and a History of Its Neighborhoods
Chapter 1 of a Series
FORGING A SOCIETY ON THE FRONTIER
By Paula S. Felder
A New County
SPOTSYLVANIA COUNTY, stretching all the way to the mountains, was created in May 1721 to promote settlement of the frontier.
Governor Alexander Spotswood had established a large iron mining venture and a settlement of Germans several miles west of the fall line. (This was the line of rapids along the Eastern seaboard beyond which ships could not travel.)
The political purpose behind the county's creation was to provide liberal exemptions to enable Spotswood to acquire tens of thousands of acres of land in grants for himself and his favored associates, some of whom were serving as cover for his acquisitions.
The eastern boundary of the new county had been set at Snow Creek, probably to include the governor's wharves on land he was acquiring at Massaponax Creek. From there, he shipped the products of his mines at Tubal Furnace, which he transported on a road he built himself. Parts of his road still exist.
Roads, Tobacco, and Politics
A county court and a parish of the Anglican Church were soon established at Germanna so that the justices of the court and the parish vestry could serve as local arms of the colonial government.
(The justices were appointed to a Commission of the Peace by Williamsburg from local nominations. The equally powerful vestry was locally elected but self- perpetuating.)
All Virginians aspired to land, and the liberalized requirements for ownership attracted other settlers to the new county. They patented smaller tracts of their own or purchased them from the large landowners. But they all shared one ambition - to grow tobacco, the vital crop in colonial Virginia's economy.
As the county began to acquire a population, tobacco production increased dramatically. A tobacco census ordered by the House of Burgesses in 1726 reported over 5,000,000 plants under cultivation, almost twice the number reported in 1724.
Since Governor Spotswood had permitted the planters to use his wharves at Massaponax Creek as a shipping facility, they had created "rolling roads" to this destination.
While mere trails might suffice for reaching Germanna, the more elaborate and labor-intensive "rolling roads" were essential for safely transporting the cured tobacco to the river for shipment. The hogsheads in which the precious crop was packed had to be kept dry, and well-maintained bridges were needed for crossing rivers.
In this frontier county with a sparse population (probably fewer than 1,000 able-bodied males within present day Spotsylvania) and with several rivers to be crossed, road clearing and bridge building were strictly controlled by the justices of the county court, who also functioned as administrators.
The landowners along a route ordered by the justices furnished the labor without compensation. (The court's road orders, still preserved, are invaluable in tracing the county's growth.)
Spotsylvania's early road system was thus in place before Fredericksburg was created. We can still see on modern maps the county roads that angle up toward the River Road near Massaponax or westward toward Germanna.
New Town Site Proposed
As early as 1724, the settlers sought to protect their road system by petitioning the Assembly to designate the Massaponax wharves as a town site.
Alexander Spotswood was quick to devise a plan to forestall the takeover of his wharves by eminent domain. When the first petition was sent in 1724 to the capital at Williamsburg, it was accompanied by a second petition shepherded by one of his loyal supporters among the justices.
This was for a town to be laid out on the narrow riverfront of a patent owned for more than half a century by two Gloucester County families, the Buckners and the Roystons. It lay about six miles farther to the west and nearer to the fall line.
All of the riverfront in present day Spotsylvania had been claimed in large patents by prominent families since the 17th century, and most of the owners must have somehow satisfied the settlement requirements. (John Taliaferro of Snow Creek plantation - now Belvedere- testified in a deposition in 1708, however, that no one lived above him at that time.)
Perhaps anticipating the need to protect his property, John Royston had contracted as early as 1723 with two Williamsburg residents, William Livingston, a failed theater manager, and his wife Susannah, to settle on the riverfront. (Presumably this accounts for the early references to the tract as "the Lease Land.")
But the issue was probably never in doubt once the former governor's wishes were known in Williamsburg. The petitions lay dormant until the fall of 1727, and then only one surfaced for the Assembly's consideration early in 1728.
In the intervening years, the population west of present day Spotsylvania had been increasing. By 1728, as much as 20% of the tobacco being grown was on the vast acreage west of the boundaries of our present county.
Thus the act now reasonably claimed that the site was chosen to serve the settlers to the west of the fall line. It also, of course, served Alexander Spotswood by protecting his wharves.
And so in March 1728, the Assembly passed the act creating Fredericksburg on fifty acres of the 2,000 acre Buckner-Royston patent. The first residents were, naturally, William and Susannah Livingston, who were already living there.
Since they still had access to the governor's wharves, however, the planters most certainly did not want the laborious task of clearing new roads.
Although the town was promptly laid off by a surveyor in 64 lots and a public square, Fredericksburg was basically ignored. In 1729, for lack of sales, the town nearly reverted back to its owners.
Modern jokesters who install plaques making fun of historic claims could plant an accurate one for real on Fredericksburg's original fifty acres: "On this site from 1728 until 1732, nothing happened."
But then a resourceful entrepreneur and a stroke of good fortune brought Fredericksburg to life, to be discussed in Chapter 2 of this series.
NEXT MONTH, READ CHAPTER 2
"A Slow Beginning: 1728-1734"
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