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The History Of Stony Branch Valley
(Part 2)

 The First Settlers

Michael Hillman

With the end of the French and Indian War, settlers once again began to move the wilderness frontier westward. Stony Branch, situated just north of the Monocacy Road, the major transit route for Dutch and German immigrants heading from Lancaster to settlements in the Shenandoah, was ripe for settlement. Full of streams and rolling hills, its picturesque countryside reminded many settlers of the homes they had left in Europe. The beauty of the land was further enhanced by its availability and cost and many settlers saw little reason to travel further.

The settlers had several options open to them for acquiring land. There was land for lease, for sale, and even some land left to homestead. Daniel Dulany, who held title to Buck Forest, a 3,300 acre track of land which lies at the headwaters of Stony Branch, just to the east of Mount Saint Mary's, offered settlers leases on 100 acre lots at five pounds per year. There were a few stipulations however, including requirements to plant 100 apple trees and install and maintain sturdy fencing. The lessees were then still faced with the arduous tasks of building a home and clearing the land. If they questioned whether this was a good or bad deal, they just needed to do a little mathematics to evaluate the true cost of the lease.

As it turns out, in 1770 an average day laborer earned about 2½ shillings a day. Twenty shillings make up a pound so a 5 pound lease payment could be worked off in forty days. In other words, the land would cost them a little over 15% of their yearly earnings. Compare that to today where the average rent on a home or apartment often consumes upwards to 50% of the yearly income for those earning minimum wage. Compound that with the fact that apartments and houses are sized in square feet not acres. Dulany's offer worked out to be a bargain for all concerned. Laborers got cheap rent on land, Dulany retained title while his land was cleared. planted and fenced.

However appealing the lease route seemed to some, there were others who took a different approach. Benjamin Biggs and William Diggs chose to sell their land holdings outright and pocket the profit. In 1770, land in Stony Valley could be bought for about ½ pound per acre, or four days of work. Today, this same farm land is appraised at $2,000 per acre, or roughly 40 days of work at minimum wage. Thus over the last 200 years, farm land in Stony Branch has increased in value, after accounting for inflation, by a factor of at least ten-fold. The increase in the relative value of the land reflects not only the difference in the supply of land but in the substantial infrastructure of roads, schools, courts, and the myriad of services that society has invested in over the intervening 200 years.

Compare the land the settlers thought was cheap to this. Suppose you were offered as much land in the valley as you wanted at only $200 per acre today, would you think it a bargain? This is basically the same offer given the original settlers and they answered it by snapping up as much land as they could reasonably afford.

Even though the Stony Branch Valley was considered the frontier, it was by no means uninhabited. By 1770, there were at least ten homesteads in the lower valley. Though close together by today’s standards, when one considers that travel was by foot or horse, they were far enough away to offer a true sense of isolation. The closest organized community to Stony Branch, known today as Thurmont, was a good three-hour horseback ride away. Frederick, then known as Fredricktown, was a day’s ride away.

To clear the land required a Herculean effort. Carving a homestead out of the wilderness, was a process repeated over and over again by each new settler to the valley. Mathias and Anna Zacharias typified the effort required. The Zacharias family’s land was located about a quarter of a mile north of the mouth of the Monocracy and stretched north to the union of the two western river forks. Mathias and Ann's first task was to build a shelter for their young family of three. Until the cabin was built, the only shelter afforded the Zacharias’ was probably a lean-to, set up next to the wagon that had carried them to the valley. The simple log cabin would be expected to house the family for months, if not years, until such time as other more urgent chores, such as clearing fields for planting, would permit the erection of a permanent and more spacious and comfortable dwelling.

The site selected by Mathias and his wife for their cabin was surrounded by old walnut trees on what was then called Honey Ridge, which overlooks where the present Zacharias house now stands. With nothing more than an ax and a horse to assist him, Mathias stacked logs from the virgin forest until the structure was seven feet high. He then added crosspieces for rafters, erected a ridgepole some five feet above the top logs and then put the framing in place to support the roof. Time would usually not permit the splitting of shingles, so the roof was probably made of bark or thatch. The interiors of such cabins usually had one room downstairs and half a floored loft to provide additional sleeping quarters so they could make mad passionate love in the sweet hay.

The urgency for providing shelter was coupled with that of preparing fields which would feed the family and furnish a livelihood. The land was virgin and clearing it of trees and brush involved hard, backbreaking work with almost primitive axes, scythes and saws. Mathias and Anna cultivated the land in the time-honored way of plowing with a single-row horse drawn plow, harrowing and leveling by dragging a weighted sled. Seed was then broadcast by hand. When crops were ready for harvest, the entire Zacharias family went into the field. Some cut the grain with scythes, others bundled the stalks into sheaves. One can easily picture the three Zacharias children, Mathias Jr., Anna Elizabeth and Maria Elizabeth helping their parents gather crops late into the evening.

Mathias Zacharias died in 1773, nineteen years after first setting foot in the valley. Following the tradition of the time, Mathias was buried on a hill overlooking his farm. At the ripe old age of sixteen, Mathias's only son found himself responsible for the welfare of his mother and two young sisters. In many ways Mathias Zacharias was lucky, having only one son, he never had to worry about acquiring additional land for his son, as Benjamin Whitmore did.

In 1763, Benjamin Whitmore and his family, lured by the offer of cheap land, left Lancaster and selected a site for his new home on the east side of Tom’s Creek, part of Diggs’ Lot. He contacted William Diggs, the owner of the land, and arranged to rent 120 acres until such time as he could pay in full the 50 pounds asking price of the land. Benjamin, with the help of his five sons, made rapid progress in establishing his farm and making it pay off. Having paid off his first farm in 1764, Benjamin purchased from John Darnall a 96 acre track of land, which Darnall had named ‘Whiskey Bottle’, following its purchase in 1756 from Jonathan Hays. The following year, Benjamin Whitmore became Benjamin Biggs’ first customer in Biggs' effort to resell his ‘Benjamin’s Good Luck’ land holdings. The 200-acre purchase on the western side of Tom's creek, opposite the original Whitmore homestead and just north of his ‘Whiskey Bottle’ track, almost doubled Benjamin Whitmore’s land holdings in the valley.

Over the following years, Benjamin Whitmore continued to reinvest the profits, from the efforts of his four strong sons, in additional land. At the time of his death in 1769, Benjamin Whitmore's land holdings in the valley totaled 632 acres. Benjamin's four sons held their father's estate under common title for the next thirty years, only formally dividing when their advanced age required them to begin to settle their accounts in this world. Like Mathias Zacharias, Benjamin Whitmore had accomplished what he had set out to do - provide security and a future for his wife and children. Benjamin Whitmore was laid to rest in a plot near his house on the land which he loved. The site selected was on a knoll overlooking the surrounding countryside with a view of hills and valleys beyond.

We know much about the trials and tribulations, thrills and achievements of the Zacharias and Whitmores as a result of the efforts of their descendants. Unfortunately, little is known about many of the other first purchasers of land out of Diggs' Lot and ‘Benjamin’s Good Luck’. For example, we know little about Nicholas Owery who, in 1754, purchased 100 acres of land on both sides of Keysville Road, just east of the present Tom's Creek Bridge. Owery resold the land to Christian Keefer in 1774 and then simply disappeared into history. In 1761 Robert Redock purchased 150 acres of land on both sides of the now Four Points Road, which he sold ten years later to John Crabbs, who shortly thereafter built the first mill on Tom's Creek, which would become known in history as Maxell's Mill.

In 1763, John Paterson purchased 183 acres on both sides on what is now Four Points Road, between its intersection of Sixes Bridge Road and Tom's Creek Bridge. Like Nicholas Owrey, John Paterson also disappeared into history. In 1770 John Marker purchased 100 acres from Benjamin Biggs. While little is known of him, Markers' daughter would one day become the matriarch of the Six's dynasty in this area. That same year, Thomas Kunnard purchased 61 acres between the Monocacy and the now Sixes Bridge and sold it the following year at a 25% profit to Henry Forney, the patriarch of the Forney families in this valley.

By 1771 the valley was filling up and the price of land began to rise sharply, almost tripling with Philip Miller’s purchase of 300 acres on both side of Sixes Bridge Road, from present day Grimes Road to just north of Sixes Bridge. Not all land was sold to settlers. Much of the land was sold to smaller land speculators like Conrad Hockersmith who in 1770 purchased 142 acres of land in the valley, which he resold 4 years later at a 400% profit to Christian Keefer. 

The seeds of prosperity that were being sown by the settlers in the valley, however, were being carried on the winds of revolution. Following the end of the French and Indian War, the British Government, in hopes of keeping peace with the Mohawk Nation, which had sided with the French, passed a proclamation which said no land could be settled west of the Appalachian Mountains. Colonist felt cheated when they heard about the proclamation. Owning land meant everything to them, for without it, they had no position in society, even voting was denied those without land.

At first, the proclamation had little real effect, as colonist concentrated their efforts on claiming open land on the eastern side of the Appalachians, such as Stony Branch Valley. However, many restless colonists soon joined the ranks of Benjamin Biggs, who after selling what was left of his ‘Benjamin's Good Luck’ to his brother William in 1771, crossed the Appalachians and settled in the fertile Ohio Valley. Faced with open violation of his proclamation, King George issued the Quartering Act, which required colonists to provide housing and supplies for British soldiers.

The French and Indian War had also caused Britain to go deeply into debt. Keeping an army on the frontier meant additional cost to the British Empire. To pay for these additional costs, the British government passed the Stamp Act. This act required that each sheet of every legal document carry a stamp showing that a tax had been paid. It was the first attempt by the British government to directly tax the American colonies.

The colonists reacted with rage. For them, the issue was clear. The colonies had no representation in the English Parliament, and therefore, under English law, they could not be taxed. "No taxation without representation" became the rallying cry, which would echo across the land, from meetings in John Crabb's Mill on Tom’s Creek, to Bunker Hill. Across the land, the spirit of revolution was growing and it would soon manifest itself in open revolt. In answer to its call, many of those who had struggled to establish homesteads in Stony Branch, like Mathias Zacharias, would now risk all to establish a future for their progeny, free of tyranny and fear.

Read Part 3

Index of articles on the History Stony Branch Valley

Read more articles by Michael Hillman