The headlines in the Saturday, Feb. 19, Herald-Mail announced the intention of VT Industries to move one of its plants in Shelbyville, Ind., to Washington County. There are nine Shelby counties and probably as many towns named to honor Isaac Shelby. It is possible that very few are aware of the fact that Isaac was born on “Maiden’s Choice” (now Montpelier), a farm on Broadfording Road just east of Clear Spring. Members of the Charles Downs family currently live on that site.
There could be some debate about whether Isaac or his father, Evan Shelby Jr., is the more notable historic figure. It is true that Isaac engaged in several Indian hostilities, including a major clash alongside a brother and father at the battle of Point Pleasant in Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774. Isaac was also recognized as a hero at the battle of King’s Mountain during the Revolutionary War. His renown, however, is due to his service as the first governor of Kentucky. Local author Roger Keller has written his biography and ranks Isaac above his father.
As the author of Evan Shelby Jr.’s biography, I tend to give Evan the edge but would not get heated about the matter. Evan was a great soldier and taught Isaac many skills that made for success on the frontier. Evan joined the forces led by Gen. Forbes to subdue Fort Duquesne in 1758. There are accounts of leadership and bravery attributed to Shelby in that successful campaign that forced the French to torch and desert their outpost and return to Canada.
Evan then returned to Maidens Choice and made the decision to try his luck in the risky fur trade. Unfortunately, he became a victim of the wily Ottawa warrior, Pontiac, and lost all of his trade goods. To make things worse, a destructive fire at his home brought on more loses and Shelby was forced to sell his lands to cover his debts. He then followed the typical practice of moving to another colony to get a new start.
It must have been a heart- wrenching experience for the Shelby family to load all of their goods and trek to a new farm site that was situated on the line between Virginia and Tennessee. Left behind were the mountains and valleys that reminded them so much of their beloved home that faced the Cambrian Range in Wales. My parents lived on one small former Shelby plot known as “The Re-Survey of the Mountain of Wales.”
The elder Shelby was a leader in several campaigns against the Cherokees, who stoutly resisted the encroachments of the white intruders. He built Fort Shelby and opened a trading post to serve the community.
We can get some sense of the kind of person that Evan Shelby was from a story I discovered while doing research at the Maryland Archives in Annapolis. Evan served several terms as a justice on the Frederick County Court that heard cases in Frederick Town. Shelby rode his horse from Maidens Choice, across South Mountain, to serve. You might say that he applied primitive frontier justice in making decisions.
On one occasion, a young woman made the charge that a neighbor man was the father of her child. Justice Shelby ordered the man to come to his court. He then ordered a marriage in which he conducted the ceremony. Next came an order to consummate the marriage at a convenient place near the courthouse. The young man must have had second thoughts about the day’s events and was about to sneak away in the dark. There was an unexpected shock to see Justice Shelby confronting him with a pitchfork and the threat that, “If you try to escape your responsibilities, I will jab this fork into your gut.”
We are accustomed to the term, “shotgun wedding” but who has ever heard of a pitchfork wedding? The Shelby family exhibited the qualities required to survive on the frontier: toughness, courage, ambition, intelligence and rugged individualism. They had no reservations about their incursions onto the hunting grounds of the native Americans.
The newcomers from Shelbyville, Ind., should feel at home when they discover the connection between their Shelby heritage and that existing here in Washington County. Who could imagine a fictitious tale to match the real story of a family on the Maryland frontier that migrated to the wilderness on the Carolina border? Some of their friends and military associates then move on to Indiana and prosper over the years. Their descendants, though few in number, end up as employees of VT Industries who make the move to Maryland. Like fiction, the historic cycle is now complete. As optimists, we could hope that they find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College. He writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail.