Historic Figures

The following are short biographies of some of the more famous characters in Jefferson County's history:

George Washington
(1732-1799) was born on February 22, 1732, on the family estate of Wakefield in Westmoreland county, Virginia. His father died in 1743, and soon thereafter George went to live with his half brother Lawrence at Mount Vernon on the Potomac river. His early education included the study of such subjects as mathematics, surveying, the classics, and "rules of civility." In 1748, at the age of 16, Washington joined a surveying party sent out to the Shenandoah Valley by Lord Fairfax, a land baron. For the next few years, Washington conducted surveys in Virginia and present West Virginia and gained a lifetime interest in the West.
In 1750, George Washington purchased Bullskin Plantation near Summit Point. Starting with 453 acres, he eventually added another 1,558 acres to the plantation.

George Washington presided as master over the 1st Lodge of Free Masons to be assembled west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, just outside Charles Town, West Virginia. Seven Washington family homes were built in Jefferson county, including those of his brothers Col. Charles Washington and Col. Samuel Washington.

In 1755, as an aide to Gen. Edward Braddock, and barely escaped death when the French defeated the general's forces in the Battle of the Monongahela. As a reward for his bravery, Washington won his colonelcy and command of the Virginia militia forces, charged with defending the colony's frontier. In late 1758 he resigned his command and returned to live at Mount Vernon.

In January 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, the wealthy widow of a Virginia planter and mother of two children. During the period 1759-74, he managed his plantations and was a member of in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He supported the initial protests against British policies; took an active part in the non-importation movement in Virginia; and, in time, became a leader in the Whig party.

Washington represented Virginia at the First and Second Continental Congresses. In 1775, after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord, Congress appointed him as Commander-In-Chief of the Continental Army. Overcoming severe obstacles, especially in supply, he eventually fashioned a well-trained and disciplined fighting force. Finally, with the aid of the French fleet and army, he won a climactic victory over General Cornwallis and the British forces at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, effectively bringing an end to the Revolutionary War. Once the Treaty of Paris (1783) was signed, he resigned his commission and returned once again to Mount Vernon.

Encouraged by many of his friends, he presided over the Constitutional Convention, whose success was immeasurably influenced by his presence and dignity. Following ratification of the new instrument of government in 1788, the electoral college unanimously chose him as the first President. He served two terms as first President of the United States under the new Constitution. He declined to serve a third term, and retired to Mount Vernon in 1797. He died there of pneumonia in 1799 at the age of 67.

Charles Washington (1738-1799) was born in Huntington Creek in Fairfax county, Virginia, on May 2, 1738. He was the youngest full brother of George Washington. He came to present day Jefferson county in 1780.  In January 1787, Charles Town was officially chartered by the Virginia General Assembly. It was laid out on 80 acres of land on Col. Charles Washington's farm, called Happy Retreat.  Charles had had a son, George Augustine Washington, who was a major in the Revolutionary War and who then settled near Mt. Vernon with his wife, Fanny Bassett, Martha Washington's niece.  He died in 1799.

Samuel Washington (1734-1781) was born on November 16, 1734,  on the family estate of Wakefield in Westmoreland county, Virginia.  He was a half-brother of George Washington. Samuel is known as the Washington that was frequently married.  Three young wives died one after another. He married his fourth wife when he was twenty-nine and his fifth wife at 44.  His wives included Jane Champe, Mildred Thornton, Louisa Chapman , Anne Steptoe,  and Susannah Ferrin. In 1770, he built a home called "Harewood," just outside Charles Town in Jefferson county. He eventually added a total of 3800 acres to the Harewood estate. James Madison was later to marry Dolly Payne Todd at Harewood in 1794. Samuel Washington became vestryman and warden of the church, a member of the county court, colonel of the county militia and a truea leader of the community. He died of tuberculosis on September 26, 1781, at the age of 47.  See http://www.justjefferson.com/09jaw.htm

General Charles Lee (1732-1782) was born an Irishman in February 1732. He joined the British Army when he was 12 years old. Lee served under Maj. General Edward Braddock along with fellow officers George Washington, Horatio Gates and Thomas Gage during the French and Indian War. He then served in Europe for several years, after which he returned to Britain and retired. He then left for America. In 1774, Charles Lee purchased property and established his home called “Praeto Rio” in what was to become Leetown, WV. One of his nearby neighbors 3 miles to the north was General Horatio Gates. Not long after his arrival Lee became involved in the Patriot cause. When war broke out, he offered his services. Lee expected to be named Commander-in-Chief, but had to settle for 3rd in rank behind Washington and Artemas Ward.

Lee joined Washington in Massachusetts and then in 1776, was named Southern Department Commander. He oversaw the Battle of Fort Sullivan, though he did not actively participate in the action. Lee was recalled north to aid General Washington, but during manuevers in New Jersey in December 1776, he was captured by a British patrol. He was finally exchanged in May 1778. Lee's military career came to an end at the Battle of Monmouth when he disobeyed Washington's orders and then addressed Washington inappropriately. He was courtmartialed and suspended from the command. He was later released from duty. He died in Philadelphia in 1782.

General Horatio Gates (1728 -1806), a noted general of the Revolutionary War, was born in England. He was with General Braddock at the time of that general's defeat in 1755 during the French and Indian War. Suffering from serious wounds, he moved to what was then Berkeley county where he was subsequently to purchase a large estate. He resigned from the British Army in 1772 and settled down at his estate known as "Traveler's Rest" in what is now Jefferson county. He lived there until the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775. He was appointed Brigadier General by Congress and performed many services for the American cause, the greatest of which was the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777. In the latter part of the war he held a command in the South, but was defeated by Lord Cornwallis at Camden. He was suspended from his military command, however, he was restored to command in 1782. After peace was declared, he once again retired to his farm in Jefferson county. He remained there until 1790, when he moved to New York where he passed the remainder of his life. He died April 10, 1806, at the age of 77 years.

William Darke, (1755-1801) - Captain Darke, who lived near Duffields in present-day Jefferson County, served in the French and Indian War, and later fought in the Revolutionary War. He enlisted as a captain in the Eighth Virginia Regiment in 1776, attaining the rank of Major by 1777. At Germantown, Darke was wounded and taken prisoner. Exchanged in 1780, he saw active service until his retirement in 1783 as a Lieutenant Colonel. He was elected a delegate from Berkeley county to the Virginia convention of 1788 and voted for the adoption of the Federal Constitution.. Subsequently, he was repeatedly elected to the Virginia legislature. He later served as a Colonel commanding a Virginia regiment in the Northwest Territory and was later promoted to Brigadier General. He died on November 20, 1801. For more information see http://jeffersonhistoricalwv.org/thepeople.html#wd

Hugh Stephenson was raised in the Shenandoah Valley, which at the time was on the outer fringe of English settlements in Virginia.  In 1775, General George Washingon issued a call for "Virginia Volunteer Riflemen." Captain Hugh Stephenson readily filled the ranks of his company in Shepherdstown.  It has been heralded as the first unit of the United States Army.  His company, along with one led by Daniel Morgan of Frederick county, departed from "Morgan's Spring" about one-half mile south of the town limits on July 16, 1775. This famous "Beeline March to Cambridge" covered 600 miles in twenty-four days. He later received a a commission as a Colonel and returned to Virginia to facilitate the raising of additional Companies. While actively serving, he was taken sick and died in August 1776. For information on Hugh Stephenson and his counterpart Daniel Morgan, see http://jeffersonhistoricalwv.org/thepeopleb.html#dmahs

Robert Harper and Gersham Keyes bought land and moved into this area in the 1730’s.  Harper was a Philadelphia architect and builder who settled in “The Hole” at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.  In 1761, Harper established a ferry across the Potomac, making this community a major jumping off point for settlers seeking new lands in the Shenandoah Valley and points west. Over the next 30 years, he also built a grist mill on the Shenandoah River and a huge stone house in town that still bears his name. In time, the town at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers became Harpers Ferry.  Gersham Keyes settled on land, which is now within the township of Bolivar and built his home and tavern on Washington Street.

Thomas Shepherd, Sr. (1705-1776) was a man of vision and settled on the west bank of the Potomac River above the only fordable crossing in that section of the river. He was married in 1733 to Elizabeth Van Meter. In 1734, Thomas Shepherd was granted 222 acres, on the south side of the "Potomack" river. He built a grist mill and sawmill on the land. In 1776, he had a new mill erected on the 457 acre grant land he acquired from Lord Fairfax. Permission to establish a ferry across the Potomac River was granted to Thomas Shepherd by an act of the Assembly of Virginia in October 1762. In November 1762, he was authorized to erect the town of Mechlenburg. After his death in 1776, the name of the town was changed to Shepherdstown by an act of the Virginia Assembly.

Reverend Nathan Cook Brackett (1836-1910)  was born July 28, 1836, in Phillips, Maine. He pursued his preparatory course at the Maine State Seminary, Lewiston, Maine, and entered Waterville College in the Fall of 1860, where he remained until the close of Junior year. He enrolled in Dartmouth College at the beginning of his Senior year.

Soon after graduating, in August, 1864, he entered the service of the United States Christian Commission, and was sent to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. In September following, he was appointed field agent of the Christian Commission, and served in that capacity until the close of the war. He spent July and August, 1865, in North Carolina, and became much interested in the Freedmen's movement.


Reverend Brackett was associated with the Freewill Baptist Church, In October, 1865, he went to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, as an agent of the American Missionary Association, to organize schools for the Freedmen. He served in that capacity until 1867, at which time Storer College was organized, and he was elected its President.  He was also appointed County Superintendent of Free Schools in 1869, and held the office for two years.


He was married on October 16, 1865, to Miss Louise Wood, of Lewiston, Maine, and had five children. In June, 1883, he received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy from Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, at its Commencement. He subsequently purchased a summer residence in Phillips, Maine, his native town and also bought the local paper, The Phillips Phonograph.  See http://www.geneabios.com/dartmouth/brackett.htm

James Rumsey (1743–1792) was an American mechanical engineer chiefly known for exhibiting a boat propelled by machinery in 1787 on the Potomac River at Shepherdstown, now West Virginia, before a crowd of local notables, including Gen. Horatio Gates. A pump driven by steam power ejected a stream of water from the stern of the boat and thereby propelled the boat forward. The demonstration occurred 20 years before Robert Fulton constructed and demonstrated his steamboat. In 1788, Rumsey moved to England to secure patents for his inventions. He spent four years in England and on December 20, 1792, on the eve of the demonstration of his new steamboat, the Columbia Maid, he was stricken with a severe pain in his head and died the next morning. 

See http://www.lib.shepherdstown.wv.us/sin/rumsey.html

James Rumsey's Steamboat - by J. Surkamp

John Brown (1800–1859) was born in Torrington, Connecticut, in 1800. He spent much of his boyhood in Ohio. His life was a succession of business failures, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York, before he became prominent in the 1850s as an abolitionist. He once kept a station on the "Underground Railroad" in Richmond, Pennsylvania.  In 1855, John Brown settled with five of his sons in Kansas where he sought to help win the state for freedom. The success of the pro-slavery forces, particularly their sack of Lawrence, Kansas, aroused Brown to take drastic action. In order “to cause a restraining fear” he and his four sons, along with two other men, deliberately murdered five pro-slavery men living on the banks of the Pottawatomie Creek. In this he asserted he was an instrument in the hand of God. His exploits as a leader of an antislavery band received wide publicity, especially in abolitionist journals.


Late in 1857 he began to enlist men for a project that he apparently had had in mind for some time.  He planned to liberate the slaves through armed intervention by establishing a stronghold in the Southern mountains to which the slaves and free blacks could flee and from where further insurrections could be stirred up. Early in 1859, Brown rented a farm near Harpers Ferry, Virginia  (now West Virginia) where he collected his followers and arms.


On the night of October 16, 1859, he crossed the Potomac with 21 followers and without much resistance captured the U.S. military arsenal at Harpers Ferry. He made the inhabitants prisoners and took general possession of the town. That night a company of U.S. marines, commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee, arrived, and in the morning they assaulted the engine house of the armory into which Brown's force had retired. In the resulting battle, 10 of Brown's men were killed, and John Brown himself was wounded.


News of the raid aroused wild fears in the South and it came as a great shock to the North. On December 2, 1859, Brown was tried and hanged in nearby Charles Town. His dignified conduct and the sincerity of his calm defense during the trial won him sympathy in the North and led him to be regarded as a martyr.

Joseph McMurran was born on the family farm about two miles south of Shepherdstown, was the fourth of nine children and attended local schools. At the age of nineteen, he enrolled in Hampton-Sydney College and graduated in 1852 with a bachelor of arts degree. He began teaching in 1852 and, for the next nine years, held teaching positions in various private schools and academies in the South. He was teaching in Alabama when the Civil War broke out and returned to Virginia to enlist in a unit which later became known as the Stonewall Brigade. As a member of that unit, he participated in all of its campaigns and engagements. He was twice seriously wounded—once in the shoulder at Winchester and once in the lung at Gettysburg. He was captured at Kernstown in 1862 and was confined to a Union prison for six months. After the war he returned to the Shepherdstown. He was appointed the first principal of Shepherd College, which opened with 42 students, in September 1871 and served in that position until 1882. His final service to the institution was as a member of the Board of Trustees, a position to which he was appointed in 1886. He died on Saint Valentine’s Day in 1902.

Thomas Mayberry - In 1742, the first iron furnace west of the Blue Ridge was built by Thomas Mayberry on the Shenandoah river at the "Bloomery" near Charles Town and Harpers Ferry. The bloomery remained in operation until after the Civil War.

Martin R. Delany (1812-1885) was born May 6, 1812 in Charles Town, West Virginia. In 1822, Martin fled West Virginia with his mother to avoid imprisonment because the family had been secretly learning how to read. They crossed the Mason-Dixon line and settled in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. A year later, Martin’s father bought his freedom and joined his family.

At the age of nineteen, Delany left home and traveled on foot across the Allegheny Mountains to Pittsburgh, where he lived until 1856. While there, he studied at an African Methodist Episcopal night school. He also studied medicine and became qualified to practice a variety of medical procedures. In addition, Delany later became an officer of the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society, an Underground Railroad activist, and the organizer of various literary and "moral reform" groups among the growing number of fugitive slaves then settling in Pittsburgh.

During this period, Delany married Catherine Richards. The couple had seven children, six boys and a girl. In 1843, shortly after his marriage, Delany began publishing the first Black newspaper west of the Alleghenies. Five years later, when the newspaper went out of business, Delany joined Frederick Douglass as co-editor of a newspaper called North Star. In addition to writing for Douglass’ paper, Delany was extremely active in speaking to Anti-Slavery gatherings throughout the East and Midwest.


After more than a year as co-editor of the North Star, Delany resigned to continue his medical studies in Pittsburgh. Rejected by the Pennsylvania and New York medical schools, he was admitted to Harvard in 1850. In 1851, he returned to Pittsburgh and used his medical knowledge to combat a tragic cholera epidemic in that city. In 1852, Delany published the first Black nationalist treatise, "The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered". It drew harsh and immediate criticism form White Abolitionists, the liberal press, and even Black leaders. Frederick Douglass, for example, conveniently ignored it.  In 1858, Delany moved his family to Ontario, Canada, where thousands of fugitive slaves were settling to escape the grasp of the slave-catchers encouraged by the Fugitive Slave Act.


In 1859, Delany left Canada to journey to Africa. Delany traveled to Abbeokuto in Nigeria, where he was able to finalize a treaty with the tribal king, allowing black americans to establish a self-controlled colony in the region. He later visited businessmen and noblemen in England and Scotland, where he was invited to speak to the prestigious Royal Geographical Society and the International Statistical Congress. Upon his return to North America in 1861, Delany made a valiant but unsuccessful effort to recruit black emigrants for the proposed colony.


Between 1861 and 1885, Delany practiced medicine, wrote books and articles, and worked for the betterment of Black Americans. He was commissioned as a major in the Union Army and served as a physician. He was the highest ranking Black officer during the Civil War. Later in life, Delany served in the Freedman’s Bureau, a governmental commission established to help newly freed slaves. Delany then fought political corruption as a trial judge in Charleston, S.C.  He lost the 1874 election for lieutenant governor of South Carolina.  He also wrote several essays about the Civil War, American policies toward Africa, and the destiny of the Black man in America. He died on January 24, 1885. See http://www.libraries.wvu.edu/delany/home.htm

William L. Wilson (1843 - 1900) was born near Charles Town in  Jefferson county, West Virginia on May 3, 1843. He attended Charles Town Academy and later graduated from Columbian College (now George Washington University) in Washington, D.C., in 1860. During the Civil War, he served in the Confederate Army as a private in the Twelfth Virginia Cavalry. After the war he taught for several years in Columbian College, during which time he graduated from law school. He was admitted to the bar in 1869 and commenced practice in Charles Town, WV.  He was chosen president of the West Virginia University at Morgantown and entered upon the office September 4, 1882.

In 1883, Wilson was elected as a democratic Representative to the Forty-eighth Congress. He was reelected to the five succeeding Congresses. He served as the Chairman, Committee on Ways and Means during the Fifty-third Congress. Mr. Wilson served as the Postmaster General in the Cabinet of President Cleveland from 1895 to 1897.  He later served as the President of the Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He died October 17, 1900, and was interred in Edgehill Cemetery, Charles Town, West Virginia. For more information see http://jeffersonhistoricalwv.org/thepeopleb.html#wlw

William Blizzard (1892-1958) became one of West Virginia’s most influential and controversial labor leaders of the 20th century. He was born in the Cabin Creek district of Kanawha County, West Virginia. was a leader of striking coal miners.  In 1922, William Blizzard, was the leader of striking coal miners that openly fought against state and federal troops in Mingo and Logan counties. He was areested and charged with treason and murder. He was tried in the Jefferson county courthouse in Charles Town and was ultimately found not guilty. The trials of William Blizzard and John Brown are two of only three treason trials held in the United States prior to World War II.

* Learn more about other historical figures - go to the Jefferson County Historical Society web site.

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