Washington County History

Washington County Maryland is located in the Great Application Valley region. This valley represents a series of low land areas within the Appalachian range which extends from above Maine down to Georgia and Alabama. The section Washington County is located in is referred to as the Cumberland Valley although parts of the Cumberland Valley extend into Pennsylvania.

Washington County was created from Frederick County 6 Sep 1776. In 1789 Allegheny County was born from Washington County. The county seat is in Hagerstown, MD.

Among notable areas of interest in the county are the many old stone arch bridges, Fort Frederick State Park, and the first completed monument to George Washington in the country located atop South Mountain. The area is best known for the activity that took place during the Civil War. Antietam Battlefield hosted the bloodiest one day battle in American history on 17 Sep 1862.
Washington liked the area and he proposed Williamsport for the location of the nation’s capital. Upon considering that the Potomac was not navigable through to Williamsport, the idea was abandoned. He also promoted the C & O Canal and enjoyed the springs at Hancock.

When the area was settled about 1735 eastern coastal settlements had already been established for 100 years or more. The Appalachian ridge inhibited travel to the valley so the early settlers rarely had the familiar items found at the coastal settlements. Local resources had to be used for food and clothing. Many did not have coffee, tea, or even flour to make bread. The closest city was Philadelphia as Washington, DC and Baltimore had not been planned at this time. These early settlers found an incredibly rich fertile land worthy of their efforts to tame it. During this time the English governors applied incentives to settle into the area. Many stayed, but some moved on to the Kentucky wilderness. It is not hard to imagine that when they first saw the valley after getting a peek over South Mountain they were awe struck by the sight and wondered what wonderful lands lay beyond. The mixes of people were of varied backgrounds. In addition to the original land owners who took advantage of the incentives, there were indentured servants and almost certainly convicts deposited from England.

Prior to colonization it was not uncommon to find Indian factions fighting over the hunting rights to the area. European settlers would have their own conflicts with the Indians presumably for the same reason. The Delawares would migrate into the area from the north and the Catawbas came up from the south. The Delawares lost many of their battles with the Catawbas and it is known that an Indian burial ground exists near Williamsport that likely contains many of the fallen warriors.

The first official settlement was in Conococheague where on the west bank of the creek, in 1739 was a parcel titled to Charles Friend. In December of that year Jonathan Hager received a patent from Lord Baltimore for 200 acres of land. He received more tracts of land, the largest of which was 1780 acres ultimately holding 2488 acres. Hager’s wife Elizabeth died during this time and in her name he labeled the town Elizabethtown. Although this was the name it was incorporated under popular reference was to Hager’s Town and it was so named many years later as the current county seat of Hagerstown. It is amazing that Boonsboro was not settled until 1774 when George and William Boone were granted land at the foot of the mountain by the gap since settlers and other travelers would have to pass through there. The turn of the century saw only five houses there. In 1829 the Boone property was sold and the town was laid out in lots.

There was a huge influx of settlers which was the product of General Burgoyne’s defeat near Saratoga. While he returned to England with many of his officers after the defeat his army of 6200 men became prisoners of war. A section of this army came to settle in the Hagerstown area some of which became members of the Continental Army. One such man was John Whistler. One of his descendants is James Whistler the famous painter.

Prior to the formation of the United States land disputes occurred due to the vagueness of the original land grants from King Charles. Early disputes even ignored England’s claims to the land which had been settled largely by the Dutch and Swedish because the land claim was valid only if occupied. The English did not see the New World for its possibilities until after the Dutch had founded and prospered in New Netherland. The Dutch and English generally being friendly eventually came to an agreement and New Netherland was turned over to England. The Duke of York was granted the New Netherland area which he renamed New York and Lord Baltimore was granted south of the mouth of the Delaware River. When the Duke assigned the western tract of his holdings to William Penn the border was considered lower than Lord Baltimore expected and a land conflict was erupting. These disputes were generally settled but solidified once the Mason Dixon line was drawn dividing Pennsylvania and Maryland. While creating the boundary line an eight yard wide tract was cleared. This between 1765 and 1766 this work occurred at the northern border of Washington County. Fear of Indians allowed the progress to be discontinued for many years. The line was eventually finished and is marked by a pile of stones five feet high which marks the North West corner of Maryland.

Fort Frederick was built about 12 miles from Williamsport in order to sustain a complement of 200 troops after the defeat of General Braddock in the French and Indian war. The fort consisting of 20 foot high stone walls still stands today as one of Maryland’s only pre-revolutionary war relics. After the Braddock defeat many barbarous acts occurred in the county at the hands of the Indians. Many settlers left the area to return after the hostility had subsided and ushered in a period of substantial growth.

As trade developed between residents of Maryland and Virginia the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was developed and it was decided there would be no tariffs for goods passing either way via this mechanism. This allowed great growth for Hagerstown which acted as a hub of activity in the region. Today the east west interstate highway intersects the north south interstate continuing the tradition of Washington County as a hub of activity.

During the time between the French and Indian conflicts and the start of the Revolution Mr. Hager was elected to the Maryland Assembly. The Assembly refused to allow him a seat as it was learned he was a German immigrant lacking the privileges of a British or Irish subject. The House of Delegates undertook the passing of a provincial law superseding the English law allowing Mr. Hager to have his seat in the assembly. After his return from his term with the assembly he was overseeing the construction of a German Reformed Church when while at a mill a timber slipped and struck him down dead. If he had lived one year longer he would have seen his town become the county seat of a new county named after the patriot called upon to command the Continental Army.

Having been experienced in the French and Indian War many members of the county stepped forward to join the Revolutionary War effort. Two companies were formed that marched to Boston armed with tomahawk and rifles and dressed in deerskins. It is told that to prove their marksmanship one would hold a target between their knees as an exhibition of marksmanship. One soldier was Otho Williams who came to command one of the companies. He was captured during the Fort Washington conflict in New York and became a prisoner of war. He was later exchanged for a British officer and given command of the Sixth Maryland Regiment. He purchased a tract of land at the mouth of the Conococheague where he laid out the town of Williamsport in 1787. He died in 1794 and is buried in the cemetery in Williamsport where a monument to his memory was erected. One of the only duties during this war for Washington County was the confinement of some British prisoners of war in Fort Frederick. Another event of interest was the arrest of Dr. John Connelly who was a Pennsylvanian tory charged with heading west to form an army that would march back through Washington County and Frederick counties to divide the American forces from the north and south.