persons of low degree in life who are known amongst their equals as morally honest.” The stipulation was to have one family for every 1,000 acres. Attracted by the prospects of inexpensive and rich farmland, successive waves of Scotch-Irish and German immigrants settled in the valley.

“The necessary labors of the farms along the frontiers were performed with every danger and difficulty imaginable. The whole population of the frontiers, huddled together in their little forts, left the country with every appearance of a deserted region; and such would have been the opinion of a traveler concerning it, if he had not seen here and there some small fields of corn or other grain in a growing state.” — Samuel Kercheval, 1850

"West of the Blue Ridge" Exhibit
Various farm implements were displayed, including a 19th century grain flail from Jefferson County Museum, Charlestown, West Virginia; a cowbell and a cow hobble from the Edward Durrell Collection, COSI, Ohio’s Center of Science and Industry; and an early 1800s sleigh from a local collector.

At first farmers in Old Frederick County raised crops and animals mostly for their own subsistence, but the rich soil and moderate climate combined to make the Valley the most important wheat-producing region in the Upper South by 1800. The change to wheat as a primary cash crop instead of tobacco as in eastern Virginia was said by Samuel Kercheval to have been inspired by the French Revolution in 1794, when all kinds of bread stuffs became enormously expensive. Wheat and flour production enriched the region for years afterward. In addition to wheat, local farms produced rye, oats, corn, and hay said to be “superior in quality and quantity” than average.

Advertisement publicizing the repair of Sperry’s Mill on Redbud Run, said “not to be an elegant building, but sufficiently calculated for the reception of a large quantity of wheat.” – Winchester Advertiser, May 7, 1788

By the American Revolution the average Valley resident owned between 100 and 400 acres: increasingly, however, larger tracts of land were concentrated in the hands of a select few and tenancy was on the rise. To the west of the Opequon Creek, small family farms characterized the landscape: few people held more than 100 acres. On these small farms, families worked together in the fields. Samuel Kercheval remembered, “Many females were most expert mowers and reapers.” The yoke displayed from the Edward Durrell Collection, COSI, Ohio’s Center of Science and Industry, is the size worn by a woman or a child.

By contrast, the eastern Virginians who settled in east Frederick County in the 1780s and 1790s recreated Tidewater plantation society. These farms were set up with grand manor houses and large-scale agricultural production. Larger farms like Vaucluse outside of Stephens City could also have mills for flour production on site. Foreseeing the growth in agriculture, in 1785 Nathaniel Burwell and his partner, Daniel Morgan, established a merchant mill to buy, sell, and mill local grain and export flour in Millwood. Along with the positives of a successful commercial crop on the local economy, wheat and the large-scale agricultural endeavors helped spread slavery in the Valley. By 1800 approximately 5,000 enslaved African-Americans lived in Old Frederick County, a little more than 32% of the population.

Slavery as an institution was not universally embraced by the Valley settlers. In 1782, Virginia law made the private manumission of enslaved individuals permissible. In an attempt to further this work, a group of Frederick County residents petitioned the Legislature in 1785 to outlaw slavery. Although unsuccessful in this early abolitionist attempt, Winchester became a haven for free African-Americans. Free African-Americans were required by law to register in their place of residence and to carry on their person at all times written proof of their status. Dennis Johnston was among the twenty-one Frederick County slaves manumitted by planter Robert Carter in 1799 and issued a certificate of freedom. His name, along with many other locally-recognizable names, appears in the Winchester 1833 Free Negroes and Mulattoes list available at the Library of Virginia.

Join us next time on November 19 to examine the commerce west of the Blue Ridge!

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!

West of the Blue Ridge Series: Introduction

Welcome to a new series of articles that will be posted once a month from now until June 2022. As the PHW Office will be closed for all business on a number of Fridays for the next year, we thought this would be a perfect opportunity to highlight some of our older collected work from our Kurtz Cultural Center era. To produce and compile this series, we will be utilizing a number of the major exhibits hosted in the KCC during the 1990s, including the titular “West of the Blue Ridge” and “James Wood & the Founding of Winchester,” with additional information from the Shenandoah University exhibit “Valley Pioneer Artists and Those Who Continue” (itself the starting point for much of the “West of the Blue Ridge” exhibit) and others.

The posts will draw from exhibit texts, student and teacher guides to the exhibits, the digitized exhibit images, printed materials, press releases, and even the playlist of music that accompanied the “West of the Blue Ridge” exhibit. We hope this series will be nostalgic if you experienced it the first time, and informative if this is your first brush with this part of Winchester’s history.

Kurtz Cultural Center
Workers ready displays for the “West of the Blue Ridge” exhibit at the Kurtz Cultural Center in 1993.

Believe it or not, Winchester, Virginia was once the “Williamsburg of the West.” In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the lower Shenandoah Valley was a prosperous and bustling crossroads for western migration. The region was a gateway to the southern backcountry and the new western territories: across Valley roads moved people, goods, services, and ideas. Winchester, founded in 1744, was already the largest and most significant city west of the Blue Ridge after the American Revolution, when Americans were looking to the west of their new nation.

The series’ name “West of the Blue Ridge” derives from a petition in which area residents asked the state legislature to build a courthouse in Winchester because they were tired of traveling east of the Blue Ridge. In the petition, local people emphasized that they were different from people east of the Blue Ridge. About 40 percent of the population at the time was non-English, and the settlers kept many of their traditions alive, including through their decorative arts.

Whether on a large plantation or a small farm in Old Frederick County, agriculture formed the daily lives of Valley residents. By the American Revolution greater and more specialized crop production had combined with increasingly diverse manufacturing to form a sophisticated local economy. As part of this commercial expansion, Winchester became a thriving city that enticed merchants, craftsmen, physicians, attorneys, and their families to settle there. Winchester flourished at the crossroads of transportation routes west and south, becoming the largest city west of the Blue Ridge. We’ll explore more of the town growth in next month’s installment on September 17!

Varle, C. & Jones, B. (1809) Map of Frederick, Berkeley, & Jefferson counties in the state of Virginia. [Philadelphia: s.n] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2008621756/.

“As this town is standing on the main roads to Pittsburg, Wheelen, Kentucky, Tennessee and the Warm and other springs, many strangers pass through it, which, besides the great intercourse it occasions, gives a gaity [sic] to the place, and has a great influence on the inhabitants.” – Charles Varle, 1809