NCTC Cultural History

Timeline 1745-1768

The Swearingens Become Prominent Under Lord Fairfax Rule


After years of dispute, the Fairfax Northern Neck Proprietary was defined and reaffirmed by the Privy Council in England, confirming the “first fountain” of the Cohongoroota as the head of the Potomac River, and making Fairfax the owner of over 5 million acres of Virginia! This essentially created two separate colonies within Virginia, at least in terms of acquiring a land grant, with Fairfax now in charge of all grants between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers. A survey was ordered to mark the western boundary that became known as the Fairfax Line, a boundary line running NW from near the present-day Big Meadow area of Shenandoah National Park to the head spring of the Potomac near present-day Davis, West Virginia; the surveyors laid a stone monument at the head spring, known as the Fairfax stone, and its various replacements can still be seen today. The surveyors included Peter Jefferson (father of the third president), and Robert Brooke (the son of the surveyor for the 1734 Anderson, Mounts and Jones survey near Terrapin Neck). This created a situation where the Hites and Fairfax now “owned” some of the same land. The Hites and Fairfax got in a squabble and Fairfax refused to honor Hite titles despite what he agreed to in 1738 (Couper 1952). Hite apparently had taken a long time to grudgingly provide to Fairfax names of settlers on lands Hite had surveyed, along with a description of the property boundaries. When he finally did provide them, the records and property descriptions were terrible; Fairfax felt disinclined to issue grants to what he considered fictitious people living on property with uncertain boundaries, and also wondered why the name “Hite” frequently appeared in the ledger obviously replacing a number of other erased names. Later court documents show that a high percentage of the acreage did go to the Hite family, though this was by no means a transgression of the terms of the 1730 grant purchased from the Van Meters. Using the names and acreages listed on page 174 in McKay (1951), Jost Hite’s name is the “assignee” associated with 12 of 52 parcels surveyed and patented in 1734 under the Van Meter grant, amounting to 18,869 acres, or 41% of the total acreage of 46,248 acres. There were 36 other family names in the list, and if legitimate, this was 6 more than was strictly needed. The 100,000-acre grant that Hite held with several partners was perhaps more of an issue, as it was found that only about a third of the listed families were actually living on the property in question.

Fairfax also objected to the Hite surveys for their tendency to lock up the water resources of an area. Many of the property boundaries of the Hite-surveyed lands included only the long, thin bottomlands bordering a stream, plus any adjacent choice uplands including the nearby springs. This made it difficult for later settlers to utilize adjacent property because of the lack of water. For example, in the Shepherdstown area John Van Meter acquired a long, thin parcel totaling 1,786 acres that included most of the narrow watershed of what is now known as Rocky Marsh Run, while the original Poulson, Mounts and Jones patent included extensive Potomac River frontage, the lower portion of Rocky Marsh Run, and an irregular shape designed to acquire the several major springs in the area. Richard Morgan acquired a skinny 290-acre patent between and perpendicular to the two grants listed above which included a spring and a meadow that ran into Rocky Marsh Run (now the site of The Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute). Israel Friend’s 300-acre patent was a long, narrow bottomland tract adjacent to the Potomac just downstream from Packhorse Ford on the Virginia side and was cited repeatedly by Fairfax as an example of just what he was complaining about. Fairfax preferred what he called a “regular survey” that followed the Virginia Assembly order of Oct. 22, 1712 which required that surveyed parcels should have a breadth of at least one-third of their length (Brown 1965).

Because his original legal land grant description referred to “all that entire Tract, Territory, or porcon of Land situate, lying and beeing in America, and bounded by and within the heads of the Rivers of Rappahannock and Patawomecke...”, Fairfax encouraged everyone to begin using the name “Potomac” for the river north of Harpers Ferry, instead of the old name of Cohongoroota, which was of Indian derivation from the sound of a honking goose. Lawyers could potentially have created mischief for his newly-won Proprietary if the boundary for his claim was known by Cohongoroota rather than Potomac, so the original Indian name had to go.

Closer to home, Thomas Swearingen was appointed guardian of John and Sarah Jones, orphans of the deceased mill owner Josiah Jones and their more recently deceased mother (O’Dell 1995). Thomas and his family had apparently moved to the Jones Mill property near Terrapin Neck shortly before this time; Thomas Swearingen and his heirs would own and run the “Jones” mill near present-day Scrabble for more than 70 years. The mill location was adjacent to the Cohongoroota, which would allow barrels of flour and grain to be boated downstream to markets when water levels were high enough. Mill operators in that day kept a percentage of the grain brought to their mills as payment, and then sold the accumulated grain or flour to generate a profit (Stanton 1993).

In 1745, Thomas Shepherd was appointed overseer of a local road, in place of Van Swearingen (Fred. Cty Court Journal, No. 2, p.2, in Smyth 1909).

This year also marked the death of John Van Meter, who had been living upstream of the Jones Mill near present-day Rocky Marsh Run about 2 miles west of the little community being developed by John’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband Thomas Shepherd. John had spent the last years of his life raising horses in what became known as the Van Meter Marsh patent. He had given away in 1744 “all stalyons, geldings, mares and colts, running in the woods, branded on the left shoulder with the letter M” to various family members.

Note: Joseph and Remembrance Williams are mentioned in several deeds in the Frederick County Court House in Winchester on land near Jones Mill and the area that eventually becomes RiverView Farm within the Poulson, Mounts and Jones grant about this time, not sure what their relationship is to the property. Two adjacent parcels were described with them as owners?, but they seem not to have taken possession of the properties; this is probably a case of double titles for the same property, the confusion in part from the ongoing Hite-Fairfax controversy.


A death threw Peter Beller’s title to the Springwood property into doubt. By decree of the Frederick County court, May 1746, Peter Beller “recovered from Jonathon Simmons/Seaman an infant heir-at-law to Jonathon Seaman, late of Frederick County” the 317 acres Simmons Sr had bought from Joseph Mounts - the Springwood tract (described in Frederick County, VA Deed Book 4, p.121). Jonathon Simmons Sr died before the real estate sale to Beller was recorded (it was a long journey to the Frederick County Court House), automatically giving the property to Simmons, Jr., who was still a youngster. Beller filed suit in Chancery Court to recover the property, the court acknowledged Beller’s ownership and “ordered” the infant to honor the transaction when he was legally old enough to do so - within six months of his 21st birthday (this took place in 1762, after Beller sold the property to Van Swearingen, as will be seen).


Twelve years after his first visit, Lord Fairfax came back to the Virginia colony from Great Britain to defend and administer his Proprietary claims. He had settled his affairs in the British Isles and planned to live the rest of his life in the Virginia colony. A map of his Proprietary was finally published this year.


Thomas Swearingen acquired a 222 acre parcel (purchased from Richard Poulson) near the mill and the mouth of Rocky Marsh Run (Frederick County, VA DB 1, p. 396). He may have taken over the operation of the old Jones Mill there at this time, along with taking on the responsibilities and care of the Jones orphans.


Lord Fairfax, now living in Virginia full time, set up a land office near Winchester and began surveying and selling grants of land. If a settler wanted title to unclaimed land between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers, the only choice now was to deal with the Fairfax land office. Fairfax employed a number of young men to survey portions of his Proprietary, including George Washington. Fairfax was also commissioned Justice of the Peace for all Northern Neck lands, and served as local magistrate, county lieutenant, and vestryman of the Anglican Church. “Lord Fairfax, Baron of Cameron in that part of Great Britain called Scotland, Proprietor of the Northern Neck of Virginia” was now established as the ruler of over 5 million acres. The Fairfax land office generally just re-granted land surveyed and sold by the Hites back to the Hites and their purchasers, despite all the squabbles, though this did not stop the antagonism between the two groups on the 27 contested parcels. Unfortunately Fairfax could not just re-grant the land on Terrapin Neck to the Hite purchaser (Browning), because Browning was dead and buried on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, had never settled the property, and had no heirs around claiming possession; the late date of the survey and sale may have also been a factor. The Swearingens and others in the vicinity of Terrapin Neck were among the first to apply to Fairfax for grants of land they already occupied and elsewhere.

The Hite family and their partners were likely a bitter, dejected lot at this time, though in the back of their minds all those years they must have considered the possibility that the Fairfax claim would be legally recognized. Despite almost 20 years of work their expected fortunes had not been realized and the courts offered their only hope of reclaiming their perceived losses. Predictably, Joist Hite and his partners filed their own lawsuit to test the validity of the Fairfax claim and to regain 36,686 acres of land that they had surveyed but hadn’t been able to patent because of Fairfax suddenly showing up out of the blue waving a decree from the King (including the 1200 acres on Terrapin Neck that had been surveyed 6 months past the deadline). The Hite land grants were in dire legal straits, and the Hite family certainly didn’t want to lose the bond money they would have to pay if their buyer’s titles proved defective! The Hites were only one of about a dozen groups of speculators who had been surveying and selling land in the Shenandoah Valley prior to Fairfax gaining legal title, but the Hites were the only land speculators who Fairfax could not seem to accommodate to their satisfaction, which Fairfax blamed in part on the Hite’s effrontery (Hyman 1996).


Peter Beller moved from his patented Springwood tract to a new 400 acre Fairfax grant near present-day Baker Heights (O’Dell 1995). With the 300+ patented acres on the Potomac and the new 400 acre grant, this suggests that Beller was primarily interested in plantation agriculture with shoemaking a sideline business benefiting friends and neighbors. Thomas Swearingen received a Fairfax grant of 478 acres next to his brother Van’s patented tract near present-day Shepherdstown; he had been living on the property near his mill, but was making plans for a new house and perhaps a ferry by this time, closer to Thomas Shepherd’s little town.

Farmers in the middle colonies, seeing diminishing returns from their fields, began using clover and grasses to help restore nitrogen to the soil about this time, 100 years after farmers in England first began the practice. Within a few years, wheat exports from these same middle colonies, including Maryland and northern Virginia, would account for about 20% of all colonial exports (Dufour 1994).


On 14 January, Van Swearingen received a grant from Fairfax for 187 acres near the entry to present-day Terrapin Neck Road, just south of the Beller property (maps are from data provided by G. Geertsema). The shape of the grant indicated he had an eye on the Beller property to the north, because the two properties combined would create a much more square shape than the original 1734 Poulson, Mounts and Jones patent boundary, while the 187 acres alone would be small, strangely shaped, and provide no significant source of water. He also had surveyed an additional 321 river-front acres on the east side of his patented land purchased in 1744 (now the Cress Creek development), and waited for a grant to be issued. His family had grown to 6 children by this time. The vestry of the Episcopal Church of Frederick County may have had at least two tight-faced members in their meetings this year, as it included among its membership John Hite (son of Joist Hite), Lord Fairfax, and Thomas Swearingen (Couper 1952).


Van Swearingen hired a survey for a 200 acre tract along the unpatented northern boundary of Terrapin Neck, but waited over 6 years for the official grant from Fairfax to be issued. In his petition, he described what he thought was about 400 acres of waste land currently not claimed by anyone. He couldn’t claim all of Terrapin Neck since Jeremiah York already had a Fairfax grant for 323 acres out on the eastern end of the Neck, Vachel Medcalfe claimed an additional 300 acres, and Abraham James claimed 196 acres at the base of the Neck. Van and his neighbors almost certainly were aware of the Browning purchase in 1736, and the fact that the 1736 survey was completed past the deadline, but seemed willing to take a chance on Fairfax grants since there had never been a Browning trying to occupy the land. The surveyor for Fairfax was Thomas Rutherford, whose son eventually married Van’s daughter Drucilla. Van Swearingen may have been living on Peter Beller’s property (Springwood) by this time, but hadn’t paid for it yet. His neighbor out on the end of the Neck, Jeremiah York, sold his 323 acres for which he had received a Fairfax grant two years before to a William Chapline for 58 pounds - thus indicating that Chapline was not particularly worried about the Hite/Browning claim at this point either (FCDB 3, p. 90).


British settlers and explorers heading west over the Appalachian mountains ran into French settlers and explorers heading south and east, with tensions rising over which European group would control the upper Potomac area and the Ohio River Valley. Many of the Native American groups living in what are now Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and New York had become familiar with the French traders and settlers during the more than 100 years of French exploration of the area, and therefore many of them were convinced to ally with the French in their dispute with the British colonies. (Several years later the British had their own Native allies for a short time, when the Cherokee and other groups in the Carolinas decided to weigh in on the side of the British. Later the Iroquois Confederacy sided with the British to use the growing British power to retain control over Native groups in the Ohio River valley. The various Indian groups across the continent had old alliances and scores to settle dating back decades or even hundreds of years, and it had long been common practice for them to travel thousands of miles to trade or fight with other Natives - their participation in the British-French squabble over half a continent was a variation on a very familiar lifestyle for many of them.) By 1754 the French and Indian War had begun in earnest, the conflict – international in scope and also referred to as the Seven Years War – sparked by a young George Washington and a group of Virginians and Native Americans who together attacked a small party of Frenchmen sent to parley with the British group, killing and wounding (and eventually scalping) a number of them in a treacherous, less-than-honorable fashion even after a cease-fire had been in effect (who did what and when is still a matter of some controversy). Virginia’s Governor Dinwiddie, who had picked Washington to lead the expedition, was a major stockholder in a business venture known as The Ohio Company, which hoped to realize enormous profits by settling and trading in the upper Ohio River country. (Note that this venture was located in what is now western Pennsylvania, an area well north of the Potomac River which had been clearly defined as the boundary of the Virginia colony – a Virginia claim for this area took some real chutzpa). This gave him a personal incentive to send an inexperienced, unmotivated, poorly outfitted, unpopular, expensive military expedition to protect the company’s trading posts near present-day Pittsburgh, led by an enthusiastic 21-year-old surveyor intent on making a name for himself (see Anderson, 2001). Settlements in the lower Shenandoah Valley were attacked repeatedly by Indians over the next few years, and the terrified settlers occasionally dropped everything they were doing and banded together in panic-stricken caravans heading back east over the Blue Ridge. Several families and forts in the Martinsburg-Shepherdstown area were annihilated in raids; note that the terror was not a vicarious experience the Terrapin Neck settlers read about in the paper, but a horror that preyed on their imaginations every time a noise was heard in the night over a several year period. Peace would not come soon for the settlements further west; in fact, intermittent fighting in the upper Potomac Highlands and further west along the Ohio River would continue for more than 40 years. Authorities in Virginia committed a portion of their military forces to frontier forts to protect against war parties coming from the north, but an even larger number of militia were kept near home to protect the colony from a potential slave uprising. A fort was built in Thomas Shepherd’s little town around this time to protect the local settlers, and most of the men were required to join the local militia. Shepherd had begun to lay out town lots by this time and felt compelled to offer them on good terms to keep people from running away from the strife-torn area (see Dandridge 1910). Interestingly, his wife Elizabeth’s name was included on all the deeds over the years as co-owner and co-seller, indicating she considered herself a partner in the land business, an interest she may have picked up from her father John Van Meter. Thomas and Elizabeth Shepherd this year also became the proud parents of a fifth son, the eighth of their nine children; they named him Abraham. Abraham will become a salient figure in the history of Terrapin Neck.

In his capacity now as a Justice of Frederick County, Thomas Swearingen took several depositions regarding the granting of land by the Fairfax land office (McKay 1951).


Title problems continued to plague many settlers in the area. For example, 100 acres of Thomas Swearingen’s 222 acres near Scrabble were bought and sold several times by other parties who had bought it from Joseph Mounts, even though J. Poulson had sold all 222 acres in 1748 to Swearingen (Frederick Cty VA DB 4, p. 190 and 193). It’s unknown if Swearingen knew about this at the time. Thomas Swearingen also received official sanction from the Virginia Council to operate a Ferry “from the land of Thomas Swearingen in the county of Frederick, over Potomack River, to the land opposite thereto in the province of Maryland” just north of the land owned and being developed by the Shepherds as a new town; this area also became known as Swearingen’s Ferry at the time - distinguishing this river crossing from Harper’s Ferry, which was down the river a few miles. Thomas would be remembered ever after as “Thomas of the Ferry”. The regulation of ferries in Virginia was controlled at the Virginia Assembly, meaning Thomas had to get a bill passed in the Virginia Assembly before ferry operations could begin. Ferries in Maryland, on the other hand, were either sponsored by the county (the ferryman was a salaried county employee), or unregulated private enterprise until a ferry regulation law was passed in 1781, meaning that Thomas Swearingen did not have to get a separate license from the colonial authorities in Maryland. The growing little community near Pack Horse Ford (i.e. the Shepherds) agreed to maintain a road from the town to the ferry landing near the present-day Bellevue property, while Marylanders built a road along the route through present-day Boonsboro and Sharpsburg to the ferry landing on the Maryland side of the Potomac. Thomas charged three pence per person, and an additional three pence per horse. In his first year of operation he ferried General Edward Braddock and part of his military force across the river on their ill-fated expedition to fight the French and Indians near the site of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Maryland Governor Horatio Sharpe, namesake of Sharpsburg, accompanied the expedition, and later reported paying “to Thomas Swearingen on Potomac for ferriage of General Braddock party and guard £8.2.0” (Green and Hahn, Ferry Hill Plantation Journal). Thomas Swearingen Jr. is mentioned as a Captain of a militia company at this time, as was his father Thomas and later his uncle Van Swearingen (Chalkley, v.2, p.503).

Thomas Swearingen’s ferry landing on the Virginia side of the river presented no problem because it was located on his own property. The ferry landing on the opposite side, though, was an issue because the property was owned at first by his neighbors in Virginia. Directly across the river from his Virginia property was the black walnut tree dividing the property known as Pell Mell then owned by the Shepherd family, from the property called Spurgin’s Lot, owned by William Spurgin, part of a larger tract called Antietam Bottom. Swearingen chose to land the ferry on the downstream side of the black walnut on Spurgin’s property, which seems not to have bothered Spurgin since he sold the 50 acre property to Swearingen three years later (Fred. Cty Md DB F, p. 504). The Shepherds, on the other hand, later seem to seriously question the location of the landing, feeling that it was actually part of Pell Mell, and that the Swearingens were using the wrong walnut tree as a boundary marker. And so the controversy begins.

In January of 1755, Maryland’s Governor Sharpe traveled the Potomac River in a small boat from upstream near present-day Cumberland to tidewater at Georgetown, in order to assess what work needed to be done to make the river more navigable for boats floating military equipment and farm products. Baltimore merchants tended to balk at any scheme to promote Potomac River commerce, preferring that goods move through their own ports, so the lead for development of the Potomac River was carried on by Virginia mercantile interests, most notably a young George Washington who had been on his own inspection tours of the Potomac in August of that year (Hahn 1984). The Swearingens were likely using the Potomac to transport flour, tobacco, wheat and various other goods to the growing markets downstream in Alexandria and Georgetown. They were no doubt very familiar with the impassable Great Falls and Little Falls and other navigation hazards on the lower Potomac because they had grown up near the Fall Line, and still had relatives living there. Their farm products were likely offloaded above Great Falls and then loaded onto wagons for transport to the developing shipping ports on the tidal section of the river.


Van Swearingen purchased from Peter Beller 317 acres of the original Poulson, Mounts and Jones patent for 135 pounds (FCDB 4, p. 121). Now he officially owned the Springwood tract, which was just north of the Fairfax grant he had purchased several years before. Peter Beller may have been trying to escape all the troubles with title on Terrapin Neck - including waiting for the “infant” Simmons to sign a release when he reached the age of majority, the dispute between Hite and Fairfax on neighboring land, plus there were a lot of slaves and slave owners moving into the neighborhood which German Protestants generally objected to. Beller also gave Van Swearingen power of attorney to deal with any problems arising from this sale and young Simmons (FCDB 4, p.123). Apparently none of these problems dissuaded his neighbor Van Swearingen, who was a slave owner and may have been a distant relative of Simmons (Van’s cousin and sister-in-law Elizabeth was married to another Jonathon Simmons, who died in 1761 in Prince George’s County, MD). The Swearingen family also had the experience of the past two generations that settled frontier lands of Maryland; they may have been more comfortable with the inevitable problems in a new country. For example, Van’s uncle (and father-in-law) had settled on a piece of property in Maryland about 5 miles north of Terrapin Neck on St. James Run, built a house and other improvements, and then discovered someone else (probably Lord Baltimore’s 10,594 acre Conococheague Manor tract) had a prior claim - he had to settle for negotiating a lifetime lease for himself and his sons.

Note that some or all of the Springwood tract (now the eastern portion of NCTC) had been farmed by Europeans for more than 25 years before Van Swearingen acquired it officially, suggesting that reduced soil fertility may already have impacted the types of farming activities taking place on the new Swearingen plantation.


Thomas Swearingen polled 270 votes to George Washington’s 40 votes for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. His successful election meant that he, along with Hugh West, would represent Frederick County in the House sessions of March 25, 1756, April 30, 1757, and March 30, 1758. His son, also named Thomas Swearingen, 22 years old and married to Mary Morgan, built a stone house next to his father’s mill just west of present-day NCTC, which is still a private residence today. They had a son named Thomas (of course) that same year.


In September Van Swearingen purchased an adjacent 132 acres of the Poulson, Mounts and Jones patent for 70 pounds “Pennsylvania money” that eventually became RiverView Farm (Frederick Cty VA DB 5, p. 187) and is now the western portion of NCTC; the boundaries were somewhat different than present. This was purchased from Joseph Poulson; there is no evidence that this was later regranted by Fairfax, but like the adjacent Springwood parcel a patent from the 1730s already covered it. Van and his brother Thomas together now owned several miles of contiguous waterfront on the Potomac adjacent to Terrapin Neck. Thomas was likely the wealthier and more influential of the two brothers by this time, having acquired over 1600 acres of land on the Virginia side of the river alone, in addition to his property in Maryland (where his ferry landed) and elsewhere. He was the elected representative from Frederick County in the Virginia House of Burgesses and a captain in the local militia. He also owned a mill near Scrabble (Jones Mill), and owned the ferry business across the Potomac River. His ferry alone had the potential to make him a wealthy man. In Fry and Jefferson’s map of Virginia for this time period, the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road is shown crossing the Potomac at Swearingen’s Ferry. Horsemen, footmen, wagons and settler families numbering in the tens of thousands formed a steady procession south over this road at the time. Relatively low land prices in the Carolinas attracted newly-arrived immigrants as well as many settlers from the more northern colonies. It has been described as the most heavily traveled road in all America at the time, with perhaps more traffic than all the other main roads together (Rouse 1995). Some of these settlers, of course, chose to cross the Potomac further north at Watkins Ferry, established by the Virginia House of Burgesses Oct 9, 1744 at the site of present-day Williamsport, and they could cross at various fords when the water was low enough, but the Swearingen ferry, no doubt, did a considerable business. Harpers Ferry, a few river miles to the south, would be established officially a few years later in 1761. Travelers in Virginia at this time could generally beg or barter meals, lodging and other needs, but if they wanted to cross the river without getting wet, they generally had to pay cash. A busy ferry operator therefore could expect to acquire bags of coin that other businesses and individuals would, of course, covet.

Thomas Swearingen was later described by George Washington “as a man of great weight with the meaner class of people, and supposed by them to possess extensive knowledge” (noted in Swearingen genealogical file, Belle Boyd House), though this may have been political rhetoric and it should be remembered that George Washington as a young man had also described the settlers of the Shenandoah Valley as a “parcel of barbarians” (Brown 1965). Lord Fairfax in a letter to Washington also expressed his less-than-enthusiastic opinion of Thomas Swearingen’s handling of militia matters during the French and Indian War by writing “[Swearingen] has always done everything in his power to occasion confusion if his advice was not taken in everything” (Brown 1965). The Swearingen’s militia company at least had strict requirements for attendance: “At a Court Martial held for Frederick County on Fryday the 27th October 1758 Ordered that Joshua Hedges of the Company commanded by Captain Thomas Swearingen be fined 10 shillings for absenting himself from One General Muster within a twelve months this last past” (Hedges family genealogy forum entry).

George Washington again ran for election for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses--in absentia because of military duties during the hostilities with the French (which he had helped instigate). Necessarily this time he had the campaign handled by friends. He defeated Thomas Swearingen by being much in the news with his military exploits and was perhaps aided by providing about a quart and a half of liquor per voter at the polls (Couper 1952). Locals Thomas Shepherd and his son David preferred not to back their close neighbor Thomas of the Ferry, and instead voted for Washington (Smyth 1909). Washington would now represent the “parcel of barbarians” at the Virginia Assembly. The war with the natives was still very much a concern for residents of the Shenandoah Valley. George Washington received a letter in July this year from Joist Hite’s son John addressed to “Collo. George Wasenton: …Our Inhabitants is all Fled...and we are Generally in Great Fair of the Enemy upon us” (S. M. Hamilton [ed.] Letters to Washington, in Jones et. al 1979).


Van Swearingen built a large, fine stone house on the Springwood tract, which included a fireplace in every room (several with beautiful surrounds) and such architectural details as marble hearthstones, wood moldings and other fine details - by no means a small, rough cabin like many of his neighbors lived in. The present house on the site, the private residence of Mrs. Hendrix, includes several later additions. Despite the French and Indian War, or perhaps because of the war and the profits that could be made, the latter half of the 1750s must have been flush times for the Swearingen clan, as Van, Thomas Sr and Thomas Jr were all able to complete fairly large new stone homes near the Potomac. Many British colonists in the Tidewater country at the time avoided building brick or stone homes because of a deep-rooted fear that they were unhealthy (Wiencek 1988, p.8), so the Swearingen’s choice of building materials may have been noteworthy at the time, at least among the British crowd. Their Dutch heritage and German neighbors, as well as the assuredly unhealthy pyric habits of marauding natives during the ongoing war, and limestone rock lying readily at hand in their fields may have all been factors in their decision to use stone.

By this time tobacco had started to stagnate as the major cash crop from Virginia as wheat and other cereal grains became increasingly more attractive for export. Demand for wheat and flour in the West Indies and southern Europe provided a ready market for American grains despite the Corn Laws that disallowed importation of grains into Great Britain. Virginia has been described as the premier exporter of Indian corn by the third quarter of the eighteenth century. The growing of grains rather than tobacco also had the effect of facilitating the establishment of towns rather than plantations because of all the services required to plant, harvest, mill, barrel, bake, and transport the grains (Siener 1985). Tobacco is mentioned as late as 1788 as a crop grown by the Swearingens, but records indicate they were growing a significant amount of wheat and other grains for market as well during this time period.


So much for the big new home on Thomas Swearingen’s ferry property. June of 1760 marks the death of Van’s brother Thomas of the Ferry, 52-year-old patriarch of a large family (his will was signed 4 April 1760, proved 3 June 1760, suggesting an illness [Fred. Cty Courthouse, Winchester VA]). Thomas left behind a wife and 9 children, five of them 15 years old or younger; their uncle Van likely helped raise and support these children, including a boy who was later known to some as Van Swearingen Junior, though he was actually Col. Van Swearingen’s nephew. Lands near Scrabble were willed to Thomas’ sons, mostly to Thomas, Jr. (a.k.a. Major Thomas Swearingen) who continued to operate the mill with his brother Andrew. (Major Thomas’s son Thomas (b. 1757), with his wife Margery, would eventually lay out a town they named “Hardscrabble” in the vicinity of the mill, which has been shortened to “Scrabble” - they may have been trying to develop a town like their neighbors the Shepherds). The ferry operation was left to son Benoni, along with the plantation on the Maryland side of the river. The actual operation of the ferry was undertaken by his brother Major Thomas for some time, as Benoni was only 5 years old at the time of his father’s death. (It’s unclear when Thomas actually became a Major, perhaps not until the Revolutionary War, but it will be used here to distinguish him from the other Thomas Swearingens around at the time).

Col. Van Swearingen finally received two grants from Fairfax that had been surveyed some years earlier, one of them the 321 acres near his original home tract and his brother’s ferry (now east of the Cress Creek golf course). The other was the 200-acre tract next door on Terrapin Neck, which seemed a safe bet after 24 years of being unclaimed by the Brownings. Little did he know.

Van Swearingen’s neighbor and cousin William Chapline who had bought the old York place out on the end of Terrapin Neck seven years earlier, died this year as well. His estate, including the neck of land where the Steamboat Run subdivision is today, was divided among his several children, with son Benjamin inheriting the Terrapin Neck property.

British military victories in Canada resulted in a change of colonial administration of that huge area to the north, putting an end to the formal military hostilities between the two European powers in America for the time being. The French were no longer sending large groups of soldiers and natives to attack the colonies in the mid-Atlantic region, but nonetheless the western periphery of the colonies remained a dangerous place to live for several generations of settlers. Because of their military service, the Swearingens would eventually be eligible for land grants in the territory west of the Appalachian mountains in what became known as the state of Kentucky. But the remoteness and continual danger from Indian attack, as well as British treaties allowing the land to remain with the Cherokees, kept Virginia’s surveying parties who were responsible for recording the new military land grant boundaries from carrying out their surveys in the Bluegrass region for more than a dozen years. The French may have been forced to give up their claim to the area, but the native inhabitants certainly had not and were more than willing to continue using violent means to make their point.


Van Swearingen was Deputy of the King (Sheriff) and Colonel of the county militia, and seemed fairly well connected with policy makers in the colony. For example this year he received a letter from a politically active George Washington looking for support in his bid for a seat in the House of Burgesses:

Mr. Stogden’s
May 15, 1761
Dear Sir:
At the Cock fight on Saturday last I promis’d to be at a Wedding at Mendenhall’s Mill yesterday, which together with an Affair that I had to settle on Bullskin (that detain’d me a day longer there than I expected) prevented my taking Shepherds Town and your House in my way, I intend this day to pass along the North Mountain, and to morrow attend a Meeting at McGills on the Cumberland Road and from thence to Winchester in order to wait my doom on Monday. I have made a just and proper use of the Inclos’d and as I shall pretty near finish my Tour to day, I send to you, that you may, if you think it expedient, communicate the contents to your Neighbors and Friends, Col. Stephens proceedings is a matter of the greatest amazement to me. I have come across sundry of his Letters directed to the Freeholders wherein he informs them that he acquitted himself of what was charged to him in the streets of Winchester while you were present, and goes on to draw Comparisons to prove his Innocence, which are by no means applicable unless he had continued them. However, His conduct throughout the whole is very obvious to all who will be convinced, but I find there are some that do not choose to have their Eyes opened. I hope my Interest in your Neighborhood still stands good, and as I have the greatest reason to believe you can be no Friend to a Person of Colo. Stephens Principles; I hope, and indeed make no doubt that you will contribute your aid towards shutting him out of the Public trust he is seeking, could Mercer’s Friends and mine be hurried in at the first of the Poll it might be an advantage, but as Sheriff I know you cannot appear in this, nor would I by any mean have you do any thing that can give so designing a Man as Colo. Stephens the least trouble.
(Doherty 1972)

Note: Colo. Stephens was the founder of Martinsburg and served with Washington during the French and Indian War and under Washington as a General during the Revolutionary War. Washington eventually dismissed him, partly for strategic mistakes on the battlefield, and partly for being drunk and unable to control his men at a key period in a battle. Stephen’s men defended him by claiming he wasn’t any more drunk than an officer ought to be under the circumstances. Stephens was very bitter and wrote disapprovingly of the ungentlemanly language Washington used toward him in the heat of the moment

Van has been called King Swearingen because of his position as a King’s Deputy; he also held a position as a vestryman in the politically-important Anglican Church.

Joist Hite died in 1761, his lawsuit against the Fairfax Proprietary still unresolved. His heirs had no intention of letting the issue go away quietly, though, since given the right circumstances there was still the possibility that those old surveys could yield a small fortune.


On the 6th of October, Van Swearingen purchased the 334-acre Springwood tract again, this time from Jonathon Simmons, Jr. (Frederick County VA DB 7, p.56). The former infant Jonathon Simmons would have turned 21 this year, finally “of age” to legally turn over his right to the property acquired after his father’s death. Thomas Swearingen, Jr. bought a 100 acre property near Scrabble again (his father had first bought it in 1748) because of double titles from John and Mary Pearce (Frederick County Deed Book 7, p. 257). This now consolidated several miles of river frontage near Terrapin Neck between Van and his nephew Thomas.

Thomas Shepherd, who had laid out town lots for sale more than a decade before, incorporated Mecklenberg this year. He may have chosen the name Mecklenburg in honor of the new English Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg, who had recently become the blushing bride of King George the 3rd; (the town Charlotte, Virginia was incorporated the same day - Kenamond 1963). The new name may have also been an effort on the part of the Shepherd’s to head off any tendency for people to call the town Swearingen’s Ferry, since after all, this was the Shepherd’s little town. The little community included both German and English schools for the children (Dandridge 1910).

Apparently the money that could be made from a ferry across the river tempted another man to give it a try. An Act of the Virginia Assembly granted Thomas Shepherd the right to start a ferry service across the Potomac (Henings Statutes v8, p.164). Shepherd apparently had avoided mentioning the proximity of the Swearingen Ferry in his petition, perhaps trying to take advantage of the recent death of “Thomas of the Ferry”, whose will had specified the ferry operation was to go to his 5-year-old son Benoni. Unfortunately for Shepherd, his ferry Act was repealed by the Assembly a year later “because the same being at a very small distance from a ferry already established from the land of Thomas Swearingen over Potomac in Maryland”. Note that the Shepherds owned the adjacent riverside property upstream and north of the Swearingen Ferry landing in Maryland, known as Pell Mell, but did not yet officially own land on the river in Virginia, so it is unknown where they tried to cross with their rival ferry operation, since the Swearingens had pretty well locked up the Virginia shoreline north of town and surely wouldn’t allow the Shepherds to have access there. At any rate, Swearingen heirs would continue their lucrative ferry monopoly for more than 60 years, though later legal battles with the Shepherd clan forced an occasional pause. As will be seen later in this manuscript, the debate between the Swearingens and Shepherds over a ferry carried on into the next generation--with repercussions for Terrapin Neck.


Perhaps in an attempt to cover all contingencies, Thomas Swearingen Jr applied for and received a 324-acre Fairfax grant for his lands around present-day Scrabble. He now held title both via Fairfax and via the original Hite survey and King’s patent for Poulson, Mounts and Jones. He also owned an adjacent Fairfax grant of 155 acres from his father’s will.

The King and his Privy Council in England, trying to avoid further antagonism, and also to live up to promises made to the Natives living in the Ohio River valley during the recent war, forbid the American colonists to take possession of land west of the Alleghenies. They also did not want to continue to pay for military expeditions to rescue settlers and forts on the frontier. The colony of Virginia, nevertheless, had designs on the region known as Kentucky for use as payment to officers and soldiers for their service in the French and Indian War, and many wealthy prominent Virginians, including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison were involved in various Kentucky land speculations in hopes of getting rich by selling tracts to settlers. Squatters and debtors fleeing their creditors were already flocking to the area, and the treaty, so galling to the land speculators whose success depended on a clear title, actually freed the squatters from the confining rules of the swarms of surveyors, land agents and other minor officials; they could rely on the old adage that “possession is nine-tenths of the law” and patiently wait for an opportunity to gain a patent, siting prior occupancy. (Holton 1999)

In a widespread uprising throughout the upper Great Lakes and Ohio River region, Native tribal warriors forced many of the new English colonial soldiers to withdraw from the region, in a year of vicious fighting referred to as Pontiac’s Rebellion; raids were conducted as far east as Winchester, Virginia. Virginia’s frontier was under attack again, and the authorities were particularly worried about the natives and enslaved blacks joining forces against the white colonists.


Van Swearingen bought lots 54 and 56 in Mecklenberg (Shepherdstown). He also received a Fairfax grant for 234 acres along both sides of Back Creek, west of present-day Hedgesville. He and 2nd wife Priscilla eventually sold this to a Snodgrass in 1779, who opened the historic Snodgrass tavern on the site, favored by George Washington and others (BCDB 5, p.345, deed describes it as recorded in Book M, p. 314 in the Proprietor’s office as well).

David Shepherd, son of the town founder, entered a lawsuit in a Maryland court to establish once and for all the boundaries of a piece of property he had inherited from his mother across the river from the town, which was adjacent to and just upstream of the ferry landing in Maryland. This 162-acre property, referred to as “Pell Mell” was initially surveyed for David’s grandfather John Van Meter back in 1743, several years before he died. After John’s death, title passed to his daughter Elizabeth, who in turn passed it to her son David (Smyth 1909). The court appointed three neutral commissioners to referee the property boundary dispute and take testimony from witnesses. Unfortunately for David Shepherd, the original 1743 surveyors Joseph Chapline (the founder of Sharpsburg ) and Jacob Van Meter remembered the location of the black walnut tree dividing the properties in Maryland as being above the present location of the Swearingen Ferry landing, meaning that the Swearingens were not trespassing on Shepherd property. They furthermore stated that the reason the walnut tree in question was not “bounded” or marked at the time was because John Van Meter had instructed them not to mark it until the adjacent Antietam Bottom survey lines were known. One can imagine handshakes and smiles in the Swearingen camp, and gloom and deprecations in the Shepherd homes. In trying to establish their own ferry at their town, it seems that the Shepherds wanted to try to extend their property in Maryland down around the river meander as far as possible in order to line up with land not already owned by the Swearingens on the Virginia side, but the above ruling should have stymied their efforts considerably. Nevertheless, a year later on August 8, 1765 David Shepherd and his friend Hugh Stephenson were recorded as giving bond to the King for the faithful keeping of the Ferry from “the land of Thomas Shepherd at Mecklenburg to the opposite shore in Maryland”, in another attempt to acquire the rights to the ferry (Fred. Co. Va Order Book 10, p.460 in Smyth 1909). The details are unclear, but this business seems to have been short-lived as well. Perhaps part of the problem was the Shepherds did not actually own any waterfront property on the Virginia shore as yet, but they were working on it. A glance at the legal description and map included on the old Hite survey in Virginia from 1734 shows that the surveyor drew the eastern boundary of the Shepherd patent several hundred feet back from the river’s edge; this may have been a deliberate omission by Thomas Shepherd at the time in order to avoid having to pay for steep and rocky land. But by the 1760s the bluff next to the river had become valuable enough to the Shepherds to apply for a Fairfax grant, which was finally issued in 1768.


Another loss in the Swearingen family - Van Swearingen’s first wife Sarah died, 44 years old; their youngest children were teenagers at the time. Her burial site is unknown but it could have been at the new Springwood property, or perhaps near their old home (they had lived there about 15 years) in the present-day Cress Creek subdivision where a daughter also likely was buried. Van eventually (before 1779) remarried to a Priscilla Metcalf, who may have already had a daughter named Peggy. (The Metcalf family also owned property on Terrapin Neck; Priscilla must have been quite a bit younger than Van, probably closer to the age of his children).


In October Col. Van Swearingen bought two separate tracts of 101 acres and 63 acres near North Mountain and present-day Hedgesville, now in the western portion of Berkeley County (FCDB 13, p.1, 88) and over 12 miles west of Terrapin Neck. These parcels were both originally Kings Patents, and were also near his Fairfax grants. This continued a pattern seen in his land acquisition strategy near Terrapin Neck, where he acquired land both by Fairfax grant, and within colonial Virginia patents (Kings patents).

Thomas Shepherd received a small Fairfax grant for a narrow strip of land bordering the Potomac, located just downstream of a ravine through which Princess Street now leads from the town to the river. The Shepherds now held title to shoreline property on both sides of the river, like their neighbors to the north, the Swearingens. Unfortunately Pell Mell in Maryland was located around the corner several hundred meters upstream, and the property directly across the river from their new grant, part of the Antietam Bottom survey known as “Easy Lot”, was still owned by a Levi Mills; no doubt the Shepherds were inquiring about purchasing this property, since it would give them a straight route across the river. Fortunately, and probably deliberately, their new narrow strip of a grant on the Virginia shore contained a very good site for a ferry landing at its northern tip (it is now the public boat launch at the end of Princess Street); or at least it was their opinion that the landing site was within the new Fairfax grant. Another family in the area disagreed.