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Warren County is located on the eastern side of the Shenandoah Valley at the point where the north and south branches of the Shenandoah River combine in their northward flow to the Potomac River. “Shenandoah” means “great plain” in Iroquoian languages, and the Shenandoah River has always been a source of transportation, beauty and many valuable resources.

Early indigenous peoples built in Warren County what is considered to be the oldest permanent structure east of the Mississippi River in North America – an 11,000-year-old ceremonial building – the archaeological remains of which are known today as the Thunderbird Site.

The first documented European explorer to see Warren County and the Shenandoah Valley, John Lederer in 1670, noted an almost eerie absence of native peoples, whose populations by that time had been eradicated from the region by warfare and disease. By the early 1700s, when fur trapping and land prospecting began in the Shenandoah Valley, the Cherokee, Iroquois, Delaware and Shawnee peoples were using the valley as a collective hunting ground.

In 1730 a group of German immigrants led by Joist Hite purchased several thousand acres of land in the northern Shenandoah Valley. A number of Scots-Irish Quaker families from Maryland, led by Robert McKay, came at the same time as Hite’s Germans. McKay’s home, finished in 1731 in Cedarville, was the first documented house to be built in what would become Warren County, and the McKay Quaker Meeting House nearby was the first house of worship to be erected in the area.

In 1734 Thomas Chester established a ferry service known as Chester’s Ferry at the confluence of the forks of the Shenandoah River. In the 1740s an English Lord, Thomas, Lord Fairfax, the Sixth Baron of Cameron, came to the area to lay claim to his inheritance: a 5 million-acre swath of the colony that extended from the Chesapeake Bay through the Shenandoah Valley and on to western Maryland. Fairfax’s first home in the Shenandoah Valley was in Howellsville, a hamlet in what is now eastern Warren County.

Farifax invited George Washington as a teenager to come live with him and learn the trade of surveying, and so the nation’s founding father became intimately familiar with what would become Warren County. In 1754 a large extended family under the leadership of a French Huguenot, Peter LeHew, settled at the foot of the Blue Ridge along the road leading from Chester’s Gap to Chester’s Ferry, and LeHewtown was established. During the French & Indian War, LeHewtown was known as the Royal Frontier of the British Empire, hence the town’s name at the time of its charter in 1788: Front Royal.

The area was removed from the fighting of the American Revolution, but saw many British and Hessian prisoners who were marched through LeHewtown and detailed to work in area farms during the war. By the end of the Revolution, the region as a whole experienced a flood of western-bound settlers, pushing through the Valley to the Cumberland Gap and on to Kentucky and Tennessee. The newly chartered Town of Front Royal capitalized on its position astride this major east-west migration route, becoming a hub of manufacturing and industry to service the migrants with wagon making shops, blacksmith shops, sutlers and taverns. u

Front Royal also became a destination for eastern-bound river traffic, as gundalows (the valley’s own unique raft boats) pulled ashore here to offload milled wheat and iron ore to waiting wagon drivers who hauled merchandise over the Blue Ridge to eastern ports. The combination of taverns, western settlers and boatmen often made Front Royal a rowdy frontier town, but at the same time multiple congregations were organizing and building churches throughout Front Royal and the surrounding area, providing some balance – at least on Sundays.

By the coming of railroads and canals in the 1830s, the overland migration routes changed, and when Warren County was incorporated in March 1836, the community maintained its small but thriving industrial center in Front Royal, with small farming villages surrounding the county seat. While various entrepreneurs tried all manner of manufacturing in town – Front Royal has been home to a glove factory, a piano factory, a silk mill, a brandy distillery and even a ketchup factory over the years – wheat was fast becoming the staple cash crop in the cultivated sections of the county. Wheat farming demanded mills to convert the crop to flour, and so a pattern was created of centralized mills serving farming communities engaged in wheat cultivation throughout Warren County, with crops leaving the county by wagon on dirt roads, on train by the new rail service to Manassas, or downriver by gundalow to Harpers Ferry.

When the Civil War came in 1861, Warren County bore, with the rest of Virginia, much of the horrors of the war. Great battles fought nearby meant a steady stream of wounded to be cared for and supplies to be collected. On May 23, 1862, the Battle of Front Royal took place in the streets and buildings of the county seat as Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson overran the Federal garrison here. That year Warren County would lose use of the 25-year old wooden bridges spanning the forks of the Shenandoah as they were burned repeatedly by retreating troops of both armies.

In 1863 Warren County saw the last battle of the Gettysburg Campaign, as Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army held off Union General George Meade’s men during the Battle of Wapping Heights east of Front Royal. On Aug. 16, 1864 the Battle of Guard Hill, the largest battle to be fought in Warren County, took place north of Front Royal, and was followed by the battles of Milford and Cedar Creek that autumn. On Sept. 23 six men from the 43rd Virginia – Mosby’s Rangers – were captured in Front Royal and executed by Federal cavalry, and throughout the fall Union troops burned mills and crops in the county as part of a campaign known as The Burning, designed to deprive the Confederacy of foodstuffs from the Shenandoah Valley.

The war’s end saw Warren in ruins, its economy shattered, and its population drained. Except for railroad spans built in the late 1800s, new bridges would not connect Front Royal to the outside world for another three decades.

The turn of the century saw new life breathed into Warren County, which had slowly recovered during Reconstruction with the development of the Bank of Warren and the renewal of some light industry. By the 1890s the Front Royal-Riverton Improvement Company had incorporated, built new bridges, laid out new neighborhoods, and encouraged new factories to locate in Front Royal and Riverton – advertised then as “Virginia’s Twin Cities.” The county drew its labor pool locally and from surrounding counties that remained largely agricultural, and by the 1930s the American Viscose Corporation had constructed an enormous rayon plant which would employ over 80 percent of the county’s workforce by the 1940s. Wheat continued to be the most important cash crop for farmers until being eclipsed by apples in the early 1900s.

The Great Depression affected every section of the country, but Warren County played host to a particularly wide variety of public works projects during that time, the largest of which was Shenandoah National Park and its Skyline Drive. The newly formed Civilian Conservation Corps built a camp in Dismal Hollow from which men left each morning to work on the overlooks and roadbed of Skyline Drive and to plant trees in the newly created Shenandoah National Park, and eventually to work on other projects such as the Front Royal Golf Course, the Warren County Courthouse, the Town of Front Royal Town Hall and the Warren County Fish Hatchery. Tourism was now added to agriculture and industry as an important part of Warren County’s livelihood.

During the two World Wars Warren County industry – mainly the American Viscose (AVTEX) rayon plant – would distinguish Warren County as a major contributor to the nation’s war efforts. Also, beginning in 1913 the US Army operated a five-thousand acre base and training facility in Warren County known as the US Army Front Royal Remount Depot, designed to train horses for use in the military. The base remained open until 1947, and today is operated by the Smithsonian Institution as a research zoo.

Today Warren County still stands at the nexus of several transportation routes and has become part of the greater Washington D.C. community and economy. Warren County receives many visitors and even new residents from northern Virginia, and also sends many folks in the opposite direction for work and school. This pattern was facilitated in the 1970s with the construction of I-66 which runs east-west through Warren County, and has been spurred along by the influence of growth in the Washington, D.C. area. Warren County continues then to grow and change as a result, with its position as a transportation hub continuing to define that growth as it has for centuries.

Submitted by
Patrick Farris
Executive Director
Warren Heritage Society

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