Colonial America – Shenandoah Settlers


The Shenandoah Valley is a 200-mile stretch of fertile land that runs from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia south to Lexington, Virginia. The Valley is bordered to the east by the Blue Ridge Mountains and on the west by the Appalachian Mountains. “Shenandoah” is an Algonquin word meaning “Daughter of the Stars” and before the 18th century, American Indian tribes called the Shenandoah Valley home. Among them were the Senedo Indians, who may have been caught in the crossfire of the Catawba and Delaware tribal wars. By the early 1700’s, when the first European explorers entered the valley, there were no longer Native Americans living in the Valley. Several tribes used the Valley as hunting grounds, among them the Shawnee, Iroquois, Occoneechee, Monocans and Piscataways, but no tribes laid claim to the land.

John Lederer, a German doctor, is given the distinction of being the first European explorer in the Valley (although Jesuit priests may have entered the Shenandoah as early as 1632). Lederer explored the Valley between 1669 – 1670, being well treated by the Indian tribes that he encountered. On his third and final journey into the Shenandoah, an Englishman named Catlet, who stayed in the Valley to hunt and trap, accompanied Lederer. Cadwaller Jones, another Englishman, entered the Valley in 1673 and likewise stayed to set up hunting and trapping. In 1703, Louis Michelle, a Swiss explorer, journeyed into the Valley and, in 1715, Alexander Spotswood, governor of the Virginia Colony, claimed the Shenandoah Valley as a prize for England.

During the next 25 years, land in the Shenandoah Valley was bought or bestowed upon a few primary land owners. In 1725, John Van Meter entered the Valley and in 1730, his sons John and Isaac were granted a land patent of 40,000 acres in the lower Shenandoah. In 1732, a large portion of this land was sold to Joist Hite (Jost Heydt), a native of Alsace, who settled near present day Winchester, Virginia with 15 families of German immigrants. In 1736, Virginia Governor William Gooch gave 118,491 acres to William Beverly and later that same year, Benjamin Borden, an agent for Lord Fairfax, was granted half a million acres in the Valley. (Joist Hite and Lord Fairfax would enter into a legal dispute over this land that would last for 50 years.)

Regardless of who actually owned the land, immigrants were already found squatting on land in the Valley in the early 18th century. Lured into Virginia from Pennsylvania by the promise of cheap and abundant land, settlers followed a trail from Philadelphia down present-day I-81 on what would become known as the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. (Prior to the Revolution all settlement took place east of the Appalachians since the English Government prohibited settlement west of this mountain chain.) The Wagon Road carried settlers from Pennsylvania down through Virginia and eventually into the Carolina Piedmont and Kentucky. In later years, Conestoga wagons would become a familiar site along the road but in the early years, settlement was accomplished under harsh conditions and travel was often accomplished on foot.

The main immigrant groups into the Valley were, not surprisingly, the same immigrant groups found in Philadelphia: the Germans and the Scots-Irish. As early as 1726 or 1727, it has been recorded that a small group of German settlers were squatting in land in the Valley near Massanutten, and they waited patiently on their land until 1733 for the government to determine who rightfully owned the land so that they could buy it and obtain clear title. In 1732, Joist Hite settled on land obtained from the Van Meter brothers with his son-in-laws George Bowman, Jacob Chrisman and Paul Froman. By 1734, Hite had issued patents to about 40 other German families that had settled near his home. (Patents were issued on proof that a required number of families had been brought in to settle the land. This was often accomplished by fraudulent means, such as naming the livestock on the farm.) Several Scots-Irish families accompanied Hite into the Shenandoah Valley but continued South to the Staunton area.

Aside from Hite and Jacob Stover (who was granted the Massanutten tract), the majority of German settlers owned between 100 – 500 acres, preferring to tend a small, well-run farms. Most German immigrants settled in the lower Shenandoah Valley and were kept out of present day Clarke County by English settlement and out of the area near Winchester by the land dispute between Joist Hite and Lord Fairfax. The present day counties of Shenandoah, Page and Rockingham counties saw the majority of German settlement. German expansion stopped north of Staunton, which after 1732, became a Scots-Irish stronghold.

John Lewis, born in Donegal, Ulster in 1678, immigrated with his family to Pennsylvania in 1731 and traveled south the Shenandoah Valley in 1732, making most of the journey on foot. His family stopped and settled in what would become Staunton, becoming the first Scots-Irish to settle in the Valley. After the Beverly acquisition of 1736, about 60 Scots-Irish families traveled south and settled in the region. (These families were originally squatters, but later bought their land from Beverly.) Beverly attracted other Scots-Irish settlers to the area around Staunton by circulating flyers in Philadelphia and actively recruiting immigrants in Londonderry and other Northern Irish towns. Soon, the area was so heavily populated by Scots-Irish settlers that it was called the Irish Tract.

Chronology Of Land Grants In The Shenandoah Valley:

1729 – Robert Carter granted 50,000 acres in the lower Valley (this section remained primarily English)

6/17/1730 – John Van Meter granted 10,000 acres on the fork of the Shenandoah River and 20,000 acres “not already taken up by Robert Carter”.

6/17/1730 – Isaac Van Meter granted 10,000 acres between Carter’s land, the River and Opequon Creek.

6/17/1730 – Jacob Stover (a Swiss) granted 10,000 acres (5,000 at Massanutten, 5,000 in Rockingham County)

10/28/1730 – Alexander Ross and Morgan Bryan granted 100,000 acres near present day Winchester (Quaker settlement)

6/10/1731 – William Beverly et al. Granted 20,000 acres on the western side of the lower Valley

6/10/1731 – John Fishback et al. Granted 50,000 acres between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River in present day Warren and Page Counties

10/21/1731 – Robert McKay and Joist Hite granted 100,000 acres (McKay was Scots-Irish and this points out why Germans and Scots-Irish co-mingled in the valley near Winchester)

5/5/1732 – Francis Willis et al. granted 10,000 acres on both sides of the South Shenandoah (up to Stover’s tract)

10/27/1732 – William Russell granted 20,000 acres near present day Front Royal

10/28/1734 – John Tayloe et al. granted 60,000 acres adjoining Stover’s northern tract.

1736 – Benjamin Burdon granted between 100,000 to 500,000 acres in present day Rockbridge and Augusta counties.