Chapter XXXIII - Among Old Records

History of Hampshire County West Virginia From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present
By Hu Maxwell and H. L. Swisher
Morgantown, West Virginia; A. Brown Boughner Printer; 1897

PART 2 County History
Pages 361-372

Hampshire county, being the oldest in the state, its public records of course date back beyond those of any other county. So far as can be ascertained the first public record for Hampshire was written June 11, 1755. It was the minutes of a court held at that time. The oldest book in the court house, or that which is apparently the oldest, is a record of deeds, leases and mortgages immediately following the organization of Hampshire. The entry on the first page bears date in December, 1757, and to this fact are probably due the statements made by most historians who have written on the subject, that the oldest record was made in 1757. A person who is seeking the date of the oldest record, naturally looks on the first page of the oldest book. But in the present case, that would be misleading; and it is apparent that Kerchief, Howe, Lewis and others who have examined into Hampshire's history, have fallen into the error, and have concluded that the entry on the first page of the oldest book extant is actually the oldest record. Such is not the case. This old book bears internal evidence of being a copy of a still older book; or, more probably, it is a copy of records which existed some years as documents folded and laid, away. The evidence of this is the fact that at different places in the books are instruments bearing dates earlier than those on the first pages. For example, on the first pages are deeds prefaced by these words: "At a court held in and for the county of Hampshire, December 13. 1757, ordered to be placed on record." A hundred or more pages further in the book occurs this preface to a deed: "At a court held in and for the county of Hampshire, June 11, 1755, ordered to be placed on record." Documents admitted to record at earlier sessions of court are found following those admitted later, probably twenty places in the book, showing, or at least indicating, that the recorder had before him a bundle of papers of different dates, all to be recorded; and that he endeavored to record them in the order of their dates, and usually did so, but a few of the earliest were overlooked, and had to be recorded later.

The honor of being the first clerk of Hampshire has usually been given to Gabriel Jones; but this is also a mistake, and it was made in the same manner as the error as to the first court. The first page of the oldest book was examined, and the clerk who recorded that page was Gabriel Jones. But the records of the court of June 11, 1755, show that Archibald Wager was the first clerk, or at least was in office before Gabriel Jones. There is nothing in this old book to show where this first court was held. It would be interesting to show this, for at that time the French and Indian war was raging with all its fury, and Hampshire was overrun with savages and their French allies. Three days before this first court was held in Hampshire, the British and American troops, under command of General Braddock, left Cumberland on the march ±o the present site of Pittsburg; and within one month from that date occurred the terrible battle on the bank of the Monongahela where Braddock fell and where he lost nearly halt his army. Washington conducted the retreat to Cumberland, and the place was considered so unsafe, that the British troops continued the retreat to Philadelphia. Washington returned to Virginia with the American soldiers, paid built a strong fort at Winchester as a defense against the Indians and French. If such was the desperation of the situation that a British army was afraid to stay in Cumberland, and Washington thought it necessary to fortify Winchester, what must have been the situation of Hampshire which lay exposed to attack, and forty or fifty miles nearer the Indian country than Winchester was? Yet, it was in that summer, in the midst of the war, that Hampshire's first court was held. As already said, it would be interesting to know where the court convened and what protection it had against Indian attacks. It is known that the oldest court house stood several miles above the site of Romney, on the South branch; but whether it was in existence as early as the summer of 1755, and whether the first court was held there, is not certainly known, and perhaps the truth will never be ascertained. No person living can remember anything throwing light on the subject. It is probable, however, that, the first court was not held in the court house on the river. It is more probable that it was held in some private house, the owner and its location having been long ago forgotten. Some persons are inclined to believe that the first court was not held in the county at all, but somewhere else. Wherever it was held, it was under British rule, and the judges were appointed by the crown, probably on authority delegated to Lord Fairfax.

Gabriel Jones was clerk of the court in 1757, and held office twenty-five years, and signed the court proceedings till the close of the Revolutionary war. If not a relative of Lord Fairfax he was at least on intimate terms with him, and held his office by appointment from Fairfax. He was a personage of considerable importance in his time, at least in his own estimation. He was clerk of other courts besides Hampshire, and went from place to place signing the court proceedings, which were written by his deputies. Sometimes, however, several pages in the old books are found in the unmistakable penmanship of Gabriel Jones, showing that he could work when he wanted to. Lord Fairfax owned several counties and could have appointed Jones clerk of all of them had he so desired. As it was the old clerk had good pay and enough to do to keep him busy part of the time, and he was philosophical enough not to grasp at so many of the emoluments of office that he would have no time to enjoy the fleeting years. Thus life ran smoothly with him, and for a quarter of a century he signed the pages of the Hampshire courts. There is no record of how or why he lost his place; but, since his name disappears just after the close of the revolution, and soon after the death of Lord Fairfax, it is probable that the end of British: rule in Virginia also was the end of the clerkship of Gabriel Jones. Nevertheless he had been permitted to hold the office all through the war, although it was well known that his patron, Lord Fairfax, was an enemy to the cause of American independence.

Although he was clerk of several counties, yet he found time for long pleasure trips to Richmond, Baltimore and elsewhere. Those cities were not so large or busy then as now, and many of the inhabitants, perhaps the most of them, at least in Richmond, knew Gabriel Jones. Like many other men of fame or genius, he sometimes took refuge from business cares in the excitement and pleasure of a game, usually as pastime, but sometimes for money. The story is told of him that once in Richmond the games went against him all night, and by the dawn of day his pocketbook had collapsed; the last shilling had gone into the pocket of the successful shark who played against him. But Mr. Jones had resources other than ready money. He wore a coat with gold buttons, everyone worth five dollars and there were a dozen of them. When his money was gone he commenced betting his buttons. As fast as he lost one he cut off another and staked it. Luck was against him, and the buttons went until only one was left. He hesitated when he came to that, but his hesitation was short, and as he cut off the button he remarked: "Here goes the last button on Gable's coat." That sentence became a proverb in Hampshire county, and still may be heard. When a man is driven to extremities and is compelled to put forward his last resource, he does so with the remark: "Here goes the last button on Gable's coat."

The oldest books in the court house are made of linen paper, apparently equal to the best modern paper. At any rate, it has stood the test of a century or more of use and wear, and is still in good condition. The writing in most cases is clear and easily read. The ink used then must have been of an excellent quality, for it has neither faded nor rotted the paper. This is no doubt partly due to the fact that the writing was done with quill pens. It is well known that public records and documents to be preserved for a great length of time, should never be written with steel pens, but with quills, or with gold or glass pens. The rust from a steel pen forms a combination with some kinds of ink and rots the paper. In manuscripts not a quarter of a century old the ink sometimes has rotted the paper until every letter is eaten out, due to having been written with a steel pen and poor ink. But in Hampshire's records not a case of this kind was met with, either among the old or the new books.

The spelling and the grammar are often faulty and unique in the old records. This was due to two causes: first, documents were sometimes copied in the books just as they were written, mistakes and all; secondly, those who did the recording were sometimes deputies who had little education. The clerks of Hampshire have usually been educated gentlemen, but occasionally they have employed less educated persons to do the clerical work, and errors in grammar and spelling have crept in. A lease was recorded before the Revolutionary war in which the word "acres" is spelled in seven different ways, and not •one of them right. It is "bakers," "beakers," "askers," "lacquers," "backers," bakers," and "Ares." One is tempted to believe that the person who wrote it was experimenting to see in how many wrong ways he could spell the word. Another case of the same kind occurs in which "the calculus of variations" is brought to bear with all its powers upon the proper name "Hughes." From the handwriting it is evident that the copying was done by the same person who had experimented on "acres." It appears that Thomas Hughes and Susanna Hughes, his wife, made a deed. At first they are spoken of as "Thomas Hughes and Susanna Hues, his wife," and then as "Thomas Hughes and his wife Susannah Hughs;" again as "Thomas Hews and S. Hughes," and finally pure phonetics are resorted to and names are "Tomas Huse and Suzana Huze, his wife." Such variation in the spelling could not have been the result of ignorance, and must have been done by some copyist for amusement. The variations in the spelling of "Capon" are little better; but in that case the different orthographies were usually by different persons, and are found all through the records from the earliest times till the present. Each clerk, or copyist, had his own way to spell the name; and to this day men who have lived their whole lives in Hampshire will dispute over the proper spelling of the word. It is the name of a river, and is said to be of Indian origin, meaning "to appear," "to rise to view," "to be found again," or something of that kind. Lost river after flowing many miles, sinks and disappears, and after passing some distance under ground, rises to the surface, and then takes the name Capon. The word is spelled in different ways now. It is pronounced "Ca-pon," with accent on the first syllable, and that ought to be the spelling. But some write it "Cacapon" to this day, and it so spelled on the government geologic maps. In the earliest records it appears as "Cape Capon," "Capecapon," "Capcapon," "Cacapehon," "Cacapon," "Capecacapon," "Capecacahepon," and even in other ways. In 1849 Dr. Foote in his "Sketches of Virginia" spells it "Cacopon." The name "Potomac" has nearly as many spellings, not to mention three or four different and distinct names by which it was known in early years. It was "Powtowmac," "Potomack," "Powtowmac," "Powtowmack." "Pawtomack, " "Potawmack," "Potomuck," and "Potomoke".

There is little difficulty in determining whether a document was written under British rule or after the achievement of independence, even if the date is missing. Under the British rule there is a long preamble, reciting the great and lasting benefits which befall humanity on account of the benign sovereignty of "the king of Great Britain, France and Ireland, by the grace of God." After the Revolutionary war there is no more of this foolishness. Sometimes papers of the most trivial character are prefaced by pompous and high-flown language, always referring to the royal family on the throne of England, One may be given as an example of a large class. Early in 1762. Elizabeth Long, wife of Christian Long, of Hampshire county, owned a tract of land and wanted to sell it. But she was an invalid and was unable to travel from her home to the court of Hampshire county to acknowledge the deed and to be questioned as to whether she had signed it willingly, as the law required. She being unable to travel to court, and the court being unwilling to travel to where she was, there was a hitch in the proceedings, and the throne of England was appealed to for assistance. Thereupon, "George the Third, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc.," appointed a commission to visit Mrs. Long at her house and ascertain whether she had signed the deed of her own free will, or whether she had done it "through force, fear or fraud." This commission was composed of Benjamin Kuykendall, Jonathan Heath and Robert Parker, all of Hampshire. The gentlemen performed their duty as became loyal subjects of King George, and made a written report "to the justices of our lord, the king," that Mrs. Elizabeth Long had willingly signed the deed, and force, fear or fraud had no influence over her. Thereupon the deed was admitted to record May 12, 1762. Of course this document was in compliance with a form used in all similar cases; but that makes it none the less interesting, as it reminds us forceably of the time when the people who inhabited the valleys and hills of Hampshire acknowledged the sovereignty of the king of England. Although they were loyal and obedient subjects, yet it is doubtful if they had much respect for any king. At least the people of this part of the country were the strongest supporters of independence, both at home and on the battlefield.

The first divorce granted in Hampshire county was a peculiar affair. If the law had been strictly interpreted, it probably would not have been declared a lawful divorce; but it is designated a divorce on the face of the record, and without doubt it was so considered by all interested parties. The history of the transaction, as nearly as can be ascertained, was as follows: During Pontiac's war, prior to 1765, a farmer in Hampshire county was taken prisoner by the Indians, but his wife escaped. He was carried to Ohio and from there was sold from tribe to tribe until several years afterwards, when peace was made with the Indians, he came home. He had heard nothing from his wife during the years of his captivity, but he evidently expected to see her again. Great was his disappointment when, upon arriving at his old home, he learned that she had long ago given him up as dead; had married again, and had several children. He did not seek revenge, but accepted the situation with the resignation of an Enoch Arden. The following record was made February 19, 1773, except that the names are left blank. "To all whom these presence may come or may concern:

"Whereas, My wife hath sometime left me, and hath intermarried with J____ C____ , I do hereby certify that I do freely acquit and discharge the said J____ C____ from all trouble or damages, and I do consent that they may dwell together as husband and wife for the future without any interruption from me. Given under my hand and seal this XIX day of February, 1773.

"J____ K____."     

After Gabriel Jones had held the office of clerk twenty- five years, Andrew Wodrow came in and held from 1782 to 1814, thirty-two years. There was then a clerk who was in office only a few months, and gave way for John B. White, who was clerk from 1814 to 1862, forty-eight years. During the war and immediately following, the office was administered by different parties till C. S. White was elected in 1872, and was subsequently elected for terms ending in 1903. No other county in the state, and probably none in the United States, can show such a record. In 1903 the county will be one hundred and forty-eight years old, and four clerks will have held office one hundred and thirty-five years. These clerks are Gabriel Jones, twenty-five years; Andrew Wodrow, thirty-two years; John B. White, forty- eight years; C. S. White, thirty years. The last two are father and son, and their combined terms are seventy-eight years. The historian is not gifted to see into the future, but at the date of the writing of this book the county clerk, C. S. White, is not an old man, and judging from the custom of Hampshire of keeping clerks in office all their lives, it is not beyond the range of possibilities that the father and son may hold the office a century.

It is not positively known where the first Hampshire county court was held, but very early in the county's history a court house was built in the valley several miles above Romney. This was prior to 1762. In that year Romney was made the county seat, and a wooden court house was afterwards built between the present store J. H. C. Pancake and the foot of the hill, southwest. Court was held there many years, and finally a brick building was erected for the court. It stood east of the present court house and answered all purposes for which it was intended until 1837, when the present court house was completed.

The records have passed through vicissitudes of fortune, and many are now missing. It is believed, however, that they were complete up to the beginning of the war. During the war the court house was used as a stable by the soldiers who were stationed at Romney, and all records which had been left in the building were scattered and lost. Fortunately, however, the most valuable books had been removed. Early in 1861 when the union forces under General Lew Wallace came to Romney, John B. White was clerk. He was fearful that the books would be meddled with, and he kept close watch over them. But they were not molested. In the fall of 1861 another union army advanced to Romney under General Kelley. Learning of the advance of the federal forces, and not wishing to risk the books again in the hands of the union troops, Mr. White loaded them on wagons and sent them to Winchester. He took only the bound volumes, such as deed books, wills, and settlements of estates, and left the original papers in the court house taking two chances of preserving the records. If the books should be destroyed, there was a chance that the papers in Romney would escape. If the papers should be lost, the books in Winchester might escape. The wisdom of this measure was afterwards apparent. Had the books been left in the court house, all of Hampshire's records .before the war would have been destroyed, opening the way to almost endless litigation regarding the title to lands. As it was, the books had many a narrow escape as related in what follows,

In 1863 Winchester was no longer a safe place for anything that could be destroyed. That town was captured seventy-eight times during the war. It changed hands oftener than the moon changed. The yankees and the rebels chased one another in and out of it in rapid succession. By the close of the second year of the war the town could no longer be held any length of time by the confederates. Captain C. S. White, then in the southern army, kept his eye on the Hampshire records with concern for their safety. The yankees had ascertained that the books were in Winchester, and they were bent on destroying them. To prevent this, Captain White removed them to Front Royal. In a short time they were in danger here, and they were taken to Luray and remained several months. The union forces threatened that town, and it was apparent that it must soon fall into their hands. Captain White was determined to take the Hampshire books away, and with a company of about sixty men hurried to Luray, hoping to reach there ahead of the federal troops. In this he was disappointed. They entered the town ahead of him, and made straight for the place where the books were stored and commenced destroying them. That appeared to be the principal object they had in view, and had they been left alone a few hours they would have succeeded. But they were surprised in the act. Captain White and his men rode up and caught the yankees tearing up the books. The first intimation they had of the approach of the rebels was when a load of shot fired from a double- barreled gun in the hands of Captain White, took effect on the exposed part of the body of a yankee who was in the act of perpetrating an insulting defilement upon the open pages of a deed book. The yankee sprang into the air as the load of shot struck him, ran a few steps, butted his head against a wall, and fell. Another yankee was at work on a book with his knife, slashing the pages. When the shot was fired, the yankees fled. Captain White and his men threw the books, about one hundred and fifty in number, into a wagon, and carried them safely away. They were taken to North Carolina and were concealed until the war was over. This was in the autumn of 1864. The next year Captain White went to North Carolina and hauled the books to Staunton, and from there sent them by express to Romney.

In all of these changes of location, and ups and downs of fortune, not a volume was lost, and the only damage sustained was the wear of the covers, and the mutilation of two books by the yankees at Luray. The Romney court house was repaired and cleaned out, and the clerk's office was once more opened for business, after an interval of four years.

Other portions of the county records did not fare so well. Some of the records of the superior court are not in Romney, and may never be found. Among the volumes dating from before the war are, "Field Notes of the County Surveyor," in 1820, containing many names of old surveys; "Minutes and Fee Book," from 1792 to 1796, of about four hundred pages; "Tavern License Book," from 1843 to 1850, about one hundred pages; "Fee Book" of 1820, 1821 and 1822; "Chancery Cases," from 1843 to 1861; "Execution Book," of 1818, 1819, 1820 and 1821; "Superior Court Proceedings," from 1809 to 1831; "Execution Book," from 1814 to 1818; "Surveyor's Book," from 1793 to 1803; "Surveyor's Book," from 1804 to 1824; "Surveyor's Book," from 1778 to 1793; "Fee Book," from 1814 to 1817; "Warrant Book," from 1788 to 1810. This was connected with the state land office, and contains a record of all state lands patented in Hampshire county during the years which it covers. It will thus be seen that there are many gaps which will probably remain forever unfilled. It is said that records of some of the earliest courts have never been deposited in Romney; but that they were kept in the private office of Lord Fairfax, and they may have been long since lost beyond recovery.

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