NCTC Cultural History

Timeline 1769-1785

War and Lawsuits Take Their Toll


Remember the Hites? On October 13, twenty years after the Hites had filed suit to regain land within the Fairfax proprietary, the General Court of Virginia finally took up the case and after some deliberation found in favor of the Hite heirs! and their purchasers on lands that had been surveyed but not patented because of Fairfax. The colonies were already locked in a struggle with England that would culminate in the American Revolution, and it can be readily understood how a Virginia Colonial Court would give precedence to local colonial grants over those issued by a Lord of Great Britain--who had inherited a land grant rewarded by an English monarch in distress 120 years before. This ruling nullified Fairfax grants on the lands in question- including about 284 acres held by Col. Van Swearingen on Terrapin Neck! For most of the 27 surveys in contention, this simply meant that property owners were supposed to pay rents to the Hite heirs rather than Fairfax. Potential changes of property ownership were rare, but in the case of Terrapin Neck, the Hite’s purchaser Browning had never lived there, his heirs had never claimed it - but they now owned the land if other legal obligations didn’t get in the way. (The Hites would later argue that the land on Terrapin Neck reverted to them because the Brownings had never occupied the property, a requirement for a legal title.) Six months prior to this ruling, on 4 April, Van sold 174 acres of the southwestern portion of his patented property near Terrapin Neck to his 22-year old son Hezekiah for 200 pounds (FCDB 12, p.664) - this property, roughly the location of the Lost Drake farm today across the road from NCTC, would eventually include RiverView Farm and the river frontage to the north of the road. Van also sold his original 210-acre patented property near Mecklenburg purchased from the Morgans to son Josiah at about the same time (FCDB 12, p.663).

The court recognized the myriad potential problems with this ruling, and expected a long string of appeals. The court therefore put together a fact-finding commission composed of lawyers and surveyors from both the Fairfax and Hite parties, their assignment to find out who occupied the lands in question, and to ascertain how they held title. The commission would spend the next several months traveling from farm to farm running survey lines, interviewing the landholders and their neighbors and taking notes on the progression of events that led to their ownership of the land.

David Shepherd, apparently concluding that the ferry business just wasn’t going to go his way, decided to sell his property known as Pell Mell on the Maryland side of the river. He sold it in June 1769 to a Jacob Vandiver from Salem, New Jersey (the Vandivers also owned several lots in Mecklenburg). The property description this time took pains to explain that the survey began at a “bounded” black walnut (Fred. Cty Md DB M, p339). After Jacob’s death sometime between 1772 and 1783, the Pell Mell property passed to his daughter Phoebe, who married a Dr. Clarkson Freeman. The Vandiver transaction may have been disputed by the Swearingens, since there is a record in October 1769 of a lawsuit in an Annapolis Court between David Shepherd and Thomas Swearingen, presumably over this property transaction. A Col. Thomas Prather, previously the sheriff of Frederick County, Maryland, was ordered to appear as a witness (Smyth, 1909). As will be seen, Pell Mell had not yet seen the last of the Shepherds.

Col. Van and Thomas, Jr, staunch members of the Anglican form of worship (an important political consideration in colonial Maryland and Virginia, as only Anglicans were eligible for official appointments), aided the Morgans in finishing the stone Episcopalian Church in Mecklenburg, which was built on the site of a previous log hut used as church.

Virginia and other British colonies by this time were strongly critical of recent British attempts at taxation and support of armed forces in America, among other complaints. Following the lead of colonial governments in Massachusetts, New York and Philadelphia, the Virginia House of Burgesses (meeting in defiance of the governor’s order to dissolve) voted to boycott British trade goods, luxury items and slaves; the boycott was largely ignored this year, but became more effective in 1774. Virginians were still indignant, as well, over the British policy of allowing the Cherokee and other tribes the continued ownership of Kentucky and other areas west of the Appalachians. Virginia land speculators were still hopeful of a successful reversal of prior rulings: while the Hard Labor Treaty of 1768 with the Cherokees gave the southern Indians sovereignty over Kentucky, the Iroquois in New York, acting as the “elder Brethren” of the Cherokee, sold the same land several months later to Virginia for ten thousand pounds in trade goods. (North versus South was not unique to the Civil War period, or whites). The Privy Council in England didn’t recognize the supposed change in ownership, so the speculators still had to bide their time. What was needed now was a pretense to renegotiate with the Cherokee, Mingo, Delaware, Shawnee and other tribes (see Holton 1999)


The court-ordered fact-finding Commission arrived on Terrapin Neck. Col. Van Swearingen ordered them off the property and wouldn’t allow any surveys (he was apparently the only one to do this out of all the hundreds of places the Commission visited.) He claimed he owned both sides of the property line that now runs under the NCTC footbridge, including the 200-acre tract he had recently been granted on Terrapin Neck, and denied that the court had any authority to conduct such a survey (McKay 1951); he had been the sheriff, after all and knew about such things. A neighbor who witnessed the confrontation later deposed that Van informed the Commission that the Hite survey was completed past the December 1735 survey deadline (Hyman 1996). The Commission never got a chance to interview any of the other occupants of Terrapin Neck. Because of this, Van Swearingen was the only landowner on Terrapin Neck asked to appear before the full Commission to defend his claim, which in later years was to cause much misery and heartbreak for the other property owners on the Neck. But at the time the situation was looking good for the Swearingens because after testimony had been taken from the parties involved, the Commission seems to have agreed that indeed the survey on Terrapin Neck had been conducted after the deadline and therefore could not be claimed by the Hites, though this fact later seems not to have been important to the General Court (Hyman 1996). Since the Commission was only advisory, the Commission’s findings were brought before the court, and everyone waited for a ruling.

On or before this time period, Col. Van seems to have purchased the rights to, then transferred, the old York/Chapline Fairfax grant out on the end of Terrapin Neck to Van Swearingen, Jr., (Jr was actually Col. Van’s nephew, son of Thomas of the Ferry -Hyman 1996 notes the property transfer; Dandridge 1910 notes that Van Swearingen Jr is the son of Thomas of the Ferry, not Van’s son. It seems to have been common practice for the younger of the myriad Thomas and Van Swearingens to use “Junior” after their names, even though they were the namesakes of an uncle. For example, Thomas Swearingen, son of Col. Van, signed his name Thomas Swearingen Jr in his will, probably to distinguish him from his older cousin who lived in the neighborhood. This can be so confusing.but stick with it - it’s a good story). At any rate, this nephew Van Swearingen, known to genealogists as Indian Van, would have been about 28 years old, and in 1770 or shortly thereafter he and his family were on their way west to the wild frontier of Virginia on the banks of the Monongahela River in what is now southwestern Fayette County, Pennsylvania (Hassler’s Notes). He would soon after become involved in the vicious fighting in the region between settlers and the natives, which erupted in 1774 in a conflict known as Lord Dunmore’s War (at which time he acquired the moniker Indian Van). He would later become a soldier in the Revolution.

Other local Shepherdstown families, continuing in the tradition of their parents and grandparents, also moved to the western frontier and took up land near the eastern bank of the Ohio River near present day Wheeling and surrounding area, including Indian Van’s brother Andrew Swearingen (who married Elizabeth Chapline), and the erstwhile ferryman David Shepherd, son of Shepherdstown founder Thomas Shepherd and older brother of Abraham Shepherd. Abraham Chapline, brother of Benjamin Chapline, made the same trip, as did several Van Meters. Building a cabin and raising a crop of grain eventually entitled the new settlers to 400 acres, and also gave them a pre-emption right to an additional 1000 adjoining acres. Three commissioners appointed by Virginia authorities gave certificates of settlement, and provided that no one filed a caveat within 6 months of making a claim, the new settlers found themselves owners of patented tracts of land (Doddridge 1824). It would take a couple of decades to define the boundary between Virginia and Pennsylvania in that area but in the meantime they considered themselves Virginians (quite audacious, considering how far north of the Potomac they were). Letters and records indicate these men kept in close contact with family and friends along the Potomac and frequently were involved with business and trading with the folks back home.

It is interesting that any land transaction on Terrapin Neck took place at all about 1769. After the 1770 court ruling the Chaplines surely must have wondered how they could sell this property legally, if at all. The Chapline and Swearingen families had many close connections in the eighteenth century: they both owned tobacco plantations on a tract of land called “Forest” near present-day Washington DC in the early 1700s, Col. Van’s mother and Joseph Chapline’s mother were sisters (daughters of Hugh Riley), a Joseph Chapline signed the 1726 will of Col. Van’s father, both families became prominent in the Anglican Church, and the Swearingen brothers and Chapline brothers moved to the area that became Sharpsburg, Maryland about the same time in the 1730s and later held Fairfax grants across the river in Virginia at the same time in the 1750s. An agreement to buy the rights to the Chapline’s Terrapin Neck property in Virginia may have been concluded with just a handshake and may have been part of an agreement to buy several other properties. Courthouse records show that a Van Swearingen Jr of Berkeley County Virginia (actually Col. Van’s nephew) bought several lots in Sharpsburg and other property from the Chaplines in 1772 (FC Md DB P, p. 130, 163, DB N, p. 163). Deaths in the Chapline family had lowered their circumstances considerably of late: William Chapline of Virginia died in 1760, passing the Terrapin Neck property to son Benjamin, who is also described as having died young (according to Chalkley’s records he is deceased by the 1790s, with a son William), while Joseph Chapline, prominent landowner, militia leader and founder of Sharpsburg, died in 1769. The remaining family members set about dividing up or selling their various land holdings on both sides of the river during this time period, including their tract on Terrapin Neck, originally acquired by Jeremiah York as a Fairfax grant. If York’s original Fairfax grant was invalid, and the Hite-Browning claim was tenuous if not fraudulent, then who owned it? Anybody? Obviously the courts were going to have to decide, but in the meantime several parties began maneuvering to acquire the property. After the 1769 court ruling, Terrapin Neck land had become a “hot potato” suggesting that the Chapline heirs were willing to give up fighting for about 237 acres of prime waterfront real estate. Note that if the Chaplines acknowledged the court ruling, the land in fact was not theirs anymore to sell to the Swearingens; therefore the Swearingens must have purchased an option on the property, confident that the Hite-Browning claim would be proven invalid, but were kept from recording the sale at the courthouse because of the invalidation of Fairfax grants. If nephew Indian Van acquired this land before the ruling (deed searches at court houses haven’t been successful in finding this transaction, though it is mentioned in other legal proceedings), perhaps the 1769 decree was what precipitated his move west. No doubt the 1770 Commission report encouraged the Swearingens to believe that the judge would declare the Hite survey on the Neck invalid, eligible for a Fairfax grant, and therefore owned by the present landholders. Later court records and letters imply that another individual - Abraham Shepherd - also would try to assert a claim for this property some time in the late 1770s, which would help fan the flames of a growing controversy.


The Fairfax appeal of the 1769 ruling was heard. The Court decided that the Hites and their subsequent purchasers held title to those lands that were already patented before Fairfax showed up, including the part of the 834 acre Poulson, Mounts and Jones patent held by Thomas Swearingen Jr, and Col. Van. The surveyed but unpatented Hite lands were to stay with the grantees of Lord Fairfax. This would appear to give Van and his nephew Van Jr title to their Fairfax grants on Terrapin Neck, but for some reason the Court did not follow the Commission’s finding of a late survey on Terrapin Neck, made an exception, and considered the Browning heirs the legal owners! If Van Jr didn’t have enough of an excuse to head west to the Ohio River before, he certainly did now, and he could perhaps commiserate there with David Shepherd, who had recently failed in his bid for taking over the Swearingen ferry operation. The Hite lawyers had brazenly described Browning as the “original settler” on Terrapin Neck despite the fact that he and his heirs had lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and had never settled, and probably never even seen, the Neck - this fact somehow never became an important determinant. For the Hites these arguments eventually backfired, as the 1200 acres on Terrapin Neck could not now be claimed by the Hite family, after they had averred that it had been purchased by Browning. Undeterred, in 1786 the Hites would argue that Terrapin Neck belonged to them because - you guessed it - Browning had never settled there! It was a fine legal line that the Hites had to straddle - they had to use the 1736 Browning sale to show that there was a Hite survey on Terrapin Neck, but then they had to show that the sale was invalidated by the lack of a Browning settlement of the property, allowing the property to revert to them. The Browning heirs still living in Maryland at this point seem to be unaware that their claim is even being discussed, and it certainly was not in anyone’s interest to track them down and make them aware of the court decision. At any rate, the Swearingens had surely realized by this time that their claim to land outside the Poulson, Mounts and Jones patent on Terrapin Neck was in serious jeopardy. The Hite heirs were again in danger of losing a potential fortune, and they appealed to the Privy Council in London. The case was never heard because of the upcoming Revolution. The resulting political instability led to the disappearance of a viable appeals court system for Virginians for more than a decade, leaving the Swearingen holdings on Terrapin Neck in legal limbo at best.

Col. Van Swearingen acquired another 384-acre grant from Fairfax this year west of Hedgesville near Back Creek, in addition to the Kings Patents he had purchased near there several years before - perhaps as a way of making up any losses due to the ongoing Hite-Fairfax dispute.


Terrapin Neck became part of the newly-formed Berkeley County, Virginia, with Col. Van Swearingen issuing the oath of office to the new County officials. His nephew (Maj.) Thomas Swearingen was chosen as one of the first tax assessors, his area of responsibility to include “From the Mouth of Opequon, up the same to the Warm Spring Road, thence down said road to Robert Lemmons, thence to Potomac at Mecklenberg”. Van’s son Hezekiah served on the first grand jury, while the first coroners included Robert Worthington and a David Shepherd (Evans 1928). The colonial governor of Virginia Lord Dunmore was criticized in England for creating new counties, but he justified it by claiming the only way to control the outlying settlements in the lower valley and their “turbulent and refractory behavior” was to provide a nearby court house and local authority (Couper 1952). Literacy rates perhaps played a role in helping to form the rebellious opinions of the settlers in the lower valley; by the time of the Revolution 85% of adult males in New England could read and write, while about 60% of the men could read and write in Pennsylvania and Virginia (Dufour 1994).


Col. Van Swearingen continued his land acquisitions by purchasing 3 tracts (232, 123 and 42 acres) from Jacob Van Meter and his son Abraham Van Meter (BCDB 2, p.266-271). These lands paralleled the road leading to Martinsburg in what was then called the Van Meter Marsh area west of present-day Shepherdstown (including the tract containing John Van Meter’s old home, outbuildings and orchard, and the area that has now become the Heatherfield subdivision) that John Van Meter had first settled in the 1730s. It’s interesting to speculate what Thomas Shepherd’s wife Elizabeth might have thought about a Swearingen now owning her father’s old house and land. Van later gave the 232-acre parcel including the old Van Meter home site to his youngest son Thomas. These were Kings Patent lands, as Fairfax grants had perhaps lost some of their charm by this time. Jacob and Abraham Van Meter, like several of their neighbors, had also recently relocated to the Virginia frontier near the Ohio River, settling on Muddy Creek near its confluence with the west bank of the Monongahela River south of present-day Pittsburgh, PA.

An 18-year-old Benoni Swearingen, who had been given the rights to the Swearingen ferry operation as a 5-year-old upon his father’s death in 1760, now continued the acquisition of land near the ferry landing on the Maryland side. He already owned the 50-acre “Spurgin’s Lot” on the Maryland side that had been used as a ferry landing for about 18 years, and he now purchased the adjacent 75-acre “tract or parcel of land called Easy Lot being part of a resurvey on part of AntiEatum Bottom laying and being situate on the side of Potomack River,” from Levi Mills for a mere £6 pounds! (Fred. Cty MD DB U, p. 205; Levi Mills, married to Elizabeth Dunn, moved to the Ohio River settlements north of present-day Wheeling, WV near Short Creek where he died in 1805). This newly purchased Swearingen tract was of course directly across the river from Mecklenburg and the new Shepherd Fairfax grant, and in the ongoing chess match for ferry landing sites, the Swearingens had scored a significant “block”. Imagine more smiles in the Swearingen camp, more seething from the Shepherds. The Shepherds may have been working with an alternative landing site in Maryland – the Washington County tax records for 1783 show a Thomas Shepherd assessed for 114 acres of the “Antietam Bottom” tract on the Maryland side of the River, which could only have been downstream in the direction of Pack Horse Ford, but again not opposite the town or their Fairfax grant in Virginia. (A William Shepherd, probably the grandfather of Abraham and David, purchased from John Moore 50 acres of Antietam Bottom on 16th April 1741). The same tax records show Benoni Swearingen assessed for 125 acres (Easy Lot and Spurgin’s Lot opposite the town), and a Vandever “heir” assessed for 100 acres of “Pall Mall” (Pell Mell).


In mid-April, Jacob Hite, son of Joist Hite, sent his son Thomas and several other men, armed with guns, swords, pistols and axes, to storm the jail in Martinsburg; they overpowered the guards, released fifteen slaves being held there, and returned to Jacob Hite’s where they armed the slaves (!) and waited for the sheriff’s posse to return. The slaves and twenty-one horses had been taken from Hite several days before by the sheriff Adam Stephen to be put up for auction, after Hite had lost a lawsuit to a James Hunter for an unpaid debt. The depressed economy and the loss of money from a failed speculation in a questionable 150,000-acre Cherokee land scheme in South Carolina were major factors in Hite’s desperate bid to avoid absolute ruin by storming the jail. Hite managed to fend off the sheriff’s posse, arranged to send at least several of his slaves south to the Cherokee country, and then had the temerity to sue the sheriff’s men sent to arrest him. The poor economic conditions apparently created a great deal of local sympathy for Hite and other debtors in Virginia; easy credit, a desire for European luxuries, and Britain’s monopoly on trade made repayment of debts a vexing problem for many Virginians (Daniel Boone, for example, escaped his creditors by moving to Kentucky). Local authorities, trying to avoid a general conflict, found it inexpedient to prosecute the Hite gang. Hite soon traveled the Great Wagon Road south to set up a trading post and try to revive his claim, but was killed, along with his wife and children, by a band of angry Cherokee warriors July 1, 1776 (Holton 1999).

In response to several violent and deadly incidents between white settlers and Indians on the upper Ohio, the Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, put together an expedition of about two thousand armed men to attack several Indian towns near the Ohio River. (Indian Van Swearingen and Abraham Chapline, who had moved from the Terrapin Neck area about 1769 to the Ohio River frontier, joined military units formed there at the time). The Natives were forced to make a number of land concessions, including all of Kentucky, to the Virginians. The Privy Council in Great Britain still would not recognize the new boundary, though, and added insult to injury by passing a bill giving the land west of the Ohio River to the province of Quebec, further agitating the now openly rebellious colonists in Virginia.


The Revolutionary War began. Van’s eldest son Josiah, 31, enlisted in Capt. Hugh Stephenson’s company, along with other local men including his cousin Joseph Swearingen and Abraham Shepherd, who became third lieutenant of the group after Thomas Hite declined the honor awarded by the local Committee of Safety. Their march to Boston, with their muskets, fringed buckskin clothing, homespun linen hunting shirts embroidered with the phrase Liberty or Death and other “Virginia Rifleman” accouterments to aid George Washington and the American army then laying siege to the British, has been immortalized as the “Beeline March” (see Dandridge 1910). Josiah, according to family lore, fought in the siege of Boston, was captured in New York by the British, was exchanged, and later became a militia captain under Generals Hand and McIntosh on the western frontier (his capture and exchange by the British have not been independently verified at this point - several of his fellow soldiers from Shepherdstown were imprisoned until 1779). Van’s son Hezekiah, 28, enlisted about a year later under Capt. William Morgan, and Van’s youngest son Thomas, 23, also became a soldier, most likely in the militia. (H.H Swearingen 1884). The Virginia government required all free white males between 16 and 50 years old to at least join the county militia. Van retained his former title of Colonel of Militia for Berkeley County and was active gathering horses, men and supplies for the Revolutionary effort. Part of his job entailed subjecting a large number of rugged, independent frontiersmen, who perhaps had no personal quarrel with Great Britain, to the rigors of military discipline. Convincing these men - who no doubt had other priorities - to leave home and family for extended periods of time was a job for someone with instantly recognizable leadership skills, and not a little tact.


The Revolutionary War continued in earnest. Mecklenburg’s founding father Thomas Shepherd died that year, dividing his property between his wife and children. His 5th son Abraham, then a 22-year-old captain in Washington’s army, took a break from the war and presented his father’s will to the court in August of 1776. The will of Thomas Shepherd gave Abraham any remaining lands not already given to his siblings. No description of Abraham’s new property boundaries is included in the will, but Galtjo Geertsema’s map of Fairfax grants show a narrow, steep parcel granted to Thomas Shepherd in 1768 containing 32 acres of waterfront property, extending from the ravine outlet at the end of Princess Street to several hundred meters downstream. And imagine the audacity, sometime during Abraham’s absence (a possible scenario), the Swearingens seem to have begun using the very northwest tip of this parcel as their new Virginia ferry landing! It’s unknown exactly when the ferry moved to this site from Swearingen property just upstream of Mecklenburg, but the move may have taken place before the 1768 Fairfax grant to Shepherd. Or they may have moved the ferry landing to Shepherd property after the war started without seeking permission from the Shepherds, and had perhaps filed their own claim with the Fairfax land office for the little half-acre parcel. Or alternatively Thomas Shepherd and Benoni Swearingen may have had a “gentlemen’s agreement” about using this landing on what debatably became Shepherd property, as it no longer required the town (i.e. the Shepherds) to maintain a separate road to the ferry, and forced ferry users to travel through the local “business district” where perhaps they could be relieved of some of their money. If so, Abraham later seems to have been unaware of any agreement. Local townspeople likely appreciated not having to walk or ride from the Swearingen property upstream - it really was a handier site overall. At any rate, Abraham had his own ideas about this property after acquiring it in his father’s will. From his father’s will Abraham also received the annual lot rents (12 shillings sterling per lot) from 96+ lots in Mecklenburg for the remainder of his and his heirs days, and 1/2 of his father’s personal estate after the funeral charges and debts were paid. Abraham has been described as the “feudal lord” of Shepherdstown from this time until 1793, when town decisions were made by an elected Board of Trustees, but with Abraham, of course, as President (Kenamond 1963). After returning to the Continental Army, Capt. Abraham Shepherd and his men were captured in November in a rear-guard confrontation with elements of the pursuing British army, and were then imprisoned in New York. Officers, including Abraham, were imprisoned in private homes on Long Island, while the enlisted men joined thousands of others detained in wretched, over-crowded warehouses and prison ships who were dying in droves from disease and starvation.


Josiah Swearingen, eldest son of Col. Van, married Phoebe Strode, and they had a daughter named Eleanor the same year, suggesting Josiah had a little time at home between his duties with Washington’s army and his later service on the western frontier (and also questions the family story of Josiah, an enlisted man, being captured by the British and exchanged - it is possible, but there aren’t enough details to confirm or deny the story – it seems more likely that he left the army after a wound or illness, or deciding he had some important things to do at home.). Little Eleanor, affectionately known as “Nellie” was perhaps named for Phoebe’s sister, Eleanor Strode. Nellie had three brothers-Thomas, James and Samuel- by 1784, suggesting Josiah’s martial activities beginning in 1778 out near the Ohio River settlements were also of limited duration. Indian Van Swearingen (a.k.a. Van Swearingen Jr) with other militiamen from western Pennsylvania joined Washington’s Army in New Jersey, and became a Captain in Daniel Morgan’s Rifle Company. He and 20 of his men were captured at the Battle of Stillwater in September of 1777, and were released about a month later after the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga (Hassler’s Notes).

The Berkeley County Rent Rolls for this time period indicate Col. Van Swearingen was being assessed for 1,760 acres of land in the county (Dandridge 1910). Col. Van Swearingen this year actually sold 100 acres of his 1760 Fairfax grant on Terrapin Neck to Adam Money of Washington County, Maryland (BCDB 4, p106). ) With this transaction Van seems to have sold 100 acres that the 1771 court told him he no longer owned, though the issue was still under appeal. The Hites couldn’t claim it because they had testified that Browning had purchased the land, and apparently the Brownings hadn’t shown up to claim it either; it is very unlikely that the Browning heirs even knew the status of Terrapin Neck at the time. Surely Adam Money must have known the uncertain status of the property when he purchased it - he was assessed for a house and a lot in Sharpsburg, MD in 1783, so he apparently lived across the river. Adam Money is also associated with Van’s expedition to Kentucky several years later, suggesting they were well-acquainted, rather than Money being a victim of an unscrupulous land transaction. Perhaps Van sold it at a low price to a friend who was willing to take a chance?

This year Van was promoted by Governor Patrick Henry to the position of County Lieutenant recently vacated by Samuel Washington. Van’s old job of Colonel of Militia was taken over by Phillip Pendleton. Van was repeatedly urged by the Governor of Virginia and the War Department to provide officers, troops and supplies, especially shoes and salt, for the Indian problem on the western frontier and elsewhere. Out west in the Wheeling area, Col. David Shepherd of Mecklenburg (Shepherdstown), in command of Fort Henry which was then under siege by attacking Indians, was relieved to have Col. Andrew Swearingen, Van’s nephew, appear with men and supplies (J.H Newton 1879).


Col. Van’s son Hezekiah married Rebecca Turner in 1778, and they had two children, Van and Mary, by 1780, suggesting his soldier duties were also somewhat intermittent at this time. In the western theater of the war where Indian Van Swearingen and David Shepherd were located, there was a raid into Ohio in February that became infamous as the “Squaw Campaign”, where 500 American men set out to raid an enemy storage area, but instead several of the men took out their frustrations by killing a few defenseless Indian women and children. British troops allied with the Indian tribes also continued their equally vicious attacks against colonial families and soldiers on the frontier; the British commander in Detroit was apparently paying for white scalps of any age or gender. Josiah Swearingen became captain of a militia company from Berkeley County sent west to the Ohio River settlements in the fall of 1778, where he apparently joined his cousin Indian Van who had recently returned there after his service with Washington’s army (Dandridge 1910). A record in the Berkeley County court this year shows that another family member was likely along as well: At a Court held for Berkeley County, 17th day of November 1778, Ordered that Thomas Swearingen , jun. (Josiah’s younger brother) be recommended to his excellency the governor, and the Honourable Council, as a proper person to act as Lieutenant in a company of Militia of this County, Commanded by Captain Josiah Swearingen. Capt. Abraham Shepherd was among those paroled this year from imprisonment in New York, after being captured by the British. After another few months with the army in New York, he returned home in May and took no further direct part in the war, probably as a condition of his parole (Dandridge 1910). He immediately wrote his brother David living out on the Ohio River settlements, who had recently lost a son and a son-in-law during the fighting at Fort Henry:

May 22, 1778 Mecklengsburgh
Honored Brother

(I arrived yesterday). It is with infinite pleasure I inform you of my safe arrival home to my affectionate mother which [perhaps?] may tend something to soothe her unhappy situation. I find many things not according to my wish, but have some hopes of seeing them better. I condole with you for your misfortunes and hope your manly fortitude may ever support you in the most distressing misfortunes, and live in hopes of seeing better. I am on parole, no time limit for that reason you can’t expect news my health is not perfect, but not dangerous ill. I left all my friends well on Long Island. Mother is well with all friends here. Remember me to all there. Sally has arrived safe here, 70 officers exchanged, 161 on Long Island 12000 suits of clothes compleat have arrived at Boston. Never let Hope the sole comforter of the wretched forsake you and believe Dear Sir I am with due Respect your most Dutiful and Affectionate

Abraham Shepherd

David Shepherd Papers, vol. 1

One of Abraham’s first projects upon arrival back in Mecklenburg was to try to acquire the rights to the ferry then operated by the Swearingens across the Potomac, as his father had tried unsuccessfully to do about 15 years before, as well as his brother several years later. He may have thought that the confusion of war and resulting political upheaval, and the occasional absence of the ferry’s operator, Benoni Swearingen due to his part-time soldier duties would create an opportunity. Perhaps one of the many things he had found “not according to my wish” was the discovery of the Swearingen ferry now using the property willed to him along the river several years before. The Virginia Assembly, apparently busy with war concerns, ignored the already-operating Swearingen ferry and granted his petition!! Now the ferry was described as operating from the Shepherd property in Virginia to Thomas Swearingen’s land in Maryland! (Benoni actually owned the property). In January of 1779, in a letter to his brother David out near the Ohio River, Abraham expressed a concern over having his prisoner parole status revoked, wrote of his planned trip to Philadelphia to collect his military pay, and complained that someone had sold the gunpowder he was planning to send to David before Abraham could get there with a wagon, adding the cogent comment “ Believe Me - Mankind is not to be trusted”. He also asked David to send horses, and ended by expressing the elation of the family after finally acquiring rights to the ferry:

Mecklensburg, Jan 19, 1779... I am sorry to inform you I have some apprehensions of being called to the British, as I am not confident of my being exchanged. I have likewise the pleasure of informing you the ferry is established in my name. I expect the old trade to go on again of [ferrying?] tomorrow is the day appointed which we are to settle it without [leave?] they feighn would make me believe they meant nothing but honesty. The articles I have sent you Except the salt and Mohair I shall charge to your private account. I have spoke to Nate Tomson to get a canoe made by spring which will carry forty bushels to Fort Cumberland he assures me of its being done but there is no certainty of his promises. I shall write to you from Philadelphia if my fate should be to remain a prisoner. Mother, since you were here, has been almost “delerious” but since this affair has asserted in my favor she appears in as good spirits and as hearty as I ever saw her in my life. I do everything to make her happy which I shall forever esteem my duty and greatest happiness... (David Shepherd Papers, vol. 1).

“ Mother”, of course was John Van Meter’s daughter Elizabeth, recently widowed, who like her father seems to have had a keen eye for the value of land. Other letters this same time period show that David and Abraham Shepherd were carrying on a brisk trade and speculating in various goods including horses, deer and bear skins, furs, beaver pelts (some of the skins and furs were acquired from military raids on Indian towns), wheat, flour, lead, powder and salt. There are numerous references to prices of goods and the value of money, with Abraham urging his brother to settle his accounts and convert their money into commodities that would appreciate in value because of war-time scarcity in cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore.

As he had for the older sons nine years before, Col. Van Swearingen deeded 232 acres of land near Shepherdstown to his youngest son Thomas; the land was located in the old Van Meter Marsh patent, a couple miles southwest of Terrapin Neck along what is now known as Rocky Marsh Run just south of present-day Rt. 45 and included John Van Meter’s old homestead and orchard. Thomas was married by this time, but had no children.


Rejecting the conciliatory approach of the British authorities in determining the fate of Native Americans and their western lands, in June of 1779, the Virginia House of Delegates revived the Kentucky land claims of various speculators, including the bounty lands to be given to soldiers of the French and Indian War; the Swearingens and others in the area immediately made plans to take advantage of this largesse. Adam Money sold his 100 acres of Terrapin Neck, bought from Col.Van Swearingen two years before, to a weaver named John Lowes from Washington County, Maryland (BCDB 5, p.382). Money had bought it for £133 pounds and sold it for £700 pounds (wartime inflation may account for some of this profit). In September, William Bennett, husband of Lurannah Swearingen and Van’s son-in-law, gave power of attorney to his brother-in-law Josiah Swearingen, probably in anticipation of a family trip to Kentucky that was being planned (BCDB 5, p.348). Col. Van Swearingen sold several tracts including his 101-acre tract near North Mountain to a John Shaffer, (BCDB 5, p.133), as well as his 234-acre Fairfax grant west of Hedgesville on Back Creek, sold to a Snodgrass who built the still-existing building known as the Snodgrass Tavern (BCDB5, p.345)

Both William Bennett and Adam Money traveled to Kentucky this year, along with Col. Van Swearingen, his nephew Maj. Thomas Swearingen, Benoni Swearingen and several other local men and women from the Shepherdstown area. In John Clinkenbeard’s account in the Draper Manuscripts, he says that he, Col. Van Swearingen, William Bennett, Joshua Bennett, a Taylor, the Patrick Donaldson family, Pressley Anderson and several others in the party traveled along Boone’s Trace through Cumberland Gap and finally met several local Shepherdstown friends at a place that would be known as Strode’s Fort near present-day Winchester, Kentucky. A more famous fort next door was called Boonesborough. Former ferry operators Major Thomas Swearingen and his young son Van (about 16 years old), and Benoni Swearingen and several other men arrived somewhat later in the fall, having narrowly avoided an Indian ambush en route (Dandridge 1910). Their main purpose in making the trip was to claim and survey land - they were eligible for bounty lands because of the family’s military service in the French and Indian War, and they could also purchase lands that were now available via Treasury Grants. They were also purchasing other soldier’s land grant rights. They may also have needed an excuse to get out of town for a while now that the hot-headed Abraham Shepherd had taken over the ferry operation. They were not alone in their interest for land in Kentucky: in 1775 there were 300 whites living in the Bluegrass region, but by 1784 there were 30,000, and in the 1790 census there were over 73,000 settlers (Wharton and Barbour 1991). In the fall of 1779 they encountered a land full of buffalo, deer, elk, wolves, turkeys, bear, canebrakes, and forests. Clinkenbeard described setting wolf traps, clearing forest land, buffalo hunts and carrying surveying chains for Maj. Thomas Swearingen. They sometimes made their choice of which land to survey by having the women follow the cows around during the day to observe what they ate, or didn’t eat, then picked out property composed of the more palatable vegetation. The first very cold winter they subsisted largely on buffalo meat and other game, which was plentiful for a time, but some settlers eventually resorted to hacking on the carcasses of frozen horses to survive. Adding to their worries about Indian and British attacks, a group of Tories who had been driven out from the Carolinas settled nearby. It’s unclear how long Col. Van Swearingen and members of his party stayed there, but Maj. Thomas Swearingen and his son Van, and perhaps Benoni Swearingen and others in their party including slaves spent the winter there; Clinkenbeard states that Major Thomas Swearingen of Shepherds Town, stayed there until the Tories finally left.

On November 17th, 1779, Abraham Shepherd and a Robert Cockburn (business partner?) signed a bond valued at £5000 pounds to the Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, agreeing to “keep or cause to be kept a ferry from the land of Abraham Shepherd to the land of Benoni Swearingen”. They had this obligation for only a few months, as it turned out (BCDB 5, p.411). In a repeat of history, the Virginia Assembly recognized its mistake the year before and repealed Abraham Shepherd’s right to operate a ferry, because of its proximity to the Swearingen ferry (Henings Statutes Vol. 10, p. 197). In a February 13, 1780 letter to his brother David near present-day Wheeling, Abraham heatedly writes:

The philistia of Gath have got my act repealed by asserting to the assembly they had paid for the lot have had...possession for a number of years and as many falsehoods as a very humble petition of two sides of an extraordinary...sheet of paper could contain. You will by no means fail sending me every account you know of the lot, as I am determined to have it brought to an issue immediately...
(David Shepherd Papers, vol.1).

[Gath is an ancient city of Philistia; a philistine today is considered to be smug, ignorant and lacking in the social and cultural graces, but more likely he is making a reference to Philistia as the biblical land of wanderers, perhaps referring to the Swearingen’s recent Kentucky trip.]

An angry Abraham, denied a ferry business, would now try to assert ownership of the ferry landing being used by the Swearingens. The landing was by then located on (near?) the northern tip of a narrow waterfront Fairfax grant issued to Abraham’s father in 1768, some thirteen years after the Swearingen ferry had started operations.


Col. Van Swearingen’s youngest son Thomas died in March, 28 years old. He left behind a wife, Hannah, but no children. The family bible in possession of J.S. Swearingen III indicates that he fell ill during the war, perhaps during the expedition to Ohio with his older brother Josiah in 1778, then came home and died, probably of tuberculosis. A will was written a month before his death.

Col. Van Swearingen seems to have taken a temporary leave of his position as County Lieutenant before Thomas’s death, but was again receiving correspondence related to these duties by February of 1780 (Dandridge 1910); this may help bracket the time he spent traveling to and from Kentucky.

Swearingen adventures in Kentucky took an ominous turn the spring of 1780. Young Van Swearingen, Major Thomas’s son, described by Clinkenbeard as a lad of about 16, was hunting with several others when Indians ambushed them after the hunting party had dismounted and left their horses behind to stalk game. Young Van escaped after jumping a creek and dropping his rifle, then was found a week later, very emaciated and starving, having eaten nothing but the “hind part of a squirrel” that he had stolen from a hawk. Other settlers who had traveled with the Swearingens the previous fall were not so lucky. Joshua Bennett, for example, was killed and had his bowels burnt out with a flaming chunk of wood. Others in the hunting party met a similar ghastly fate. Patrick Donaldson, another member of the group that traveled to Kentucky with the Swearingens, was shot and killed at a later time as were several others through the coming months (Clinkenbeard account in Draper Manuscripts). Over the next two years, hundreds of new Kentucky settlers were killed by small and large groups of allied Indian and British troops, as they tried to force the upstart Americans out of Kentucky. Over 400 people in nearby Ruddle’s Station were killed or captured and hauled to Detroit. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to George Rogers Clark, perhaps echoed the sentiments of many Virginians when he gave his opinion that the Indians should either be exterminated or removed beyond the Great Lakes or the Illinois River, since “the same world will scarcely do for them and us” (Holton, 1999). Clearly this was a vicious time and place.

Back in Shepherdstown where life was relatively peaceful, Abraham Shepherd, the “feudal lord of Shepherdstown” married Eleanor Strode on Dec. 27, 1780, thereby becoming the brother-in-law of Josiah Swearingen (and an uncle to his children.) In letters to his brother David this year, Abraham tells him of the impending court date over the ferry landing issue and urges him to attend, as his evidence is “very material” and the lawyers “insist on not having it tried until you are present”. Abraham was just a boy when his father had attempted to get control of the ferry and acquired the Fairfax grant adjacent to the river, so Abraham apparently lacked knowledge of some of the details of the Swearingen’s use of the property, information which he hoped to get his older brother to testify to in court. In an October 1780 letter to David he storms on:

“ ....I have secured several good friends am in the highest spirits on account of this affair am firmly of opinion I shall have it in my power to have full satisfaction for every insult which they have been good enough to bestow on my father, you and myself.” (David Shepherd Papers v. 1)

In another letter, a reference is apparently made to Indian Van Swearingen and his uncle Col. Van, suggesting that Abraham was now retaliating by trespassing on, or otherwise asserting a claim for, property that the Swearingen’s felt they owned, very probably the old York/Chapline place on the end of the Neck:

“… Your old friend Van is down with us I am informed he has commenced a suit against me for the vacant land which his uncle entered by the river he has likewise talked as big as ever he did about [Jacks ?] place and Vandiveres. I expect he will give me some trouble as well as Mr. Vandivere...”

Vandivere, of course, was the man who had bought Pell Mell from David Shepherd back in 1769, suggesting that the dispute over Pell Mell on the Maryland side of the river was still not resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Indian Van’s lawsuit against Abraham wouldn’t be resolved until 1799, and was continued even after the death of several of the parties involved (stay tuned). But in the meantime Abraham Shepherd had a sudden interest in the supposed “vacant” land out on Terrapin Neck, and turned his attention to that old Browning claim. Since the Swearingen’s claim depended on the Browning title being invalid, maybe the Browning heirs would be interested in selling him their rather tenuous claim to the property.

Letters this year from Abraham Shepherd also update his brother David, still living on the Ohio River frontier, on war and family issues, but the letters overwhelmingly concentrate on business matters. A frequent request to his brother is to “buy all the [beaver pelts, deer skins, fur or bear skins] you can lay your hands on”. A revealing phrase in one letter: “Money will be plenty and he who gets most now and knows how to keep it may in a litteral sence do well”. Interestingly, this year his letters were no longer written from Mecklensburgh, but were now being written from Shepherds Town.

Indian Van Swearingen, after resigning from the army in August 1779, went back to farming in southwestern Pennsylvania about this time, acquiring several 400 acre grants of land in Washington County on both sides of the Monongahela River in February and April of 1780 (Ewing 1957). In the family tradition he started a ferry operation across the Monongahela at this time along the road between George Washington’s Mill and Catfish Camp, (which became Washington, PA) a few miles south of present-day Interstate 70.

Here we go again - the tenacious Hite heirs, sensing an opportunity in the colonist’s hatred for all things British, requested that their appeal of the 1771 ruling in favor of the Fairfax Proprietary be heard by the Virginia Court of Appeals.

A will written by Major Thomas Swearingen this year mentioned that he was engaged in a lawsuit with Abraham Shepherd over use of the half-acre lot used by the Swearingens as a ferry landing (BCWB 1, p. 414). Evidence that his brother Benoni now had the right to operate the ferry includes a record on the Berkeley County courthouse of his bond to the governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, for £10,000 pounds. This was co-signed by his brother Indian Van Swearingen, suggesting that Indian Van was a business partner in the ferry operation (and therefore a target of Abraham Shepherd’s wrath). They agreed to “keep or cause to be kept a Ferry from the land of Thomas Swearingen in the aforesaid county…over the Potomack River onto the land of said Benoni Swearingen in the State of Maryland” and to “give immediate passage to all Publick messengers and expresses when thereto required”. (BCDB 5, p.572).


On Feb.3, Hezekiah Swearingen’s wife Rebecca died, 26 years old, leaving behind her husband and two very young children. A sandstone marker in the graveyard near the present-day Hendrix estate can still be found with the initials R S. (Alternatively, this grave may be Col. Van’s daughter Rebecca, though there are no records showing she survived long enough to live at this home). She was the first Swearingen we know of buried at the Springwood graveyard (of course she had been a Swearingen only a few short years). A Mary Bennet had been buried there the year before (infant of Lurannah Swearingen Bennet and her husband William Bennet). Hezekiah, 35 years old, apparently never remarried. Hezekiah and his children at that time were living about a quarter of a mile southwest of the entrance to NCTC at the site of the present-day Lost Drake Farm, as he wouldn’t acquire the parcel to the north that contains the buildings now known as RiverView Farm until 1790.

Strode’s Station in Kentucky withstood a one-day siege of 25 attacking Wyondotte Indians on March 1 of 1781, with two settler fatalities. It is unclear if there were any Swearingens there at the time, but young Van Swearingen, now about 18 years old, as well as his brothers Andrew and Thomas, would be spending much time there in the years to come, as would Adam Money and William Bennett and many other men from the Shepherdstown area. The extended Swearingen family, particularly on Thomas’s side, would soon survey and patent many thousands of acres in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, much of it acquired as bounty lands for their service in the French and Indian War. An intriguing note is found in the George Rogers Clark Papers of the Draper Manuscripts (Reel 23, Series J, Vol.8), where an old soldier of the Revolution, Mann Butler, interviewed in the 1830s claimed that a Thomas Swearingen and Daniel Boone were captured by Sir Banastre Tarleton’s cavalry then engaged in a raid on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home near Charlottesville, Virginia. Major Thomas Swearingen had been a neighbor of Daniel Boone and his family in Kentucky the previous year, and Butler claims that they were both Delegates from Kentucky to the Virginia Legislature, who seem to have gotten caught up in the British invasion of southern Virginia; it seems very likely that this was Maj. Thomas Swearingen from Shepherdstown. They must have been released a short time later.

George Washington’s Revolutionary Army, with the help of the French, defeated British regulars under Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, which effectively ended British control of their former colony. Col. Van Swearingen received several frantic letters during this time period requesting that he facilitate sending as much flour and liquor as possible to the American army besieging Cornwallis - a copy of one of these letters is included in the appendix (Dandridge 1910). It would be two more years before the peace treaty was enacted.

In 1781, Virginia relinquished its claim to lands in the Northwest Territories to the fledgling Federal government in exchange for being able to award bounty lands in the Virginia Military District in what is now south-central Ohio near Chillicothe. They still had to negotiate with the natives, and win the war, though, before settlement could commence.

Abraham Shepherd finally had his day in court over the ferry landing issue - he lost! - and wrote indignantly to his brother on September 13:

....I can inform you that Swearingen has [cost me?] in this land suit in the court...I am happy to tell you that the sensablest men on this bench was for me out of 7 4 was against me and 3 for me. I appealed immediately. The decision was that I should make the title which Lord Fairfax made father a very [pretty?] one Indeed that a young warrant should take my patented land which was many years older. I am in high spirits and confident of clipping their wings. Mr. Strode says if it costs 500 pounds I shall not give up so just a cause. (David Shepherd Papers, vol 2).

In December, Lord Fairfax died, about two months after the defeat of Cornwallis in Yorktown. Because of his long-standing status as an American colonist with no close ties to the Tories, he and his Proprietary had remained unmolested during the struggle with England. But after his death, 5/6 of his interest in the Proprietary reverted to family members, and his vast assets in Virginia became a prize target. Unfortunately for certain contested portions of the Proprietary including Terrapin Neck, the family members acquiring his interest were British citizens.


An Act in the VA General Assembly provided that:

“ Since the death of the late Proprietor of the Northern Neck, there is reason to suppose that the said proprietorship hath descended upon alien enemies: Be it therefore enacted that persons holding land in the Northern Neck shall retain sequestered, in their hands, all quit rents which are now due until the right of descent shall be more fully ascertained, and the General Assembly shall make final provision thereon.” (Couper 1952)

One of the last battles of the Revolution occurred in the Wheeling area near the Ohio River, when a combined force of British irregulars and Indians again attacked Fort Henry, under command of Col. David Shepherd. The fort survived, but the strife would continue for years after the Revolutionary War was over. Again, the European parties to the violent Revolutionary dispute had come to an understanding of who was to control the land and its continued settlement. But the Indian Nations who had lived on the disputed landscape for centuries still had their own needs for space, freedom and resources, and like the Americans, were quite willing to continue utilizing violent means to gain them, with or without their sometime British allies.


The Treaty of Paris ended hostilities with England. Though the Swearingens were also selling farm products to the army (Maj. Thomas Swearingen’s tax records show he owned 73 horses this year), the lack of hard currency and inflation in the newly established United States may have made repayment difficult. For example, the following receipt shows a transaction between Van and the Virginia Assembly:

“ Received from Col. Van Swearingen thirty one and a half bushels of wheat for the use and account of the State of Virginia for which the said Col. Van Swearingen is entitled to receive from the Treasury of the said State the sum of six hundred thirty pounds current Money agreeable to an Act of Assembly”. (Reddy 1930)

The same year the Swearingens in Berkeley County Publick Claims Court asked to be reimbursed for a number of items they had contributed to the war effort. Col. Van Swearingen put in a claim for a total of 230 pounds of flour, and over 95 bushels of wheat. Hezekiah claimed 10 bushels of wheat and a horse, while Josiah claimed 90 cords (?) of wood, 24 head of beef, 5 bushels of wheat, and for having spent 7 days collecting clothing. Hannah Swearingen, widow of Van’s son Thomas, contributed 9 bushels of wheat. Benoni Swearingen presented a long list of services he had provided by ferrying across the Potomac a group of British prisoners and their guards, including 27 wagons and teams, 4 “chairs”, two carts, 30 riding horses, 24 officers, 299 noncommissioned officers and privates of the 1st Division of British, and 81 accompanying women on their march to Frederick, Maryland. The men pulling the ferry across the river for that crowd must have groaned loud and often about the British general Cornwallis moving into southern Virginia with his Army, leading to the removal of British prisoners to Maryland. Abraham Shepherd was reimbursed for two horses, and 8 casks of flour (Abercrombie and Slatten, n.d.; see the letter from the War Office to Van Swearingen in the appendix to see what may have prompted the Swearingens to provide these goods).

Inflation had highly depreciated paper currency, and what little hard currency was available was composed of a bewildering variety of coins from other countries that varied greatly in value from one region to another. John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote:

“ For two or three years we constantly saw and were informed of creditors running away from their debtors, and debtors pursuing them in triumph and paying them without mercy”. (Couper 1952)

During this period Abraham Shepherd in his letters had been urging his brother David to “Settle your Affairs, Don’t delay one moment”, suggesting the Shepherds were savvy to the financial state of affairs in the region.

Unpaid Revolutionary soldiers had been on the verge of mutiny for years and it had taken all of George Washington’s persuasive powers to keep the army intact. In response to these problems, other forms of payment were made available, such as bounty lands in the northwest territory in Ohio and Kentucky, available to those soldiers who had at least three years of continuous service in the Continental Army (service in the county militia did not count). Virginia also passed an act that would provide either 60 lbs. in gold or silver, or a “healthy sound negro” at the option of the soldier, and would provide an additional 300 acres of bounty lands over and above what they received from the Continental Congress (Couper 1952). Virginia soon began surveying portions of the Kentucky and Ohio Territory for payment to its Revolutionary soldiers. Lands in Kentucky were granted to soldiers until 1792 when it became a state. Lands were then granted in Ohio until 1803, when it achieved statehood. Major Joseph Swearingen (Thomas of the Ferry's son - he seems to have been the only Swearingen from the Shepherdstown area to have served the requisite 3 years in the army) acquired 3347 acres at least in part as compensation for service in the Revolutionary army (Doherty 1972). Van Swearingen (probably the younger Van, son of Major Thomas) acquired 1400 acres in Johnson’s Fork of Licking Creek in June of 1784 by acquiring the rights from another assignee. Probably the same Van Swearingen acquired another 2000 acres on several tributaries of Licking Creek on 2 December, 1785. Col. Van Swearingen mentioned only 400 acres on “Big Sandy Creek, a branch of the river Ohio” later in his will, which were bounty lands from his French and Indian War service. Hezekiah received 500 acres on Hinkstons Fork of Licking Creek in May of 1786. A Thomas Swearingen (perhaps both Major Thomas Swearingen and his son combined) received grants for over 17,500 acres in the same vicinity; Major Thomas was eligible for acquiring land from both his and his father's service in the French and Indian War. In other words, the Swearingens from the Shepherdstown area together had acquired grants totaling well over 30,000 acres in Kentucky, much of it east of present-day Lexington near Winchester and Mt. Sterling, dwarfing their holdings in Maryland and the Shepherdstown area. The area is now considered the heart of the Kentucky Bluegrass region and has been known for many years for its thoroughbred horse farms, tobacco and Kentucky bourbon, a culture that developed at least in part because of the influx of settlers from Shepherds Town and other communities in the Old Dominion (Virginia Land Office grants can be searched at The Library of Virginia's website; note that this area was known as Fayette County, Virginia at the time but would soon be broken up into Bourbon, Montgomery, Clark, Fleming, Bath and various other counties of Kentucky). Josiah Swearingen seems not to have acquired any land in Kentucky or Ohio, suggesting his military duties-or financial wherewithal-did not make him eligible for a significant amount of land.

Abraham Shepherd, having spent more than the requisite 3 years as an officer in the Continental Army, was also busy accumulating land in both Kentucky and Ohio- for example he acquired over 2400 acres in the Licking Creek drainage of Kentucky in 1786 and 1787.

In 1783 a James Bell was "Bound unto Col. Van Swearingen in the sum of 25 pounds current money of Virginia", suggesting that the Swearingens could be approached for a loan now and then. (Copy of document in Swearingen file, Belle Boyd House, Martinsburg, WV). From a later estate settlement document we find James Bell as a tailor making suits of clothing for Josiah Swearingen's children. Later still a James Bell is a boat owner floating goods to Alexandria markets from Shepherdstown (Dandridge 1910), a skill he may have acquired working for the Swearingens. In 1783 Col. Van Swearingen's tax records indicate 6 slaves under 16 years of age, 6 slaves over 16, 17 horses and 35 cattle. His sons Josiah and Hezekiah owned between them 10 slaves, 18 horses and 29 cattle. Abraham Shepherd owned 3 slaves over 16, about 11 horses and 10 cattle.


The Potomac River Company was incorporated this year by the Virginia Assembly, their goal to clear the Potomac River of obstructions between the Appalachian town of Cumberland, Maryland and tidewater so as to permit year-round passage of flat-bottomed boats drawing about 12 inches of water and able to carry about 50 barrels of flour. George Washington was a major backer of this scheme and became its first president. James Rumsey was chosen as a superintendent of the works but soon retired to Shepherdstown to tinker with a boat-mounted steam engine he had been thinking about. At this time boats attempting to get to shipping ports in Alexandria with goods from Berkeley County had a rough passage during the few weeks of the year that navigation was even possible. The river was generally only navigable intermittently from February through May, when planters would load their goods onto rafts and boats of various kinds to attempt a passage to the Maryland and Virginia ports in Georgetown and Alexandria. The passage downstream to the Fall Line from Springwood would probably have taken about 2 days on average, much faster than any overland route. One of the Potomac Company’s tasks was to remove the many fish traps that spanned the river channel from shore to shore. These had first been built and used by the native Americans and were then taken over and added to by the colonists. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the state of Maryland - and a lot of dynamite and the flood of 1936- put a stop to the widespread use of fish traps in the Potomac. The main obstacles that boaters had to contend with were several large rapids near Harpers Ferry, and several other large rapids located where the river dropped off the Piedmont onto the coastal plain at the Fall Line, called Great Falls and Little Falls. Most of the work of the Potomac Company over the years would entail hiring crews of several hundred men to dig and blast out a series of channels and locks so that heavily laden boats could avoid these obstacles (Hahn 1984). The Potomac Company would eventually attempt to pay for these improvements by charging a series of tolls to boats at various locations along the route of the river, and by holding lotteries. Boat owners who tried to slip by without paying, in addition to a fine, could have their cargoes and boats taken from them. Boat owners had to license each of their boats and build them according to Potomac Company specifications, though the company wasn’t too strict about boat shape and construction (Stanton 1993).

There may have been a compromise this year in Abraham Shepherd’s appeal of the ferry landing decision. Berkeley County deed records show Abraham Shepherd selling the 1/2-acre lot to Benoni Swearingen in December 1784, though it was not recorded at the court house until six years later in 1790, after it was ascertained that Abraham’s wife had given up her right of dower (BCDB 9, p.227). The Swearingen ferry continued to operate from this landing until 1849, when the rights were bought by the Virginia and Maryland Bridge Company.

Indian Van Swearingen, land “owner” on Terrapin Neck, but still living out in Washington County Pennsylvania, became a county commissioner there this year (Hassler’s Notes).


For almost 40 years, the surveying of land in then-Berkeley County had been the responsibility of the Lord Fairfax land office. After the Revolution and Fairfax’s death, Berkeley County needed an official surveyor for county lands - they appointed Josiah Swearingen.

Indian Van Swearingen wrote a letter to his cousin Josiah Swearingen in June of 1785, describing the worsening relationship with the natives in the Ohio River area. He explained that the Indian Nations in Ohio and other parts of the upper mid-West were complaining that they had been tricked into signing a treaty, and demanded that a new treaty be written. Indian Van had his own complaints about the terms of the treaty, and expressed his hope to Josiah that the treaty would be re-written so that it would no longer “prevent every poor man from any chance of free land”, implying that he considered himself and Josiah among these “poor men”. He also requested Josiah to “make money of all that falls into your hands of mine. I shall want winter stores, anything you can do for me in those matters will be thankfully acknowledged by me”.

In another letter delivered by a Mr. Cox dated November 9th, 1785, he explained to Josiah that he had just bought a new plantation from Mr. Cox, and as payment had drawn upon two Shepherdstown merchants for “50 pounds in goods” and asked Josiah to “furnish the said merchants with all the grain and other stuff that is in your hands of mine to help satisfy what I shall owe them”. Indian Van would send any remaining balance to Josiah “at the shortest notice in skins or furs or money, therefore I leave that subject in confidence that you will see Mr. Cox fair play and him well satisfied.” He also expressed hope that “there will be room for you and me on reasonable terms over the river. When that happens I will give you early notice that we may make a grab of land in the western country”. He ends the letter by suggesting that Josiah has been seeing to the rental of his land out on Terrapin Neck: “I like well your terms that you have let my land out upon. Give my compliments to your bedfellow and family and especially to my good old uncle Van” (Van Swearingen Letters). These letters are interesting in several respects, showing that Shepherds Town was considered a civilized source of goods and materials for the folks then on the frontier, and Josiah and Indian Van, like David and Abraham Shepherd, were business partners interested in land speculation in Ohio who kept in regular contact by mail delivered by pack train operators or teamsters. Indian Van also derived a portion of his income from “his” land on Terrapin Neck, enough so that he could confidently send Mr. Cox down on a several-week journey to see cousin Josiah about getting paid; for his part Josiah was not only managing his own plantation near Shepherdstown but was also managing his cousin’s property and supporting him with goods and services. The new plantation Indian Van had purchased was located on the eastern bank of the Ohio River at the site of present-day Wellsburg, in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia. He may have acquired this property in order to keep his slaves; Pennsylvania had enacted an emancipation law in 1780, and the boundary issue between Virginia and Pennsylvania was about to be settled, clearly placing his property in Washington County in the free state of Pennsylvania. Indian Van Swearingen built a blockhouse fort for the protection of family and neighbors on this new land overlooking the present site of Wellsburg and the Ohio River, known as Swearingen’s Fort. He built there also a big double cabin- “a pretentious mansion of the day”- about 1785. Local lore says that he traded a rifle for this lot from the Cox family (Wingerter 1912), though his letter quoted above shows that, unless he bought the rifle in Shepherdstown, some other goods in Shepherdstown were part of the transaction. Indian Van married again in May of 1786 to an Eleanor Virgin, daughter of Jeremiah Virgin; he added three more children with this marriage to the three older children from a previous marriage. The Elmhurst mansion, on the National Register of Historical Places, was built on the site of Swearingen’s Fort sometime after his death.

The newly-formed Potomac Company held its first annual meeting in Alexandria, Virginia. One of the shareholders in the new company was Capt. Abraham Shepherd, who attended the meeting “by proxy”. Those present in person agreed to send a letter contracting Abraham Shepherd for the building of two strong boats for the use of the company, to be 35 feet long, 8 feet wide and not less than 20 inches deep “in the common manner of the floats used at the ferries on the Potowmack above tide water” (Corra Bacon-Foster 1912). So Abraham Shepherd, in a fashion, finally got in the ferry boat business. Whew.