With all of its modern amenities, it's hard to imagine that the
small community of Shepherdstown may be the oldest town in the
state of West Virginia.
Shepherdstown is situated on a bluff overlooking the Potomac
River, and archeological evidence indicates Native Americans
camped in and around the area long before the Europeans. Several
major battles between warring tribes are said to have occurred at
a ford a few miles downstream.
Descendants of European settlers may have migrated here a early
as 1719. Once known as Potomoke, it eventually became known as
Mecklenburg in the 1730s and was chartered in 1762 by the Virginia
General Assembly. It was renamed Shepherd's Town in 1798 in honor
of Thomas Shepherd, an early settler. After the Civil War, the
community was officially recognized as Shepherdstown.
In 1762, the General Assembly also authorized the community to
host a biannual agricultural and mechanical fair "for the
sale and vending of cattle, victuals, provisions, goods, wares and
merchandise." Like many small communities, it had a variety
of cottage industries including a local gunsmith who made long
After "Redcoats" and "Minutemen" clashed at
Lexington and Concord, local settlers began drilling in the lot
behind what is now the Entler Hotel. They were organized into a
company led by Hugh Stephenson. Beginning July 16, 1775, they
participated in what would become known as the "Beeline
March" to Boston, Massachusetts. They marched nearly 600
miles in 24 days -- a tremendous feat given the condition of roads
in those days.
With its economy closely linked to local agriculture growth,
change came slowly to the small community. The community was
briefly considered as a site for the National Capital. That may
have come to pass if it were possible for 19th century sea-going
vessels to sail up the Potomac River.
As it was, the community experienced a small boom with the
construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal along the north
bank of the Potomac in the 1830s, giving local farmers access to
The canal was the cause of some acrimony during the Civil War.
According to one account, Rebel sympathizers from the
Shepherdstown area snipped at canal boat men and workers at the
Antietam Iron Works at the mouth of Antietam Creek, Maryland.
Sharpsburg area residents retaliated by placing a very old cannon
near the Ferry Hill estate and bombarding the town with whatever
projectiles were handy.
Truces were made and broken and the shelling stopped after
Rebels reportedly captured the cannon and dumped it in the Potomac
The greatest crisis the town experienced occurred September 17,
1862, when hundreds of wounded Confederates from the Battle of
Antietam flooded into town. It wasn't long before there wasn't a
single building in the community that wasn't converted into a
field hospital. Many of the men who didn't survive that battle are
buried in the town's cemetery.
Three days after Federals and Confederates tangled at Antietam,
rebels repelled a half-hearted attempt by the Yankees to pursue
them in a brief but bloody battle on the bluffs overlooking Pack
Horse Ford. (The ford also is known as Swearingen's and
Just months before the end of the Civil War, the Jefferson
County seat was moved to Shepherdstown. In June 1866, a new
courthouse was built in the town by Rezin D. Shepherd, a
descendant of Thomas Shepherd. The structure was reportedly placed
on the site of Shepherd's Fort.
What followed was a protracted political battle over which
community would be the county seat -- Shepherdstown or Charles
Town. The battles raged in the courts and the state legislature,
and finally, in 1871 the state Supreme Court declared Charles Town
as the county seat.
Dejected but not defeated, the Shepherdstown community leaders
found a way to make use of its now empty courthouse.
In 1872 they incorporated a "a classical and Scientific
Institute" and named it Shepherd College. A year later, they
persuaded the state of West Virginia to use it as a "normal
school" -- a teacher's college. The one-time courthouse
eventually became known as McMurran Hall, named for the school's
The college is the core of the community's economy and one of
the reasons why Shepherdstown is now known as "Georgetown
Area of Shepherdstown