Mercersburg - Beginnings

Mercersburg – Its Beginnings

 By Joan C. McCulloh


          Pennsylvania until 1776 was a colony owned by William Penn and after his death in 1718 by his sons who operated a Land Office; therefore, as a proprietary colony the Penns and their agents directed the process of determining counties and the granting of land.  Lancaster County, formed in 1729, included all the land to the western border of Pennsylvania.  The Mercersburg area remained in Lancaster County until 1750 when Cumberland County was formed and remained in Cumberland County until 1784 when Franklin County was formed.


          In the early 1700s the Proprietors of Pennsylvania, the sons of William Penn, John, Thomas, and Richard, realized that the land west of the Susquehanna River still belonged to the Native Americans and became fearful that the area would be overrun by people from Maryland.  Therefore, in 1733 Thomas Penn gave Samuel Blunston of Lancaster County the right to grant temporary licenses to people to settle west of the Susquehanna River.  Although the Penns did not have clear ownership of these lands west of the river until 1736 when they made a treaty with the Native Americans, in this way the Penns would be assured that the area west of the Susquehanna River would be populated by Pennsylvanians when the Native Americans by treaty released these lands.  These licenses were recorded in the Land Office in Philadelphia with the understanding that the holders of the licenses would eventually secure patents, now called deeds, for the land.  These licenses were given basically until after the purchase of the land from the Native Americans in 1736.  After that date the Land Office in Philadelphia was the arbiter of land purchases.


The Commission to Samuel Blunston


          A Record of Licenses Granted to Sundry Persons to Settle & take up land on the West side of Susquehanna River by Virtue of a Comission {sic} from the Honble {sic} Thomas Penn Esqr Bearing the 11th Day of January 1733. To Samuel Blunston of Lancast County page 39


          Obtaining a patent or deed for land required the person who wanted to own the land to take several steps.  First, he had to have a license and/or make written application for the land, then apply to the surveyor-General in the Land Office in Philadelphia for a warrant in order to have the land surveyed, have the land surveyed, then have the survey indicating also that all purchase price and all fees had been paid returned to the Land Office, and the receive a patent, what we today call a deed.


          By Tradition Edward Parnell, who took up land in this area about 1727, was the first person to settle in the area around what is now Mercersburg.  In 1734 Edward Parnell was one of forty men who wrote a letter to Samuel Blunston stating that they already lived on the Conococheague and Antietam as we now spell the names of those creeks and that they intended to apply for license for the lands they already held.  The letter stated: “Mr. Samuel Blunston, Sr. this is to let you understand that the Inhabitants about the great Marsh where Edmund Cartledge does live have met and made a general Conclusion for to get grants from you for to settle any where upon the Waters of the Conehecheegoe and likewise upon the Waters of the Andiatom in the North side of the line that George Noble and John Smith did run.”  By 1734 the phrases, “Parnell Nob”, “Edward Parnells,” and Parnels meadows,” were frequently used.  However, there is no record of a Blunston License for Edward Parnell.  It is believed that Edward Parnell left this area not long after he had settled here.


          As the system of the acquisition of land under the Blunston license plan began before the Penns’ purchase of the land from the Native Americans, it was a highly irregular system.  Also, as the process of acquiring land legally was cumbersome and time-consuming, and as the Land Office was in Philadelphia, sometimes people applied for a license or a warrant but did not have the land surveyed or did not return the survey to the Land Office.  Therefore, confusion and conflict frequently developed.  Adding to the uncertainty was the fact that the Penns did not purchase the land from Native Americans until 1736.


          On October 11, 1736, the Penns and Six Nations of Native Americans signed a treaty with far-reaching consequences.  After the signing of this treaty the lands which has been occupied west of the Susquehanna River under the Blunston Licenses of 1733 and 1734 could be legally patented to those who made application and who had had the lands surveyed.


          This treaty that brought about peace with the Native Americans also had the purpose of deterring people from Maryland to settle north of the Temporary Line.  It said in part: “And all the lands lying on the west side of the said river [Susquehanna]

To the setting of the Sun and to extend from the mouth of the said river northward, up the same to the hills or mountains called the language of the same nations Tyannutasacta, or Endless hills…together also with all the Islands in the said River, Ways, Waters, Watercourses, Woods, Underwoods, Timber, Trees, Mountains, Hills, Mines, Valleys, Minerals, Quarries, Rights, Liberties, Privileges, Advantages, Hereditaments, and Appurtences…”  Then follow the names of the chiefs of the six nations signing this deed.  The cost to the Penns for this immense stretch of land included 600 pounds of lead, 500 pounds of powder, 45 guns, 60 Strowd water match coats, 100 blankets, 100 duffle march coats, 200 yards of half thick, 100 shirts, 40 hats, 40 pairs of shoes and buckles, 40 pairs of stockings, 100 hatchets, 500 knives, 100 houghs, 60 kettles, 100 tobacco tins, 100 scissors, 500 awl blades, 120 combs, 2000 needles, 1000 flints, 24 looking glasses, 2 pounds of vermilion 100 tin po, 24 dozen of gartering, 25 gallons of rum, 200 pounds of tobacco, and pipes.


          The chiefs signing this treaty also agreed that in the future they would not sell any of this land to anyone except the children of William Penn.  They agreed “That neither we nor they [children] nor any in authority in our nations, will at any time bargain, sell, grant, or by any means make over, to any person or persons, whatsoever, whether White men or Indians, other than said proprietors, the children of William Penn, or to persons by them authorized and Appointed agree for and receive the same, any lands within the Limits of the Government of Pennsylvania, as ‘tis bounded Northward with the Government of New York and Albany.”


          Much about the earliest settlement in the area now called Mercersburg is uncertain as there was confusion in the early 1700s between two men, Andrew Dunlap and his son and John Black and his family.


          Conflict developed between two men, Andrew Dunlap and John Black, over a tract of land, believed to be land either lying west of what became Mercersburg or including what became Mercersburg as both men received a Blunston License.  In 1733 (1734) Andrew Dunlap was granted a Blunston License for the land.  The license states: “September 3rd (1733 or 1734) Andrew Dunlap for himself & Son Joseph Dunlap, 400 acres (this place is in dispute with John Black).  On a Westerly Branch of Conegochege called Clouds Branch [now Johnston Run] about three miles North East of Edward Parnells.”  Whether or not Dunlap had this land surveyed at this time is unknown.  He received a warrant for this land dated December 9, 1764.  However, there is no reference to a patent, what we call a deed.  On February 27, 1734, John Black was granted a Blunston License for land that either encompassed or overlapped in some way, or was contiguous to the land Dunlap claimed.  The license states: “February 27th (1734?) John Black for himself & children, 800 acres.  On a Northern Branch of Conegochege where Peter Hart & John Gibson first settled [sic] who have quitted their claim.”  He received a warrant for land dated August 17, 1751.  Whether or not lands granted to Dunlap and Black overlapped or were contiguous tensions between the two families developed.


          Conflict continued as both men applied and received warrants for land.  Whether or not this land was that for which both had received a Blunston License is

Unknown.  A warrant for a tract of land, the site of the southern end of Mercersburg, dated February 4, 1737, was given to Andrew Dunlap, and a warrant for land in the same tract was given to John Black on March 1, 1737.  The survey on Black’s warrant was dated March 15, 1737.  A later survey for the property on Andrew Dunlap’s warrant dated December 12, 1828, notes “the conflicting claim” under Black’s warrant.  The survey states that “apparently Dunlap was dispossessed by Black.”  Dunlap complained to the authorities that when Black could not by Pennsylvania law dispossess him, the latter had the constable from Maryland come to his place in order to remove him.  After a fight that became ugly Black dispossessed Dunlap.


          Other records in the Land Office refer to property in Mercersburg and the surrounding area.  A note from these records about tract MRC 150, the southern end of Mercersburg, states: “Blunston License to Andrew Dunlap dated 3 Sep 1734; Cumberland Co warrants D82 to Andrew Dunlap dated 9 Dec 1764ND C019 to Peter Corbet dated 27 Nov 1751.  Survey A-052-253 dated 19 Nov 1736 on Dunlap’s license; returned to Dunlap 9 Dec 1742.”  An additional note in the middle of the text states that the information is also applicable to Tract MRC 151, the site of central Mercersburg.  The following information is added: “On the 28th day of December this draft + Certificate was sent into my Office by Wm Peters with an order to Examin [sic] the Quantity which I did + sent it back to him by Andrew Dunlap who brought it to me.  Returned 4 Jan 1764 for Andrew Dunlap.  Survey A-008-260 dated May 1752 for William Shannon on Corbet’s warrant: previously surveyed for Robert Black.


          Another note from the Land Records states about Tract MERC 151, the site of central Mercersburg: “Blunston License to Andrew Dunlap dated 3 Sep 1734; Cumberland Co warrants DO82 to Andrew Dunlap dated 9 1764 and B016 to James Black dated 17 Aug 1751 Survey A-052-253 dated 19 Nov 1736 on Dunlap’s license; returned for Dunlap 9 Dec 1742.  ‘On the 28th day of December this draft + Certificate was sent into my Office by Wm Peters Esquire with an order to Examin [sic] the Quantity which I did + sent to back to him by Andrew Dunlap who brought it to me.’  Survey C-026-056 dated 26 Apr on Black’s warrant.  Survey A-017 dated 6 Apr 1792 for Dr. William Magaw on Black’s warrant.  Returned 18 Aug 1792 for James Black.


          The fact that conflict between the two existed is attested to by the fact that a draft of one of the tracts of land “situate in Peters Township” and including Clouds Branch, now Johnstons Run, noting Dunlap’s warrant, is accompanied by a note that states the following: “The land above described is the same land as held by a survey  Containing 342 acrs [sic] & all, which was surveyed in pursuance of a warrant granted to John Black dated 1st of March 1737…but by a survey on the ground it is found to extend the black lines as returned on Dunlap’s original warrant.”  The note further states: “No evidence appears of any survey having been made on Dunlap’s warrant, but from a copy from the record of the Court of Lancaster County Dunlap was in possession of the land described & was disposed by Black.”


          That this conflict reached the Court of Lancaster County indicates the seriousness of the conflict.  According to John L. Finafrock, writing in Notes on Franklin County History in 1942, “Later Dunlap complained to the authorities that when Black could not remove him by Pennsylvania law, Black secured a Maryland constable and posse, came to Dunlap’s place, and after an ugly fight dispossessed Dunlap…To the day of his death Dunlap claimed the place.  Miss Anne Rupley called the attention of the compiler to Dunlap’s will, in which years afterward he bequeathed the town of Mercersburg to his heirs just as any other tract of his real estate.”


          By whatever means John Black and his family prevailed.  John Black and his wife Jean had two sons, James and Robert.  Grants appear to have been made to three men in the Black family – John Black, Robert Black, and James Black.  According to William Black, a descendant, in a letter to Daniel Heefner in Mercersburg in 1948, “John Black and Jean, his wife, owned a tract lying east from Cove mountain, bordering on the Run.  His son James owned under a claim, the land lying on to the east, and Robert, another son, owned attract that later was sold by his son to William Smith – some 600 acres.  This family had land from the central part of the academy grounds, westward to the foot of Cove Mt.”  By tradition John Black founded the mill.  His son, James Black, it is believed, helped found the mill but then moved to North Carolina.  John Black’s other son, Robert, later owned and operated the mill.  Robert Black and his wife Ann had eight children – James, Thomas, John Robert, Jane, Elizabeth, Martha, and Ann.  Robert died in 1746.  James, the oldest son of Robert and Ann, purchased the interest of his brothers and sisters.  “Upon Petition of James Black, Jr., the oldest son of Robert Black, that the said James Black do hold and enjoy the Message, Mill, Plantation and 750 acres in paying to the rest of the children the sum of forty-six pounds and eight pence farthing.”  Cumberland County June 12, 1751.


          After Robert’s death in 1746 or 1750 his son Robert petitioned the Orphans Court “held at Peters Town for the county of Cumberland the twelfth day of June in the Year of our Lord 1751 before Samuel Smith, William Maxwell, and William Allison Esqrs…”  The young Robert’s petition follows:

          “Upon the petition of Robert Black an infant one of the children of Robert Black late of Peters Township in the County of Cumberland and Yeoman deceased, Praying the court to appoint such Guardian or Guardians over his person and estates during his minority as the Court shall see fit It is considered by the Court and ordered that James Black the uncle of the said Infant be the Guardian over his person and Estate during his minority accordingly.”


          On the same day the following was recorded: “Upon the petition of Ann Black and John Black Infants two of the Children of Robert Black late of Peters Township in the County of Cumberland Yeoman deceased, Praying the Court to appoint them such Guardians over their persons and estates during their minority as the Court shall think fit, It is considered by the Court and ordered that Ann Black the mother of the said Infants be the Guardian over their persons and Estates during their minority accordingly.”


          Again on that same day James, the oldest son of Robert, filed the following petition in which he purchased the interests of his brothers and sisters.


          “Upon the petition of James Black, Jr., the oldest son and heir at Law of Robert Black, [sic] late of Peters Township in the County of Cumberland Yeoman deceased to this court setting forth that the said Robert Black late of Peters Township in the County of Cumberland Yeoman deceased to this court setting forth that the said Robert Black in his lifetime at the time of his decease was among other things in his life time Seized or possessed of a certain Messuage or Tenement Water Grist Mill, Plantation and two tracts of land or pieces of Land situate in Peters township aforesaid.  Containing in the whole seven hundred and fifty acres or thereabouts, together with appurts [enances].  And said Robert Black being so seized or possessed died Intestate leaving a widow and Eight Children, and said James Black being willing and desirous to hold the aforesaid Messuage Mill Plantation and two tracts of land and Appurtenances and to pay the rest of the children their respective shares of the said Estate amounting to the sum of forty-six pounds and eight pence farthing each wherewith they and each of them are fully satisfied and contented, It is thereupon considered by the Court and ordered (according to the consent of all parties concerned) That the said James Black do hold and enjoy the aforesaid Messuage Mill Plantation & 750 Acres of land with the appurtenances he paying unto the rest of the children the sum of forty-sex pounds and eight pence farthing each within twelve months from the date hereof in lieu and satisfaction of their parts or shares of the said Messuage Mill and premises aforesaid.”


          On June 12, 1751, James Black signed a mortgage with his mother, the widow, Ann Black, for payment of 160 pounds with 16 pounds due on June 12, 1754, and 16 pounds annually thereafter for 350 acres in Peters Township.  This was part of the estate of his father, Robert Black. (Cumberland County archives)


          James Black received a returned warrant from the Land Office in Philadelphia, dated August 17, 1751, granting him the legal right to have the land he had purchased from his brothers and sisters surveyed.


          BY THE PROPIETARIES Whereas James Black of the county of Cumberland hath requested that we would grant him to take up two hundred Acres of Land Including his improvement adjoining a Tract of 100 acres sold to Richard Peters by the said James Black and Peters Corbet in Peters Township in the said County of Cumberland; for which he agrees to pay Us for our Use Fifteen Pounds Ten Shillings, current Money of this Province, for each Hundred Acres with Lawful Interest for the same and the Yearly Quit-rent of One Halfpenny Sterling for every Acre thereof.  Both to commence from the first of March 1738  These are therefore to authorize and require you to survey, or cause to be surveyed, unto the said James Black, at the place Aforesaid, according to the Method of Townships appointed, the said Quantity of two hundred Acres, if not already surveyed to appropriated; and make return therefore into the Secretary’s Office, in Order for confirmation, for which this will be your sufficient Warrant: Which Survey, in case the said James Black fulfill the Above Agreement within Six Months from the Date hereof, shall be valid, otherwise void.

          GIVEN under my Hand, and Seal of the Land Office, by Virtue of certain powers from the said PROPIETARIES at Philadelphia, this seventeenth day of August-Anno Domini One Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty-One. 

Surveyor-General Nicolas Scull.


          In 1751, the first appearance of Peters Township in tax records, Ann Black widow and James Black were listed as taxpayers in Peters Township, which had been formed in that year.


          On October 22, 1759, James Black, who with his wife Rachel and probably with his mother Ann was living in Maryland, sold this property to William Smith.  James and his wife and mother lived in the part of Fredrick County, Maryland, now known as Washington County, Maryland, at least until 1770.  At one time James owned lots in Sharpsburg, Maryland.


          The indenture noting the sale of the land from James Black to William Smith follows: “This indenture made the twenty-second day of October in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred & fifty-nine—between James Black late of Frederick County & Province of Maryland Gentlemen of the one part and William Smith of the county of Cumberland & province of Pennsylvania [sic] Esq. of the other part Witnesseth that the said James Black for & in consideration of three hundred & fifty pounds current lawful money of Pensilvania [sic] to him in hand paid the receipt whereof he doth acknowledge hath granted bargoned [sic] sold and confirmed and do by these presents grant bargon [sic] sell & confirm unto the said William Smith & to his heirs and assigns all that certain Tract of land laying in Peters Township in Cumberland County known by the name of Blacks Mill formerly possessed by said Black as also by his father Robert Black deceased as it is warranted survaid [sic] & returned unto the Surveyor General’s Office containing four hundred & ninety [sic] Acres & one half Acre Together with all & singular the improvements rights members appurtainances [sic] ways waters courses & privileges [sic] whatsoever unto said tract of land belonging or in any wise appertaining and all the estate right title intrist [sic] property claim & demand of him the said James Black of in & to the same To have & to hold the said tract of land Hereditaments & appurtenances whatsoever to the same belonging unto the said William Smith his heirs to the only proper use and behoof [sic] of the said William Smith his heirs & assigns forever, Subject [sic] nevertheless to the payment of the purchase money Intrist [sic] an quit rent thereon due & to become due to the Honorable propryators [sic] for the same,  In witness whereof the said James Black have hereunto set his hand & seal dated the day & year first above written.”  James Black (Seal) Signed seald [sic] & delivered in presence of us David Scott Sam’l Carrick


          “Rec’d the day of the date of the within Indenture of William Smith within named the sum of three hundred & fifty pounds being the full consideration…”  Thus what had been Black’s settlement became Smith’s settlement.


          Old Mercersburg, published in 1912, states: “William Smith, the Proprietor of Smith’s Town, was the son of James and Jane Smith.  He married his cousin Mary, sister of Col. James Smith, of “Black Boys” fame.  In 1755 Smith was appointed one of the commissioners to build the military road which General Braddock demanded of the Provincial government.  This road was to extend from McDowell’s mill to the forks of the Youghiogheny.  Under the personal supervision of the Commissioners the bridle path was converted into a wagon road for the passage of troops and transportation of military supplies, but the work was done under constant danger from the Indians.”  In addition, in the words of Old Mercersburg “To protect the frontier, it was necessary to control the trade with the Indians by a military-like inspection, and William Smith was one of these inspectors by virtue of his office as Colonial Justice.”


          In the 1766 tax records William Smith was listed as owning one grist mill, six horses, six cows, five sheep, two servants, and fifty cleared acres.  In the 1768 tax records he was listed as owning three horses, six cows, ten sheep, one servant, 350 warranted acres (authority to survey a tract of land), thirty-seven lots?, and seventy cleared acres.  William Smith died on March 27, 1775.


          The lands of Smith’s estate that encompassed what is now Mercersburg went to his son William Smith, Jr., who had married Margaret Piper (1765-1852) daughter of William and Sarah McDowell Piper.  On March 17, 1786, he laid out the town plan of Mercersburg originally with three north-south streets and three east-west streets with 148 lots with each lot fifty feet wide and 200 feet deep.  On March 21 of that year he made out his will and in it gave his directions for the process of developing the town, which he caked Mersers Burgh in honor of General Hugh Mercer, who at one time had lived in this area and who had died on January 12, 1777, from wounds received at the Battle of Princeton on January 2.  William Smith, Jr. stated:  “My Executors herein named I do hereby Authorize and Impower to act and do in all manner of…Things respecting a new town layed out by me and called Mersers Burgh by Making Title to the purchasers, signing sealing and Delivering & in full as clear and ample manner as I myself might or could do it I were alive and personally Present According to the plan of same ground…It is my will that My Executors out of the money Arising from the sale of lots in the abovementioned Town do build on that Lot that I have reserved near where my stable now stands a neat and commodious House of middling size at their discretion and out in order for my wife and Daughter to live in…”  That house built of stone stands at the intersection of North Main and Oregon Streets.  He also stated that all other money from the sale of the lots should go to his wife Margaret and his daughter Salley.  In the same document he also stated that he already sold to Benjamin Chestnut the tan yard started by his father.  Unfortunately William Smith Jr. did not live to see his town plan developed as at age thirty-nine he died that same year.


          His executors, Matthew Wilson and James Stewart, held two lotteries in order to sell the lots.  By the first lottery people had the right to purchase a lot, and in the second lottery they could choose the lot they wanted.  The indenture for each purchase drawn up by Smith and his wife Margaret stated “That in consideration of the sum of three pounds lawful money of Pennsylvania” the buyer would have bought “a Lot or piece of Ground situate in the town of Mercersburg” and would pay forever “a yearly rent of ten shillings” to be paid “at the said town of Mercersburg” on March 23.  


          On June 11, 1816, sixteen years after the town had been laid out in lots, John Palmer of England wrote: “Left Hagerstown road to Mercersburg…Breakfasted at Mercersburg, a small village of log cabins.”


          As we walk or drive through Mercersburg and enjoy its beauty, it will be well to remember its long, unique and rich history and the largely-forgotten people who created it.



The name of the daughter of William Smith Jr., Sarah Smith Brownson, who was baptized on August 8, 1784, appears on deeds of many old properties in Mercersburg.



Black, William.  Letters to Daniel Heefner and Florence Jordan.  Courtesy of Fendrick Library

Documents.  Cumberland County Courthouse and Cumberland County Historical Society

Finafrock, John L. Notes on Franklin County History. Kittochtinny Historical Society, 1942

Donehoo, George, ed.  History of Cumberland Valley. Susquehanna Historical Association, 1930

Woman’s Club of Mercersburg.  Old Mercersburg, 1912


No one may reproduce any portion of this article without permission of the Mercersburg Historical Society.




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