Formation of the Town Exhibit – Manual

ex-town-1-2-tnPanels 1 and 2           A Town is Born Around the Springs

In America, 18th century towns were formed along rivers, around harbors or at a crossroads. Not so Berkeley Springs. It has been a settlement since the 1750s and a formal town since 1776 because of the healing waters of the warm mineral springs. Once established as the country’s first spa, Berkeley Springs experienced a rich and colorful history with cycles of notoriety and decline. Patterns of growth were interrupted and redirected by a string of wars from the French and Indian War and American Revolution to the Civil War and World War 1. Destructive downtown fires were a more local cause of the down times. Rebuilding was a constant indicator of unshakeable destiny.

Who Owned the Town

Thomas, the Sixth Lord Fairfax inherited from his mother, Catherine Culpepper, the Northern Proprietary, 5.5 million acres of land between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, which includes 22 counties in today’s Virginia and West Virginia. The springs and surrounding land were part of that estate.

Finding numerous problems including land given away, rents not paid and the area filling up with settlers from Pennsylvania, Fairfax filed a petition with the King in 1733 asking for the boundaries to be clearly defined and his land confirmed. Fairfax came to Virginia in 1735 and commissioned a survey to be done the following year. He returned to England in 1737 to deal with countersuits to his claim by Jost Hite who had been settling people on Fairfax’s land without paying rent.

In 1745, the Privy Council in London finally settled the claims in Fairfax’s favor. He returned to Virginia in 1747 and remained until his death in 1781 at age 89, the only landed British lord to live in America during the Revolution. His Greenway estate is an historic site near Winchester, Virginia where he served as a magistrate.

Fairfax funded two major surveys that resulted in the first significant maps of the region. The first, by John Warner in 1736, did not show the springs. A 1746 version of Warner’s map did show Warm Springs. The second survey, done by Peter Jefferson (father of Thomas) in 1746 and printed in 1751, named them Medicinal Springs.

Source: Library of Congress • Map Room

Although he was reluctant to sell any land around the springs up until the town was actually established in 1776, Fairfax apparently favored such a town. Just before arriving in Virginia he wrote the following letter dated June 1, 1747. No addressee is named but it can be assumed that it was to one of his agents: his cousin William Fairfax or Warner Washington.

Having been informed that several persons who go to drink of and bathe in the Medicinal Springs near the mountains of Cape Capon and River Potomack within my Proprietary do unnecessarily bark and cut down Timber Trees on the waste and ungranted lands near the said springs and the mountain adjacent more than useful for the erecting and building the houses and cottages required to shelter than I desire you will in my name use your best endeavors to prevent such waste of timber. And, if upon your application the said persons will not desist you will acquaint one or more justices of Frederick County requiring their assistance towards restraining them. And if neither of these remonstrances will avail, than to send me the names of such willful trespassers that I may proceed against them according to law.

You may assure the gentlemen and others that if the waters continue to be useful in relieving the sick, I shall cause the lands around the springs to be surveyed and a number of convenient lots laid off for a town also give all fitting encouragement to invite people to inhabit and settle there.

Source: William Havemeyer manuscripts, NYC. Quoted in Barons of the Potomac & Rappahannock – by Moncure Conway.

In spite of the court’s ruling, Hite and others continued to poach Fairfax lands. Fairfax undertook to have his lands surveyed to confirm legitimate land grants. A 1748 surveying party set out in March and included his nephew George William Fairfax and a 16-year-old George Washington on his first surveying trip. Washington wrote of stopping at ye fam’d warm springs on March 18.

The beginning of a spa town in the early 1750s was derailed by the French and Indian War which drove water seekers away. Washington’s papers show entries for two visits to the springs in 1750 and 1751 with his brother Lawrence hoping the waters would cure what turned out to be fatal tuberculosis.

By 1756, the war was official. The primitive resort that had grown up around the springs was now behind enemy lines and no one was venturing into hostile Indian territory no matter how healing the waters were reported to be. George Washington had military command over the area and was concerned about Indian activity. He ordered his troops in the area to send out scouts and report to him, if you find the enemy at the Warm Springs.

A lively summer society returned in the 1760s and 1770s. Among those who came to “take the waters” were colonial notables. For nearly 30 years, Lord Fairfax was engaged in legal battles over ownership of his land. As a result, he awarded virtually no land grants around the springs. Many built cottages anyway on land around the springs they did not own. Charles Carroll of Carrollton was one of the most notable of squatters. Once the town was established in 1776 and lots made available, Carroll bought two.

Lord Fairfax and his family built both a cottage and a bath house in 1768. George Washington visited them. On other visits, Washington stayed in squatter-built lodging. In 1769, Fairfax’s nephew Robert reported that Lord Fairfax went for his annual visit to “our Bath.”

Charles Carroll was a signer of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland and member of the U.S. Senate. He was the longest lived of the signers and died at age 95. In 1828, he broke ground for the B&O Railroad. He bought lots 24 and 25 (on the southside of Market St. just off Washington) when the town was established.

His family was spending the summer in Bath in 1779 when the Baroness Frederica de Riedesel was there with her ill prisoner of war Hessian husband. The Baroness was quite taken with Mrs. Carroll ..a very amiable woman, and, notwithstanding her great attachment to her country, we became great friends. She generally spent the forenoons with us. She delighted in our musical displays, when captain Geimar played the violin, and I sang Italian airs.

De Riedesel left the springs and went to visit Mrs. Carroll: having begged me to pay her a visit on her estate in Maryland, whenever I should pass in the neighbourhood, I chose the present occasion.

Source: Letter & Memoirs of the Baroness Friederike Charlotte Luise de Risdesel

Petition requesting formation of town

A petition to the Virginia Legislature was signed on August 15, 1776 by more than 200 people now residing at the warm springs in the county of Berkeley asking that a town be formed to provide for the healthseekers who came for the springs. They stated that a town would increase the number of people coming, making this perhaps the earliest proposed tourism development project in America. The legislature met their request and a town was established by December.

Among the notable segments of this petition are the substantial numbers of people mentioned either residing at or visiting the springs which were still along the edge of the frontier. The petition signers are described as more than 200 people residing at the springs. Another segment claims that more than 700 people have been there at one time….. and there are at present upward of 400 persons.These numbers indicate the fame and success of the springs. Today, the population of the town of Bath is slightly more than 600.

Full text of petition:  To the honorable the speaker and the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Virginia the humble petition of the subscribers now residing in the warm springs in the County of Berkeley.

Herewith that the said springs have for many years past been resorted to by people afflicted with various disorders, great numbers of whom have every season, received much benefit from the use of the water. Your petitioners are informed that more than 700 have been there at one time, and can assure your Honorable House that there are at present upward of 400 persons, most of whom are attending for the benefit of their health. Your petitioners further show that the said springs, with the adjacent lands are held by the right Honorable Thomas Lord Fairfax, or by some person or persons under an office grant or other secret conveyance from him, that the said Lord Fairfax has been frequently applied to to erect proper buildings for the reception of company, or to grant the property of some part of the adjacent lands to such persons as were desirous of building thereon for that purpose, but could never be prevailed on to do so, by which means everyone whom misfortune drive thither, is subjected to many inconveniences, and the poor and more indigent suffer the greatest distress, not having shelters to save them from the inclemency of the weather, and being denied the privilege of cutting timber on his Lordship’s land, either for building or fuel, even of building with such as might be brought from the neighboring plantations. It is in commiseration of their case your petitioners assert themselves to you their representatives of the people of Virginia and pray your consideration of the premises and that you will take such measures as may secure the bounties of nature useful to mankind. Besides the relief that might be afforded to the poor and diseased your petitioners apprehend the great concourse of people from all parts of America finding proper accommodation to be procured would tend greatly to the publick ensulement. May it therefore please your honorable house to adopt some mode of rendering those natural advantages above mentioned of publick and general utility reserving to the said Lord Fairfax or his grantees all the profits which their property in the soil reasonably entitle them to and your petitioners shall ever be….

For more than 20 of those who signed the petition, their interest in forming a town led them to purchase lots at the auction of land in August 1777. Several of those who signed the petition and later purchased land were local residents and craftsmen. At that time, the Warm Springs and eventual town of Bath were located in Berkeley County. Others came from neighboring Hampshire County. Their names and some information about them follows.

Alexander White — (see more on panel 3)
Benjamin Carter — Virginia
William Weathers – Berkeley County farmer and blacksmith
John Swaim – Hampshire County farmer
Mathias Swaim — Hampshire County farmer
John Smith — Baltimore
Peter Catlett — Virginia
Thomas Ridout — Maryland
Hugh Walker — eventually became one of the resulting town’s largest land owners purchasing all or part of eight lots. Robert Carter Willis
Harry Dorsey Gough – Maryland. (see notable buyers on panel 3)
Jonas Grove – Berkeley County butcher
John Higgins — Hampshire County farmer
Judiah Higgins — Hampshire County farmer
William Smith – eventually accumulated seven lots
James Elliott – merchant from Chambersburg, PA
William McMahan – Hampshire County
James Stuart – Alexandria, VA
Frederick Duckwall – Berkeley County. When two lots were set aside in the land sale for the German Church, he was one of the trustees.
Andrew Pearce – lived at the Warm Springs
John Swann – Washington County, MD
Windel Freshour – Berkeley County
Charles Yates – Spotsylvania County, VA

Why Was a Town Formed?

The law establishing a town around the springs was unprecedented. It was the first, and possibly the only, American town set up specifically to be a spa. The law stated that the purpose of the town was to encourage building to accommodate those coming to take the waters. The law had several other odd and unique parts including a guarantee that the rare healing water would be freely available to the public forever.

FACT & FICTION: Local legend and many undocumented histories of the town claim that Lord Fairfax gave the waters of the springs free to the public in perpetuity. This fiction was used through history as the basis of resistance to the state of Virginia, and later West Virginia, licensing or selling the springs. While it may have been in Fairfax’s mind to do so, the legal basis is in the statute passed in 1776 establishing the town. To this day, water is freely available to the public. Lines of people can be seen daily filling their jugs at the pump in Berkeley Springs State Park.

Samuel Kerchaval in his seminal History of the Valley of Virginia, originally published in 1833, claimed it was the first instance under US republican government in which a legislature took authority of establishing and laying out a town upon the land of private individual without the consent of the owner of the land. In spite of Kercheval’s assumption, and the lack of legally documented transference, we know from Fairfax’s early letter that he was inclined to establish the town. In addition, the law allowed Fairfax to retain the lots upon which he had already built as well as a spring for himself. He also received payment for the lots sold.

Henings Statutes

An act for establishing a town at the Warm Springs in the county of Berkeley.

Whereas it hath been represented to this general assembly, that the laying off fifty acres of land in lots and streets for a town at the Warm Springs, in the county of Berkeley, will be of great utility, by encouraging the purchasers thereof to build convenient houses for accommodating numbers of infirm person, who frequent those springs yearly, for the recovery of their health:

Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly of the commonwealth of Virginia, that fifty acres of land adjoining the said springs, being part of a larger tract of land, the property of the right honourable Thomas lord Fairfax, or other person or persons holding the same by a grant or conveyance from him, be and the same is hereby vested in Bryan Fairfax, Thomas Bryan Martin, Warner Washington, the reverend Charles Mynn Thurston, Robert Rutherford, Thomas Rutherford, Alexander White, Philip Pendleton, Samuel Washington, William Ellzey, Van Swearingin, Thomas Hite, James Edmundson, and James Nourse gentlemen, trustees, to be by them, or any seven of them, laid out into lots of one quarter of an acre each, with convenient streets, which shall be, and the same is hereby established a town, by the name of Bath.

And it be further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, that so soon as the said fifty acres of land shall be so laid off into lots and streets, the said trustees, or any seven of them shall proceed to sell the said lots at publick auction for the best price that can be had, the time and place of which sale shall be previously advertised for three months in the Virginia Gazette, the purchaser to hold the said lots respectively subject to the condition of building on each of said lots a dwelling house twelve feet square at least, to be finished fit for habitation within twelve months from the day of sale; and the said trustees, or any seven of them, shall, and they are hereby empowered to convey the said lots to the purchasers thereof in fee simple, subject to the condition aforesaid, and pay the money arising from the sale thereof to the said Thomas lord Fairfax, or the person or persons, holding the same under him, his or their executors, administrators or assigns.

And be it further enacted, that all the said Warm Springs, except one large and convenient spring suitable for a bath, shall be, and the same are hereby vested in the said trustees, in trust, to and for the publick use and benefit, and for no other purpose whatsoever.

Provided always, and be it farther enacted, that after the said lots and streets shall be laid out as aforesaid, such and so many of the lots, whereon any house or houses already built by the said Thomas lord Fairfax may happen to be shall not be sold by the said trustees but shall be and remain to the said lord Fairfax or his grantees, his or their heirs or assigns, forever; and that it shall and may be lawful for all and every person or persons who may have built any houses upon the lands hereby directed to be laid off into a town, within six months after the same shall be so laid off, to remove or otherwise dispose of the said houses to their own use.

And be it farther enacted, that the said Trustees, or the major part of them, shall have power from time to time to settle and determine all disputes concerning the bounds of the lots, and to settle and establish such rules and orders for the regular and orderly building of houses thereon as to them shall seem best and convenient; and that in case of the death, removal out of the country, or other legal disability, of any one or more of the trustees before named, it shall and may be lawful for the surviving or remaining trustees to elect and choose so many other persons in the room of those dead or disabled as shall make up the number fourteen, which trustees so chosen shall, to all intents and purposes, be vested with the same powers and authority as any other in this act particularly nominated and appointed.

And be it farther enacted, by the authority aforesaid, that the purchasers of the lots in the said town, so soon as they shall have built upon and saved the same according to the conditions of their respective deeds of conveyance, shall then be entitled to, and have and enjoy, all the rights, privileges, and immunities, which the freeholders and inhabitants of other towns in this state not incorporated by charter hold and enjoy.

And be it farther enacted, that if the purchaser of any lot shall fail to build thereon within the time before limited, the said trustees, or the major part of them, may thereupon enter into such lot, and may either sell the same again, and apply the money , or appropriate the lot, or part of it, towards accommodating such infirm persons as may resort to the said springs, and should be so poor as to be unable to accommodate themselves, and so in like manner, as often as any forfeiture shall occur, to the end that a fund may be established on the best foundation which such forfeitures will afford, together with any donations which may be made to the said trustees for aiding the same, to extend the benefit of the said waters to such poor infirm persons.

And be it farther enacted, by the authority aforesaid, that it shall not be lawful for any person or persons, inhabitants of the said town of Bath, owners of any swine, to suffer the same to go at large in the limits of the said town; and if any swine belonging to any inhabitant of the said town shall be found running or going at large within the said limits, it shall and may be lawful for any person whatever to kill and destroy every such swine so running at large.

Provided always, that such person shall not convert any such swine to his or her own use, but shall leave the same where it shall be so killed, and give immediate notice to the owner thereof, if known, and if not, then such person shall immediately inform the next justice of the peace thereof, who may order the same to the use of any poor person or persons he shall think fit. provided also, that nothing herein contained shall be deemed or taken to hinder any person or persons from driving any swine to or through the said town, or limits thereof, in order to sell the same, or in their removal from one plantation to another.

Subsequent legislative action

In 1807, the legislature passed a law that allowed the Trustees to raise money to improve the town. It also allowed:
…in order to provide a fund for the relief of such poor persons as may hereafter resort to said springs….the trustees shall have to power to lay and collect a toll or tax, not exceeding two dollars in any one year, upon each person visiting the springs in the public square except such poor persons as the said trustees….shall think fit to exempt from the payment of such toll or tax.

Although the law establishing the town required that every buyer build a house on their lot within a year, the Revolutionary War made it impossible to find money, materials and men. The legislature extended the time to build in three subsequent ordinances: 1779, 1782 and 1785.

Enrolled Bills of General Assembly related to the town of Bath.
1779 … further time to purchase lots – p59
1782 … further time to purchase lots – p2
1785 … further time to purchase lots -p14
1793 … appointing Trustees – p14
1807-08 … appointing Trustees – p93
1811-12 …. amending act for appointing Trustees – p132
1813-14 … repealing act appointing Trustees – p7
1817-8 … appointing additional Trustees – p35
1827-28 … concerning towns – p4
1853-54 … as to town – p90
1857-58 … better organization of public square – p155
1861 … amending charter – p177

Source: Library of Virginia

When Was the Town Formed?

On December 6, 1776, the Virginia Legislature passed a law setting aside 50 acres around the springs to be laid out as a town and named Bath. The town was administered by trustees appointed by the legislature. The law assured public access to the springs and required housing to be built for those who came for their health.

For many years, the town was assumed to have been formed in October 1776. In fact, the date on Henings Statutes is October 1776 because that was when the legislative session began, There is a highway marker south of Berkeley Springs that erroneously states the founding date as October 17, 1776. There is no historic reason why this specific date is used. Speculation holds that a miscommunication when the sign was being developed translated the already mistaken October 1776 into further mistaken October 17, 1776. (Say it fast and you’ll see why.)

Timeline of Formation based on legislative records.

October 10, 1776 … Legislative session starts Mr. Robert Rutherford (Bath land owner and Trustee) was the Virginia senator in whose district the springs were located.
November 2 … Petition for Warm Springs (see above) first presented. Sent to Committee for Propositions & Grievances
November 6 … Resolved that petition “is reasonable, and that 50 acres of the said land ought to be laid off for a town.”
November 16 … Mr. Braxton from the Committee for Propositions & Grievances reported that the committee had, according to order, prepare a bill for establishing a town at the Warm Springs in the county of Berkeley; which was read the first time and ordered to be read a second.
November 25 … Bill w/amendment to be engrosse. Read a third time.
November 28 … Bill read three times passed. Mr. Wood to carry to Senate for their concurrence
November 30 … Mr. Bland brought bill back from Senate w/amendment “delivered the same in at the bar.”
December 2 … Passed some amendments, rejected others. Sent back to Senate.
December 5 … More amendments
December 6 … Have copy. (No mention again before end of session on December 21)

Source: Library of Virginia

What Was the Town Named?

The springs were known by different names in the years before the town called Bath was established around them.


* Names noted on earliest (1740s) maps

Protocol in the 18th century had springs named for the county in which they were located. The warm springs were known as Frederick until 1772 when Berkeley County was established including the area around the springs.

18th century letter writers, including George Washington, used various names according to no discernible pattern.

The name Bath was selected for the official town established by law primarily because its founder, including landowner, Lord Fairfax, had expectations that the town around the warm springs could become the premier resort spa that Bath was in England. Bath, England experienced a major revival as the country’s most fashionable resort in the mid-18th century so its pre-eminence was irresistible to Virginia colonials.

What is the Name of the Town Today?

The town you see around you has two names. The municipality is still officially named Bath. The world knows the town by its US Post Office name of Berkeley Springs given in 1802 when the Virginia postal service was established. There already was a Bath in Bath County, Virginia. Today, the postal area named Berkeley Springs covers virtually all Morgan County, WV east of Cacapon Mountain.

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Panels 3 and 4

Who Bought the Town