Settlers in earliest towns were farmers and trappers

May 03, 2006|by MELINDA MARSDEN / Washington County Historical Society

Editor's Note: The Washington County Commissioners has designated this week Washington County History Week. To celebrate the week, The Herald-Mail is publishing a five-part series written by local historians about the events, people and products that shaped the county.

The original settlement of the area that is now Washington County was not begun until Lord Baltimore opened his "waste lands" or "barrens" to settlement in 1732.

In the opinion of the 18th-century proprietors of Maryland, the land in this area was not fertile because it consisted of grasslands, and large trees were equated with fertility in their minds. This area was also very marginal in the cultivation of tobacco, Maryland's cash crop. The German farmers who began migrating to this area in the late 1730s recognized that this area was perfect for grain production, and the earliest settlers were subsistence farmers and trappers.

Prior to the French and Indian War, there were really no towns at all, only some groupings of houses around one of the many mills that dotted the creek beds in the area. This war disrupted the growth of population here and many settlers moved east of South Mountain for the duration, beginning with the defeat of Gen. Braddock and continuing until the Indian threat was reduced about 1760.


Jonathan Hager and Joseph Chapline were the first to recognize that the area was ready to expand enough to support the development of real towns. The official date for the founding of Hagerstown is 1762, although the first lot sales are recorded in 1768. Lots may have been leased before actually being sold, which may account for this discrepancy. Hager laid out the town with 520 half-acre lots and named it Elizabeth Town after his wife, Elizabeth Kershner, who died in 1765. By 1770, there were 100 "comfortable edifices" in the town. The town's name was official changed to Hagerstown on Jan. 25, 1814.

Joseph Chapline sold the first lots in Sharpsburg, named for Governor Horatio Sharpe, in 1763. He laid out a town of 187 lots on eight streets to be sold at two pounds 10 shillings each. The first houses were built in Sharpsburg in 1764. The towns of Sharpsburg and Hagerstown were very competitive in the quest for new settlers. This lasted until 1776, when Hagerstown was awarded the county seat and became the center of government for the newly founded Washington County.

The town of Hancock might be even older than the aforementioned towns. Joseph Hancock settled in the area in 1749 and formally laid out the town. However, there are no known land transactions there before 1782. Undoubtedly, there were settlers in the area, but the actual founding of the town is questionable considering the activity of the French and Indian War. We definitely know that the town of Hancock was incorporated in 1853.

Funkstown was laid out by Jacob and Henry Funk in 1767 on property called Black Oak Ridge and was originally named Jerusalem. By this date, there were already 15 log houses on the main street. The townspeople began to refer to their town as Funk's Town and the name was finally changed to Funkstown when the town was incorporated in 1840. Being on the curve of the Antietam Creek, there were several mills there including a sawmill, gristmill, a powder mill and a woolen mill.

The town of Williamsport was founded on the site of the Conococheague settlement. This settlement was founded in 1738 by Charles Friend. Gen. Otho Holland Williams laid out the town itself in 1786. Williams was a friend of George Washington's and knew that Washington wanted to build the nation's capitol on the Potomac River. Since Washington was also very involved in the Potomack Company, which sought to make the Potomac River navigable with the building of locks and canals, Williams hoped that his town might be chosen for this honor. Washington visited Williamsport in 1790. However, he decided that the capitol needed to be where the Potomac was already navigable.

In 1783, Jacob Hess owned a mill on the banks of the Little Antietam Creek. Houses grew up around this in a settlement referred to as Hess' Mill, primarily to house the mill's workers. By 1825, when the turnpike road was completed between Boonsboro and Sharpsburg, this area was called Centreville for its position on that road. In 1833, John Keedy bought 128 acres, which included the Hess Mill and at least half of the land along Main Street. When the town applied for a post office in 1840, they were told that the name Centreville was already in use, so the town used the name Keedysville for John Keedy.

Boonsboro was laid out by George and William Boone in 1792 and named Margaretville for George's wife. The Boone brothers might have been related to Daniel Boone, but they did come from Berks County, Pa., as did Daniel's family. They were originally granted the land in 1774. By 1796, there were five houses in the town, and there were 29 in 1802. The town was incorporated in 1831.

The 18th century was a period of rapid growth for Washington County. Towns were formed as the area grew populous enough to support the businesses and craftspeople that lived there. Many more towns came later - including Clear Spring in 1821, Leitersburg in 1815, Smithsburg in 1813 and Maugansville in 1827.

To learn more about Washington County's history, join the third annual Museum Ramble May 6 and 7, sponsored by the Washington County Association of Museums and Historical Sites and the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau. For information or directions, contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau at 301-791-3246, the Washington County Association of Museums and Historical Sites at 301-733-3638 or visit

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