Robert Harper (1713-1782): Founder of Harper's Ferry and The Two “Peters”

By Harper Williamson, Annie M. Smith and Harper family oral history




(Reprinted courtesy "The Spirit of Jefferson and Farmer's Advocate." This was printed in "The Farmer's Advocate," March 25th and April 1st, 1933, entitled "Early History of Harper's Ferry." Mr. and Mrs. Ray Parks retyped it and is available in the Perry Room, the Charles Town Library, in the Parks' large compilation called "Bits and Pieces," pages 531-543). It was written by Harper Williamson from the manuscript of his aunt, the late Miss Annie M. Smith of Berryville. – ED)


Mr. Harper's story:


“It was a beautiful October afternoon in the year 1746, while packing up for my departure that a knock at the door announced three gentlemen. I immediately went to the front room, and one of them called  ‘Friend Robert, allow me to make thee acquainted with my friends Walker and Steer. We have heard since coming here of thy intention to remove to Charleston in South Carolina, and if thy will can be changed at this late hour, as we see that thou are preparing to leave we beg to think of the proposition we were directed to make thee before leaving home.  We know that thou art well skilled in building mills of which we are greatly in need in the Valley of Virginia.  We went yesterday to see friend Burby's mill, found it to run very smoothly.  The wheel through the undershot has great velocity and power of force the like we wish built in our settlement, and here is friend Steer charged to employ thee for just such another for his people in Loudoun, fifty miles distant from us.  Thee hast no doubt heard of our part of the county. It is rich in soil for grain growing with a very fine climate, and if thee will abandon Charleston, and go with us, we think thee will not regret it.  We will give thee a fair price and pay thee in English money.’


“I listened to their arguments and asked all questions required for a mutual understanding.  After two hours of interchanging views, I consented to take my family to the Valley in the spring.  I invited them to spend the evening, anxious to talk over Oxfordshire affairs and the ‘Morning Star’ voyage with friend Walker, to which they declined.  However, we arranged to visit Burby's Mill early the next morning. If ever there was happiness, it was in my house that night. 


“The next morning I arose very early, cheerful and happy, the more I thought over it the better I was pleased, as it almost made sure a comfortable living for my family and might place me in my former circumstances.  Again, the class of men I had to deal with gave assurance of substantial reality, as they used to say in Oxford—‘a Quaker's knot is no common bond.’  We went on horse back to the mill where we were joined by friend Burby, who appeared much pleased at my determination to settle among his friends in Virginia, and from whom they had gotten their information about me, soon after their arrival in the city. After examining the mill we closed all further business, even to the best route for me to take in my journey to the Valley.  We rode back to friend Walker's lodgings - a friendly shake of the hand, the kindly ‘fare-thee-well’ closed the interview and the next day my Quaker friends were on their way home.


“The winter passed off quietly, the most of my time being devoted to testing the difference of force between an overshot and an undershot wheel; the improvements I intended to introduce in the gearing of mills; also the advantage to be gained by damming near affluents and other things to enable me to give entire satisfaction in the erection of a model mill on the Opequon.  The long wished for March found me prepared to journey. On the morning of the tenth I mounted my horse at the door, surrounded by many friends to bid me adieu, shaking hands, a full flow of tears, the final good-bye with a light heart, I left Philadelphia.  The obstacles to my pleasure were bad roads, swollen creeks, and the difficulty of getting good stopping places at night - the best I met cost me nothing, being invited by respectable farmers on the road to spend the night with them as their guest.  After six days travel, I arrived at a small settlement with some dozen houses, called Frederic Town, in Maryland where I spent the remainder of the day.  About dusk there arrived in this village a German pedlar, named Peter Hoffman from Baltimore, riding one horse and leading two others packed with all sorts of goods suitable to the wants of the people on his route to the Valley. His arrival produced a great sensation, and in a short time, children and others called to him if he was going to unpack in the morning.  His answer was ‘Yes, be sure, wit a grant stock.’


“After I had retired to bed who should come stumbling about the room in the dark but the pack merchant and as he had noticed me at the supper table, appeared to be anxious to find out my business.  Nothing daunted, he put such questions to me in his broken English as his knowledge of that language would allow him, all of which I answered quite to his satisfaction.  When I told him my residence was in Philadelphia and my name Harper, the whole mystery with him was explained.  He asked me, without wishing to be inquisitive, if I was not the great mill-builder going to bilt a mill for the Quakers, as he had frequently heard so during his monthly trips to ‘Apple Pie Ridge’, to which I answered: ‘That is my business which now takes me to the Valley.’ He then asked me my intended route to which I answered that my direction was to cross the Potomac a few miles above Antietam Creek.  He said, ‘Oh, no, you must go with me to the nigh-cut, and I will show you the grandest place you ever did see, at the forks of the river.’


“After describing the residence of ‘Peter in the Hole’, and the strong argument that it was eleven miles nearer, I consented to go with him.  Both being much fatigued we went to sleep.  Early in the morning he was up ready to supply his customers who were fast gathering about the little inn, and after closing his sales, we started on our journey of twenty miles for the day.  On the way I found my new friend a kind-hearted, honest, jovial, well-meaning man of good judgment and excellent sense.  His description of the Valley, its future prospects, productiveness and climate, to all which I listened with great interest made me cheerful and well-pleased at the prospects ahead.  Again he spoke in the highest terms of the Quakers on the Opequon as being fine farmers, liberal, wealthy and intelligent.  He talked much about the ‘Hole’ and his ideas were based upon solid principles - its nearness to the Atlantic cities, its natural outlet from a grain-growing region, its water power with other advantages were given with much force and reason, and he further told me that he thought Peter Stephens would sell ‘his right’, as he just had his eldest daughter married into the Hite family, not many miles from the Quakers.  His conversation greatly interested me, so much so that it appeared to make our ride both short and pleasant, and the close of the day found us under the ‘Pinnacle Rock’ on the Maryland side of the Potomac, waiting patiently for Stephen's frail boat to row us over to the Virginia Shore, then the quiet residence of ‘Peter in the Hole’. (Peter Stephens was a “squatter” on land owned by Lord Thomas Fairfax, who had a residence in Greenway Court near today’s Winchester. Stephens, according to Harper family published history, had a cabin and small plowed garden, apple and peach trees, and a ferry business. His house was on the floodplain along the Shenandoah River near to its merger with the Potomac. – ED)  


“After we crossed the river and reached the cabin, the two Peters had much conversation.  Hoffman asked Stephens if he was expected and the latter answered, ‘O yes many will be here to-morrow.’  Much of their conversation altho' spoke in German I discovered was about myself and how I would make the valley flourish.  I began to think that a great mill builder all the way from Philadelphia must be an uncommon person.



“As soon as the gray of the morning was peeping through the little east window, I arose from my bed, dressed in haste and in a few minutes was ascending the nearest mountain.  After gaining the summit I stood almost speechless for a while, and then exclaimed to myself,  ‘O Thou Great Being above whose hands but thine could have created so much sublimity and grandeur.’  Every thing the eye could rest upon looked wild, rugged, and in a rude state of nature. Great was my astonishment that so few had heard of the place; greater still that such grand scenery with water power unsurpassed should lay there neglected and unknown.  Of all the places I had ever seen on earth, it was the best calculated to make me a happy home and from that moment I determined to end my days there, if possible.  The scenery alone was not the inducement, but I saw, looking through the vista of time, vastly more in it than a generous support for my family - in its great water power.  A tin horn called me to breakfast, and that meal being over, my friend began unpacking his goods, as his customers, true to the appointed hour were fast gathering.  I conversed with several of them, wishing to know how far they lived, when two little girls answered, ‘beyond the Blue Ridge, six miles’.  I left Mr. Hoffman, his goods and customers for a long stroll over the mountains and through the wilderness.  Was absent much longer than I intended to be, and on my return found that he had dined and was waiting for me to take our departure.  I hesitated and then said, ‘Mr. Hoffman, if you will excuse me, and Mr. Stephens will consent, I would like to remain here longer.’  Mr. Hoffman looked more pleased than disappointed and answered, ‘O be sure Peter will like it. I tink you better buy the Hole, and build a great mill and - it will make you so much money as you please.’  My friend with his moving merchandise bid us farewell, with a promise from me that we would meet on the Opequon in a few days.  An hour or two after he left us, I proposed to Stephens to buy out his claim to the land, being one hundred and twenty-five acres with his ferry privileges.  He told me as his wife and children were anxious to go further up the Valley among their relations, that he would sell if he got his price. I asked what that sum was, and he said sixty guineas. I offered him fifty, to which he shook his head, saying, ‘No, if I don't get sixty, I will be buried herd.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘Friend Peter I will give you sixty guineas, although it is a large sum considering you have no title from his lordship, the proprietor.  Let me state that all the particulars were told me by Hoffman during our ride from Frederick Town.’  He laughed at the idea of ‘Fairfax’ as he called him, having any claim to it whatever.  His hatred to the ‘Fairfax tribe’ was intense and said, ‘they would cheat the devil if he was fool enough to deal with them.’  The bargain being concluded, Stephens and I went, the next morning, to the district magistrate, Esquire Hamilton, to draw up the title bond, that being done, I counted the purchase money on his table.  With the bond in one hand and the other on the money, he requested me to rise and addressed us as follows: ‘Peter Stephens, you sold your possession rights as herein described to Robert Harper, a citizen of Philadelphia, and I now hand you the title bond, and charge Peter Stephens to put you in full possession of the same without further notice, within one month from March 18, 1747.’


“Peter Stephens and I, Esquire Hamilton with us, started back.  When we reached the house and entered the Squire said, ‘Well, Mr. Stephens, here is the landlord.  This is no longer ‘The Hole,’ but now is Harper's Ferry.’ Hamilton being perfectly familiar with the property requested me to walk with him to see a singular rock and on the way gave me much valuable information.  He advised me to go to ‘Greenway Court’ and enter a patent under ‘Lord Fairfax's grant from the Crown’, and that would settle all, difficulties. As there were several between Borden, (the Lord's business agent) and Stephens, he also volunteered me a letter of introduction to Bryan Fairfax.  I left with the letter two days after for Greenway Court thirty-five miles distant.  On presenting the letter, I was introduced to all the family and made heartily welcome.


“Having little time to devote to private conversation, I commenced the subject of my business, and soon discovered that I should have but little difficulty after paying the small sum they claimed of Stephens in obtaining a patent, as they were very desirous of getting rid of him, and appeared to be well-pleased at the idea of my settling on their ‘grant’.  Borden entered my name in his book, saying that the patent would be sent to me as soon as the land was surveyed and run out by metes and bounds which might not be for some months as there was no surveyor there at the time, but, he added ‘that shall make no differences to you as you have complied with the terms.’ 


Having closed my business quite to my satisfaction, I left Greenway Court with the kind wishes of all for Friend Walker on Apple Pie Ridge.  A few hours' ride brought me to his door, the family were absent attending the wedding of a young couple, the bride being Ann Neill, the groom - William, the latter from the Quaker settlement in Loudoun county.  However, the servants received me kindly, took charge of my luggage and my horse, saying that the family would soon return.  While alone I opened my valise for pen and ink and paper, and wrote the following letter to send by Mr. Hoffman then in the neighborhood, to Philadelphia from Baltimore:


‘Apple Pie Ridge, Frederic County, Virginia, March 24, 1747.

Mr. Joseph Harper

Second Street, Philadelphia.


‘Dear Brother: I like this country very much and expect to make it my home, while I live. I want you to tell Mary to make arrangements to come on as soon as I can send for her and her brother, William Griffith.  Tell Wilson, Hollenbach, and Snyder to start at once and come at the forks of the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers, where I have purchased a tract of land with great water power and intend commencing a mill as soon as they arrive.  I don't know that my wife will like it at first, but she will if it turns out as well as I think.  It is a very rugged place, but the prospects ahead are good, every things to eat being cheap and plentiful. Your affectionate brother, Robert Harper.’


“Soon after finishing this letter which I had to make very short, the family returned and I privately regretted to hear that they expected the wedding party to spend the next day with them.  After giving me a warm welcome, my regrets were relieved by Friend Walker saying: ‘They will all be here tomorrow ready to see thee.’ This was pleasant news, as I was very anxious to return to the Ferry.  Early in the morning the Friends were fast gathering, soon the house and porch were full, with the leading Quakers of the Ridge.  I felt like a stranger being the only one among them not dressed in drab clothes and a broad brim hat.  After the bustle had subsided, friend Walker with eight or ten others joined me to confer on the subject of my business.  We had no difficulty in arranging matters satisfactorily, it was agreed that I should give my personal attention two days in the week, furnishing drawings, plans, and specifications for a first-rate grain mill, and for which I was to receive fifty guineas, ten of which they paid me.


“While standing on the porch enjoying the sun, I thought to myself what sort of a wedding party could be going on in doors. Not a word could I hear, everything was as still as death; so unlike was it to all weddings I had ever seen that I thought six of our girls would make more noise than all Apple Pie Ridge.  Though quiet reigned within, without the squealing, cackling and quacking reminded me of ‘the slaughter of the innocents’, and the fumes from the kitchen told plainly of the preparations for a feast.  Dinner was finally announced; to describe it fully would require all the words known in cookery, and could my wife have seen it, her fears would have been relieved as she supposed that I would get only the coarsest food in the Valley.

As the day was drawing to its close, the visitors left friend Walkers' hospitable home, where I would remain until the next morning.


“At early morning I started for the Ferry where I arrived in the late afternoon; after dismounting, I asked Mrs. Stephens if Mr. Hoffman had returned.  Her answer in the negative relieved my anxiety, as I was anxious to send my letter by him as far as Baltimore.  While I was at supper, she came in and announced that Mr. Hoffman was coming. Sure enough, he was winding around the mountain, leading his horses, packed with furs, peltries and feathers; he evinced much pleasure at meeting Stephens and myself, and with the idea of having served both in our recent bargain.  I saw so much honest friendship in Hoffman, that I engaged him to purchase all such articles as I should need from Baltimore. He volunteered to take my letter to Philadelphia saying: ‘When I buys many goots, I goes dere anyhow.’  I sat up until a late hour that night, writing to my wife preparing further instructions to her, my brother Joseph, and William Griffith, as well as loading Mr. Hoffman with messages and business, desiring my wife and the mechanics to join me as soon possible.  In the course of the afternoon, Esquire Hamilton came to the Ferry to see me. We went in pursuit of mill sites.  I then gave him an account of my success at Greenway Court.  After examining a number of sites with great waterfall we selected a spot on the Shenandoah.  (The mill erected that summer stood for nearly fifty years and was pulled down by the Government, after purchasing the property for a national armory.  The market for its flour were Baltimore by wagon and Belhaven flat boats - then a very dangerous business - ED note, Williamson.)