When we think of the American West now, we think of Colorado, Utah, California, and other western states—of cowboys, Indians, vast tracts of land, and gold mining. That image of the American frontier is etched into our collective sense of identity. However, when our nation was much younger, the frontier was understandably much closer in the East yet still an unknown land with the potential for great riches but also for great danger. In the 1700’s, the western lands of Virginia were such a frontier. No white man knew what exactly awaited settlers to the west but many were eager to find out. All of what is now the western expanse of Virginia and southwestern West Virginia was in the 1700’s Augusta and Botetourt counties. The size of this territory was huge, encompassing not only all of the aforementioned land but also the entire region westward which would eventually become the state of Kentucky. When men spoke in colonial Virginia of “the frontier,” this is what they were talking about, and it was the gateway to the rest of the American frontier that we now think of as the Great American West.
Robert Dinwiddie, the lieutenant governor of Virginia in the 1750’s, desired to survey and expand settlement into the far reaches of Augusta County. In 1751 a young surveyor, Andrew Lewis, was sent to survey Greenbrier District of Augusta County. He found a spring near what is now the location of the county courthouse, which he named Lewis Spring and took as a good omen of the viability of the area for settlement. The land was heavily forested but of good soil, and water was plentiful from not only the springs but the nearby Greenbrier River.
However, as British settlers established a foothold in this territory, Shawnee Indians discovered their presence and raided their camps, killing most of the men and carrying off the women and children. After this unfortunate event, a fort known as Fort Savannah was established in the region to safeguard future settlers. In 1774, the new governor of Virginia, Lord Dumore, instructed Lewis—who by this point was a colonel—to gather the best men he could and form an army to march to the Ohio River and fight the Shawnee who remained a threat. The ensuing battle—known as the Battle of Point Pleasant—was pretty much a draw for both Lewis’s men and the Shawnee, but it did convey the message to the Shawnee that the pioneer settlers were serious about their homesteading and were going to be here to stay.
The success of Lewis and his men was matched by the efforts of settlers at Fort Union, a fort erected where present-day Lewisburg stands, and this toe-hold grew into a community of thriving farms. In 1782 the Virginia General Assembly officially made Lewisburg a town and enacted a decree to move several courts to the area to serve the settlers not only of the immediate community but the general area west of Fincastle, which had been established a decade prior as Botetourt County’s seat. Mountains between Fincastle and Lewisburg provided not only a formidable obstacle to travel but also a good degree of distance, and Lewisburg would have to be a self-sustaining community if its settlers were to succeed.
Andrew Lewis’s brother William played a key role in this matter by offering the court to be located a distance away at a new community called Fontville, which he developed out of his own land. Like Lewisburg, this site had springs and good farming land, and William Lewis had a decree passed in 1790 to sell at auction parcels to prospective buyers and included in the terms of sale very specific conditions as to how large homes could be and that each house’s fireplace was to be made of stone. While restrictive deeds nowadays are common to planned communities and some townships, in such early frontier times in so rural a region they were nearly unheard of, making Fontville one of the first planned communities of its type in America.
Despite William’s best efforts, few lots were sold and the town never took off, though William even built a courthouse and jail on his own property in an attempt to move the seat of court there. The stone jail building—which is probably the oldest remaining jail west of the Alleghenies—still stands and is on the property of the historic Sweet Springs Resort, which William also founded. The resort fared far better than Fontville and grew with time, becoming a popular destination for vacations of the wealthy and was in later years visited by the likes of James Madison and Robert E Lee as it kept its elite status for centuries. Moreover, the main building which still stands was constructed in 1831 and believed to have been designed by none other than Thomas Jefferson.
Despite the varied and important history of Sweet Springs Resort, by the 1930’s its remote location made it no longer in demand as a resort and spa, and it was closed and sold to the state of West Virginia, which used it from the 1940’s to 1993 as a mental hospital and later as a retirement home for the elderly. After 1993 the property changed hands several times; plans for restorative reuse have been considered, but it sits in a state of decline today, with the 1980’s institutional interior still intact and few restorations beyond some basic upkeep-oriented stewardship. Though in William Lewis’s time Fontville/Sweet Springs was in Botetourt County, Virginia, today Sweet Springs is part of Monroe County, West Virginia. Indeed, this region was one of the first settled in what is now West Virginia, and early settlers such as Irish immigrant Joseph Parker and his family were known to have pioneered homesteads in the area as early as 1770.
When Fontville failed to become the city William Lewis dreamed of, Lewisburg took on the role of the regional epicenter for once and for all. Administrative and logistical help, as in most frontier towns, was quite limited from larger and more-refined cities to the east. The courts were necessary, and Patrick Henry defended a man accused of murder once at court in Lewisburg (and won his case). Soon, the farms devoted to cattle, sheep, fodder crops, and food crops were successful enough to form a cohesive basis for the community, and, like Sweet Springs, other mineral springs were discovered in the region which brought about spas with mineral waters believed to have healing properties. Blue Sulphur Springs, Red Sulphur Springs, and Sweet Chalybeate all attracted famous guests from far and wide, but all closed their doors due to declining business by the early twentieth century.
By the time of the Civil War, Lewisburg was a vital regional center as well as a strategic crossroads. The mineral springs, most of which gained grand buildings in the Greek Revival style in the 1830’s, as had Sweet Springs, grew in popularity even though the war disturbed activity, income, and logistics for these resorts. Several small battles during the war were fought in the vicinity of Lewisburg, and the city’s library among other buildings still bears bullet-scars and graffiti from troops who were there when the library was a hospital for war-wounded. Despite the effect of these battles on Lewisburg, the town was not burned or seriously damaged by the war, and many fine homes, such as the John North House (built c. 1820), which is now a house museum operated by the Greenbrier Historical Society, survived intact. The homes in downtown Lewisburg from the 1820’s onward demonstrate the affluence of the area, as prominent lawyers and businessmen were able to have as impressive homes as one would expect in a city like Richmond. Certainly the frontier origins of Lewisburg and its environs had given way to the very type of success most who head into a frontier territory dream of finding.
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