A 250-Year Flashback
Thursday, April 26, 2007
History is one of Loudoun County's chief preoccupations. Anyone who has toured one of its century-old farms, watched Colonial reenactors on the courthouse lawn or listened to citizens talk passionately about preservation of the rural views can attest to that.
But the past has even more significance this year as Loudoun celebrates its 250th anniversary, a milestone that gives us an opportunity to imagine a time when the county was in its infancy and the life of its residents was a cycle of unabated work to push back the wilderness.
The Virginia General Assembly created Loudoun in April 1757, forming it from part of Fairfax County. Leesburg did not yet exist. Two huddles of buildings might have passed for villages, Janney's Mill (now Waterford) and The Gap (now Hillsboro). The remainder of the land was forest and scrub punctuated by farms. Corn, wheat, small grains and tobacco were the main crops. Paths and cartways connected places where people lived and congregated.
Fairfax objected to the partition, for it was losing its most productive farmland. But the legislature usually decided that formation of a new county was necessary when it took more than a day's travel to reach the courthouse. And for many in upper Loudoun, a visit to the Fairfax courthouse was an overnight journey that involved crossing three large and unpredictable streams -- Goose Creek, Broad Run and Difficult Run.
The new county was named for the British crown's newly appointed acting governor of Virginia, John Campbell, who was given the title Lord Loudoun. He also commanded the king's forces in North America, an important task as the war with the French was in its second year. Lord Loudoun's indecisiveness led to his being fired after 18 months.
About 60 percent of Loudoun's 3,500 inhabitants were from counties to the east and south; 20 percent were Quaker and German migrants from Pennsylvania; and the others were African American slaves, many of them belonging to absentee landlords from the Tidewater region.
The typical Loudoun resident was part of a closely knit family of six: a husband, a wife and four children. One child had died.
The cycle of a new life in new surroundings began in early spring. The father had saved enough money to buy staples until the first autumn harvest was in. He rented 100 to 200 wilderness acres from an absentee owner's overseer, who managed the plantation holdings. They concluded their spoken contract with a handshake, because neither could write or read complex words.
With help from neighbors -- the nearest being one-quarter to one-half mile away -- and the older children, the family sawed trees and built a one-story log home of 16 by 20 feet, the minimum size required by Virginia law. It stood near a spring and stream.
In late March or early April, the father, older children and neighbors, with the help of the family's ox and horse and the neighbors' beasts, prepared land for corn, wheat and small grains. The plows, rakes and hoes were fashioned from hardwood. The wife and smaller children tilled and planted a garden and some apple seeds.
The cropland was too large to be enclosed by wood fencing, but many scarecrows and strategically placed piles of low stone at the fields' borders discouraged birds and wild animals. The family constructed a privy, a hog pen and a fence of small logs to enclose the house and garden.
No clock measured time, but the wife, who could write and read some, kept a journal. The workday began with the sun rising and ended with its setting.