Highlights of Preston County’s Early History
Preston County was created by an act of the Virginia General Assembly on January 19, 1818, from parts of Monongalia County. It was named in honor of James Patton Preston (1774-1843). He was born on June 21, 1774, in Smithfield, Virginia. He was a student at William and Mary College (1790-1795) and organized an artillery company in 1799. In 1801, he married Anne Taylor of Norfolk, Virginia, and they subsequently had six children, In 1802, he was elected to the Virginia General Assembly. He later served as a Colonel in the War of 1812 and was seriously injured at the Battle of Chrystler’s Field on November 11, 1813. He later served as the Governor of Virginia from 1816 to 1819. During his tenure in office, the University of Virginia was established (in 1819). He ended his career as postmaster of Richmond, Virginia. He died on May 4, 1843.
Preston County’s European Pioneers and Settlers
Preston County was visited by several trappers and hunters during the early 1700s, but their names were not recorded. The Eckerlin (or Echarly) brothers were the first English settlers to arrive in present-day Preston County. Most accounts indicate that Dr. Samuel Eckerlin and two brothers (probably Gabriel and Israel) left eastern Pennsylvania in 1751 or 1752 after a disagreement with other church leaders. They were members of a monastic religious order located at Ephrata, Pennsylvania, west of Philadelphia, that did not approve of violence, war, or military service (their order was often referred to as the Dunkards, an offshoot of the German Seventh Day Baptist Church). Initially, they settled in present-day Monongalia County, near Morgantown, and, after exploring the area, finally settled on the east side of the Cheat River at Duckard Bottom in present-day Preston County. In 1756, with their supply of ammunition and salt nearly exhausted, Samuel Eckerlin returned east to the Shenandoah Valley (in the general vicinity of Winchester, Virginia) with a pack of furs to trade for a fresh supply of ammunition, salt, and clothes. On the way back, he stopped over at Fort Pleasant on the South Branch of the Potomac River. The settlers there imprisoned him, believing he was a spy of the Indians. At that time, the French and Indian War (1754-1763) was underway and the settlers were subject to several Indian raids. They finally allowed him to return to his settlement, but only after he agreed to be accompanied by several armed guards. The guards were supposed to return him to Fort Pleasant for trial if it turned out that the settlement did not exist. When they reached his cabin, they found it burnt to the ground and his brothers’ scalped bodies lying on the ground. After burying his brothers, he decided to abandon the settlement and return to the safety of Forth Pleasant. He later returned to the Philadelphia area.
Another version of the story is that when Samuel Eckerlin and his brothers left Eastern Pennsylvania, the robbed the church of gold and several precious stones. They were also accompanied by several other families that shared their religious beliefs. When Samuel Eckerlin returned to the settlement with the armed guards from Fort Pleasant, he found all of the settlement’s buildings burned to the ground, and the bodies of twenty-seven of its thirty inhabitants. The missing settlers were Samuel’s two brothers, and an indentured servant named Baltzer Shilling. Shillings later reported that the settlement was attacked by about fifty Indians led by a French priest. The three prisoners were then taken to Quebec and never heard of again. Shilling was made a slave and sent to an Indian Settlement on the Sandusky River. He later escaped and eventually reunited with Samuel Eckerlin.
Although it is not clear which of these accounts is accurate, the Eckerlin brothers are credited as being the first known settlers in present-day Preston County.
In 1761, four deserters from Fort Pitt, William Childers, Joseph Lindsey, John Pringle and his brother Samuel Pringle, were the next Englishmen to pass through present-day Preston County. They established a camp site near present-day Aurora before following an Indian trail south into present-day Grant County, where they were found and arrested. The Pringle brothers escaped and returned to Preston County. After the French and Indian War concluded, John Pringle moved to Kentucky. Samuel remained in the area.
In 1766, Thomas Butler and several of his brothers became the first permanent residents of present-day Preston County. They were soon joined by Thomas Chipps, Jacob Corzad, John Scott, James Clark, and John (or Jacob) Judy.
In 1767, surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon cut their famous twenty-four-foot-wide Mason-Dixon boundary line along the northern edge of Preston County.
Other early settlers in the county included Samuel Worral, Sr., and his son, Samuel Worrel, Jr., David Frazee, Richard Morris, and Anthony and Joshua Worley. They were all living in the county by 1770.
In 1782, there were forty-eight families residing in the county, including 269 freemen and six slaves. In 1790, the first national census indicated that there were about 1,000 people residing in the county.
Important Events in Preston County during the 1800s
On February 27, 1827, the Virginia General Assembly incorporated the Northwestern Road Company to construct a turnpike (toll road) connecting Winchester, Romney, Moorefield, Beverly, Kingwood, Pruntytown, Clarksburg, and Parkersburg. However, due to the steep terrain in the Kingwood area, the road’s route was shafted south of Kingwood. This made it difficult for the company to attract investors to build the road through the county, because most of the county’s residents were in the Kingwood area. They were not interested in investing in a road that ran through southern Preston County. As a result, after seeing little progress on the road’s construction, the state of Virginia took over the project in 1831. The Northwest Turnpike was completed over the next seven years (generally running along the current U.S. Route 50). It attracted new settlers to southern Preston County by shortening the time and effort required for people and goods to reach eastern Virginia. Also, for the next several decades, many smaller turnpikes and public roads were opened throughout the county, many of them connecting into the Northwest Turnpike. In the meantime, the norther portion of the county continued to rely on the National Road, which ran from the eastern seaboard to Wheeling, for transporting goods back east. It passed just three miles north of the county’s border (generally running along the current U.S. Route 40).
In 1827, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company was incorporated and, after securing $4 million in stock, began construction of a rail line from Baltimore to the Ohio River at Wheeling. The Baltimore and Ohio rail line reached Cumberland in 1850 and Wheeling in 1852. Part of the rail line passed through northern Preston County. As soon as the railroad began operation within the county (the first train passed through the county on January 11, 1853), several small towns formed along the route. The railroad’s arrival was also instrumental in the expansion of Preston County’s coal mining and timber industries.
Important Events in Preston County during the 1900s
In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt, the nation’s first lady, visited the Scotts Run area in Monongalia County to see first-hand the difficulties faced by unemployed coal miners during the Great Depression. With her encouragement, Congress appropriated $25 million for the establishment of several self-sustaining, model homestead communities where the unemployed could find decent, affordable public rental housing, raise their own food, and work together to form for-profit businesses. The idea of using public money in this fashion was very controversial at the time. Arthurdale was selected as one of the demonstration sites.
Mrs. Roosevelt took special interest in the Arthurdale project. She visited the community on several occasions. Government funding was used to purchase 2,300 acres in the area and the community opened on June 7, 1934. By 1937, 165 homes, a community center, and six school buildings were constructed. Also, several factories were built. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke at Arthurdale High School’s graduation ceremony. Federal funding was later withdrawn as the national economy improved during World War II. The homes were sold to the renters, and the factories were sold to private firms.
The Preston County Seat
During the 1790s, John Miller and Hugh Morgan owned the land that would later become Kingwood. They laid out the town and offered plots for sale to settlers. The exact date the tow was laid out is not known because a fire at the Monongalia County courthouse in 1796 destroyed the county’s records. In 1798, Aaron Royse bought two plots for $20 and, in 1805, John S. Roberts bought three plots. Oral histories suggest that Hugh Morgan constructed the first house in Kingwood and, in 1810, built a store for John S. Roberts. Roberts reportedly had been selling goods from John Miller’s farmhouse, which was located about one mile east of town. Other early settlers were Conrad Sheets, Jacob Funk, and a man named Steele. They were all living in the town in 1807. They decided to name the town Kingwood because a large grove of stately trees grew in the area. The Virginia General Assembly established the town by legislative enactment on January 23, 1811, with John S. Roberts, Jacob Funk, William Price, James Brown, and Hugh Morgan serving as trustees. Kingwood was incorporated by the Virginia General Assembly on March 22, 1853.
Although the first meeting of the county court was supposed to convene on the first Monday in March 1818, it was actually held in early April 1818 in the upper east room at the house (tavern) of Colonel William Price in Kingwood. The house was known for many years as the “Herndon Hotel.” The justices present at the first courthouse meeting were: John Fairfax, Frederick Harsh, Hugh Evans, Nathan Metheny, Joseph Matthews, Nathan Ashby, William Sigler, Benjamin Shaw, and Felix Scott. During the first meeting, it was decided to purchase John S. Roberts store to serve as the county courthouse. Because of its color, the house was later generally referred to as the old red courthouse. A jail of hewed logs was built behind the courthouse to hold prisoners, and a whipping post was placed in front of the courthouse. Colonel John Fairfax, by virtue of his seniority as a justice, was appointed the county’s first sheriff. Lacking time to discharge his duties, he sold the appointment to Joseph D. Suit. Charles Byrne was appointed to county clerk and Eugenus Wilson was named the prosecuting attorney. At that time, Kingwood had less than 100 residents, and about 3,000 people resided in the county.