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With all of its modern amenities, it's hard to imagine that the small community of Shepherdstown may be the oldest town in the state of West Virginia.
Shepherdstown is situated on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River, and archeological evidence indicates Native Americans camped in and around the area long before the Europeans. Several major battles between warring tribes are said to have occurred at a ford a few miles downstream.
Descendants of European settlers may have migrated here as early as 1719. Once known as Potomoke, it eventually became known as Mecklenburg in the 1730s and was chartered in 1762 by the Virginia General Assembly. It was renamed Shepherd's Town in 1798 in honor of Thomas Shepherd, an early settler. After the Civil War, the community was officially recognized as Shepherdstown.
In 1762, the General Assembly also authorized the community to host a biannual agricultural and mechanical fair "for the sale and vending of cattle, victuals, provisions, goods, wares and merchandise." Like many small communities, it had a variety of cottage industries including a local gunsmith who made long rifles.
After "Redcoats" and "Minutemen" clashed at Lexington and Concord, local settlers began drilling in the lot behind what is now the Entler Hotel. They were organized into a company led by Hugh Stephenson. Beginning July 16, 1775, they participated in what would become known as the "Beeline March" to Boston, Massachusetts. They marched nearly 600 miles in 24 days--a tremendous feat given the condition of roads in those days.
With its economy closely linked to local agriculture growth, change came slowly to the small community. The community was briefly considered as a site for the National Capital. That may have come to pass if it were possible for 19th century sea-going vessels to sail up the Potomac River.
As it was, the community experienced a small boom with the construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal along the north bank of the Potomac in the 1830s, giving local farmers access to Washington markets.
The canal was the cause of some acrimony during the Civil War. According to one account, Rebel sympathizers from the Shepherdstown area snipped at canal boatmen and workers at the Antietam Iron Works at the mouth of Antietam Creek, Maryland. Sharpsburg area residents retaliated by placing a very old cannon near the Ferry Hill estate and bombarding the town with whatever projectiles were handy.
Truces were made and broken and the shelling stopped after Rebels reportedly captured the cannon and dumped it in the Potomac River.
The greatest crisis the town experienced occurred September 17, 1862, when hundreds of wounded Confederates from the Battle of Antietam flooded into town. It wasn't long before there wasn't a single building in the community that wasn't converted into a field hospital. Many of the men who didn't survive that battle are buried in the town's cemetery.
Three days after Federals and Confederates tangled at Antietam, rebels repelled a half-hearted attempt by the Yankees to pursue them in a brief but bloody battle on the bluffs overlooking Pack Horse Ford. (The ford also is known as Swearingen's and Blackford's ford.)
Just months before the end of the Civil War, the Jefferson County seat was moved to Shepherdstown. In June 1866, Rezin D. Shepherd, a descendant of Thomas Shepherd, built a new courthouse in the town. The structure was reportedly placed on the site of Shepherd's Fort.
What followed was a protracted political battle over which community would be the county seat--Shepherdstown or Charles Town. The battles raged in the courts and the state legislature, and finally, in 1871 the state Supreme Court declared Charles Town as the county seat.
Dejected but not defeated, the Shepherdstown community leaders found a way to make use of its now empty courthouse.
In 1872 they incorporated a "a classical and Scientific Institute" and named it Shepherd College. A year later, they persuaded the state of West Virginia to use it as a "normal school"--a teacher's college. The one-time courthouse eventually became known as McMurran Hall, named for the school's first principal.
The college is the core of the community's economy and one of the reasons why Shepherdstown is now known as "Georgetown West."
Shepherdstown was the home of James Rumsey, the first man to propose using steam instead of wind to propel vessels. He built a steamer and sailed it on the Potomac River in the presence of George Washington and others on December 3, 1787, twenty years before Robert Fulton, who is generally regarded as the inventor of the steamboat, made his first successful steam voyage. Rumsey patented his invention and traveled to London in 1790 in an attempt to find investors willing to finance the construction of additional steam ships. Several ventures failed, primarily due to poor workmanship on the steam engines. He remained in London for nearly two years. On December 20, 1792, he made a presentation explaining his invention to the Society of Mechanic Arts in London. During the presentation he burst a blood vessel and died the next morning. During his time in London, Rumsey met Robert Fulton who later modified Rumsey's design and made steam navigation a success.
Shepherdstown was also the home of West Virginia's first newspaper, the Potomak Guardian and Berkeley Advertiser. It began publication in 1790 and was owned by Nathaniel Willis.
In 2000, Shepherdstown drew the attention of the entire world as it hosted the latest round of the U.S. brokered Israeli-Syrian peace talks. From a town that was torn apart by the Civil War, the fact that Jefferson County could hold international peace talks shows how far the county has come in its brief history. The talks included Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shaara with U.S. President Clinton workings as a mediator. The talks did not produce any conclusive agreements, but they represented an important step toward peace.
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