Colonial settlers began their migration into the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley in the early 1700s. Many crossed the Potomac River at Pack Horse Ford, about one mile downriver from the modern site of Shepherdstown. There, Native American tribes once clashed at what was then part of the Warrior Path. Later it was known as the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, a major north-south connector of colonial and early America.
The colony of Virginia began issuing Valley land grants in the 1730s, but settlers in the area of what became Shepherdstown had arrived earlier, perhaps before 1720. In 1734, Thomas Shepherd took up a tract of 222 acres on the south side of the Potomac, along the Falling Spring Branch, now known as Town Run. For a brief time, the settlement there was called Pack Horse Ford or Swearingen’s Ferry. In 1762, the Virginia Assembly established the town as Mecklenburg (later renamed Shepherdstown). As the sole trustee, Shepherd retained chief responsibility for its government. Shepherdstown is the oldest town in the state of Virginia, having been chartered in 1762. Since 1863, Shepherdstown has been in West Virginia and is also the oldest town in that state.
More than twenty natural springs feed Town Run before it enters the south end of town. The Run rarely floods and never runs dry; it meanders through backyards, under houses, across alleys, and beneath five streets before it rushes down to the Potomac. To early settlers, the stream provided water for domestic purposes and firefighting as well as fish for the table. Most important, it powered the shops of millers, tanners, potters, smiths, and other artisans. As a result, on the eve of the American Revolution, the town thrived. A busy waterfront on the Potomac and workshops on Town Run complemented growing farms beyond the town. Mecklenburg had grown to 1,000 inhabitants and had a ferry crossing the river to Maryland. Being near Pack Horse Ford gave the town a strategic location on the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. With the official blessing of the Virginia Assembly, Shepherdstown residents celebrated two annual fairs “for the sale and vending of all manner of cattle, victuals, provisions, goods, wares, and merchandise whatsoever.”
In the summer of 1775, the Continental Congress issued a call for volunteer rifle companies from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania to come to the aid of embattled Boston. Captain Hugh Stephenson filled the ranks of his 100-man company from around Mecklenburg. The troops departed from Morgan’s Spring, about one-half mile south of the town limits, in mid-July. This famous “Beeline March” covered 600 miles in 24 days as the marchers hastened to help fellow colonists threatened by George III’s Redcoats.
The town contributed liberally to the cause of American independence. Its cemeteries contain at least thirty-eight Revolutionary veterans, a measure of the town’s military involvement. Citizens also supplied clothing, wagons, saddles, and other items for military use.
After the Revolution, the little river town continued to flourish, though the War left many widows and orphans, and some veterans moved west to take up land grants. On December 3, 1787, a historic moment during the critical days of the early republic, James Rumsey conducted a successful trial of a steamboat. A large gathering of townspeople and notables witnessed the event from the banks and bluffs of the Potomac River. A few months later, Abraham Shepherd provided riverfront land and facilities for the Mecklenburg Warehouse, a tobacco inspection facility approved by the Virginia General Assembly in 1788.
In addition to Rumsey’s ingenuity, Shepherdstown’s early records reveal impressive examples of wit, learning, and culture. West Virginia’s first newspaper (The Potomak Guardian and Berkeley Advertiser) and first book (The Christian Panoply) were published here in the 1790s. A number of schools had been started before the Revolution, including an English school and a German school, and the first academy in what became West Virginia opened shortly afterward.
Because Shepherdstown provided a convenient stopover for wagon masters and other sojourners, many taverns and inns sprang up. In addition to food, drink, and lodging, these establishments provided horse racing, gambling, cockfighting, and other entertainments for the weary travelers and interested townspeople.
The 1790s brought many changes. The first post office in what became West Virginia opened in 1793. By 1794 Welsh’s brickyard operated along Town Run on the south side of Washington Street between Princess and King. Because of the brickyard, between 1790 and 1840, many of the wooden structures of pioneer Shepherdstown were torn down to make way for brick homes and shops favored by a new generation of businessmen and industrialists. Houses for the brickyard workers, known as Fossett Row, still stand on W High Street. African American workers, both slave and free, lived at each end of German Street, Little Philadelphia on the west and Angel Hill on the east. By 1857, nearly 100 slaves lived in Shepherdstown.
My 5x Great Grandfather, Jacob Newcomer was born in 1770, in Shepherdstown. He is one of my many maternal brick walls. He married Susannah Finter (1773-1810) on October 7, 1794, with the marriage being officiated by Rev. John Counce. They had only one child that I can prove, a daughter, Sarah Newcomer (1808-1881). The 1810 Census shows that he had 5 sons and 3 daughters. It was written in one Finter biography that Jacob and Susannah were killed by Indians during a raid of a neighbor they just happened to be visiting in 1810. However, I have never been able to prove this story.
I am a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, wife, mother, and grandma. I have two books available on Amazon.com: Your Family History: Doing It Right the First Time and Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip. You can also connect with me via Facebook or Twitter.