The Founding of Romney

West Virginia's Oldest Established Town

Updated Web Version - December 2014

   

The writing of Hampshire County history is not an easy task. Many of the sources that most people are familiar with are commonly referred to as "anecdotal" sources. This means that they are based more on verbal sources (or people's memories) than on contemporary records. Kercheval's History of the Valley of Virginia and even Maxwell and Swisher's History of Hampshire County are based more on oral history than on written records. Over the years these sources get quoted often, and eventually people believe they are actual, verifiable facts. The story of Romney's founding suffers from this shortcoming, so the story of West Virginia's Oldest Town is not clear. Therefore some people wonder which town was founded first in West Virginia. Therefore we have endeavored to look back at contemporary documents and present the founding in a chronological order.

Update: We are indebted to the extensive research of Mr. William Rice who recently published the fourth volume of his series on Colonian Records of the Upper Potomac. The Seventh Chapter of this fourth volume is subtitled: Surveys and Land Claims Before 1757 and covers some forgotten documents outlining the establishment of Romney. We are incorporating that new found information into this article. Check back for updates as we process the information and try to work out various problems. [10/18/14]

When did the idea occur?

    Lord Fairfax did not leave any letters or documents outlining his thoughts on the establishment of Romney. However, he did leave something that puzzles us about when he first came up with the idea of Romney. In 1745 Lord Fairfax won his long-running fight with the Colony of Virginia over the exact area of his Northern Neck Proprietary. The King's Privy Council settled the suit with Lord Fairfax getting virtually everything he had appealed for. Now that the legal problems were settled, Fairfax began in earnest to arrange for the settlement of his vast lands. In 1747 he began to have surveyors mark out several vast "manors" including the South Branch Manor as well as other large areas of contiguous land. The South Branch valley from the Proprietary line north to the Trough was laid to be held by Fairfax and his heirs, but would be rented to settlers for an annual rent. The narrower valley from the mouth of the Trough north to the Potomac River would be surveyed in a "Manor" of lots to be sold to settlers. This is the area next to which Romney is now located.

    Lord Fairfax kept detailed records of these surveys and rentals. The survey information was entered into a Grant Book in order leaving a space for the buyer's name and the date to be entered later. On page 224 is the entry for a 213 acre lot (number 17) deeded to William Watson on July 3, 1749. The next page, number 225, has none of the blanks filled in, but at the bottom of the page - in a different handwriting than appears in the main text - is the notation "laid of in a town called Romney." This was lot number 18 for 350 acres. It is on the west side of the South Branch near Vanderlip where Mill Creek empties into the river. [See link at bottom of this page.]

    Since the notation about the town called Romney is not in the same handwriting as the other text, one can not ascertain when it was written. It could have been anytime after entries began to be made in 1747. It is simply another piece of the puzzle about the founding of Romney. The actual town was eventually laid out on the heights to the east just beyond the line of lots running along the river valley. However, even this had its problems.

    Up until recently it seemed that no original survey of Romney existed. After Fairfax died there was a rush to set up town trustees and give out deeds based on John Mitchel's survey of June 1790. But that is another story. Let's return to the founding of the Town of Romney.

What is the "Oldest Town?"

    In order to understand the question of what is West Virginia's oldest town one should go to the source. That source is the Journals of the Virginia House of Burgesses. The House of Burgesses was the lower house of the colony the Capital in Williamsburg somewhat comparable to our present House of Delegates or the U.S. House of Representatives. The upper house was the Council of the Colony. The executive who was the final authority to sign bills (like our State's Governor or the U.S. President) was the Governor. Until the Governor signed or assented to a bill, it was not law. In 1762 that office was filled by Francis Fauquier who was lieutenant-governor from 1758 to 1768. He was actually the representative for John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun, Governor General of the American Colonies (1756-1763). The office of Governor was an honorary title that allowed its holder to appoint a lieutenant-governor to actually go to the colony and act for him. Lord Loudoun appointed Fauquier as his stand-in.

Founding a Town

    What does it mean that a town was "founded?" To become a "Town," a community had to petition the House of Burgesses which would then write a bill if the community met some basic requirements. As with other bills, it might go to a committee for study and then would require three readings in the House. If passed by the House, it would go the Council. If the Council approved, it would then have to be signed or approved by the Governor. Until the bill was signed by the Governor (or Lieutenant Governor), the community was not a Town.

The First Petition

    The first town that was suggested for incorporation in Hampshire County was actually at "Tucker's Plantation". The citizens of Hampshire County petitioned the House on Wednesday, March 1, 1761 for a act to establish Tucker's Plantation as a Town on the lands of Lord Fairfax. The request was "referred to the Consideration of the next Session of the Assembly." The following year on Friday, November 5, 1762, Hampshire County again asked "that an act may be passed for establishing a Town on the Land of the Right Honourable the Lord Fairfax." Eventually this petition for Tucker's Plantation was rejected. It seems that this request came from the citizens located on the South Branch above the Trough outside the limits of the South Branch Manor. They apparently did not act with Lord Fairfax's approval.note#1 It seems that Lord Fairfax had plans to put the courthouse adjacent to his South Branch Manor in the vicinity of Pearsall's Level where the Great Wagon Road from Winchester crossed the South Branch River. Today the reference to Tucker's Plantation is still somewhat conjectural, but it is clear that Lord Fairfax laid out land at present Romney as his choice for a town as events the next week would show. It should be noted that there may have been some question as to which side of the South Branch River Lord Fairfax originally chose for the town. However, Romney is now located on a high bank east of the river.

    A week later on Friday, November 12, 1762, the Journal of the House of Burgesses notes "A Petition of sundry Inhabitants of the County of Hampshire, setting forth that the Right Hon. the Lord Fairfax has laid Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax off 50 Acres of Land at a Place called Pearsall's Level, in the said County, and praying that a Town may be established thereon, and that they may enjoy the usual Privileges with other Towns in this Colony," was presented to the House and read. It was then "Ordered, That a Bill or Bills be brought in pursuant to the said Petition, and it is referred to Mr. Mercer and Mr. Rutherford [the representatives from Hampshire County] to prepare and bring the same." [pp.90-91] However, the Journal notes just before this it was resolved, "That the Petition of sundry Inhabitants in, and adjoining to, a Place called Shepherd's Town, in the County of Frederick, praying that an Act may pass for Establishing a Town at that Place is reasonable." It was "Ordered, That a Bill or Bills be brought in pursuant to the said Resolutions, and it is referred to the Committee of Propositions and Grievances to prepare and bring in the same..." [p.90] We will see the results of this order on November 22nd.

The First Bill

    About a week later on Thursday, November 18th, Hampshire County's Burgess, Mr. Mercer, in response to the petition by the citizens, presented a "Bill For establishing the Town of Romney, in the County of Hampshire; and the same was read the first Time, and ordered to be read a second Time." [p.100] This was the same day that the initial petition for Tucker's Plantation was rejected.

    All bills had to be read three times before final action, and on Saturday, November 20, 1762, "A Bill for establishing the Town of Romney, in the County of Hampshire, was read a second Time, and committed to Mr. Richard Henry Lee and Mr. Henry Lee..." [p.105] This sending of the bill to a committee of the Messrs. Lee was apparently prompted by the legislative habit of tacking amendments onto ordinary bills that are expected to pass. It would be almost three weeks before the bill reappears in the House. It should be noted that this bill for the establishment of Romney is presented to the House and read the first time the week before a bill for Mecklenburg was presented and read.

The Second Bill

    On the 22nd, two days after Romney's bill was sent to committee, "Mr. Attorney, from the Committee of Propositions and Grievances, presented to the House, according to Order... a Bill for establishing the Town of Mecklenburg, in the County of Frederick." This bill was read the first time, and ordered to be read a second Time. [p.106] It was read a second time the very next day. [p.110] It is assumed that this is the same town as the earlier proposed "Shepherd's Town." This bill was read the third time and passed on November 25th and sent to the Council. On November 30th the Council approved the Mecklenburg bill. It was now ready for the Governor's consideration. We must note that the town was not yet legally established.

    Finally on Friday, December 10, "Mr. Richard Henry Lee, from the Committee to whom the Bill For establishing the Town of Romney, in the County of Hampshire, was referred, reported that the said Committee had had the said Bill under their Consideration, and had made several Amendments thereto: which he read in his Place, and then delivered the Bill with the Amendments in at the Table, where the Amendments were again twice read, and agreed to by the House." It was then "Ordered, That the said Bill, with the Amendments, be engrossed, and read a third time." [p.144] The third reading occurred on Dec. 13th when the bill was passed. [p.148] These amendments concerned an addition to the Town of Williamsburg and some matter regarding the Town of Dumfries.

    The Romney bill was sent to the upper house. On Friday, December 17, the Council notified the House of Burgesses "that it have agreed to the Bill entitled, An Act for establishing the Town of Romney, in the County of Hampshire, and for other Purposes therein mentioned." [p.154] It was now ready for the Governor's signature. Neither Romney nor Mecklenburg/Shepherdstown were legally established at this time.

The Final Signature

    The final day of this legislative session was Thursday, December 23, 1762. The House enrolled their bills and resolves [organized and certified them] and, when summoned by the Council to attend the Lieutenant-Governor, Francis Fauquier, they presented their bills and resolves. Below are listed in chronological order some of the bills signed by the Governor that day:
  • Number 19 "For establishing the Town of Charlottesville, in the County of Albemarle."
  • Number 20 "For establishing the Town of Romney, in the County of Hampshire, and for other purposes therein mentioned."
  • The Council breaks for lunch at this time
  • Number 21 "For establishing the Town of Mecklenburg, in the County of Frederick."
  • Number 22 "For establishing the town of Hanover, in the County of Hanover."
  • Number 31 "For dissolving the Vestry of the Parish of Hampshire, in the County of Hampshire, and electing a new Vestry in said Parish."
Christmas in WilliamsburgThe Governor also established several ferries and ordered two bridges (over a branch of the James River in Albemarle County and over the Nottoway River). He also settled several matters of pay by "allowing the several Officers of the Virginia Regiment 6 months pay" and giving specific sums to Major Andrew Lewis, William Bronaugh, Col. William Peachey and Mr. George Mercer. [pp.164-165]
 

    It was a busy day for the Governor. However, one should note that although Romney's petition was originally presented to the Burgesses on November 12th after the one for "Shepherd's Town", Romney's was presented as a Bill and read first to the Burgesses (Nov. 18th) before Mecklenburg's (Nov. 22nd). Romney's bill was also signed by the Governor before Mechklenburg's (later changed to Shepherdstown). This is why Romney claims to be the oldest town in what is now West Virginia, founded before any other. It is indeed the oldest legally established town in what became West Virginia. However, one should note that Shepherdstown is some fifty or more miles east of Romney and located much closer to the Potomac River. It is logical that it was settled earlier because of it location; however, there is no known documentation as to its process of settlement. It just depends on what one means by the term "oldest town" - being "settled" and being legally established are two different things!

The proceeding quotes were taken from: Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1761-1765; ed. by John Pendleton Kennedy; Library Board, Virginia State Library, Richmond, Virginia, 1907.


 

Timeline for establishment of Romney & Shepherdstown

Friday, Nov. 5, 1762 "That a Petition of sundry Inhabitants of the County of Hampshire, praying that an Act may be passed for establishing a Town on the Land of the Right Honourable the Lord Fairfax, in that County, called Tucker's Plantation, was presented to the House, and read, and referred to the Consideration of the next Session of the Assembly." [JHBV1761-65 p.72]

Monday, Nov. 8, 1762 "Resolved, That it is the Opinion of this Committee [Committee of Propositions and Grievances] that the Petition of sundry Inhabitants of the County of Hampshire, praying that an Act may pass for establishing a Town on the Land of the Right Hon. the Lord Fairfax, at a Place called Tucker's Plantation, in the said County, is reasonable." The bill was sent back to the Committee of Propositions and Grievances. [JHBV1761-65 p.79]

Friday, Nov. 12, 1762 "Resolved, That the Petition of sundry Inhabitants in, and adjoining to, a Place called Shepherd's Town, in the County of Frederick, praying that an Act may pass For Establishing a Town at that Place is reasonable." This was referred to the Committee of Propositions and Grievances to prepare and bring in the same.
   "A Petition of sundry Inhabitants of the County of Hampshire, setting forth that the Right Hon. the Lord Fairfax has laid off 50 Acres of Land at a Place called Pearsall's Level, in the said County, and praying that a Town may be established thereon, and that they may enjoy the usual privileges with other Towns in this Colony, was presented to the House and read." This petition was referred to Mr. Mercer and Mr. Rutherford to prepare and bring in a Bill. [JHBV1761-65 p.90-91]

Saturday, Nov. 13, 1762 "A Petition of divers Inhabitants of the Parish of Hampshire, in the County of Hampshire, setting forth that the late Election of Vestrymen for the said Parish was illegal, and praying that the same may be dissolved, was presented to the House and read." [JHBV1761-65 p.91]

Thursday, Nov. 18, 1762 "Mr. Attorney also reported that the said Committee [Committee of Propositions and Grievances] had had under their further Consideration the Petition of sundry Inhabitants of the County of Hampshire to them recommitted, praying that a Town may be[sic] laid off and established at a Place called Tucker's Plantation, on the Land of Lord Fairfax, in the said County, and had come to a Resolution thereon. Resolved, That the said Petition be rejected..."
   "Mr. Mercer presented to the House, according to Order, a Bill For establishing the Town of Romney, in the County of Hampshire; and the same was read the first Time, and ordered to be read a second Time." [JHBV1761-65 p.99-100]

Saturday, Nov. 20, 1762 "Mr. Attorney, from the Committee of Propositions and Grievances, presented to the House, according to Order.... Also a Bill for dissolving the Vestry of the Parish of Hampshire, in the County of Hampshire, and electing a new Vestry in the said Parish; and the same were severally read the first time, and ordered to be read a second Time..."
   "A Bill For establishing the Town of Romney, in the County of Hampshire, was read a second Time, and committed to Mr. Richard Henry Lee and Mr. Henry Lee; and On a Motion made, Ordered, That it be an Instruction to the said Committee that they receive a Clause or Clauses to add several Lots laid off by John Randolph, Esq; adjoining to the City of Williamsburg, to the said City; and to exempt certain Persons holding marshy Lots in the Town of Dumfries from building thereon." [BV1761-65 p.104-105]

Monday, Nov. 22, 1762 "Mr. Attorney, from the Committee of Propositions and Grievances, presented to the House, according to Order.... Also a Bill for establishing the Town of Mecklenburg, in the County of Frederick....
   "And the said Bills were severally read the first Time, and ordered to be read a second Time." [JHBV1761-65 p.106]

Tuesday, Nov. 23, 1762 "A Bill For dissolving the Vestry of the Parish of Hampshire, in the County of Hampshire, and electing a new Vestry in the said Parish, was read a second Time.
   "Ordered that the said Bill be engrossed, and read a third Time.
   "A Bill for establishing the Town of Mecklenburg, in the County of Frederick, was read a second Time.
   "Ordered, That the said Bill be engrossed, and read a third Time." [JHBV1761-65 p.110]

Thursday, Nov. 25, 1762 "An engrossed Bill, entitled, An Act for establishing the Town of Mecklenburg, in the County of Frederick, was read the third Time, and the Blanks therein filled up.
   "Resolved, That the said Bill do pass.
   "Ordered, That Mr. Mercer do carry up the said Bill to the Council for their Concurrence." [JHBV1761-65 p.114]

Tuesday, Nov. 30, 1762 "A Message from the Council was delivered by Mr. Walthoe.
   "That they had agreed to... a Bill entitled, An Act for establishing the Town of Mecklenburg, in the County of Frederick.
   "Also to the Bill, entitled, An Act for dissolving the Vestry of the Parish of Hampshire, in the County of Hampshire, and electing a new Vestry in the said Parish." [JHBV1761-65 p.120]

Friday, Dec. 10, 1762 "Mr. Richard Henry Lee, from the Committee to whom the Bill For establishing the Town of Romney, in the County of Hampshire, was referred, reported that the said Committee had had the said Bill under their Consideration, and had made several Amendments thereto: which he read in his Place, and then delivered the Bill with the Amendments in at the Table, where the Amendments were again twice read, and agreed to by the House."
   "Ordered, That the said Bill, with the Amendments, be engrossed, and read a third time." [JHBV1761-65 p.144]

Dec. 20, 1762 "An engrossed Bill, entitled, An Act for establishing the Town of Romney, in the County of Hampshire, and for other purposes therein mentioned, was read the third Time.
   "Resolved, That the said Bill do pass.
   "Ordered, That Mr. George Mercer do carry up the said Bill to the Council for their Concurrence." [JHBV1761-65 p.148]

Friday, Dec. 17, 1762 "A Message from the Council by Mr. Walthoe.
   "That they had agreed to the Bill entitled, An Act for establishing the Town of Romney, in the County of Hampshire, and for other Purposes therein mentioned." [JHBV1761-65 p.154]

Thursday, Dec. 23, 1762 "A message from the Council by Mr. Walthoe.
   "The Governor commands the immediate Attendance of your House in the Council Chamber, and that you bring with you such Bills and Resolves as are ready for his Assent.
   "Mr. Speaker with the House went up accordingly, and his Honour the Governor was pleased to give his Assent to the following public and private Bills:"
   "... 20. For establishing the Town of Romney, in the County of Hampshire, and for other Purposes therein mentioned.
   At this point the Governor and Council took a break for the midday meal.[editor's note]
   "21. For establishing the Town of Mecklenburg, in the County of Frederick.
   "31. For dissolving the Vestry of the Parish of Hampshire, in the County of Hampshire, and electing a new Vestry in the said Parish." [JHBV1761-65 p.164-165]


 

The text of the act establishing Romney reads in Hening's Statutes at Large:

CHAP. XXI.

An Act for establishing the town of Romney, in the county of Hampshire, and for other purposes therein-mentioned.

    I. WHEREAS it hath been represented to this general assembly that the right honourable Thomas Lord Fairfax, hath lately laid out a parcel of land, at the place where the courthouse stands, in Hampshire county, into one hundred lots, of half an acre each, with streets for a town, by the name of Romney, and disposed of the said lots to divers persons, who have settled and built thereon, and who have made humble application to this assembly that the same may be by law established a town: Be it therefore enacted by the Lieutenant Governour, Council and Burgesses, of this present General-Assembly, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That the same piece or parcel of land be, and the same is hereby erected and established a town in the manner it is already laid out into lots and streets, to be called by the name of Romney; and that the freeholders of the said town, as soon as their lots shall be built upon and saved, according to the conditions of their deeds, shall for ever hereafter enjoy the same privileges which the freeholders of other towns erected by act of assembly enjoy. [The act has 3 more sections dealing with the towns of Williamsburg and Dumfries.]

Footnotes:

1.
According to Mr. William Rice on page 118 of Chapter Seven of the fourth volume of his Colonial Records of the Upper Potomac it appears there was some competition between Abraham Hite and Lord Fairfax. Hite, who had only recently gained title to the plantation of William Tucker planned to set the courthouse on his property near present Reynolds Gap just south of Fairfax's South Branch Manor. Lord Fairfax, however, had longstanding plans to place the Courthouse near where the Great Wagon Road crossed of the South Branch. He had surveyed the 100 acres for the Town of Romney on April 18, 1754; the surveyor was David Vance. It seems that Lord Fairfax won out by having the Hite petition quashed and the petition for Romney approved. Note: the original survey is in the Thomas Bryan Martin Title Book at the Virginia Historical Society.


This article was first published in the Hampshire Review in 2001; this current version adds information and the timeline and makes some minor changes. The portrait of Lord Fairfax is from a painting by James Lancia commissioned by HistoricHampshire.org.

[JHBV1761-65 p.#] is Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1761-1765; ed. by John Pendleton Kennedy; Library Board, Virginia State Library, Richmond, Virginia, 1907.

Note: Henings Statues at Large, a compilation of the laws of early Virginia, may be found on the Internet at: http://vagenweb.org/hening/ Volume 7 covers 1762.
The bills mentioned are at:http://vagenweb.org/hening/vol07-27.htm

Another Internet site with the Statutes is: http://www.archive.org/details/statutesatlargeb07virg

The Northern Neck Grant Book page for lot number 18 and the notation about Romney can be found at the Library of Virginia web site: http://image.lva.virginia.gov/LONN/NN-5/292-2/292_0325.tif It is a large tif image.

Colonial Records of the Upper Potomac, Volume Four, Surveys and Land Claims Before 1757 by William H. Rice; McClain Printing Co., Parsons, W. Va., 2014. ISBN 0-87012-835-4

Our article on New Romney, England is found here.

The original Mitchel Plat of Romney, 1790. Note: the original plat of Romney as laid out by Lord Fairfax was not known to exist until recently. See footnote #1 above for information on its location. The earliest existent plat was done by John Mitchel after Lord Fairfax's death (1781) when the Trustees of the Town of Romney had to resurvey the town and issue competent deeds. We believe there is some discrepancy between the original survey and the resurvey. It is a complicated - and interesting - situation deserving further research.