The Courthouse of Clarke County

By Nancy St. Clair Talley

This excerpt is from an article that first appeared in Volume XIX of the Proceedings [1977-78] of the Clarke County Historical Association. All Proceedings may be accessed from CCHA’s website –

The Clarke County Courthouse, a venerable mass of old brick and white columns, stands on a Church Street lot offered at the first meeting of the magistrates appointed 142 years ago when the county was established.   Today it is hard to imagine Church Street without the courthouse, or Berryville before it became a county seat.   To study the courthouse, its construction and its evolution over nearly a century and a half, is to study the history of Clarke County.

Clarke County Courthouse, Berryville, Virginia circa 1910 - Photo courtesy Clarke County Historical Association

Clarke County was formed by vote of the Virginia Legislature in 1836 from Frederick County, one of the first two counties organized across the Blue Ridge.   Frederick County at its establishment in 1738 included all the lower Shenandoah Valley and all the Fairfax Grant west of the Blue Ridge; it was assumed to stretch from the top of the Blue Ridge to the Mississippi.(1)   During three and a half decades it had formed from it the counties of Berkeley, Morgan, Jefferson, Hampshire and Hardy in West Virginia, and Shenandoah and a part of Page in Virginia.   Since 1776, however, its boundaries had remained constant, and included what are today Clarke and Warren counties as well as the present Frederick County.(2)

The area of late eighteenth-century Frederick County lying east of the Opequon River and extending to the Shenandoah River had early developed a character of its own.   Although its earliest white settlers were the same Scotch-Irish and German pioneers who pushed down from Pennsylvania and New Jersey and settled throughout Frederick County, the fact that Thomas Lord Fairfax, who held the Northern Neck Proprietary, had settled at “Greenway Court” near White Post around 1749,(3) added a highly Anglican flavor to the local population.   Earlier, in 1730, Fairfax made a 50,212 acre(4) quit-rent grant to the eight sons and grandsons of his agent, Robert “King” Carter.   In 1748 he employed George Washington, then a youth of 16, to survey portions of his holdings.   Members of the Washington family, connected by marriage with Fairfax, and of the Carter family, were among early residents of that part of Frederick County that is now Clarke.   Younger sons of Tidewater families, or even, like Nathaniel Burwell of “Carter Hall”, enterprising eldest sons, who wished to seek fortunes in the rich wheat-growing country across the mountain, felt at home settling nearby.   Soon after the Revolutionary War the tax lists of Frederick County included such Tidewater family names as Lewis, Byrd, Page, Grymes, Meade, Nelson and Harrison, along with Washingtons, Carters, Burwells and Fairfaxes.   These families brought with them Tidewater’s anglicanism and plantation culture.   They built large houses and managed their estates with slave labor—by 1800 some two-thirds of the 5,734 slaves in Frederick County were owned by residents of what is no Clarke County.(5)   Winchester at the turn of the century was a thriving mercantile community; western Frederick County had continued to attract the Scotch-Irish and German settlers who first came to the Lower Valley.   By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Clarke County must have felt the need for its own political as well as social and economic entity.

A county was a far more influential political entity in the early nineteenth century than it is today.   The county courthouse was the center for local government as well as for local justice.   Describing the power centered in the county courthouse at this period, Virginius Dabney writes, “On these early courts sat justices of the peace—leaders in and usually respected members of their communities—who were appointed by the executive.   Vacancies were filled on the recommendation of the remaining justices.   The justices almost always made the decision as to who would run for the General Assembly.   The Assembly, in turn, chose the Governor who chose the justices!   This circle within a circle was an admirable device for keeping perpetual political control.   High above the justices, in regal dignity, sat the Virginia Court of Appeals, which exercised a sort of general supervision over the system of courts throughout the Commonwealth.   These judges were chosen for life by the general Assembly. (whose members, as noted, were virtually elected the justices of the peace.)(6)

But if residents of what is now Clarke County, and at the same time in what is now Warren County, wanted judicial and political entities of their own, residents of what is now Frederick County were bitterly opposed to the reduction of their territory.   A resolution passed by citizens of Newtown (now Stephens City), for example, stated in March 1834 “that the division of this county, as desired by the citizens of the eastern section of this county, is impolitic and unwise, replete with injurious consequences to other sections of the county, and unwarranted by any imaginary grievances they suppose themselves to labor under.”(7)   It is reasonable to assume the voters in other western Frederick districts shared the sentiments of Newtown.   Frederick’s incumbent members in the House of Delegates were re-elected in March 1834 and were members of the body that deliberated the Frederick County issue when the legislature met in the winter of 1835.(8)   Residents of eastern Frederick County sent a committee to present their views to that same legislative sitting.   “The gentlemen selected were, each in his line, expert.” wrote Thomas D. Gold in “History of Clarke County.”   “Dr. Cyrus McCormick, and able and astute politician, with wide acquaintance in the State, Col. Treadwell Smith, a successful business man, and Col. Jacob Isler, a good mixer, to do the social part.”(9)   Apparently they were successful lobbyists.   The new county was created by an Act of March 8, 1836, the first justices of the peace for Clarke County, named for Northwest Territory hero George Rogers Clark, met in Berryville.

The new county contained 171 square miles.   In it lived 2,867 whites, 3,325 slaves, and 161 free blacks.(10)   Berryville was probably selected as county seat on account of its size, being larger than Millwood and White Post, the two towns that might have rivaled it.   A part of Berryville was included in a survey made by George Washington for Capt. Isaac Pennington in October 1750, and the town was laid out by Benjamin Berry before 1798, the year in which it was established by and Act of the General Assembly.(11)   A post office is recorded for the town in 1799, with Tarleton F. Webb, postmaster,(12) but the town was called Battletown.   It was called Battletown by Charles Varles in his “Topographical Description of Frederick, Berkeley and Jefferson Counties,” where it was described as standing on a very fertile and wee-improved limestone soil, with more than 25 residences, three large stores, two taverns and a apothecary shop.   Varles noted that a number of mechanics and four physicians lived in the town, and that an academy was kept to “teach all the liberal branches in education and mathematics in a well appropriated stone building.”(13)   Whether or not the name Battletown was indeed given the settlement on account of tavern brawls, as tradition tells us, the town was renamed, and in 1831 the post office listing was changed to Berryville.   Five years later, when the first Justices of the Peace of the newly formed Clarke County met in the academy, Varles described, the new name had not yet stuck.

This article is republished in honor of this month’s 175th anniversary of the founding of Clarke County. Nancy St. Clair Talley is a long-time resident of Clarke County and resides near Millwood, Virginia.