By Patrick Farris
Residents of the Front Royal area began petitioning Virginia to create a new county around the town in 1794, and although the earliest petition failed, the petitioners continued their efforts over the next four decades, demonstrating the emergence of a community identity.
Front Royal and its communities were in a unique geographical location to form an independent identity and foresee an independent course from neighboring valley communities. Their position at the confluence of not just the north and south forks of the Shenandoah River, but also nearby the juncture of Passage Creek, Cedar Creek, Crooked Run, Happy Creek and Manassas Run made their site a nexus of water routes and farmlands.
Also, the two lowest mountain gaps in the Blue Ridge -- Harpers Ferry in the north and Rockfish Gap in the south -- are both located immediately east of Front Royal: Manassas Gap and Chester Gap, Harpers Ferry's gap being broad and only 600 feet above sea level.
Finally, the valley's first major road, the famed Valley Pike, was developing along the western end of this settled area, making for a veritable nexus of transportation routes. But all of this was insufficient to sway Richmond's position on the merits of the area to attain county status -- until Frederick County decided to raise its taxes.
The fathers of Frederick County in 1834 made public plans to construct a new jail and a new courthouse. These two public buildings were to be in the neoclassical style so popular in the South during that era, constructed of brick on limestone foundations and promising to be showpieces of architecture and symbols that the frontier period of Frederick County was a part of its past.
The low, log structures these two buildings were to replace would be torn down to make way for the new construction. This announcement proved the final tear in a cleavage between western and eastern Frederick County residents that had been developing almost from the region's original settlement.
Western Frederick County was dominated by subsistence farmers largely of German and Scots-Irish extraction, known colloquially as "Cohees," who eschewed slavery for the most part and felt culturally familiar with Pennsylvania society, trading in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Eastern Frederick County, north of the McKay settlements of Cedarville, was dominated by English landlords who had brought their slaves with them from the Tidewater -- an area many identified with a great cultural affinity. These "Tuckahoes," as they called themselves, had long chafed under what they saw as marginalization by the western portion of Frederick County which had a larger population.
The announcement of the need to raise taxes or float bonds in order to build a new jail and courthouse prompted the Tuckahoes to complain -- with only a tinge of sarcasm -- that their people were the more law-abiding group of the two in the first place, and as such would not be needing the jail. They also complained, as they had for some time, that reaching the old log courthouse in Winchester was already prohibitive during the winter and spring months; paying to construct a more stately and beautiful courthouse that they still could not see or use for half the year just did not seem fair.
The two sides briefly bickered, but Richmond ultimately took the side of the Tuckahoes and granted them a county bounded by Jefferson County to the north, the remaining portions of Frederick County to the west and south - the Opequon Creek being the western boundary - and the Loudoun County line on the crest of the Blue Ridge to the east. The courthouse for this new county was to be located in Berryville.
Warren Hostra, professor of history at Shenandoah University, describes in detail the history of this separation of Clarke County from old Frederick County in his 1986 work "A Separate Place; The Formation of Clarke County, Virginia," citing references to the simultaneous movement in Front Royal that resulted in the creation of Warren County.
All was well initially with the plan. Winchester and western Frederick County complained slightly about the potential loss of tax revenue, but the cultural differences appeared to make the separation seem more natural. Problems emerged, however, as the authorities in Richmond began to understand that what they were creating for Frederick County was a boundary which appeared anything but natural; Winchester and the surrounding environs would be connected well enough, but an odd spit of territory would extend in a narrow line southwest of Middletown to Manassas Gap.
This cartographic challenge in the creation of Clarke County, then, would make the Richmond officials take a harder look at those county petitions coming from Front Royal.
Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location.
Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society.