Early Doddridge Settlers - Legends & Facts
This week I want to focus on a few of the earliest settlers of Doddridge County. The traditional belief is that James Caldwell was the first landowner and settler in present-day Doddridge County, but that is not entirely correct. Caldwell was part of a land syndicate that owned several thousand acres of land near and around West Union, but James Caldwell only owned a portion of that acreage. He and a few other individuals purchased several land grants that constituted a 25 square-mile area encompassing present-day Nutters Fork, Smithburg, West Union and Bluestone.
We always hear the names Nathan Davis and Lewis Maxwell associated with our first settlers, but we never read about anyone else. This article will focus on the other settlers who were living in Doddridge County even before the Davises and the Maxwells.
Below are the two main sources of historical information about Doddridge County that people are generally exposed to:
Wikipedia’s entry about Doddridge County
“The area that became Doddridge County, Virginia, now West Virginia, was first settled in the late 1780s by James Caldwell, who owned 20,000 acres of land that included present West Union. Caldwell sold this land to Nathan Davis, Jr and his brothers about 1807. They in turn sold 16,000 acres to Lewis Maxwell, a Virginia Assembly delegate in the 1820s”
Hardesty’s 1883 History of Doddridge County
“The land upon which the town of West Union now stands, was patented about the year 1787, by James Caldwell; the survey contains 20,000 acres, the whole of which he sold to Nathan Davis and his brothers William and Joseph, in the year 1807, for the sum of 23 cents per acre. They removed to the lands in 1808, and soon after sold the greater portion of the land to Lewis Maxwell, at the same price.”
My research has found both Hardesty and Wikipedia to be in error on several points.
Caldwell Not the First Settler
James Caldwell (b. 1724 in Ireland, d. 1804 in Wheeling) purchased thousands of acres of Virginia Land Grants between 1780 and 1790. At that time, this area was virtually uninhabitable due to the Indian Wars and the lack of traversable roads.
The first semblance of a road eked out of the dense vegetation that spanned present-day Doddridge County was the Clarksburg-to-Marietta State Road. We know that it was a usable road in 1791 because famed Indian fighter Nicholas Carpenter left his home in Clarksburg on a cattle drive headed to Marietta and was attacked and killed by Indians in September 1791 several miles this side of the Ohio River.
In the late 1700s, James Caldwell and other large landowners such as Archibald Woods and Moses Chapline formed a land syndicate and started surveying and selling their tracts of land. This syndicate, including James Caldwell, John Caldwell, Archibald Woods and Moses Chapline, owned 20 contiguous tracts totaling 16,200 acres that encompassed the present town of West Union.
No Land Record for Nathan Davis Jr. in 1807
The part of Hardesty’s article that I find unprovable is the statement that “Caldwell sold this land to Nathan Davis, Jr and his brothers about 1807.” I have not been able to find any records to substantiate this land transaction in or anywhere near the year 1807. The only deed that I have found around that time-frame for Nathan Davis, Jr. is for a 150-acre tract of land purchased from Jacob and Rebecca Israel on October 21, 1806, and 202 acres purchased from his father on August 20, 1810. I have spent dozens and dozens of hours looking at microfilm at the State Archives in Charleston and hundreds of hours in the Doddridge and Harrison county court houses looking for any deed(s) amounting to 16,200 acres in or around 1807, but have been unsuccessful.
I did finally find a deed for the 16,200 acres in Harrison County Deed Book 16, page 356, but it is dated July 2, 1821, almost 14 years after what has traditionally been reported. The deed was from the land syndicate to Nathan Davis, Joseph Davis, James Davis, John Jarvis, David Kershner and Jonathan Howell. The 16,200 acres was sold for the price of $4,000 ($0.25 per acre.) The deed reads:
20 parcels totaling 16,200 acres by letters of patent from Ohio County on the Middle Island Creek:
Five 1,000 acre lots to James Caldwell dated 7 Apr 1786
Five 1,000 acre lots to John Caldwell dated 7 Apr 1786
Four 620 acre lots to Archibald Woods dated 7 and 8 Apr 1786
One 660 acre lot to Archibald Woods dated 7 and 8 Apr 1786
Four 620 acre lots to Moses Chapline dated 7 and 8 Apr 1786
One 580 acre lot to Moses Chapline dated 7 and 8 Apr 1786
"20 adjoining tracts on the Middle Island Creek in now Harrison County, Virginia beginning on the bank of the Middle Island Creek at a place known by the name of Willow Island. Whereas the said parties of the second part have made ? and otherwise acquired title to certain portions of the land aforesaid and whereas the parties of the first part have brought ejectments in Harrison County to turn the said parties of the second part out of the possession and the said parties having come to amicable settlement of the same."
The above deed implies the Davises never had a clear title to the 20 parcels of land until 1821, when they were accused of trespassing, and had to pay $4000 to purchase a legal right to the land. Nathan Davis, Joseph Davis, James Davis, John Jarvis, David Kershner and Jonathan Howell sold Lewis Maxwell the entire 16,200 acres on December 8, 1825.
Congressman Lewis Maxwell Not an Early Resident of Doddridge
Lewis Maxwell, although a very prominent figure in our history, did not actually reside in Doddridge County until sometime between 1850 and 1860. In fact, his nephews, Franklin Maxwell and Williams Maxwell, were here long before he was. Lewis Maxwell definitely owned a vast amount of property in Doddridge County very early on, but he did not move here until he was over 60 years old. He died in 1862 at age 71 and is buried in the Old Seventh Day Baptist Section of the Blockhouse Hill Cemetery.
The Mysterious Willow Island
Another interesting fact found in this deed is the mention of a place called Willow Island on Middle Island Creek. At first I thought I was misreading Willow Island, until I found a map dated 1821 with an area marked Willow Island on Middle Island Creek just outside of present-day West Union in Doddridge County. Since then I have come across many references to this same Willow Island. However, even with the deeds and the 1821 map, I have been unable to pinpoint Willow Island’s exact location today. Looking at the map, it appears to be in the bend below Maston Road, but almost 200 years later, there is no visible evidence of this island.
Doddridge Residents of 1804
I have found an entire village of people living along the Middle Island Creek between Fairview (Smithburg) and West Union even before Nathan Davis came to West Union. The following men living in the village of Middle Island signed a Legislative Petition on December 6, 1804, asking the Virginia Assembly to change the county boundaries so that they would have to travel only to Clarksburg, instead of to Wheeling, to attend military muster and court:
Barnabas B. Lothridge
For some reason, these men and their families have been largely overlooked by researchers of early Doddridge County history. If not for the 1804 petition, I would never have known that several of these people ever set foot in present-day Doddridge County. I have been able to figure out who most of these early residents were, but I still have no idea where Barnabas B. Lothridge came from or where he went. In any case, we must recognize the efforts and sacrifices of all these pioneers in blazing the way for what was to become our Doddridge County.
(NOTE: This article, written by Heritage Guild member Jennifer Wilt, originally appeared in The Doddridge Independent as part of her weekly column “Our Heritage: The REAL History of Doddridge County.”)