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Posted January 12, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Patrick Farris: Trying to find the origin of 'Front Royal'

By Patrick Farris

Following a brief period of land speculation, roughly from 1727-1732, the site that would become Front Royal gained its greatest early boost: a ferry.

Thomas and Sarah Chester of Philadelphia came through Orange County to establish a ferry and inn at the confluence of the forks of the Shenandoah River. They received a business license in 1736, and both the license and the ferry were firsts in the Shenandoah Valley.

The arrival of the ferry was in reaction to the demand for transport across the river by the steady stream of migrants coming to and through the area. As the immediate vicinity of Chester's Ferry became better known and more thickly settled, a land prospector and settler named Peter LeHew purchased a tract of land located in the center of what is now downtown Front Royal. Thus the community began its life in 1754 under his name: LeHewtown.

The LeHew family still has a presence in Front Royal and Warren County, and an article devoted to their family and the history of Front Royal when it went by LeHewtown is well warranted. Whereas the name of the LeHew family lent itself to the community during its first quarter century in existence, the town would charter under the name of Front Royal, and this has been a puzzle to many. Today, let's take a look at the known explanations for the town's name.

One story comes down from the 1770s. The words "front" and "royal" were said to be the passwords used by posted sentries during the American Revolution, so that upon hearing "front" barked out as one walked or rode into town, the reply "royal" was yelled out to prevent the sentry from opening fire or sounding an alarm.

A second story concerning the town's name was originally published in 1831 by Samuel Kercheval, the first historian of the lower Shenandoah Valley. Kercheval related a well-known story of how a group of older men, watching the local militia in LeHewtown train on the village square during the late 1700s, were amused to see the militia colonel in frustration at his men's incomprehension of basic drill orders, with men turning every which way at any order he would call out.

Eventually the colonel barked out "Front the Royal Oak!," ordering his men to face a large oak tree located in the village square. The story spread and the name stuck, according to Kercheval. Although this recounting appears to be just a humorous story, there is a strong possibility that it - if not being the original source for the town's name - related a real and true event, and coincided with the emerging name for the town in a convenient way.

The final story related to Front Royal's name is the most likely explanation.

At the conclusion of the French & Indian War in 1763, the area west of the Shenandoah Valley was known as the Royal Frontier of the British Empire. Specifically, the Proclamation Line of 1763 followed the Allegheny Mountains along a southwesterly line from Canada to the Carolinas, and this line was the divide between the settled British colonies and the Indian Reserve.

The English liked to mimic the French language when naming important places or events by switching the noun and adjective; hence Port Royal (Virginia), Annapolis Royal (Nova Scotia) and so on. The Royal Frontier, then, became known locally as the Frontier Royal - or the Front Royal, and when the town was chartered in 1788 the name had come into common enough usage for this location to be selected as the town's name. In addition, the geographical location of Front Royal as a nexus of north-south and east-west roads lends even more credence to this explanation.

Travelers being sent west from Alexandria through Manassas Gap, or from Orange Court House through Chester Gap, or even northwest from Williamsburg would have been heading for the Royal Frontier and likely would have been directed as such.

Arriving in the location of modern-day Front Royal would have placed these travelers on the Royal Frontier for the first time in their journey, and by the 1780s the name obviously had come to mean this place specifically, or it would not have been a candidate for the town's name in 1788.

Patrick Farris is the executive director of the Warren Heritage Society. Information on the Society is available at warrenheritagesociety.org

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