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Patrick Farris: Africans among area's earliest settlers

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Patrick Farris


By Patrick Farris:

February is African American History Month, providing us an opportunity to explore the history of African Americans in Front Royal and Warren County.

Since the Shenandoah Valley's earliest landowning settlers were mainly Dutch, German, French, English and Scots-Irish, the focus of 18th century history in valley counties and towns, such as Front Royal, tends to concentrate on the lineages and actions of those groups of people. Africans, though, were also among the earliest settlers of the Shenandoah Valley, and their history here must be understood within the unique context of the valley itself, a region at once part of Virginia and yet very distinct.

Geography is destiny, so it is said, and that adage applies to the valley of Virginia as well as to any other place. As German and Scots-Irish settlers began moving south along the Forks of the Shenandoah beginning in 1730, they created subsistence farms ranging in size from 100-400 acres, on average.

These farmsteads were intended to support a nuclear family with some dependents, and could be worked by the members of that family throughout most of the year with exceptions being those events which would require many hands, such as harvesting crops or raising barns.

Slavery was not a part of the agricultural tradition of these settlers. They initially lacked capital to invest in slave labor, and they also did not lay out farms large enough to accommodate cash-cropping. Consequently, settlers of African ancestry were not coming with these Germans and Scots-Irish in the 1730s as slaves, although there are well known instances of Africans present in the backcountry traveling as free men or as the enslaved servants of wealthy land speculators (Governor Alexander Spotswood's 1716 Knights of the Golden Horseshoe expedition to the valley, for example, included Africans).

By 1745, however, the settlement of the Shenandoah Valley had begun to take a dramatic turn, as English settlers from the Tidewater and Piedmont regions of Virginia began to arrive in increasing numbers, bringing their African slaves with them to work large farms designed to cash-crop hemp (used for rope by the British Navy) and wheat.

As these new settlers were arriving from the east, they took up lands mainly along the eastern side of the Shenandoah Valley adjacent to the mountain gaps through which they had arrived. As a result, by the end of the 1700s the eastern half of the Shenandoah Valley had a decidedly higher percentage of Africans in its population than the western half. This trend continued, so that a look at the 1860 census returns for valley counties shows the enslaved percentage of the total population of Clarke (47 percent), Jefferson (28 percent), Page (11 percent) and Warren (25 percent) Counties - the eastern half of the Lower Shenandoah Valley - to be much higher on average than the enslaved populations of the counties on the western half of the Lower Valley: Berkeley (13 percent), Frederick (14 percent) and Shenandoah (5 percent).

In addition to enslaved Africans, throughout the early 1800s there were increasing numbers of emancipated Africans in all valley communities. Known as "free issues" (a reference to the legally issued letter of emancipation) or more commonly as "free blacks," emancipated Africans gravitated naturally toward towns and not to rural areas, as towns held more diverse opportunities for employment.

Free blacks who remained in rural environments were the exceptions, although they could still carve out an existence; in Nineveh in Warren County, for instance, a free black woman lived and worked as a midwife in the 1850s and 60s. Warren County had around 120 free blacks in 1860, with over half of that number living in Front Royal.

The neighborhood on the southwest side of Front Royal which was inhabited by free blacks became known as Free Town and also as South Town, and roughly comprised the area now occupied by Laurel Street, Osage Street and Pine Street in Front Royal.

The lives of free blacks were circumscribed; they could not vote, were not considered citizens, could not bear witness in court, and had limited property rights.

Their marriages, however, were considered legal, which was not the case for enslaved Africans. As a result of the fact that the free black community in Front Royal was too small for there to be a husband or wife available for all marriage-aged individuals at any given time, it was not uncommon for a free black to marry a slave. Such unions were permissible by law and with the slave owner's allowance.

The cash-cropping economic model of pre-Civil War agriculture we commonly think of as "plantation" farming was successfully imported to the valley from eastern Virginia, then, but once here it would take on a very unique appearance, especially in a crossroads like Front Royal - we will explore this topic further next week.

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.




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