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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.
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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