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Posted March 23, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Patrick Farris: Early attempt at forming county failed

By Patrick Farris

Once the area that would become Warren County was divided between Shenandoah County and Frederick County, area residents attended the courthouse closest to them.

Front Royal residents appear to have used Winchester for the most part, and as a result became some of the earliest advocates for the creation of a new county to serve their needs; one could never be certain as to whether the Shenandoah River forks would or would not rise in the time it took to get from Front Royal to Winchester and back, the result being that travelers could easily find themselves on the wrong side of a swollen river with no easy or safe way to get home, especially in spring as winter snow and ice melted in the mountains.

Significant to this process as a whole was the arrival in the 1790s of the Marshall family near Manassas Gap. James Markham Marshall was the brother of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. The Marshall estate became lucrative and even operated its own ferry across the Shenandoah River to access the road to Winchester. The Marshall estate fell on the Frederick County side of the Frederick/Shenandoah County line, but just barely.

One of Warren County's most interesting stories from this era has to do with the ambiguity over the county lines, and illustrates how far east toward the Blue Ridge the population was affected.

Richard Pomeroy, a tailor who immigrated from Ireland to Alexandria and then moved to Front Royal in the late 1700s, lived on Chester Street in Front Royal until the early 19th century when he moved with his wife Mary LeHew Pomeroy and their children and slaves to Harmony Hollow. By 1820 Pomeroy was, in his old age, occasionally forgetful but still very physically active.

The story concerning his disappearance and presumed death tells that one autumn afternoon he stood up suddenly from his seat on the porch and declared that he was going to the courthouse in Woodstock, a distance of some 30 miles over rough terrain from Harmony Hollow. He walked off into the woods and was never seen or heard from again. Although most residents who went off to Woodstock or Winchester did indeed return, the story illustrates the hardship of distance and geographical barriers to easy travel from the area to the nearest centers of local governance.

As a result of this situation, in which residents of the forks of the Shenandoah and surrounding area found themselves by the end of the American Revolution, they began to make petition to the Virginia Assembly beginning in 1794 to create a new county. According to their legislative petition, dated Nov. 19, the residents living between the Blue Ridge and the forks of the Shenandoah had "long labored under very considerable inconveniences from the great distance to Court" in Winchester. They also noted that the "intervention of the Shenandoah River made their attendance at all times precarious and expensive and often altogether impractical." Accordingly, they requested a new county be created around Front Royal to meet their needs. Their petition fell on deaf ears.

What in Richmond arrested this early effort by residents of the forks of the Shenandoah to find a sympathetic hearing among the members of Virginia's ruling body? Why, when other counties were being carved out of the western part of the state at a steady pace, would Virginia not grant this same basic right to citizens in this region?

The answer lies in resources, or more accurately, in the lack of two essential resources for the successful creation and future self-reliance of a county: people and agricultural land. The area petitioning at this time for a new county to be created reached from Front Royal in the south to Cedarville in the north, and from Manassas Gap in the east to Buckton in the west. The Fork District was ambivalent at first, eventually joining in later petitions, and south of Front Royal in the Page Valley there appeared to be little to no interest in joining the petition effort.

What were to become of the productive agricultural farming communities of Rockland, Milldale and Nineveh in the north also were not part of this early effort. Indeed, the fathers of Frederick County, living mostly around Winchester, publicly reacted to the petition by stating that the Front Royal area was "so extremely poor" and "sparsely settled" that its "inhabitants...are here today and gone tomorrow."

Richmond would ultimately deny the petition on the grounds that the resulting county would be too small in population and land mass to be self-supportive.

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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