Shepherd Snyder Published

A Discussion On The Oldest Town In W.Va. – And How Much It Actually Matters

A view of Shepherdstown with the Opera House in the forefront.
Shepherdstown is considered to be the oldest founded town in West Virginia. The town lies on an important thoroughfare connecting the Shenandoah Valley to Delaware ports.
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Both Shepherdstown and Romney lay claim to being the oldest town in West Virginia – but there’s some confusion as to which town is actually correct. Shepherd Snyder spoke to Appalachian historian and Shepherd University professor Benjamin Bankhurst about why the answer is more complicated than it appears. 

Snyder: Starting off, I was wondering if you could go ahead and introduce yourself for me.

Bankhurst: Well, thanks for having me on. My name is Benjamin Bankhurst and I’m an associate professor of history here at Shepherd University with a specialization in 18th century Appalachia and the wider Atlantic world.

Snyder: Perfect. So getting into the main focus of this, why do Shepherdstown and Romney both have a claim to the oldest town in West Virginia? What’s the story there?

Bankhurst: Well, firstly, I’ll say, I’m not really vested in who it is, whether Romney or Shepherdstown is the oldest town in West Virginia. I think what we need to remember here is that the debate centers around which town was chartered first, not which town was founded first. And it’s difficult in both cases to come up with a concrete founding for each town because each town was founded as a part of a longer process of migration, which European migrants filtered into the southern backcountry across the early decades of the 18th century. 

If you had to bet on one, I would say Shepherdstown was probably founded first, simply because it’s on an important thoroughfare connecting the Shenandoah Valley to the important Delaware ports, where a lot of European migrants, principally Scots Irish and German migrants, were arriving in the 18th century. So it’s likely that these migrants arrived at the banks of the Potomac River in the valley before they arrived in the South Branch Valley. So it’s likely that Shepherdstown was founded earlier. 

It wasn’t chartered first, however. This is the debate, right? So let’s talk about this. Effectively, what happened is that each town was chartered on the same day, December 23, 1762. And both towns had gone through a long process in which they had to petition the Virginia House of Burgesses to charter the towns. This would result in somebody, or the community, presenting a petition to the Burgesses saying that they wanted to found a town. Then this would go to committee, the petition would receive a second reading in the House of Burgesses, it would be passed to the council. And finally, the governor would then sign off if the legislature had approved the chartering of the town. And effectively what happened is the governor signed off on the charters for both towns in one long session. And there’s numerous other towns that were chartered at the same time. Charlottesville, for instance, was chartered on the same day. It’s just that he happened to sign the paper for Romney and Hampshire County first… and then they broke for lunch! And then Shepherdstown, what was then known as Mecklenburg, was chartered immediately after the lunch session. So technically, yes, Romney, you’re correct! Romney was chartered first, a few hours earlier than Shepherdstown.

Snyder: But there’s still that debate from the Shepherdstown side.

Bankhurst: Yeah. But again, it focuses on when petitions were put forward, when they were first heard. And, again, often I think this debate is muddied because of the fact that people aren’t necessarily clear on this distinction between a town founding and a town’s charter.

Snyder: Now, from what I can tell from the little background I do have, Shepherdstown does argue that it is older sometimes, as far as chartering goes, because its bill was read for the third time before Romney’s bill was. So there’s that kind of wrinkle in it.

Bankhurst: Yeah, exactly. It’s parliamentary politics, isn’t it? You know, whose bill was read first, who put forward the petition earlier? And then, finally, whose town was chartered by the governor first. Those are the parameters of the debate.

But now that we have that boring stuff out of the way, let’s focus on what’s actually exciting about this debate! 

Let’s think about what the charter of Romney and Shepherdstown tell us about a period of dramatic change in western Virginia. Let’s think about what they have in common. Both Romney and Shepherdstown are founded on the Potomac River. Romney on the South Branch of the Potomac and Shepherdstown on Packhouse Ford, on the Potomac River in the Shenandoah Valley. So both are river towns. Secondly, they’re both on major thoroughfares. Romney’s on a road that connects the mountain communities to Winchester, on what will become known as the northwestern roads, or the northwestern turnpike. And Shepherdstown is located on one of the great splinter routes of the Shenandoah Wagon Road, the Philadelphia Road, which crosses the Potomac River at Packhouse Ford just on the outskirts of town. So both are on major overland thoroughfares, and both are river crossings. So they’re geographically very similar. 

Secondly, let’s think about the moment in time in which these two communities are chartered. They’re chartered in the midst of an ongoing conflict, the Seven Years War, which erupts on the Pennsylvania and Virginia frontiers in the middle of the 18th century. It’s this great war for empire to see which European power – France or Great Britain – will control the North American interior. And so we have these two strategically important towns founded in the midst of conflict.

Snyder: Does that have anything to do with the makeup of how those towns were settled at all?

Bankhurst: Yeah, absolutely. That’s an excellent question. So let’s think about how communities were organized in Virginia, east of the mountains before the Seven Years War. Before the Seven Years War, Virginia was known as a diffuse society and economy. Because of the rise of tobacco monocrop agriculture and the unique geography of the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia doesn’t establish many urban centers. People don’t cluster together in eastern Virginia. Rather, we see the rise of what will later become known as the great plantation house, we see the rise of enslavement and the rise of monocrop agriculture for export to European markets. So within that context, there’s no need to devise towns, there’s no need to found towns. These towns do emerge interim, and belatedly as an afterthought at important junctures, or where market towns might emerge. 

But that’s very different from what we see here. In the midst of the Seven Years War, town founding in Virginia takes a dramatic turn as represented by both these communities. People came together for protection, and that’s certainly true of Romney, Romney is on the fringes of a Virginia settlement. It’s isolated, it is prone to Shawnee raids. So people come together and form a fort and they cluster for protection. 

The same is true in the Shenandoah Valley. Winchester becomes very important because it’s the site of Fort Loudoun, which houses the Virginia Regiment. In the late 1750s, anywhere between 100 and 200 paid troops were stationed in Fort Loudoun. These people are paid by the government. That means there’s cash, suddenly. Their presence leads to the growth of attendant industries. These young men have to be fed, they have to be clothed, they have to be entertained. So that the establishment of Fort Loudoun leads to Winchester becoming an important central place. These towns all emerge as a way of servicing the needs of the Virginia regiment in Fort Loudoun. And so we see this sudden desire for these communities to be incorporated. They want incorporation as a consequence of this war.

Snyder: Talking about the charter, again, I know you mentioned this is the least interesting tidbit of the whole thing in your eyes. But I do want to get your thoughts and opinions on why you think this matters to some folks from Romney, or some folks from Shepherdstown. Why is it important today, and what’s your perspective on that?

Bankhurst: Well, I’ve thought about this a lot. You know, there’s certain things in the history of West Virginia we’re very keen to establish precedence for. Think about the Battle of Point Pleasant. Historically, the Daughters of the American Revolution had argued that the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774, occurring when it did, before the major battles of the early American Revolution, was the first battle of the American Revolutionary War. They needed to give that battle that sort of mythology. Similarly, here in Shepherdstown, we talk about James Rumsey and the invention of the steamboat. We argued that it was James Rumsey, not (New York inventor) Robert Fulton, who invented the steamboat. It had to happen in West Virginia first. And I think our obsession as a state with these moments in which we can argue that it happened here first is a reflection of the fact that we’re actually a new state, right? We were founded in 1863! And we have to distinguish ourselves.

Snyder: It’s kind of a ‘chip on our shoulder’ type of thing. 

Bankhurst: Well, perhaps, but I think it’s indicative of our relative newness, if that makes sense. We have to mark our own identity apart from Virginia apart from this distinct identity in the colonial period. And I think this is a reflection of that. The fact that both Shepherdstown and Romney are obsessed with this question, I think, is indicative of how we see ourselves in our state. But interestingly, on the same day that both Romney and Shepherdstown are charted, Charlottesville’s charted! And let’s be frank, it’s first, it beats Shepherdstown, in the order in which the governor signs off on the charter. But we don’t really discuss that, it doesn’t really matter, because we’re obsessed with defining these communities as West Virginia, as opposed to Virginia.  So we’re kind of reading back West Virginia in history into the story of western Virginia, if that makes sense.

Snyder: Before we end things off here, did you have any other interesting tidbits of information or any other just kind of relevant info we should know?
Bankhurst: What I actually would say is that, regarding this debate, what’s interesting is how this the features of shared by both of these sounds, perhaps we should think about them within not necessarily within the context of, ‘who’s the oldest charter community in West Virginia,’ perhaps we should think about them as emerging within a specific regional context, the greater Shenandoah Valley, that they’re co-chartering on the same day. And the fact that they share all of these things in common, their war experience there. Perhaps that should lead us to think about them kind of as sister communities, not as sort of competitors, in that they emerge with a very similar ferment. So I guess that’s what I would say. We’re sort of asking a redundant question when actually, we should emerge together.