Lost Maryland How state missed its claim to the Potomac Highlands

Heritage: The territory in Lord Baltimore's proprietary Colonial grant extended to the 'first fountain' of the Potomac, but things didn't turn out that way for Maryland.

January 18, 1998|By Michael S. Derby | Michael S. Derby,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

FRANKLIN, W.Va. -- The shallow, rock-filled South Branch of the Potomac River winds through peaceful West Virginia valleys shadowed by rolling mountains, joining the North Branch near Oldtown and continuing to the sea as the Potomac River, the southern boundary of Maryland.

It is difficult to believe that the peaceful landscape of the southern Potomac headwaters was the scene of controversy and legal wrangling from Colonial times to the beginning of this century.

The dispute over control of the area had its genesis in 1632 when Britain's King Charles I gave Lord Baltimore the proprietary rights to Maryland, with the southern boundary of the colony to be set at the "first fountain" of the Potomac River, said Gilbert Gude, a Potomac historian and former congressman from Montgomery County.

For centuries, the colony of Maryland and then the state - maintaining that surveying errors, deliberate or otherwise, had improperly set the border at the source of the North Branch - claimed the South Branch and all the territory north of it. But in 1910 the dream of a greater Maryland died when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the state's bid for the territory, known as the Potomac Higlands.

Maryland's claim was void, the court wrote, because generations of people living in the Potomac Highlands had accepted the North Branch as Maryland's border. The court said long-standing custom overrode any surveyors' errors.

The claims may have been legitimate, Gude said. Early explorers, one of them Thomas Jefferson's father, Peter, followed the bends of the Potomac that they perceived had the most water. The surveyors were in the service of Thomas, Lord Fairfax, a British noble who held royal grants for 5,282,000 acres of western Virginia, including all of the land to the North Branch of the Potomac.

"They were somewhat biased," Gude added, and likely mapped the border in such a way as to increase their employer's land. The Virginia surveying party marked the boundary in 1747, placing Fairfax Stone at the head of the Potomac's North Branch.

First survey in 1771

And that's where the border has remained, even though Maryland frontiersman Thomas Cresap discovered that the South Branch was the longer stream after making the first actual examination and survey in 1771.

"You can make a good argument that the surveyors that had made this boundary were wrong," Gude said, because the South Branch of the Potomac is as legitimate a part of the river as the North Branch.

Indeed, standing at the confluence of the two branches, it is difficult to decide which is the larger. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that the mean stream flow of the South Branch at Springfield, W.Va., near the confluence, is 1,180 cubic feet per second and that the mean flow of the North Branch at Cumberland is 1,280 feet per second.

A glance at a map of the eastern tip of West Virginia shows a web of rivers, many with Potomac in their names. Gude said that deciding which river would have been the real "first fountain" would have required an extensive survey.

Maryland's dispute was initially with Virginia. But it passed to West Virginia when Congress formed the state in 1863 out of Virginia counties that refused to secede during the Civil War.

When Maryland lost its bid to pick up the land north of the South Branch, it lost towns such as Petersburg and Keyser, now belonging to West Virginia. And it also lost an area with both a rich and complicated past.

The Allegheny Mountains find their origin 440 million years ago in an ancient inland sea. Layers of sand built up, finally breaking through the water. Mountain building finished about 200 million years ago, followed by the rain and wind that eroded the region's features down to the jagged and craggy landscape that attracts sightseers today.

Native Americans entered the Potomac Highlands about 12,000 years ago. Their hunting and trading paths served as the basis for such roads as U.S. 33 and U.S. 220.

During the French and Indian War, the region was part of the frontier of the English colonies. George Washington saw military duty here with Gen. Edward Braddock's ill-fated expedition against the French at Fort Duquesne in 1755. After Braddock's defeat, Washington commanded the Virginia Regiment in the area during four years of unremitting Indian attacks. From that era, Fort Ashby still stands on its lonely vigil near Cumberland.

During the Revolutionary War, many of the area's settlers sympathized with the British, but "the history of West Virginia to the Civil War was that there just weren't a lot of people here," said Julie Fosbender, head of the visitors' center at Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area.

During the Civil War, Union forces were vigilant, lest Confederate troops sweep down from the highlands to cut the vital Baltimore & Ohio rail line, which ran along the southern side of the Potomac from Harpers Ferry west.

The Shay locomotive

But the invention of the Shay steam locomotive in 1880 changed everything.

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