By Patrick Farris
Officially chartered in 1788, Front Royal became the county seat of Warren County, Virginia, although the county was not created until March 9th of 1836.
During the month of March, in commemoration of the formation of Warren County, we will examine the political and social movements which led to the county's formation. The story of the genesis of Warren County is in many respects the same as in every other corner of Virginia; population increase and the need to efficiently conduct official business led citizens to seek the establishment of local governance in the form of a courthouse.
The story of Warren County, however, diverged from this familiar narrative in two interesting and unique ways. First, the local population petitioning the Commonwealth for the creation of a new county and attendant courthouse were ultimately not directly responsible for the creation of the county they had long been demanding. Second, the county boundaries these citizens envisioned were expanded well beyond what they had originally intended.
The first petitioners to request a county be created in and around Front Royal began making their requests in 1794 following six decades of settlement and development of the Forks of the Shenandoah. How did these people arrive here, and what was driving their sense of independence and separation from the mother County of Frederick from whom they asked for separation? Understanding how the area was initially settled in the colonial era explains much of why the residents would feel a sense of identity separate and apart from the broader Shenandoah Valley.
In 1701 the Virginia House of Burgesses decreed that the northwestern frontier of the colony be settled for defense of the tobacco growing Tidewater region as well as to enhance and secure Virginia's claim to the backcountry west of the Blue Ridge.
As such, they began casting about for willing Virginians to do the job.
Governor Alexander Spotswood's famous Knights of the Golden Horseshoe expedition in 1716 touted the Valley as an agricultural cornucopia. Conjuring images of bounty on a biblical scale, the governor went so far as to name the Valley "Mesopotamia" and the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah River the "Tigris" and "Euphrates" Rivers, respectively.
The venture failed to encourage Virginia planters to take their resources across the Blue Ridge, however, and as a result more than 15 more years would transpire during which little permanent settlement took place in the Valley.
By the 1720s a band of Shawnee Indians were living in the lower Valley at the invitation of the Cherokee, and it was this group of Native Americans that the first Dutch traders, such as the father of early local resident Solomon Van Meter, would meet in 1727 at the confluence of the Forks of the Shenandoah near what would become Chester or Chester's Ferry - today's Riverton - along the Indian trading path leading over the Blue Ridge and through what would soon be known as Chester Gap.
In 1729, the Virginia colonial government and governor William Gooch found leaders for the badly needed settlement of the Shenandoah Valley backcountry: Joist Hite and Robert McKay, residents of south-central Pennsylvania and Maryland, respectively.
Hite and McKay led the first permanent settlers into what is now Warren County in 1730 and 1731, the Germans under Hite settling along a line starting at the Opequon Creek and reaching east to the North Fork of the Shenandoah near Reliance, and the Scots-Irish Quakers under McKay settling along a line from Cedarville in the south to Nineveh in the north. By the mid-1730s Thomas and Sarah Chester - possibly of Swedish origin - migrated from Philadelphia and would be operating their inn and ferry across the Forks of the Shenandoah at modern-day Riverton.
Soon, political forces which would affect settlement patterns across eastern North America would further drive colonization of the Forks of the Shenandoah.
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.