The Secret History of the Old House on Toms Brook in the Shenandoah Valley

Unraveling the factual history of a Colonial Period house or a vanished pioneer settlement often encounters the same obstacles, erased history, forgotten history or fabricated history that is typical of Native American legacies. In this case, however, the author also had to fight ferociously to prevent this historic farm being developed into a subdivision by organized crime.

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

Recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2014 as one of “the forty outstanding historic preservation researchers in the United States

Due to several requests from readers, this website will begin periodically featuring articles on towns and structures that were built in the Colonial and Federal Period in the Americas (1500 AD – 1860 AD). The illustrations will come from Architectural History books that I have published or are about to publish.

Dang it!

Over three decades ago, I was honored by having the top historians and archaeologists in the National Park Service study our farm for over a year.  I learned a lot of American history, but also the techniques for doing architectural research, by watching them and asking questions.  At the end of the period the NPS produced a massive report on the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley, which designated our farm as a key property in the proposed Shenandoah Battlefields National Park.  

Since our property on Toms Brook had remained virtually unchanged in appearance since the Civil War (except for the traditionally styled cheese creamery) the NPS staff recommended that the entire farm be placed on the National Register of Historic Places and give Category One status, because of its association with Col. John Tipton and later, the famous Civil War generals, Tom Rosser, CSA and George Custer, USA.    My continued research, especially in 2021, has revealed that the property was of even more historic importance than the NPS researchers realized.

  • In the autumn of 1992, the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (now the Civil War Trust) purchased the farm’s development rights and 10 wooded acres in the rear of the property, where there was much saber-to-saber combat on both Oct. 8 and 9, 1864.  This was done to stop efforts by organized crime to “eliminate me” and subdivide the property.
  • In 1996, all of the Civil War battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley were combined together into the Shenandoah Valley National Historical District . . . not a National Park.
  • There is now planning underway to combine the Opequon Creek Battlefield, Belle Grove Plantation, the Cedar Creek Battlefield, the Fishers Hill Battlefield and the Toms Brook Battlefield into a dispersed National Park.

In 2021,  while doing background research for my book, The Shenandoah Chronicles, I was shocked to discover that my former farm was not even mentioned in the Shenandoah County Survey of Historic Properties, which was incorporated into the regional Shenandoah Battlefields National Historic District plan. Dang it!    The National Park Service report within the larger document does mention the “Thornton Farm” as a key property on the battlefield, but that information was not transferred to the list of historic properties.  

Local consultants had carried out a “car window shield” survey for houses that looked over 50 years old at the same time that my estranged wife was spending the summer in Europe, living on credit cards.  The gate to the farm was closed, when they drove by. Inexplicably, they did not research the National Park Service report on our farm.    

At the time, my estranged wife was spending the summer in Europe . . . living on credit cards. Witchy friends of my estranged wife had given her bad advice – urging her not to sign the real estate sales contract on the farm and to run up her debts.  They thought that since she had filed for separation, while I was visiting my parents in Georgia at Easter, a divorce trial could be postponed indefinitely.

You will have to read The Shenandoah Chronicles to fully understand those complex, dangerous, confusing, surrealistic times. If you want to know the full story of how we fought to save this historic farm from being made into a subdivision start with Chapter One – The French Courtesan, Who Came in from the Cold.   If just interested in knowing the details of why I am not living on this farm now, but still alive . . . go to Chapter 18 – Apocalypse . . . the Last Days in Virginia.

The sweet little girl ghost came to visit us several times in the summer of 1992. My dogs and my girlfriend’s seven year old daughter could see this little girl. I never saw her, but did hear her say several times, “It will be alright. It will be alright.” We later learned that in 1832, a girl her age had been murdered in the Snapp house, whose farm was adjacent to this farm. One of John Tipton’s sons married a Snapp gal.

Unraveling the mysteries of an old farm

In the interest of brevity,  the process of finding our farm’s fascinating history will be presented chronologically in the format of field notes.  It really was not until the spring of 2022 that I was able to identify what transpired in the 1700s.

Confederate cannons fire toward our future barn and house.

What the neighbors said in 1986

  • It was an old “Civil War” house 
  • The Wismans had lived there from the Civil War until around 1950. The house had been empty, since then.
  • The Wismans had raised sheep and wheat.  They dyed and spun the wool for making socks and sweaters.  There were many wool balls and dyeing vats in the detached building.  There was also an old spinning wheel upstairs, but it disappeared prior to the real estate closing.
  • Ever since Old Man Wisman had died, his ghost had been seen from time to time around sunset, smoking a pipe on the porch. His appearances stopped, when we bought the farm.

Real estate closing

  • The attorney only ran the title research about a century, so subsequent owners and the Shenandoah County Historical Society think that the house was built in the 1880s or 1870s.
  •  The only surveyor’s plat ever prepared for the property was drawn by George Washington in 1754! There were no significant changes to the boundaries until we sold the back woods to the Civil War Trust. A copy of the plat was obtained from the Frederick County, VA Clerk of Court’s Office, since Dunmore County (now Shenandoah County) did not come into existence until 1772.   I assumed that George Washington prepared the plat for Thomas Lord Fairfax.  I was to learn in April 2022 that I was very wrong on that assumption.
The original blockhouse foundation is on the right.
Log joists under the keeping room
The stairs originally led to the side porch, not the first floor.

What we found while restoring the house

Winter Kitchen hearth in cellar
  • The original slate roofing was still on the house.  Even back in the early 1800s this was a very expensive type of roofing, because the blue slate was mined about 120 miles SW of Toms Brook.  After being shaped into rectangular shingles, they were hauled to the construction site in horse-drawn wagons.  We could not afford to replace the leaking slate roof with new slate and so chose to install standing seam galvanized metal roofing.
  • The floor boards were virgin Southern Longleaf pine.  Some boards were as wide as 18”.  After the floors were sanded, we discovered blood stains in several parts of the house.  Some were in the shape of human bodies.
  • On the floor of the Dining Room, to the right of the door to the Kitchen, we found the date Oct. 10, 1864 carved into the plank.  We thought that was odd.
  • The house was framed with heavy oak timbers, morticed and pinned together with wooden pegs.  That was NOT the way houses in the 1800s were built.  It was a style of residential framing typical of the Middle Ages and Elizabethan times.
  • The cellar, which functioned as a winter kitchen, and the large limestone chimney that served the cellar and Keeping Room, seemed much older than the rest of the house.  The floor joists of the Keeping Room were Southern Long Leaf Pine logs that still had some bark on them.  Today, the natural range of Longleaf Pine includes most of the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains from southeastern Virginia to eastern Texas and south through the northern two-thirds of peninsular Florida. What were they doing in a Shenandoah Valley house?
  • There were other things odd about the cellar.  It originally had musket-firing holes on all sides of the limestone walls.  Most had latter been filled in with stone rubble, but one on the east side still remained. This was a feature, typical of forts during the 1600s and 1700s.
  • In the winter of 1988, we learned that the cellar had been constructed around an artesian spring.  The cellar filled up to the level of the entrance door after a heavy rain.  I pin-pointed the exact location of the spring then excavated a concrete-lined pit to install an automatic water pump. We had to install the furnace on still legs, which elevated it above the potential flood level. That solved the flooding problem unless the power went out during periods of heavy precipitation.  Then we had a wading pool in our cellar.
  • This was the oddest thing about the house.  The stairs ran from the side porch directly to the upstairs. There was no way to access the stairs from the ground floor, but I could see from the pattern of the floor framing, that the house originally had stairs, which were accessed from the Entry Hall.  
  • While installing the underground wiring and water line to the house, we encountered burials of varying integrity in the side yard, which became our front yard.  Most were severely degenerated, but one skeleton was nearly intact. In association with the bones were Confederate army buttons and a belt buckle.
  • On the other side of the driveway in the pasture, the mechanical contractor encountered many bits of bone in the soil, which indicated a cemetery.   No attempt was made to date the slivers of human bones.  This may be the area, where Confederate dead from the hospital or the battle were interred.  All Union graves were excavated after the Civil War and re-interred at a Union Cemetery in Winchester.  These might also be graves from the French and Indian War period.
General Custer salutes his former West Point classmate, Gen. Tom Rosser, before leading a charge past our future house.

This chimney was constructed for an earlier building – probably a blockhouse.

What the National Park Service told me

  • The farm contained Adena and Hopewell Culture Native American village sites. A burial mound had been altered to be a redan for Confederate cannons.
  • It was a stage coach inn from the 1780s to the 1860s.
  • The farm was the site of the third largest cavalry battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Toms Brook, on October 9, 1864.  The previous day, the Virginia Laurel Brigade Cavalry (CSA) had ambushed a company of 1st Michigan Volunteers Cavalry (USA) along an old (now abandoned) road in the woods on the east end of the farm.   
  • The house had been used repeatedly as both a Confederate and Union hospital for much of the Civil War. 
  • Biologists with the National Park Service determined that the Southern Longleaf Pine was the dominant species of tree within the floor of the Shenandoah Valley, while Eastern Hemlocks dominated the mountainsides. Both species had been harvested to the point of near extinction.  The scientists had no clue, why a semi-tropical tree, like the Longleaf Pine, was growing in northwestern Virginia 250 years ago.  Longleaf pines usually require brushfires to crack their seeds in order to reproduce.
  • The NPS archaeologists found two large pits in our middle pasture where Union and Confederate horses were buried.  Mixed in with the horse bones were the metal components of harnesses and saddles.
This was the original front of the house.
Original kitchen hearth – It became my architecture office!
The Keeping Room hearth is 7 feet wide!
The Dining Room hearth was closed-in, but made to look real.

Later research while living in the house

  • I found a wooden plane under a pile of 19th century newspapers in the closet beneath the stairs.  It was made by E. W. Carpenter of Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1768. 
  • The barn contained a construction date in 1870, carved into one of the main posts.  It also contained penciled tally records, next to the grain bins, which listed grain sales in the late 1800s.
  • All of the interior doors in the house were hand-made and painted with home-made “buttermilk” paint.
  • George Washington had carved his initials GeoW on an ancient oak growing near the entrance to our driveway.   It survived until the 1940s, when a tourist sawed out the initials from the tree.  The gash in the tree, where the initials had been, was still visible.
  • A historian at Mount Vernon said that the initials were odd.  While surveying for Thomas Lord Fairfax, he never put his initials on property boundaries, because the land belonged to Fairfax.
  • A historian at Fort Loudon in Winchester told me that the only time that houses or forts were built over springs was from 1754 to 1765, when farmhouses in the Valley were subject to sudden attacks from Indian warriors, allied with the French.  The favorite time for Indians to attack was at dawn, when sleepy settlers rose to fetch water from a well or spring.
  • John Sevier’s first farm was on the north side of Toms Brook at the Tipton Farm . . . not near New Market as all references tell you.  He moved there after marrying. In a touch of irony,  my next door neighbor on the north side of my farm in the Reems Creek Valley was Charles Sevier, a direct descendant of John Sevier.
  • In 1776, John Tipton’s first wife died in our Master Bedroom, after delivering a child.  The internet was not yet accessible by the general public, so I was unable to find out her name, the baby’s name or the names of Tipton’s children. 
  • After her death, Tipton volunteered to be a recruiting officer for the Continental Army.  This was in addition to him being commander of the militia regiment in Shenandoah County.  These duties kept him away from the home much of the time.  His eldest son, his new bride and younger children became the primary occupants.
  • In 1780, when the Revolutionary War seemed to be going in the favor of the British in the southern colonies,  John Tipton and John Sevier led a wagon train of 80 families to what is now Northeastern Tennessee, but then was part of North Carolina.   They were trying to get away from the anticipated British occupation of Virginia.  In SW Virginia and NE Tennessee, they encountered “ancient” villages, occupied by Jews, who spoke Spanish.  Tipton estimated that the villages were 100-200 years old.
  • John Tipton then built a house, which was a copy of the one on Toms Brook.  It is now the Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site so we now know what the house in Virginia looked like prior to being converted into a stage coach inn.
  • John Tipton, Jr. and his wife, Elizabeth Snapp lived in the original farmhouse until 1792, when he sold it to Phillip and Sophie Werner. Prior to their marriage in 1791, Elizabeth had lived next door to the Tipton Farm. After selling the farm they also moved to Tennessee.  
  • Phillip died in 1796. We know that the Werners spoke German in the home, because after Phillip’s death the Shenandoah Probate Court listed his personal belonging to be taxed.  It was an old English custom that was implemented in younger states.  His Bible and other books were all written in German.  Sophie stayed in the house and raised five children.  She took in stage coach passengers and livestock drovers to pay the bills.  This is probably when the stairs were changed to connect boarders directly from the side porch to the upstairs rooms. Apparently, the entire family slept in the Keeping Room.
  • Sophie sold the farm in 1832, with the provision that she be allowed to live in a nearby log cabin for free . . . as long as she lived.   Some Greek Revival details and new windows were installed about this time.  
  • The Wisman’s continued to live on the farm until the early 1900s.  The last occupants of the house were tenant farmers.  The farm was sold in 1950, and from then on, used to store grain and hay.
Architectural rendering prepared for the grand opening of the cheese creamery. The US State Department paid for the Swiss national champion yodeling choir to perform at the event.

2021 Research

In 1732, Jonas Denton, Abraham John Denton and Thomas Palmer purchased 3,100 acres on the Shenandoah River and Toms Brook in what was then Orange County.  This was the first successful attempt to colonize the Shenandoah Valley and was named Tom’s Brook Plantation.   John and Jonas signed the petition to form Frederick County from Orange County in 1739.

Col. George Washington bought the tract on Toms Brook from Abraham John Denton II in 1754.  After the devasting defeat of Braddock’s Army at the Battle of the Monongahela River, Washington was put in command of Virginia Militia Units defending the Shenandoah Valley.  Apparently, he purchased the property as a location for militias to rally in the central Shenandoah Valley.  The blockhouse sat at the foot of Little North Mountain, next to a ford on Toms Brook.  This was on what was originally a Native American trade path, connecting a gap in the Allegheny Mountains to Woodstock, VA.

I strongly suspect that John Tipton was garrisoned at the blockhouse. He and his young family may have lived there in the blockhouse or in a nearby log cabin, mentioned in the sales contract for the farm in 1832. While family genealogies have Col. Tipton living in the Seven Bends Area, this seems to be an assumption of an amateur genealogist, who saw the name of the town, Toms Brook and didn’t realize that there was a Tipton farm on the western end of Toms Brook. There are also conflicting dates for the births and marriages of his children on the genealogical websites.

Frederick County, VA records show John Sevier living on the north side of Toms Brook with his wife in 1767. He may have lived there as a renter after his marriage at age 16 in 1761. In 1780, John Tipton was a business partner with John Sevier in leading wagon trains from Shenandoah County to what is now northeastern Tennessee. This only makes sense if they had been neighbors.

Tipton Hayes State Historic Site near Johnson City, TN

John Tipton

John Tipton was born on August 15, 1730 in Baltimore County, Maryland.  In 1747, John’s father moved his family from Maryland to the Cedar Creek Valley in the Shenandoah Valley in the western mountains. Their farmstead was in Frederick County, VA.

He married his first wife, Mary Butler, in 1751. Mary was born in 1732 on Cedar Creek and was the daughter of Thomas Butler. Mary died in childbirth in 1776 after delivering Jonathan.

Mary and John’s children probably included:

  • Samuel Tipton (1752, married Jemima Suttee Little and Susannah Reneau),
  • Benjamin Tipton (1755, married Rebecca Cusick),
  • Abraham Tipton (1758) -While serving with George Rogers Clark in the Ohio Country, son Abraham, a Captain, was killed by Indians on Beargrass Creek at the Falls of the Ohio, present-day Louisville, Kentucky. 
  • William (Fighting Billy) Tipton (1761), married Phebe Moore, the daughter of James Moore, his step-sister) – William was badly wounded fighting at the siege of Savannah under General Isaac Huger.
  • Isaac Tipton (1763),
  • Jacob Tipton (1765, married Mary Bradford) – Jacob was killed on November 4th, 1791 at St. Clair’s Defeat by Indians in the Northwest Territory.  In 1823, Jacob’s son, General Jacob Tipton, was to name the West Tennessee County of Tipton. 
  • John Tipton, Jr. (1767, married  Elizabeth Snapp) – The Snapps lived immediately adjacent to our farm.
  • Jonathan Tipton (1776, married Lavinia Adams Williams).
  • In 1777, John Tipton married Martha Denton Moore, the widow of Dr. James Moore and member of a large, prosperous Valley family.  The Dentons and John Tipton had a close relationship during his years in the Shenandoah.  This is where
  • In 1781, Martha gave birth to a son who was named Abraham to honor the brother who fell in the Ohio country.  With the birth of Abraham, Tipton had fathered ten sons.
  • John served as a militiaman in the French and Indian War. He was a captain of the militia in Lord Dunmore’s war in 1774 and was a County Lieutenant in the Shenandoah County, Virginia, militia during the Revolutionary War.  This made him a Colonel in the Virginia Militia.
  • Appointed Commissioner of Peace for Dunmore County by Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia.
  • Col. John Tipton was Chief Justice and Vestryman of Beckford Parish of Dunmore and Shenandoah
  • Colonel in the Continental Army during the American Revolution – in charge of recruiting
  • Sheriff of Shenandoah County
  • Representative of Dunmore in the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1776 and a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, 1776-1777
  • Representative of Washington County, North Carolina (now Tennessee) in the Jonesboro or Franklin conventions of 1784 and 1785;
  • Representative in the North Carolina Senate, Representative of Washington County in the House of Representatives of the Territory of the U.S. South of the River Ohio;
  • Representative of Washington County in the Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1796;
  • Representative of Washington County in the Tennessee Senate.

Now you know!

2 Comments

  1. At least now, you know what I have been doing for a living most of my adult life. The Native American “thing” is pure charity. I found some typos after you read the article – sentences left out, when I transferred the Microsoft Word draft to WordPress. I apologize for that. They have been corrected.

    Liked by 1 person

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