By Patrick Farris
By the War of 1812, Front Royal was still a small community by Shenandoah Valley standards, despite being located at a nexus of transportation routes.
Many famous Americans would come through Front Royal as a result, even if they did not call the village home. George Washington passed through the town as commander of the Virginia Regiment during the French & Indian War in the 1750s and before the war as a surveyor and land prospector, using Chester's Gap, although he more often traversed the Blue Ridge between Winchester and Fairfax County by way of Ashby's Gap.
Daniel Boone came through the town as a cattle wrangler and to visit relations living in Front Royal, only to be beaten up during a brawl in town - likely after having partaken of refreshment at one of the many taverns.
Thomas, Lord Fairfax was very familiar with the area, his first home west of the Blue Ridge being in the neighborhood of Howellsville in modern-day Warren County. Fairfax established three personal manorial estates within his 5 million acre proprietary, all three of which lay in pat or entirely within the bounds of Warren County, surrounding Front Royal. Throughout this period as well James Madison would come though Front Royal on his way from his Orange County home, Montpelier, to Bath (Berkeley Springs).
The community's growth came during this time as a result of the growing demand for Shenandoah Valley wheat. The wars in Europe following on the heels of the French Revolution caused a demand for flour, and the resulting high prices that flour commanded caused a sudden change in prominence to wheat as a cash crop. Wheat had from colonial times enjoyed a growing position of importance in the Shenandoah Valley, supplying food to eastern cities, but the export market would now alter the development of this crop even further. Flour mills were erected on all the small streams around Front Royal, roads were improved through the mountain gaps to access the market towns of Dumfries and Falmouth, and the standard of living improved while the cost of living increased.
Education was also developing as well. Our unnamed historian writing to The Warren Sentinel in 1884 noted that "up to this time school teachers were almost exclusively foreigners, either Scotch, English or Irish, and while well educated, generally dissipated, and exercising discipline that carried with it the idea that learning could not be impressed upon the brain without corresponding impressions from the rod ... however, in 1814, Mr. Samuel Simpson, a native of Culpeper, took charge of the Academy ... and in three years after the establishment of the school it had attained such reputation that youths from all the adjoining counties were among his pupils, and for some years from seventy to one hundred scholars were to be seen in one room.
"The upper story was used as a Masonic Lodge and Library, and the selection of books in the latter is creditable to the judgment and literary taste of the leading citizens of that day. There were London and Edinburg editions of the best standard works, and the early existence of this institution may, in some degree account for the refinement and intelligence which strangers have accorded to our citizens."
Indeed, the public lending library to which the writer refers was the second oldest (after Alexandria's library) in the entire state of Virginia, established in 1799. Samuels Library in Front Royal today carries on the unbroken history of a public lending library in the town.
A village common area, or village green, was the center of public life during this period of time in Front Royal. The militia would use this area to train, markets would meet regularly at this location, wagon hitches and livestock pens allowed for country residents to trade in town, and slaves were bought and sold nearby at the site of the Stokes General Store. By the early 1800s the slave population in Warren County had risen dramatically. As a result of this demographic change, as well as the fact that wheat cultivation was less labor intensive than tobacco cultivation, there was often a surplus of slave labor living on county farms. Slave owners would then rent slaves out - often to families living in town - to make a return on the investment of owning the slave, an activity which came to be seasonal.
Christmas Day in Front Royal eventually came to be the day during which slaves would be rented out for the first time, have their contracts renewed, or be returned to their owners. Bounded by the old Native American trading paths that intersected at this well used and well-worn space in the shape of a triangle, the German influence in the area never-the-less caused the village green to be known as the Town Square.
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.