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Loudoun County: A Brief History for Newcomers

Today's Loudoun County was wilderness until its first white and black settlers arrived in the early 1730s, at least so it was thought of by Virginians in the 17th and early 18th centuries. It had seen many an Indian encampment in earlier times. Native Americans had come from the coast, down from upstate New York, up from the Carolinas and over from the Ohio Valley to trade each spring and fall. Camping along the Potomac up and down stream from the Point of Rocks, they left arrowheads, axe blades and other tool shards for Loudoun's later farmers to find in their spring plowing.

Considered part of the Southern Back Country, the county was settled from two directions. Coming up from Tidewater Virginia came farm managers, slaves and indentured servants working for the Tidewater aristocracy, beginning tobacco farms in the piedmont plain of eastern Loudoun. Coming from the Shenandoah Valley and from Pennsylvania came hardy Quaker, German and Scots-Irish immigrants wanting to start small farms. Settling in the Loudoun and Catoctin valleys of western Loudoun in sight of the mountains, they found the soil good and the climate congenial and thus prospered growing wheat. Crucially, these farmers chose not to use slave labor.

LOUDOUN BECAME an independent county in 1757 during the French and Indian War in order to establish its own militia for defense purposes. The county was named for Robert Campbell, the Lord Loudoun, a Scottish general sent by Great Britain to defend America against the French and Indian onslaught of that year. The county seat was established at Leesburg shortly thereafter. By the time of the American Revolution, the population had crested to 14,000, and its support for the Revolution was strong, if tempered by the desire to grow Ñ and financially benefit from Ñ its wheat crop for the needs of a wartime America. The Quaker population resisted fighting, as was their faith, which created tension.

In the years after the Revolution, mills and tiny mill villages popped up on nearly every creek, transportation improvements Ñ turnpikes, canals, and railroads Ñ became the keys to our future and Loudoun became one of Virginia's most prosperous counties. There are mills from this era standing today at Aldie, Waterford, and Taylorstown, and the stone mill village of Hillsboro still sits along Route 9. Indeed, the architectural inheritance from that time liberally sprinkles the back roads of Loudoun with handsome farmhouses. The local stone, brick and log architecture is unique to this section of the South. Historic Waterford is a gathered gem of Loudoun architecture. Grand houses such as Oatlands and Morven Park emerged, too, and like the Quaker village of Waterford, can still be visited.

The 1859 arrival of radical abolitionist John Brown at Harpers Ferry less than a mile from Loudoun's northwestern border left Loudouners with their 5,501 slaves in a panic, unsettling the years of pastoral effort and bliss. New militia companies sprang up all over. One local militia captain stormed, "We are armed to the teeth and ready for war! Being determined to defend our institutions from all assaults É if need be, at the point of bayonets and cannon's mouth!" When the War for Southern Independence began in the spring of 1861, Loudouners split 70/30 on the secession issue; those early German and Quaker immigrants resisted leaving the Union, although the majority supported it. A Union cavalry unit was raised at Waterford. Loudoun saw its first major battle in October 1861 at Balls Bluff near Leesburg as federal troops sought to cross the Potomac and were pushed over the riverside bluffs into the river. Nonetheless, in its exposed position, Loudoun soon fell to federal troops. Confederate encampments such as Camp Carolina, still viewable at Morven Park, were abandoned as rebel troops headed south. By 1863, several units of partisan rangers were operating against Union troops in Northern Virginia. By far the most famous and most successful was Col. John Singleton Mosby, for whom the Mosby Heritage Area that includes Loudoun is named. Stories of his prowess led to the television series The Gray Ghost some time ago. "Safe houses" for Mosby's Rangers are all over southwestern Loudoun to this day, in ironic contrast to "safe houses" of the Underground Railroad found at the Quaker villages of Lincoln and Waterford. Loudoun also saw the coming of the armies. Confederate troops on the way to Antietam and Union troops on the way to Gettysburg both used Loudoun as their route. In addition, the second largest cavalry engagement in American history took place as a five-day running battle along Route 50 from Aldie to Upperville in June of 1863 prior to Gettysburg. Truly, Civil War sites are found in every nook and cranny of Loudoun. Look for Virginia Civil War Trails signs and obtain materials from the Mosby Heritage Area to find out more. Balls Bluff Battlefield, Mt. Zion Church, Morven Park, Oatlands, Lanesville Historic Area at Claude Moore Park, Waterford and the Loudoun Museum all helpful in understanding the Civil War in Loudoun, as can be a visit to nearby Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

AFTER THE WAR, with freedom for the former enslaved African-Americans, freedmen's villages, homes, churches and schools popped up all over. Waterford still has a Freedmen's Bureau School on Second Street and an early African-American Church opposite the village mill to see and similar sites dot the villages and rural areas of Loudoun.

Many of the plantation houses fell on hard times after the war; in order to build the county's first public schools, as required by the federal government for Virginia to be readmitted to the Union, taxes skyrocketed. Many of the grand houses without the benefit of slavery and with high taxes fell on the auction block or were otherwise sold. Oatlands and Morven Park both found new owners by the turn of the century. It seems that the new industrial-commercial elite of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., had discovered the English character of the rolling country of Loudoun, Fauquier and Clarke counties. Loudoun soon found new revenues catering to the Hunt Country and in raising the horses they required. The equine history of these great houses can still be viewed on visits.

Simultaneously, the arrival of the railroad to Loudoun, remembered today as the Washington & Old Dominion, connected Loudoun to Washington and caused the sprouting of a number of villages into full-fledged Victorian towns. Hamilton, Purcellville and Round Hill are all of note here, with interesting commercial architecture, antique stores and handsome main street homes. They are reachable by Route 7 or on the Washington & Old Dominion Bike Trail, which uses the old rail route. These villages serviced the thriving farms of western Loudoun and were places of great social activity.

AFTER WORLD WAR II, the first "back-to-the-land" pioneers arrived from the Washington area in Loudoun county, some to establish new communities such as Sterling Park in eastern Loudoun, others to restore old homes on rural roads or in the historic villages and towns. By the 1960s, Loudoun's growth spiral was beginning; the opening of ultra-modern Dulles Airport provided an economic engine that just kept getting bigger. Today, the 1960s-1970s efforts towards historic preservation and restoration have been somewhat supplanted by massive growth; it is the hottest issue in Loudoun today Ñ and Loudoun is 21st century America's fastest growing county. Viewing the planned communities and zoning battles can be an instructional eye-opener; it is a window open to America's future.

Loudoun's history does not hide from us; it is a part of our everyday landscape. Cautiously tended and unfolded, it enriches the lives of all her residents who live with it.

Richard T. Gillespie is the director of education for the Mosby Heritage Area Association.