By Patrick Farris
The tract of land which would become Front Royal was known by many explorers and settlers who regularly visited the area beginning around 1670.
In the late 1600s and early 1700s, many of these explorers arrived from the southeast, the seat of Virginia's colonial settlement and political authority. Indeed, the first explorers to come to the area were mapping the region and reporting on its Native American populations and mineral, timber, water and soil resources for the purpose of future colonial exploitation.
The first explorer on record to view the Shenandoah Valley and report back to colonial officials in Jamestown was John Lederer, who in 1670-71 was sent to discover - among other things - whether or not the Pacific Ocean was easily accessible from the west side of the Blue Ridge! Although this may seem far-fetched by our understanding of geography today, in the 16th century much of the interior of North America was unmapped, unexplore, and simply unknown. Even Thomas Jefferson over 135 years later would send Lewis and Clark on a similar expedition, hoping to find a water route to the Pacific in the Louisiana Purchase. Lederer, alas, did not find the Pacific Ocean, but he did view the valley and the ridges of the Allegheny beyond.
Following westward exploration in Virginia came land speculation, and a Virginian of French Huguenot heritage would use both of these colonial traditions to become the founder of the community we today know as Front Royal. A French Huguenot named Nicholas LeHew emigrated from France during the Wars of Religion in the 1600s - first to England and then to Virginia. Nicholas married and settled in Tidewater Virginia, becoming a surveyor and tax collector. His son Peter followed his father in those professions, becoming a tax collector, surveyor, and English agent, or colonial representative. As a representative of the crown, Peter LeHew bought and sold lands along the colonial frontier, and by the 1730s had land holdings as far west in Virginia as Orange County.
It is supposed that through his westward movements from Tidewater up the Rappahannock River system that Peter must have become familiar with the area of the forks of the Shenandoah, because in 1754 he acquired 200 acres along Happy Creek, the area of Front Royal now occupied by the intersection of Main Street and Chester Street, and the location of the Front Royal Visitor Center. Peter moved with several of his married children and their families to this location in 1754 and together they built multiple dwellings, none of which have survived, and the small community of around 65 souls quickly became known as LeHewtown. Evacuated twice at the onset of the French & Indian War, LeHewtown began growing as the war turned in favor of the British. In 1760, Peter LeHew resigned his commission as an English agent and applyied the same year for a business license to operate an ordinary, the 18th century version of an inn, tavern and restaurant. Following his death in 1780, the majority of Peter LeHew's sons left the area for points west. A community named LeHewtown remains today in Hardy County, W.Va.. After the Revolution, the town incorporated in 1788 under the name Front Royal and not under the name of LeHewtown, likely a result of the dwindling number of people carrying the surname LeHew, but also a result of the rapid growth of the town, which had become peopled with many more non-LeHews than LeHews.
Peter LeHew's legacy to the town of Front Royal was primarily in settling the community where he did, nestled between several old Indian paths between the forks of the Shenandoah, Chester Gap in the Blue Ridge, the south fork of the Shenandoah River and Happy Creek. The Indian path that ran through town became known as Chester Street, as it ran through the little village between Chester Gap and Chester Ferry, and the path that connected this area to the south Fork of the Shenandoah would become known as Main Street. The center of LeHewtown lies roughly where the town gazebo sits today, at the intersection of Chester Street and Main Street, and became known in colonial times as the village green or the town square. All English communities had a Village Green, or common space, for markets and militia drills, and yet the German influence in the town was evident by the use of the term town square, a more German notion of a community center based on a town's use as a point for farmers to sell their crops and move their merchandise on to larger markets. More thoroughly German communities such as nearby Woodstock had town squares which were, in actual shape, square. Front Royal's town square is a triangle, showing the German influence in this area to be somewhat mitigated by that of the other cultural groups settling in the region.
Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society. Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location.