History in the Hills: Hancock County history
Any regular reader of my column will already know of my love for Williamsburg in Virginia. As a historian, Williamsburg was like Disneyland to me. The experience of visiting a place with so much history and a living sense of the past was captivating. Lucky for me, that feeling has generally stayed with me all these years. I am fortunate that in an old space, be it a house, battlefield or on a city street, I can almost feel the past. I don’t believe in ghosts as specters that haunt the living, but I do believe that memory can leave an imprint on a space. Whether that imprint is something measurable, or perhaps it is something that is internal, is up for debate. That also could just be the personality of a hopeless nostalgic at heart, but I also find that you don’t always need to be in the presence of a historic place to feel its history.
With all that said, when I can connect our local history to early Virginia, I get excited. For West Virginia, our early history is Virginia history. West Virginia was created on June 20, 1863, born out of the struggles of the Civil War. The war was a clinching point in a long line of issues plaguing the people who lived in the western counties of the Old Dominion.
One issue among many in the creation of the new state of West Virginia, was the distance between the western counties and the seat of government in Richmond. The distance was just too far in an era of horse-drawn vehicles and unimproved roads through the mountains. The railroad helped later, but the folks here in the Northern Panhandle would have quite the journey to the Statehouse.
It was in that same vein, in the matter of distance one must travel to do business that the idea of Hancock County came about. All the area encompassing Hancock and Brooke counties, Westmoreland and parts of Allegheny, Beaver, Washington and Fayette counties in Pennsylvania, including the current site of Pittsburgh, were once part of a vast county called Yohogania County, Va. This county was formed in 1776 from the District of West Augusta. Two other counties were formed from the district at the same time, those being Ohio and Monongalia counties in Virginia. As one can imagine, there were quite a number of disputes between Virginia and Pennsylvania regarding this land, citing land patents and treaties on both sides of the issue going back to the kings of England in the 17th century.
During the American Revolution, in December 1779, the Second Continental Congress basically put a stop to the fighting between the states and urged them to come to a solution. To put it simply, the border of the Northern Panhandle was agreed upon and laid out finally in 1784. The county of Yohogania ceased to exist after only seven years, when it was determined, based off of the survey, that most of it was contained in Pennsylvania. The remaining part of the county that remained in Virginia, present-day Hancock and Brooke counties, was then absorbed into Ohio County. The annexation was short-lived because in 1796, Ohio county divided again creating Brooke County, basically encompassing that remaining part of the original Yohogania County.
By the 1840s there were disputes about the distance one had to travel from the northern end of Brooke county down to Wellsburg, which was the county seat. There was talk about moving the county seat to Holliday’s Cove, now part of downtown Weirton, to be more centrally located, but due to the overwhelming population in the southern part of Brooke County, traction could not be made to move the seat of government. Something had to be done. In 1846, a New Manchester resident and surveyor named Thomas Bambrick was elected to the Virginia Legislature from Brooke County and could be regarded as the father of Hancock County. An immigrant, Bambrick came to the United States in 1815 from his home in County Kilkenny, Ireland. Having prepared to become a Roman Catholic priest, Bambrick was well educated, and upon immigrating to Brooke County became a teacher, tutor and bookkeeper for the residents of the northern end of the county.
Assuming his position in the Virginia Legislature, Bambrick quickly presented legislation to form a new county from Brooke. The Virginia Legislature passed the resolution on Jan. 15, 1848, and allowed Bambrick to choose the name of the new county. Due to his admiration of the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, Hancock County was chosen.
Jack Welch, in his book, “History of Hancock County,” relates most of this history. My favorite story about the surveying of the border between the two counties is contained in the text. The issue of the border stems from the fact that both counties wanted control of the toll house that was located on Pittsburgh Pike at the juncture of Cove and Colliers roads.
Welsh writes, “The line was to be surveyed from a point on the Ohio River, at what was known as Williams Rocks, to a point joining the Pennsylvania boarder. Mr. Bambrick met the surveyors as they were approaching the site … and suggested a trip to Steubenville. There he staged a party for them. Later in the day when they departed for Williams Rocks, they began at a point slightly south of the original point, thus giving Hancock County possession of the toll house.”
Early records of Hancock County are interesting to read, as they give the statistics of the new county. Looking at taxable personal property in the county in 1848, there were 968 horses, 12 gold watches, 82 silver watches, 157 metal clocks, 236 wooden clocks and 64 jerseys, pianos and carriages. There also was one enslaved person which in 1848 was considered taxable property. That number increased to three in 1850 and two in 1860. In that year, the rumblings of the Civil War could be felt even in such an isolated place as Hancock County.
In June 1861, a vote for secession was called, and only 23 residents voted to leave the Union, while 743 voted to remain. It seems that the residents of this area identified more with their neighboring states than they did with the factions in Richmond. All of this served to further the divide in the state of Virginia and led to the creation of West Virginia in 1863.
Our history is tied to Virginia, and there are quite a few reminders left here that bind our roots deep in the “Old Dominion.” This area, once the subject of conversations in the halls of the Second Continental Congress, has come a long way from the vast county of Yohogania. There is history in these hills if you know where to look.
(Zuros is director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)