Capt. John McDowell among area’s first settlers

Reprinted from: The News Leader-Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County, Virginia © 2017 (www.newsleader.com) All rights reserved.

Nancy Sorrells, Contributor 9:05 p.m. ET  May 14, 2014

FAIRFIELD -The McDowells first set foot on American soil in September 1729.

Ephraim McDowell, his sons, John and James, his son-in-law James Greenlee, the accompanying families of those men, and at least one indentured servant had sailed from Ulster in the north of Ireland on the ship “George and Ann.” The voyage across the Atlantic to Philadelphia was an unusually long one, 118 days.

The family did not linger too long in Pennsylvania. Lured by inexpensive land on the Virginia frontier, son James McDowell, soon came to Augusta County and established a farm near Woods Gap (now Jarman’s Gap). Perhaps it was Ephraim’s son James or the McDowell’s kinsman John Lewis that recommended that the entire family migrate south into the Valley of Virginia.

So by September 1737 the family was camped out along Linville Creek in what is now Rockingham County. Their plan was to acquire land in the Beverley tract around what eventually became Staunton. Soon a chance encounter would change the course of their lives. A man named Benjamin Borden entered their camp and asked to spend the night. He was the beneficiary of a 100,000-acre land grant in what is now southern Augusta County and northern Rockbridge, but he needed help surveying his holdings. John McDowell, who was a surveyor, struck a bargain with Borden whereby McDowell would survey the tract in exchange for 1,000 acres of land.

The entire group traveled south to the home of John Lewis where an agreement was signed. That contract said in part that John McDowell “would go now with his family and his father and his Brothers and make four Settlements in the said Bordens land which was granted to the said Borden on this side of the blue ridge in the fork of said River, and said McDowell would cut a good Road for Horses loaded with common Luggage and blaze the Trees all the way plain …”

The entire group then went to a spring near where Steeles Tavern is today and the men began surveying Borden’s land. The McDowells put down roots in the area of what is now Fairfield and thus became the first official settlers in the region.

For a number of reasons the Borden tract was always afflicted with financial and legal difficulties. Benjamin Borden did not live long after John McDowell helped him established his tract. Benjamin Borden Jr. then came to administer the land in 1742. By that time John McDowell had perished in an Indian conflict. In 1744 the junior Borden married McDowell’s widow. By 1753 he was dead of smallpox.

But back to the McDowell family and highway marker A-43 which points out the cemetery containing a number of family graves. The walls of the burying ground are a pretty red brick and can be seen from U.S. 11. John McDowell the surveyor did not live long after settling in present-day Rockbridge. However, legend says that in 1737 he built a log house on this site, stained the logs with red ochre and called it the Red House. In 1783 Joseph Treavy bought the property. Treavy eventually tore down the log house and replaced it with the stagecoach inn that you see today.

John McDowell was made captain of the local militia and was killed in battle with the Iroquois in 1742. He is buried in the cemetery along with seven others who were killed in the battle. The cemetery is not open to the public.

One of McDowell’s sons, Samuel, was 10 when the family came to Rockbridge and he lived in the Red House. He became an active leader in the community and served in the House of Burgesses. In the Revolution he commanded a militia unit at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and eventually rose to the rank of colonel. A lawyer by training, after the war he moved to Kentucky and became a judge.

Ephraim McDowell, the son of Samuel and the grandson of the surveyor John, became a famous doctor. He attended Humphreys medical school in Staunton and received a doctor of medicine degree in Edinburgh, Scotland. He settled in Kentucky where he was a pioneer in abdominal surgery.

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