By Patrick Farris
The rich history of the lower Shenandoah Valley is the product of a diverse tapestry of people, stories and events, which collectively defy homogenous characterization.
During times of demographic change radically different groups of people have moved into the valley, and during times of political and military strife experiences and opinions have never been unified.
All of this makes for great history and even greater stories, supplying the subject material for this column. 2013 marks the 225th anniversary of the formal establishment of the Town of Front Royal, so it is fitting to begin this year by reflecting on the county seat of Warren County, and understand it origins and some of its colorful past.
The year was 1788. The American Revolution had ended only five years prior, ratification of the United States Constitution was still being debated, and Virginia would only officially enter the Union in June. Spain and Great Britain stood powerful and aggressive on our borders, and a surge westward was under way as newly arriving immigrants and the children of older settlers headed across the Appalachians to create lives along a vast frontier.
It was an exciting yet anxious year in American history, and it is this formative moment that the Town of Front Royal was granted official status by the Virginia Assembly.
A community that had gone by several names for over half a century, the new town was established on November 15th amidst a flurry of legislative action, which included the chartering of several other towns along Virginia's western frontier. The impetus for this sudden growth throughout the "Great Valley of Virginia" had much to do with the end of the Revolution and the sudden availability of less expensive land west of the Alleghenies, but geography also was guiding that growth directly along the corridors of the lower Shenandoah Valley and crossroad communities such as Front Royal.
From the second quarter of the 18th century until the advent of canals and railroads in the 1820s and 30s, westward migration from the mid-Atlantic region funneled travelers through only a few easily passable routes. A common northern route was through modern-day Pittsburgh, at which point the Ohio River begins, and from which settlers headed west by floating downriver on rafts to what is now Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.
The most common southern route -- bringing settlers out on to the fertile Cumberland Plateau in what is today Kentucky and Tennessee -- was through the famous Cumberland Gap; today easily identifiable as the westernmost tip of Virginia.
The main roads, collectively known as the Wilderness Trail, led to Cumberland Gap in a southwesterly direction from the Potomac River, and were accessed at intervals by east-west paths coming from Virginia's tidewater cities. One of these roads, leading west from Alexandria, was one of the most traveled east-west connectors to the Valley. It led west through Manassas Gap in the Blue Ridge to the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah River (roughly following modern-day Interstate 66), and intersecting the Valley's eastern north-south trail (modern-day Highway 340) and so the site of Front Royal was well-known to 17th century explorers and 18th century travelers to and through this region.
Native Americans occupied the area of the Forks of the Shenandoah for thousands of years, and created the trail system, which would be used by the area's first European explorers and European and African settlers.
Explorers John Lederer (1670), Cadwallader Jones (1682) and Louis Michelle (1706) came through the Manassas Gap and passed over the site of what would become Front Royal, but it was not until multiple and sometimes overlapping land grants were issued in the late 1720s that the site would be settled.
Dutch traders John and Isaac Van Meter held a claim dating from 1727 to lands near the Shenandoah River forks, which they sold to German settler Joist Hite around 1732. A portion of this grant conflicted with a land grant application made along both banks of Happy Creek near the Shenandoah River Forks to William Russell, Joseph Smith, Larkin Chew, Larkin Chew, Jr. and John Chew.
The Russell-Smith-Chew tract included the site of Front Royal, although the Van Meter family and Hite families would also appear and remain in and around the community from the time of its inception. All of these early grantees and settlers would eventually discover their claims to be in conflict with the proprietorship of Thomas, Lord Fairfax, but that dispute was yet to come at during the earliest period of colonial expansion into the Valley. Next week we will continue the story of Front Royal's founding years, with the arrival of the LeHews.
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 the executive director of the Warren County Heritage Society.