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Jewish Pioneers on the Virginia Frontier
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The experience of getting to know Brent Kennedy brought back a memory from the exact same year that Brent discovered his Melungeon heritage – 1988. The loan closing documents for purchasing what my former wife and I thought was a long abandoned “Civil War Era” farm house in the Shenandoah Valley produced two big surprises. The plat for the farm was drawn in 1755 and had as its draughtsman and surveyor, the big initials, GeoW . . . that’s George Washington. The giant oak tree at the entrance to the farm’s driveway had displayed the same initials until the 1940s when a collector from Washington, DC had cut it out.
The original deed, from the same year, was from Thomas, Lord Fairfax to someone named Jost Hite. Eventually, Jost Hite sold the tract of land to Colonel John Tipton and the adjacent tract to John Sevier. Both men had initially built log cabins. Tipton then built a heavy timber house in 1770 while Sevier soon moved on to what is now Tennessee. Tipton’s wife died in childbirth in the master bedroom of our house in 1776. Afterward, Tipton spent most of his time fighting the British, until moving to Tennessee himself. The copy of my former Virginia house in Johnson City, TN is now the Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site.
The name, Hite, intrigued me. One summer while at Georgia Tech, I had dated a Belle from northern Alabama named with the last name of Hite. Deborah was proud of the fact that she was descended from one of the first white settlers in northern Alabama. She said that he was a Dutch Jew named Solomon Hite, who had moved down the Tennessee River from the Smoky Mountains in the mid-1700s. I thought that her story was odd. In the mid-1700s, the Smoky Mountains were in Cherokee territory, weren’t they?
Jost Hite was hired by Thomas, Lord Fairfax, to obtain settlers from the Palatinate region of Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. He named his son, Jacob, which CAN be a Jewish first name. Just before the Revolution, Jacob borrowed money to buy 150,000 acres of land in the South Carolina Upcountry that was assigned to the Cherokees, but not lived on. The deal involved fraudulent deeds and fell through.
Early histories of Shenandoah County labeled these Dutch, German and Swiss settlers, Protestants. Out of curiosity, I looked up the names of all the families around my farm, who were descended from Dutch immigrants in the 1750s. Every one of the names, including Spiker, the name of the hill up which our front pasture ran, were Dutch-Jewish names. Scanning the Shenandoah Telephone Company directory revealed that most of Germanic names in the county were also common Dutch-Jewish names.
Between 1810 and 1820 Shenandoah County lost half its population as the offspring of the original 18th century settlers moved to the Tennessee and Kentucky frontier. Many of the families disappeared into communities deep within the wilderness that were not on any maps. I didn’t quite understand the reasons for this little ethnic surprise and at the time, was primarily interested in the authentic restoration of Colonial Period buildings. The information was filed away in my brain in the Historical Trivia section.
On October 9, 1864 that Shenandoah farm was the scene of one of the largest cavalry battles of the Civil War, between General George Armstrong Custer and his former roommate at West Point, Confederate General Tom Rosser. The farm is now a key property in the Shenandoah Battlefields National Park and is called, of all things, the Thornton House, on the NPS web site.1
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