History of Alleghany County
By Harry A. Walton, Jr.
On October 13, 1817, Dr. James Merry and his brother Samuel Merry bought 138 acres from George Pence in what is today Covington. Nine months and ten days later William Anderson, surveyor of Botetourt County, in compliance with the Acts of Assembly of 1817-18, filed the plat (map) showing the lots and streets of Covington. The Merry’s moved to this area about the time Anderson’s map was filed in Fincastle and definitely by August 4, 1818 for on that date they became regular customers of Pitzer’s store.
One month and one day after the plat was filed there was a public auction of town lots (August 24, 1818). The short interval between the purchase of land and sale of lots indicates the land was purchased with the sole intention of dividing into lots, with no idea of farming it.
With the sale of lots, there was necessarily a lot of traffic between this area and the Court House at Fincastle to record and correct deeds. As this involved a day going and a day returning by horse and buggy, it was soon decided that a Court House was needed locally. In general the same group of men who were behind the formation of Covington were also behind the formation of Alleghany County in 1822.
The number of persons in the new county liable to the poll tax was 534. The Pitzer archives name a number of officers who were either in the local militia or in other military units. These are Major William Paogue, Capt. John Pitzer Jr., Lt. Col John Persinger, Major Moses Mann, Capt. Anthony Brennemer, Lt. Jacob Fudge, Capt. Stephen Hooke, Capt. John Bowyer, Capt. Frederic Pitzer, Capt. John Callaghan, Ensign William Mann, Ensign Alexander Johnson, Capt. Peter Wright, Capt. Bailey, Capt. Samuel McClure, Capt. John Jordan, Capt. James Harvey, Capt. William Hill, Capt. John Dickinson, Capt. Baker Davidson, Capt. John Dickinson, Capt. Hugh Allen, Ensign Joseph Pitzer and Ensign George Pitzer.
Two of these officers were closely involved with the formation of the town of Covington and also served in the War of 1812, Capt. Peter Wright, grandson of the original pioneer of the same name and Capt. John Pitzer Jr., who was sheriff of Botetourt County when Covington and Alleghany County were formed. These two are the most likely persons to have decided that the town should be named after the Hero of the War of 1812 — General Leonard Covington.
When the county and town came into being, this area was strictly sylvan and agricultural. The farms were fairly large and farmsteads distant from each other. Each farm did its best to be as self-sufficient as possible.
The principal cash crop was hemp. Following the Revolutionary War there was a great push to build the nation’s naval and mercantile fleets. This was still in the days of sailing vessels and great qualities of cordage and rope were critical to this build-up. According to the Pitzer files about all the farmers in this area with rich bottom lands were involved in raising hemp. It was a labor intensive crop then, as it is now. After raising the crop, it had to go through a process of retting, drying, turning, tying into bundles and shocking.
When ready for delivery, the hemp would be brought to the Pitzer store, weighed and this value credited to the account of the grower. When enough had accumulated the store arranged for it to be “waggoned” to the rope factory in east Richmond. There were never any river transportation of hemp from this area. For “waggoning” to and from Richmond, the Pitzers usually allowed a credit of 18 pounds sterling ($59.94). In addition nine shillings were allowed for ferriage across the James River to East Richmond. On the return trip, the wagons brought salt, nails, cloth, dishes, whiskey stills and other supplies needed by the customers of Pitzer’s store.
This writer has seen a fair number of post Revolutionary account books and all were kept in British pounds with exchange standardized to one pound equaling $3.33. The reason for this is that during the war the Continental Congress printed so much paper money that its value became greatly depreciated (you have heard “not worth a Continental”). In 1781 it took $1140 in paper to go as far as one dollar in coins. Merchants by-passed Continental paper by using the British pound as the standard of value, by trading in goods and services, and by use of Spanish, French and Portuguese hard money which came from the West Indies and Mexico. It took about 50 years from the close of the Revolutionary War for American paper money to recover its trading value.
Some of the early trade items accepted by the Pitzer store for credit are: deer skins, corn, fox skins, whiskey, venison hams, wild cat skins, tallow, pork hams, wheat, cider, hemp seed, flax seed and butter. This last item (butter) was sold by the “firkin” which was nine gallons (dry measure). Some of these items were sold locally, but others were sent to Richmond with loads of hemp. Manufactured goods were relatively much more expensive than local products. For instance, George Stull on March 31, 1797 brought in a “bare” skin for which he was credited with two shillings six pence (41 cents) and bought a handkerchief for two shillings eight pence (44 cents).
As written on page 139, Vol. I (Sept. 12, 1796) of the archives, John Pitzer Sr. sent a shipment of hemp to Richmond by Thomas Reid and received 140 pounds ($466.20) which was a lot of money in those days. As the prices gradually declined in the 1820’s, farmers went more and more to raising corn, wheat, barley, oats and livestock so that eventually it was forgotten that hemp was ever the major corp. in the Highlands area.
The major historians of our area, Oren F. Morton, Lewis M. Walker, Hugh McAllister and Gay Arritt never came across any records of hemp culture here though Morton did wonder why it was not grown in out rich river bottoms in view of the state county paid for it.
Published April 23, 1986
It is more difficult to prove conclusively that a legendary person is wholly fictional than it is to prove that a person existed. To prove a person existed, all that is necessary is one single letter, document, deed or tombstone inscription. But the evidence for showing a person did not exist has to come from the painstaking process of elimination of all the possibilities.
Perhaps the strongest evidence of non-existence of any “Peter Covington” is the fact that no one close to this name is mentioned in the recently surfaced archives of the Pitzer store which operated in the town of Covington. Everyone known by deeds or other records to have been in this area immediately preceding the formation of Covington (1818) and Alleghany County (1822) or to have stayed here a short time before going further west or south is in these records.
Before describing these archives, it might be well to quote a bit of our early history from page 19 of Gay Arritt’s “Historical Sketches.”
“From the defeat of General Braddock in July 1754 to the close of the Sunmore campaign in the fall of 1774, there was not a time, unless in the winter, when the Alleghany County area was not in danger of Indian attack. There were at least three raids made by the Shawnee, Delaware and Mingo Indians and many settlers were killed or captured. In 1788, after the American Revolution, settlers still feared the red men and were always in constant fear that they might drive them out of the area. This fear was not abated until after the Treaty of Greenville in 1795.”
This means that before 1795 this area was part of the American Frontier and that the residents were not so concerned with trade and commerce as they were with their personal security which could be achieved only at the point of a gun or organizing together for safety. In these conditions normal trading and commerce were impossible and business establishments as we known them did not exist.
In mid 1795 John Pitzer Sr. sent his son Frederick to Philadelphia to “purchase goods’ and on December 4, 1795 started his store which he and other members of his numerous family continued until 1822. This store was also a trading post and a “clearing House” as banks were not readily available.
On page 17, Vol. I of the archives is an entry of sale goods to James David of Rich Patch (Dec. 15, 1795) showing the store was serving the Highlands area from the beginning, however, most of the early customers can be located in the Fincastle Court House records as living in western Botetourt in the Gala area. That the store moved to what is now Covington in 1797-98 is clear from new customer accounts of persons known from other records to be in the Highlands area at that time.
The period of 1795, when security was gained, to the establishment of Covington in 1818 and Alleghany County in 1822, is the true foundational part of our history. It is the time when many pioneer families put down their roots and economic interplay began.
The Pitzer archives comprise all the account books of the store from 1795 to 1822 plus miscellaneous records of the family and store. These are in dated sequence and quite legible. The archives also include the accounts of John Lewis Pitzer’s leather and harness shop from March 1, 1839 to December 1849. Also, in the archives are Scott and Kyle ledgers covering the years 1828-1839. These together with the Scott and Kyle ledger for 1824-25, now owned by Anne B. Reid, provide good coverage of the Scott and Kyle store. There is a possibility that the Scott and Kyle store is a continuation of the Pitzer store as one of the last operators of the Pitzer store was Bernard Pitzer and his wife, Jane Kyle.
The Pitzer archives if used in conjunction with Deed Book Number One and Two and Will and Inventory book One and Two in the Alleghany County Court House plus Deed book 13 and 14 in Botetourt County Court House at Fincastle can provide about all the information anyone would want about our early development.
For instance, we know from these records that the little village of 10 to 15 buildings in 1800 (Gay Arritt reported only 43 houses in 1855 grouped on two streets) could not have been called “Merry’s Store” or Mary’s Stand”. The earliest reference to Dr. James Merry in this is April 26, 1817 when Dennis Callihan (they often used phonetic spelling) wrote him a letter through Pitzer’s store, which charged Callihan 12.4 cents for postage. Dr. Merry must have completed his move to this area just prior to August 4, 1818 for on that date he became a regular and frequent customer of Pitzer’s store. There is no indication that Dr. Merry every had any financial interest in the store.
The little village that became Covington did acquire a name though. As early as 1809, it was called “Mouth of Dunlap” due to its proximity to that river. No wonder the founders of Covington wanted a suitable name for the place.
The role of Dr. James Merry in the formation of Covington appears to have been that of developer and financial backer. He had other compelling interests in his medical practice and his plantation on the Jackson River north of Covington.
Published March 15, 1986
Editor’s Note: Last Saturday the Virginian published a story in which Columnist Leonard Jamison revealed that through research, he is convinced that the City of Covington was named after General Leonard Covington, a hero of the war of 1812. One of Jamison’s claims is that there are no records of a Peter Covington ever having lived in the area, the person many say the town was named after. In this article, Harry A. Walton Jr., of Route 4, adds additional proof that there was no Peter Covington. Mr. Walton has also conducted extensive research on the matter.