Chapter 2. The Virginia Frontier
John Varvel settled along Virginia's frontier in the Potomac highlands sometime during the 1740's, only to continue his western migration during the early 1760's when he and his family crossed the Allegheny Mountain range and settled in the valley of the Monongahela (now in southwestern Pennsylvania). John's name appears several times in the records of Virginia's old Augusta, Frederick, and Hampshire counties, though unfortunately none of these mention his family - his wife's name, or a list of his children (though I believe that at least two sons, John and Philip, were born during this time). In spite of this, several things can be determined about John by studying these records, and what follows is my attempt to summarize this information within a historical context.
German and Scotch/Irish Western Migration
Shortly after the first Virginia settlements had been established, communities began to spread out along all the navigable waterways, stretching far into the fertile Piedmont region. The majestic Blue Ridge mountain range served as a barrier preventing further western expansion for a little over a century, though explorers and traders crossed them occasionally. By the 1720's the Governments of Virginia and Maryland were actively encouraging the settling of their "backwoods", both to relieve population stresses at home and to establish a buffer between their Piedmont civilization and the Indians. At the same time hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mostly Germans and Scotch/Irish, were pouring into the northeastern port cities - and the opportunity of good lands available on the western frontiers enticed many of them. German migrants first established settlements along the Monocacy River in Frederick County, MD by the mid 1720's, and many crossed the Potomac into Virginia soon after - establishing a community that would become Shepherdstown. This gap in the Blue Ridge (Harpers Ferry), carved out by the Potomac River, became the first true western gateway for settlers. The first settlements appeared in the Shenandoah Valley (the region between the Blue Ridge and North Ridge ranges, including all the drains of the Shenandoah River, Opequon and Back creeks) sometime during the early 1730's, and spread within a few years further up the Potomac, beyond the North Ridge -along the Great and little Capons (Great and Little Cacepon / Cacapehon Rivers), the South Branch Valley, (sometimes referred to by it's Indian name, the Wappocomo), and along Pattersons Creek.
The Northern Neck Proprietary and Early County Organization
Until shortly after the revolution, all of the area under consideration here was part of the enormous holdings of Lord Fairfax, referred to as Virginia's "Northern Neck". A century before (September 18, 1649) King Charles II, recently returned to England out of exile and fighting to restore the Stuart monarchy, repaid seven of his most loyal supporters with a grant to a huge tract of land. The land grant was to contain all of the area between the headwaters of the Potomac and the Rappahannock Rivers. However, the location of the headwaters of the Potomac were not then known (and were assumed to be in the Blue Ridge), so the vast extent of this grant was not originally realized. Through sale and marriage the entire landgrant was ultimately possessed by one man, Thomas the Sixth Lord of Fairfax.
A series of disputes between Lord Fairfax and officials of the Virginia Colony regarding the boundaries of the proprietary ensued, and in late 1733 the Privy Council of the Kings Court ordered that three representatives of Virginia and three representatives of Fairfax survey the boundaries and settle the dispute. Surveys of the Potomac and the two major branches of the Rappahannock were subsequently completed in 1736 (this surveying party was the first group of Europeans to locate the head of the Potomac, which was marked with a stone that has since been known as "the Fairfax Stone"). However, the dispute over the southern boundary of the grant had still not been settled. Virginia claimed that the boundary ran in a straight line from the head of the Potomac to the head of the north fork of the Rappahannock (the Hedgeman River), while Fairfax maintained that the line should run to the head of the south fork of the Rappahannock (up the Rappidan, then up Conway's River).
In 1738 Virginia divided it's lands west of the Blue Ridge, then under the jurisdiction of Orange County, into two new counties: Frederick and Augusta. However, most county business continued to fall under Orange's authority until sufficient populations existed to establish and maintain independent courts - which occurred in 1743 for Frederick and 1745 for Augusta. Frederick, seated in Winchester (then called Frederick Town), was bounded on the north and west by the Potomac River, while it's southern boundary with Augusta ran the more northernly line previously described as the edge of Fairfax's proprietary (from the Fairfax Stone to the head of Hedgeman's River). On Dec 10, 1753, Hampshire County was formed from the western half of Frederick along the North Ridge, the current boundary between Virginia and West Virginia.
One of the first actions of the new court in Frederick was to direct the surveying of this southern border with Augusta, which was completed by George Hume in 1744 (referred to as "Hume's line"). In the mean time, Fairfax pursued his case before the Privy Council, which ruled decisively in 1745 that the southern bound of the proprietary should be run from the Potomac's head to the Conway's. This lead to an official survey of the line in 1746, the result of which has since been referred to as the Fairfax Line. One of the surveyors of this expedition - a man named Thomas Lewis - maintained a journal which provides a great deal of interesting information about the lands they crossed, and the section which describes their passage through the South Branch Valley is a good source that can be used in reconstructing the history of settlement in the area (discussed below).
Earliest Settlers of the South Branch Valley
Since it is clear from the records that have been found that John lived around and associated with residents of the South Branch Valley (including the upper drains of Pattersons Creek), I've attempted to gain a basic understanding of who the first inhabitants of this region were. His wife was probably from one of these neighboring families, and determining where these families came from may provide some clues as to where John lived before arriving in the South Branch Valley. Fortunately, several sources exist which make such an approach possible.
Perhaps the best information about the very earliest settlements in the South Branch Valley comes from Kercheval's "History of the Valley of Virginia" (first published in 1833), which relates details of several events recounted to the author by contemporaries. According to Kercheval, the first settlers in the South Branch Valley were James Coburn, James Rutledge, John Howard, and James Walker, who arrived sometime around 1735. Evidently, two brothers named Isaac and John VanMeter (sons of John VanMeter - an Indian trader who was probably the first European to see the South Branch Valley) had claim to some fertile land along the South Branch (just above "the Trough", near the junction of two Indian trails - the McCullough path and the Seneca trail - at the site of some Indian "Old Fields", where Ft. Pleasant would be erected). When they visited the area in 1740, they found James Coburn had already settled there. VanMeter proceeded to buy out Coburn, who headed upriver about 15 miles and established a new home and operated a mill just above the mouth of Looneys (Lunice) Creek, where the town of Petersburg now exists. His was described in 1746 as being "the farthest settlement" (Lewis Journal, p.27). Kercheval further states that by the time Isaac VanMeter moved out to the South Branch for good in 1744, several others were also living in the area, including Abraham Hite, Peter Casey, Pancake, and Forman.
Other information about the earliest residents comes from the notes of Hume and Lewis when conducting their respective surveys. In 1744 Hume described his line as passing through the South Branch Valley running "Crost the South Branch a little above a fork by Peter Thorns Plantation", and "Crost the North Fork of the South Branch a little below Henry Sancisens Plantation (Frederick County Deed Book 1, p.310). Thomas Lewis's journal provides an interesting account of his party's travel through the area (punctuation added):
"Monday 6th (1746) - Went back to the top of the mountain and began at the end of 1380 pole, run the day before, 682 poles to the South Branch of Wappacomo alias the South Fork of the South Branch. Here we are obliged to encamp to recruit our horses who had nothing to live on since we left Dobins and get a supply of provisions. Hearing the commisioners were about 5 or 6 miles below us on ye aforsaid Branch, Mr. Brook rode down to them and after pitching our tent Col. Jefferson and I went down the river to discover some inhabitants, that we might get some provision. Saw but one family of poor Dutch people, from whom we could have no supply. Then returned to our camp Mr. Brook, not returning till the night, did not bring us such a supply of provision as we thought proper to pursue our journey with. The land on this branch is exceedingly good for about a ¼ of a mile in breadth. This day cloudy and rained a little.
Tuesday 7th - Cloudy and rained, sent a messenger by whom we wrote to the comisioners for some more provisions. Clearing up about 9 o'clock, we began at the end of 682 poles, thence began to ascend a mountain extremely steep 620 pole a pine marked 46 miles on the ? of a very high mountain [the South Fork Mountain] from whence we could discover the settlements down the Wapacomo as far as the old town very distinctly [probably the Old Fields, at VanMeters]. Here our message returned from the comisioners with the provision. 1080 poles encamped. This mountain exceedingly high, it was with great difficulty we could get our horses over. We were very much put too for want of water, we could find no other than a standing puddle wherein the bears used to wallow which we could not teast off till the last extremity.
Wednesday 8th - Began where we left off the day before at the end of a 1080 pole, thence 180 poles a pine marked 48 miles, 500 (poles to) an ash marked 49 miles in a valley, 820 poles a white oak marked 50 miles on the west side and near a wagon road, 1140 poles a white oak marked 51 miles on ye side of a mountain, 1160 poles Mill Creek, the first water fit for use we got since yesterday morning, Here we broke the glass of our compass. Began to rain. 1320 poles (to the) Wapacomo, alias the South Branch, to two marked sycomores. Hearing the comisioners were then encamped about 3 miles down the river we rode down to them where we spent the evening.
Thursday 9th - Continued cloud and likely to rain. Moved with the bagage up to the line where we encamped opposite to Coburns. Went to see Coburn who with his wife and miller, a bucksom lass, repayed the visite in the evening we spent very meriley.
Friday 10th - This being the farthest settlement we were obliged to lie by in order to be supplied with a fresh cargo of provision, that the Farrer might have time to fasten our horses' shoes and the men have time to wash their shirts and c.
[After proceeding through the difficult swamp and up the Allegheny front to the Potomac's headspring, the party heads back through the area - correcting a slight directional error and surveying the final line]
Tuesday 28th - …to the west fork of Mill Creek. Here we left off having 3 miles down said creek to Coburns, and just got there as the gentlemen comisioners and bagage did, who was very much surprised to see Fumfire there before them, who had come down the river with Capt. Winslow and was judged intirely lost [Fumfire was their farrer (probably a slave) who had wandered off and was rescued by the party]. Our provision being entirely gone, we were well prepared to dine with Coburn on our arrival. We went to our old camping place when here before where we pitched our tents. Several of the inhabitants came to see us whom our men engaged to wrestle with them. Diverted us very much.
Wednesday 29th - Continued in camp to procure anew stock of provision and recreate ourselves and horses. A court was held for the trial of Fumfire for leaving the company, who was condemned to wear a bell about his neck for one week."
The Fairfax Manors
Once the extent of his holdings had been determined, Lord Fairfax proceeded to set aside large tracts of the best land along the South Branch and smaller ones along Pattersons Creek and the South Fork as Manor lands. These lands were split up into smaller tracts and leased out (as opposed to non-manor lands which could be sold outright, though small annual quit-rents still had to be paid). Two wonderful articles by Charles Morrison (West Virginia History, Vol.38, p. 1-22 & Vol.40, p. 164-199) provide lists of the early leasees of these tracts, as well as neighboring settlers on non-manor lands. The first grants and leases of both manor and non-manor lands were recorded in 1748 and 1749. Prior to this time, none of the settlers had legal titles to their lands (except for Vanmeter). John Varvel was probably living on non-manor land at the head of Pattersons Creek during this time (see below). The headwaters of Pattersons Creek intermingle with the headwaters of Looney's Creek, which runs into the South Branch right below the present site of Petersburg (where James Coburn lived).
First record of John - The appraisal of James Coburn's estate
The earliest record of John Varvel that I've been able to find comes from 1749. The estate of James Coburn, recently deceased, was being appraised on April 19, 1749 in Augusta County by Abraham Vanderpole, James Simpson, and Michael Thorn (Augusta County Will Book, Vol. 1, p. 165-169). Among his assets were several accounts for small amounts of money, including one from John "Warvell" for 3 shillings, 9 pence. There is no indication of what these accounts were for, though James was known to have operated some kind of mill and the inventory of his estate indicated that he had more livestock than would be required to support a single family.
Accounts owed to James Coburn at his death:
Jonathan Coburn Christian Ewigh Joel Hornback
Jacob Coburn William (?)eano James Kuykendale
Isaac Coburn Abraham Vanderpoole John Kuykendale
Samuel Coburn Henry (?)inster John Ryan
Aaron Pruo(?) John Collins Richard Hiold(?)
Henry Cardwright Garrett Decker Daniel Richardson
Of all the names that appear alongside John Varvel's in these early records, the one that recurs the most is that of Coburn. Not only was John linked with James at the administration of his estate, but James'son Jonathan is also listed several times alongside John. The most significant such occurrence is from the Monongahela Valley in 1768, which I believe supports the proposition that John Varvel of Hampshire became the John Varvel of the Monongahela Valley during the early to mid 1760's (discussed below).
As previously stated, James Coburn was among the first to settle the South Branch around 1735. He is believed to have been born around 1690 in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where he married an Irish girl named Mary. His grandfather, Thomas "Coebourn", journeyed from Berkshire, England to Philadelphia on board the "Bristol Factor" on Sep 28, 1681. James died on February 15, 1748 in Augusta County, and his son Johnathan was bonded as administrator of his estate, with sureties provided by John Dobiken and Michael Stump (Augusta County Will Book No.1, p.99, Augusta County Court Records, Order Book No. 2, p.69).
Jonathan Coburn, born c1710, remained in Hampshire County at least until the last reference of in 1763. On Feb 15, 1752 he had 150 acres on the NW side of Timber Ridge (adjacent to William Zeen/Zane) surveyed. The Warrant refers to him as "Capt. Jonathan Coburn", though I don't know anything about his service yet. By 1758 he is known to have had property "two miles above the trough" on the South Branch of the Potomac (adjacent to a John McCullough) since his property is listed as being adjacent to a tract of land sold to a John King on 2-15-1758 by Solomon Hedges, who had first settled the area in 1745 (Hampshire County Deed Book No. 1, p. 9). It appears that he sold this property ("250 acres on the Wappacomo" - the Indian name for the South Branch of the Potomac), Lot #6, for 60 pounds on 3-11-1760 to a man named John Kuykendall (Hampshire County Deed Book No. 1, p. 20-21). On 2-4-1763, Johnathan and his wife Catherine sold their land on Timber Ridge (the same 150 acres) to Abraham Hite for 8 pounds (Hampshire County Deed Book No. 1, p. 166). No subsequent references to Jonathan Coburn have been found.
Will of Adam Warner
The next reference comes from the Frederick County, when John "Varvell" and Isaac Johnson were witnesses at the signing of the will of a man named Adam Warner, on Feb 8, 1751. (King, JES (1982) Abstracts of Wills, Inventories, and Administration Accounts of Frederick County, Virginia 1743-1800. Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. Baltimore, MD). Both Adam Warner and Isaac Johnson appear to have resided on Pattersons Creek, as they are among several residents that petitioned for a road running from the mouth of Pattersons Creek to Job Pearsalls. Isaac Johnson was probably related to Abram Johnson (also a petitioner for the said road), who received one of the first grants for land on Pattersons Creek in 1748. George Washington camped on Johnson's land when he surveyed the area earlier that year, identifying the tract as being located 15 miles above the mouth of the creek.
Land on Patterson's Creek Mountain
On March 25, 1753 John obtained a Warrant, issued "to John Varbel of Augusta County", for about 300 acres of land "on Pattersons Creek Mountain at the head of the draught of the said Mountain and Creek in Frederick County". Within a few weeks on Apr 17, 1753, the tract was surveyed by David Vance (assisted by Andrew Young and Jacob Hats, chain carriers). Copies of the warrant and the survey (with the accompanying plat) are archived at the Virginia State Library. This tract of land is located just south-east of the present-day town of Lahmansville, in Grant County, West Virginia. As early as the 1740's a road (probably an old Indian Path dating much earlier) connected the upper reaches of Pattersons Creek with the South Branch, following the course of Looney's Creek, whose upper drains almost intermingled with those of Pattersons Creek.
In those days, men with any kind of claim to land (non-manor lands) could come to Fairfax's Proprieters office, pay a fee, and obtain a Warrant directing a surveyor to mark of the property. Once this was done and a few more fees were paid, the land grant was issued and the annual quit-rent payments began. While John was issued a warrant for the land and had it surveyed in 1753, he never actually obtained a grant for it. A brief history of the tract is provided when the grant was finally awarded to a man named Garrett Vanmeter (son of Isaac) in 1780. Evidently, Garrett had obtained the land from a John Greenfield (at his death), who had obtained it from John Varvel. The land had been forfeited under a land office proclamation that required everyone with a survey dated prior to 1764 to come in to the Proprietors office and pay Composition and Office fees so that proper deeds could be issued and land taxes could be collected. Anyone that failed to comply with this order by September 29, 1766 forfeited their rights to their land. John had probably already left Hampshire County by then, so it was probably John Greenfield's problem. As is described below, John apparently owed money to both John Greenfield and Garrett Vanmeter around 1760, so this may be the reason he sold the land.
The French-Indian War
Virginia's frontier was relatively peaceful from the time of the first settlers migrating west of the Blue Ridge (1720's) until the start of the French and Indian War (1754). These early settlers often traded and hunted with the local Indians (primarily the Shawnee), and several Shawnee settlements persisted in the South Branch vicinity until 1753, when a group of emissaries from Western tribes (allied with the French) came and convinced them to withdraw west of the Allegheny's (presumably to get out of the way of the upcoming war) (Lewis, p.18).
In the 1750's the French attempted to connect their empires in Canada and Louisiana by establishing a series of forts down the Allegheny to the Ohio, and along the Ohio Valley to the Mississippi. They allied themselves with the Indians, recruiting their aid in establishing a barrier to the further westward expansion of the British into the area. Similarly, Britain, in an effort to control the headwaters of the Ohio, encouraged the construction in 1754 of a fort at the Forks of the Ohio (Pittsburg). That spring a large French force descended the Allegheny river and took control of the area, finished construction of the fort, and named it after the French govenor of Canada -Du Quesne. This act ignited the war, which ultimately devolved into an effort by the Indians to exterminate all of the English settlements that had been established west of the Blue Ridge.
Initial attempts to reestablish British control over the Forks of the Ohio were unsuccessful (first by George Washington at Fort Necessity and then by the disastrous campaign of Gen. Braddock), and were soon followed by a series of devastating massacres along Virginia and Maryland's frontiers. The settlements along Pattersons Creek and the South Branch were particularly hard hit. An account of the devastation was published in the January 1756 issue of the Gentlemen's Magazine, a London-based periodical:
"The plantation of Paterson's Creek is entirely ruined, the inhabitants about Stoddart's Fort have all left their plantations, and above 80 families have fled to the fort for shelter; the enemy has also ravaged all the country about Potomack with so strong a party, that they repulsed a considerable force sent against them from Ft. Cumberland; the officer who commanded this party, writes that the smoke of the ruined houses is so great as to hide the adjacent mountains, and obscure the day. They cut off all but the young women, whom they carry away to their towns."
Over the next couple of years the attacks continued, until most of the settlers had either retreated within one of several forts erected in the area or else removed east of the North Range. Few families survived this period unscathed. Kercheval recounts several incidents of massacres and battles that occurred around the South Branch area, including massacres at Looney's Creek and at the Trough (an area of the South Branch just below Old Fields). These accounts provide another invaluable source of information about the early settlements. Fort Duquesne was finally retaken by the British in 1758 (and named Fort Dunsmore), forcing the French to retreat from the area. The Indians on the other hand continued their attacks for several more years, until peace was made in 1763 (and then again in 1764). However, the bulk of this later fighting focused more on control of the Ohio than the Potomac Valley, allowing life in the Potomac highlands to begin to return to some semblance of normalcy.
(Continued in next post.............)