By Patrick Farris
The Town of Front Royal's original 1788 charter is a wonderful document for understanding the development of Front Royal specifically and the valley communities in general, many of which were also chartering during this period. The text appears below, with some notes on its influence on the town.
"An Act for establishing a Town near Chester's Gap in the County of Frederick ...... Passed the 15th day of November 1788
"Be it enacted by the General Assembly that fifty acres of land near Chester's Gap in the County of Frederick the property of Solomon Vanmeter, James Moore, Robert Haines, William Cunningham, Peter Halley, Original Wroe, John Smith, Allen Wiley, George Chick, William Morris, William Miller, and Henry Trout shall be and the same are hereby vested in Thomas Allen, Robert Russell, William Jennings, William Headley, John Hickman, Thomas Hand, and Thomas Buck, Gentlemen Trustees, to be by them or a majority of them, laid out into lots of half an Acre each with convenient Streets and established a Town by the name of Frontroyall.
"As soon as the said fifty Acres of land shall be so laid off into Lots and Streets, the said Trustees or a majority of them shall proceed to sell the same at public Auction for the best price that can be had, the time and place of which Sale being previously advertised for two months at the Courthouse of each of the said Counties of Frederick and Shenandoah the purchasers to hold the said lots respectively subject to the condition of building on each a Dwelling house containing sixteen feet square at least with a brick or stone chimney to be finished fit for habitation within two years from the day of sale, and to convey the said lots to the purchasers in fee subject to the condition aforesaid and pay the Money arising from the sale thereof to the said Solomon Vanmeter, James Moore, Robert Haines, William Cunningham, Peter Halley, Original Wroe, John Smith, Alley Wiley, George Chick, William Miller, William Morris, and Henry Trout or their respective legal Representatives.
"The said Trustees or a majority of them shall have power from time to time to settle and determine all disputes concerning the bounds of the said Lots and to settle such rules and orders for the regular buildings of houses thereon as to them shall seem best, and in case of the death, removal out of the Country, or other disability of any of the said Trustees, it shall be lawful for the others to supply such vacancy and the Trustees so chosen shall to all intents and purposes be vested with the same powers as those particularly named in this Act.
"This purchasers of Lots in the said Town so soon as they shall have built upon and saved the same according to the conditions of their respective Deeds shall be entitled to and have enjoy all rights, privileges, and immunities which the freeholders and inhabitants of other Towns in this State not incorporated hold and enjoy. If the purchaser of any Lot shall fail to build thereon within the time before limited, the said Trustees or a majority of them may thereupon enter into such Lot and sell the same again and apply the money for the benefit of the Inhabitants of the said Town."
The area of southwestern Frederick County in 1788 not given over to the County of Dunmore in 1772 (the name of which was changed to Shenandoah in 1778) was essentially composed of what lies within the modern bounds of Warren County from Front Royal to points north. The Fork District, situated between the north and south forks of the Shenandoah River in the west of this area, would seem for geographical reasons to lie within the sphere and under the control of Frederick County, but in reality was attached more to the communities of Shenandoah County, as evidenced by the earliest census taken in Virginia following the Revolution.
East of Front Royal, Harmony Hollow was considered part of Shenandoah County, but Leeds (or Leedstown) toward the Manassas Gap was in Frederick. All of this confusion led to the necessity to advertise matters political and legal in the county courthouses of both Frederick and Shenandoah Counties, located in Winchester and Woodstock, respectively.
The charter for the Town of Front Royal is less a document of incorporation than a plan for development. The motivation for purchasers of new town lots to construct a habitable dwelling was clear, as the failure to do so within two years' time would mean the loss of the purchased lot along with any improvements made.
Still standing on Chester Street near the intersection of Chester and Crescent Streets is the Balthis House, constructed between 1787 and 1788 by George Cheek or James Moore - early owners of the lot - now owned by the Warren Heritage Society and open as a living history museum of 18th century life in Front Royal. The Balthis House was most likely constructed as a result of the stipulations of the Town Charter, and is the oldest remaining building on Chester Street, the oldest charted street in the town.
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.