NCTC Cultural History

Timeline NCTC Cultural History


The opinions and choices of material to include in this manuscript are those of the author. The US Government, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Conservation Training Center did not design or direct the writing of this manuscript and are not responsible for the accuracy, opinions or choice of materials. The author undertook this project solely to satisfy his curiosity, working on it intermittently during the occasional free moment of work time, as well as evenings and weekends over a several-year time span. As with any written history, the topics that are featured and the interpretation of events in this work are influenced by the biases and perceptions of the author, which include having grown up in a Scandinavian farming community in west-central Wisconsin. I have strived to be as inclusive as possible, so attention to certain cultural and socio-economic groups in this history should not be misconstrued as cultural myopia, but is instead an artifact of when, how, and for whom, public records were archived and indexed, as well as the tendency of our culture to follow and record the activities of limited members of a community or family. There are many voices missing in this work, not because these voices are unimportant or uninteresting, but because of the great difficulty, perhaps impossibility in many cases, of locating their words or accounts of their activities in the Terrapin Neck area. As I continue to search for information to fill some of these gaps, I make no claim to having written the history of the NCTC property, but merely a history that is at best incomplete, yet hopefully still interesting and useful. Tracking down and presenting the recorded history of the NCTC property has been a continual challenge, and has caused the author’s wife to use the word “obsessed” on several occasions. Tracking down and presenting the un-recorded history of the Terrapin Neck area, in order to capture those missing voices, is a challenge that may only be accomplished with your help. Copies of the manuscript have been made available by NCTC as a courtesy to guests and others who may be interested in local history.


My purpose for writing this history of the NCTC property and surrounding lands has been to describe the families that lived here, their strategies for making a living from the natural resources it had to offer, and their activities during the time they occupied the land. Most of my professional career has been spent as a field biologist, and I don’t have a long list of credentials as either a writer or historian. I simply ran across a story that intrigued me more and more as the details fell in place, and felt compelled to share it with others who might be interested in local history. My curiosity was first piqued during several afternoons I spent rambling over the property documenting the presence and distribution of plants. Old foundations and fence lines, broken pottery, bits of brick and glass all suggested a long history of use. Who were these people? What did the landscape look like before and after they arrived? Archaeological reports describing thousands of years of human occupation, the results of surveys and research conducted prior to the construction of NCTC facilities, also furthered an interest in who had lived here in the past. Local histories sometimes mentioned the people who had lived in the Terrapin Neck area, and I thought it might be interesting and useful to put these anecdotes and histories in a more systematic framework that would draw a more complete picture of their lives here. To the extent possible I have tried to make flesh and blood people- with motivations and real family histories- out of names, dates and various legal documents. For source materials I wanted to utilize reliably documented accounts and public records, which has led to many hours in archives, libraries and courthouses in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Kentucky researching land grants, deeds, wills, letters and family genealogies; much time was also spent double-checking other authors’ citations. Published “family lore” accounts tended to be riddled with uncertainties and outright impossibilities and were therefore avoided unless the accounts were confirmed by other evidence. Even so, I expect that there are mistakes and misinterpretations in this work, and though the writing style may seem confident of the facts, I remain open to other lines of evidence that may present alternative views. I started this project a tabula rasa with no particular historical axe to grind other than a desire for an accurate portrayal based on objective data.

Court houses and public records are excellent sources for objective facts, but have a drawback in that they tend to narrowly focus on the activities of landowners who, in this case, have been mostly relatively wealthy Caucasian males (with some notable exceptions); this history would be much richer and would benefit greatly from an equal amount of detail concerning Native Americans, female family members, the slaves, the indentured servants and hired help, the subsistence farmers, renters, and other cultural groups who spent a significant part of their lives in the Terrapin Neck area, but whose thoughts and activities went unrecorded. I have included their stories when they could be found, but unfortunately most of the details of their lives can only be imagined or extrapolated from other sources in the region. (If you are aware of sources I could use, please let me know). The public records I used may also leave the impression that family life centered around the acquisition, disposal or debated ownership of various pieces of property, which is of course misleading. Again we are left with trying to imagine their daily activities, their hopes and dreams, and what brought joy, frustration and meaning to the families and individuals herein described.

While reading the following Eurocentric version of events keep in mind that for a significant period of time after the arrival of Europeans, the most common faces on the property were not white. One of the nearly invisible groups in the historical record from about 1750 through at least the 1850’s is also likely to have been the largest – the enslaved people of African descent. Almost 40 percent of the people living in Virginia at the time of the first census in 1790 were held in slavery, while free blacks made up an additional 2 percent of the populace. Probate inventories and census records show that 10 to 20 slaves were based at the Springwood property at any one time, and an equal number were associated with the RiverView Farm portion of the property. This suggests that on the property that has become the National Conservation Training Center, for about one hundred years the number of people living in chattel slavery outnumbered those of European descent by a ratio sometimes larger than 2:1. We get an occasional glimpse of their existence from probate inventories or tax assessments that include such information as first names, ages, and changes of ownership, but details of their families and experiences are mostly missing. That’s a lot of missing history, and I have tried to honor their lives by including their names whenever I could find them.

I wish to thank several people who encouraged me in this work, including Mark Madison, FWS historian at NCTC, Karel Whyte, Swearingen family genealogist, Don Wood and Galtjo Geertsema at the Berkeley County Historical Society who were generous in helping me locate maps and innumerable details, and André Darger, former NCTC course leader who provided a forum for some of this information in his Employee Foundations course; the course provided a strong incentive to try to get the details right. Jessie Hendrix and Elizabeth Hyman were among those who were generous in taking the time to check for accuracy, and were themselves significant sources of information. Any mistakes that remain are all mine.

A note about the maps:

Surveys and maps obtained from Galtjo Geertsema, surveyor from Martinsburg, WV, were very valuable. Further deed descriptions obtained in the Berkeley (WV) Jefferson (WV), Frederick (MD and VA), Washington (MD) County courthouses, also were used to help decipher what sometimes amounted to a quagmire of distances and bearings used to describe new property boundaries, portions of which were just copied verbatim from earlier surveys, mistakes and all. By using both early and later surveys, and surveys from adjacent properties that described the same lines, I have a reasonable degree of confidence in the maps, especially those near present-day NCTC. The property boundaries for Thomas Swearingen’s heirs west of Shepherdstown in the enclosed 1770 map are based on Fairfax grants in the 1750s and 1760s and assume that parcels were not sold or added to in the meantime. The archives in the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort, Kentucky were invaluable in locating various land grants and other details related to the Revolutionary War period.

A note about names:

Several of the family names prominent in this history have been standardized to a common spelling. John Van Meter’s name in other publications and documents may be spelled in various ways including Van Metre, Vanmater and Vanmetre. Joist Hite usually spelled his name Jost Heydt, but records may show Joost Heyd and other combinations. Swearingen may appear as Swaringen, Sweringen, VanSwearingen and other phonetic characterizations.

For the sake of simplicity I have referred to the western portion of the NCTC property as RiverView Farm and the eastern portion as Springwood throughout the document. It should be understood that both these names are of relatively recent vintage: RiverView Farm first appears on a deed in 1896, and Springwood is probably mid 20th century. Springwood in the past has had other appellations including Mapleshade (1920s) and Shepherd’s Lower Farm (1870s-1890s). Nearby Shepherdstown has had other names such as Mecklenburg or Packhorse Ford which will occasionally appear in the text. Because property boundaries have changed over the years I also occasionally refer to now-adjacent properties as being part of RiverView Farm; for example the property now known as the Lost Drake Farm southwest of the NCTC entrance was the former home of Hezekiah Swearingen who eventually inherited the adjacent tract to the north that became RiverView Farm, which was largely developed by his son Van. The property now known as the Wild Goose Farm was also Swearingen property from 1828 to 1838. So to reduce confusion, in this document RiverView Farm will be used to describe those lands that were acquired by Hezekiah Swearingen from his father (who once owned both Springwood and RiverView Farm) in the late 18th century and remained with his heirs through the Civil War, while Springwood refers to the eastern portion of NCTC held by the Shepherds from about 1807 to 1907 that now includes the campus and the Hendrix life estate. How - and perhaps why - the Shepherd family acquired the Springwood property in the 19th century is a major theme of the following compilation.

A History of the National Conservation Training Center Property Abstract

The following is a time line of significant events that have affected the land and ownership of the property now comprising the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC), with an emphasis on the period from early European settlement until shortly after the Revolutionary War. Included also are a few pages on 19th and 20th century history. Archeological evidence has shown that Native Americans utilized the site that became NCTC at least intermittently for more than 8000 years, and suggests that seasonal occupation ended about 700 years ago. European settlement of this area began in the 1720s, with newly arrived German settlers most recently from Pennsylvania, and other families especially from the Monocacy River valley in Maryland taking up lands along the western bank of the Potomac, then known as the Cohongoroota River. Some early European settlers in this area experienced many problems acquiring title to the land they occupied because of competing land claims of the Hite family and the Northern Neck Proprietary of Lord Fairfax. Two young Swearingen brothers, members of a slave-holding family with plantations in Maryland, acquired land near present-day Shepherdstown and on Terrapin Neck in the 1740s and 1750s, about twenty years after Europeans first began occupying the area. They first acquired patented property originally surveyed through the Hites and later also acquired grants through Lord Fairfax. Living on the frontier of a new country required an ability to run a self-sufficient plantation. They raised dairy and beef cattle, hogs, sheep and horses, grew corn, wheat, tobacco, rye and flax, and cultivated apple and pear orchards. They also must have raised other crops such as hemp and various other grains, fruits and vegetables commonly grown at the time, both as cash crops and to feed themselves and their slaves. Thomas Swearingen ran plantations, a mill near Scrabble and a ferry service across the Potomac, while Van Swearingen was a sheriff, militia leader, and owner of the plantation that became NCTC. The Swearingens were intimately involved with the political, military and ecclesiastical issues of the day, particularly at local and regional levels. Their period of time here was a turbulent one, both locally and throughout the colonies, characterized by over 40 years of strife beginning with the French and Indian War in the 1750s, with various family members engaged in military struggles through the 1790s. Some of the Swearingen property and wealth was lost after the Revolutionary War because of an ancient lawsuit between competing land claims. The 1790s were years of transition, with deaths and lawsuits bringing about changes in land ownership in the Terrapin Neck area, though the Swearingens continued to run a plantation later known as RiverView Farm - now the western section of NCTC - until the Civil War. The eastern section of the NCTC property, referred to as the Springwood estate in this document, became part of the wealthy Shepherd family holdings at the beginning of the 19th century; they retained it for about a century. Parts of the original Swearingen estate were consolidated into a single property again in the early 1940s by the Hendrix family. A member of this family sold the property to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in March of 1992.

I consider this a work in progress and welcome new sources of information and further details on any of the topics I have written about.

Dan Everson

NCTC Course Leader
Phone: 304-876-7484