By Maureen Harris
Special to the Rappahannock News
We all know the place names — Thornton Gap, the Thornton River, Thornton Hill, F. T. (Francis Thornton) Valley Road — as well as the Thornton Gap Regular Baptist Church, Thornton Gap Primitive Baptist Church, F. T. Baptist Church and the Thornton River Grille.
And the Virginia Department of Historic Resources highway marker near the junction of Main Street and U.S. 211 in Sperryville tells us that the town was “laid out by Francis Thornton Jr. in 1817.” But, did you know that there were six Francis Thorntons (with a few Williams, Johns, and Georges thrown in) associated with Rappahannock County between the years of 1731 and 1840? So, which Francis Thornton is which? Let’s start at the beginning.
The early Thorntons
The first mention of the Thornton dynasty in Virginia was in 1646. William Thornton Sr. is believed to have come to the tidewater region of the Virginia colony from Yorkshire, England, and settled in York County. He was recorded in 1646 as being “obliged to care for the cattle of John Liptrot until John came of age.” In 1666 he was granted land in Petsworth parish of Gloucester County, which derived from York County in 1651, and he was a vestryman in the parish in 1677. (Rappahannock County today is in Bromfield parish of the Episcopal Church. In colonial Virginia, a parish was originally a territorial subdivision of the Church of England but it acquired political importance as an administrative unit of local government).
William Sr. married Elizabeth Rowland in 1648 and they are known to have had three sons — William Jr. (born 1649, died 1727), Francis (1651-1726), and Rowland (1654-1701). So, now we have our first Francis Thornton (Francis I).
William Jr. remained in Gloucester County for his entire life. His 14th child was named Francis (1692-1737) but he also remained in Gloucester County and did not become part of our Francis Thorntons. (By the way, this Francis of Gloucester County also had a son named Francis.)
Francis I, son of William Sr., was born in Gloucester County in 1651 and settled in Stafford County, which was created in 1664. He died there in 1726. He was the sire of what became one of Virginia’s distinguished colonial families. He married Alice Savage, daughter of Capt. Anthony Savage of Gloucester County, and they are known to have had four sons and four daughters between 1674 and 1695. Their sons were Francis, who was our second Francis Thornton (Francis II); William and Rowland, named after their uncles; and Anthony. All four of these sons had children named Francis, undoubtedly after their grandfather Francis I, but only Francis II became a part of our Francis Thorntons.
Francis II was born in 1682 and died in Caroline County in 1758. In 1704, his father conveyed to him a tract of 700 acres at Snow Creek near present-day Fredericksburg where Francis II then made his home, called “The Falls,” at the foot of Fall Hill within the boundaries of present-day Fredericksburg. He was a plantation owner, ran a grist mill and was a merchant, dealing with the growing traffic of purchases and sales between the Virginia colony and England. Francis II was also one of the first justices of Caroline County, and he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1723 and 1726 (equivalent to today’s Virginia House of Delegates but a bit more powerful because there was no Senate).
Francis Thornton acquires land in what is now Rappahannock County
In 1731 Francis II was granted a patent by King George II for 3,000 acres of land that lay along what is now called the Thornton River, stretching from what is now called Thornton Gap along the north fork of the river, then into what is now Sperryville, then downstream along the river to today’s Rudasill Mill Road (Route 621). At that time, of course, there was no town of Sperryville nor a road at Route 621. The purchase price was 15 pounds (English money, equivalent to about $525 today). The tract was called “Stirling” in the grant document, and the river was called the “the north river of the Gourdvine Fork going by the name of the River Firth.” The Gourdvine Fork was the name of the land located between today’s Thornton and Hazel Rivers.
At the time of this 1731 patent, the land that became Rappahannock County was part of Spotsylvania County. In 1734, Spotsylvania was divided and our county’s land became part of Orange County. That county was divided in 1749 and we became part of Culpeper County. Finally, in 1833, Rappahannock County was formed.
Ours was the next-to-last county east of the Blue Ridge mountains to be created; only Greene followed us, in 1838. Indeed, much of the land in the Shenandoah Valley, which is farther west, and even land in what is now West Virginia and Kentucky, which were part of Virginia at the time, had been settled and formed into counties long before Rappahannock County was formed. We were indeed in the backwoods in 1731.
In 1733, Francis II was granted an additional 600 acres adjacent to and south of his first land grant. This new land stretched from what is now the north part of F. T. Valley Road down to today’s Ashby Corner, then east to encompass what is now Poortown Mountain and Fielding Mountain above Route 621 (Yancey Road). The purchase price was 3 pounds (about $105 today).
In 1751, Francis II was re-granted these two tracts, plus 852 additional acres adjoining them, by Thomas 6th Lord Fairfax, owner of the Northern Neck (or Fairfax) Proprietary. This re-grant occurred because Lord Fairfax had contested the boundaries of the Proprietary, which was a tract of land granted by King Charles II in 1649. The Proprietary included the land between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers and extended from their headwaters to the Chesapeake Bay. Fairfax had inherited this land in 1719. Land within the Proprietary could be granted only by Lord Fairfax; land within the rest of Virginia could be granted by the King of England.
During the first part of the 1700s, land within the bounds of the Proprietary was granted by both King George II and Lord Fairfax. In 1735, Lord Fairfax brought suit and won his suit in 1745 after it was determined that the headwaters of the Rappahannock River was not today’s Rappahannock River but was the Conway River, which empties into the Rapidan River and then into the Rappahannock. Thus the land that became Rappahannock County was included in the Northern Neck Proprietary, which encompassed 5.2 million acres.
As part of his successful suit, Lord Fairfax agreed to honor the land grants that had previously been made by King George II. It is likely that Frances II asked for the re-grant to document his holdings and to add the new 852 acres to them.
Francis II now owned 4,452 acres of land in what is now Rappahannock County. However, we do not believe that he ever lived on this land. He was thoroughly ensconced in his large estate at “The Falls,” his merchant business in Caroline County, and his political life as a justice and a Burgess there. Francis II may have rented out the land to tenant farmers, but documentation for this is not available.
Another Francis Thornton acquires land
Francis II married Mary Taliaferro and they are known to have had three sons — Francis III, Reuben, and John — as well as five daughters. The sons married sisters (Frances, Elizabeth, and Mildred, respectively) who were daughters of Roger Gregory and Mildred Washington, an aunt of President George Washington.
Frances III was born in 1711. In 1736 Francis II conveyed 41 acres of land in Spotsylvania County at the falls of the Rappahannock River to his son, Francis III. This was the nucleus of the estate that was his home, called “Fall Hill,” located higher up the hill from Francis II’s home “The Falls.” This estate grew to more than 400 acres. Francis III also acquired multiple other tracts of land in the Virginia colony. He was a merchant as well as a plantation owner, was elected to the House of Burgesses from Spotsylvania County in 1744 and 1745, was a justice of the county, and was a colonel of the Spotsylvania militia. He died at “Fall Hill” in 1749 at only age 38 years.
In 1731 he was granted 1,000 acres of land in what is now the lower part of F. T. Valley by King George II. The tract was called “Sherif Moor” and the purchase price was 5 pounds (about $175 today). In 1735 he was granted 300 acres adjacent to this land for 30 shillings (about $53 today). He added to these tracts by receiving grants for 250 acres, 221 acres, 674 acres and 186 acres from Thomas Lord Fairfax in 1747.
Francis III thus owned 2,631 acres of land in what is now Rappahannock County, extending along today’s F. T. Valley Road from Buckner’s Corner at the north end of Jobbers Mountain to Revercombs Corner. The land included much of the Hazel River and the multiple streams feeding into the river. Like his father, it is very doubtful that he ever lived on this land, but he may have rented it.
Francis III and his wife Frances Gregory had six children under the age of 13 years when he died in 1749, including sons Francis IV, William, George and John and daughters Mildred (who married Charles Washington, brother of President George Washington) and Mary. In his will recorded in Spotsylvania County, Francis III made bequests to his wife and to all his children.
He left to Francis IV and his mother “the plantation I live on” in Spotsylvania County, which included “Fall Hill.” He left to William “all my lands in the great mountains of Orange County about 2600 acres.” This land comprised the six land grants that Francis III had received during 1731-1747. On this land, William Thornton (who, remarkably, had no sons named Francis) built the home called “Montpelier” on F. T. Valley Road at the Hazel River, which still stands today. Land was also given to George and to John, and money and slaves were given to his two daughters.
Thornton Gap, F. T. Valley Road and the Thornton River
By about 1750, deeds of sale of land began to mention the phrases Thornton Gap, F. T. Road and the Thornton River. Because the lands of Francis II and Francis III encompassed these geographic features, it is obvious that they were named for the owners of the land, even though Francis II and Francis III did not live there.
But what about Thornton Hill? For this, we have to venture away from Francis to two Johns and a George.
This large beautiful property, now owned by attorney James W. Fletcher III, was located within the 1731 land grant to Francis II. Of the three sons of Francis II — Francis III, Reuben and John (who married the three Gregory sisters) — only Francis II had sons. Reuben had no children, and John had four daughters (one of whom married Samuel Washington, a brother of President George Washington). Probably because Francis III already owned significant tracts of land (see above), Reuben and John inherited their father’s property along the Thornton River. Reuben died in 1768, and he willed his share of the property to his brother John.
John was a resident of Spotsylvania and afterwards of Caroline County where he lived on his manor plantation on the Rappahannock River. He was a justice of the peace in Spotsylvania County in 1742, was sheriff in 1751, was elected a member of the House of Burgesses in 1753 and was a senior colonel of the Spotsylvania militia. In 1774 he sold to John Thornton “Jr.” 1,588 acres of Francis II’s land grant for 1700 pounds. This John Thornton Jr. was not his son, but was the son of Francis III. At the time, it was customary to call someone “Jr.” if he were a nephew of the same name.
On the land he purchased, John Thornton (Jr.) built the estate called “Thornton Hill.” In the American Revolution, John commanded a company of “Minute Men” from Culpeper County, was a captain in the 3rd Virginia regiment, Continental Line; was a lieutenant colonel in Grayson’s Continental regiment; and commanded a regiment of Virginia militia at Yorktown.
Because of his extensive military background, he was generally referred to as Col. John Thornton. He married Jane Augusta Washington (a niece of President George Washington) and they had six children — Mary Thornton, Jane Augusta Washington Thornton, Frances Gregory Thornton, Caroline R. Thornton, George Washington Spotswood Thornton and John Augustine Thornton. John died in 1822.
During his lifetime, John gave the eastern portion (which included today’s Fletcher’s Mill and part of Sperryville) of his inherited 1,588 acres to his son John Augustine Thornton. The western portion (which he supplemented with additional land purchases and which included “Thornton Hill”) was bequeathed to his wife and to his son George Washington Spotswood Thornton in John’s will of 1822.
The next year, George mortgaged the land, containing “about 2,000 acres” to secure a debt of $3,000 that he owed to Bazil Gordon. George then died in 1824 and the mortgage holder sold the 2,000 acres to Elijah Cheek, who sold 1,200 acres (including Thornton Hill) to James W. Fletcher in 1848. Thus, Thornton Hill passed out of Thornton hands, even though the estate has retained the Thornton name.
The historical highway marker in Sperryville laid out by Francis Thornton “Jr.”
As you can tell from the above, there have been many Francis Thornton “Juniors.” The one referred to in the Sperryville highway marker was a descendant of Francis IV who, when he was only a small child, inherited his father’s (Francis III’s) estate called “Fall Hill” in Spotsylvania County in 1749.
In 1759 Francis IV married Ann Thompson, the daughter of the Reverend John Thompson and Butler Brayne (the widow of Alexander Spotswood, former governor of the Virginia colony.) They had one son, Francis (V) and five daughters. When Francis IV died in 1795, he gave his land at “Fall Hill” to his wife and his only son, Francis V.
Francis V was born in 1760 at “Fall Hill.” He was a plantation owner and a justice of the peace. He married Sally Innes, a daughter of Judge Harry Innes and niece of James Innes, a colonel in the American Revolution. They had eight children, one of whom was (of course) named Francis (VI), who was born in 1794 at “Fall Hill.”
Francis VI was a soldier in the War of 1812. He became a Presbyterian minister and was sent to Rappahannock County (then part of Culpeper County) to organize a Presbyterian church. During 1819-1838 he performed almost 100 marriages in Culpeper and Rappahannock counties. He himself married Jane Augusta Washington Thornton, daughter of Col. John Thornton of “Thornton Hill.” They had two children, Mary Frances and Eliza Ann Fitzgerald.
When Jane Thornton’s brother John Augustine Thornton died in 1817, he willed much of the land that he had received from his father John to Francis VI and Jane. This land included the northwestern part of the land that John Thornton had purchased in 1774 and included some of the land on which the town of Sperryville is now sited. The bequest had one contingency. John Augustine’s will details that he had an illegitimate daughter by Lucy Cannon “during my youth” and he bequeathed $1,000 to Lucy, to be paid in installments of $100 annually, if Lucy would give the child to his brother-in-law Francis and his sister Jane. If they would raise the illegitimate child, they would receive his land.
Apparently they did so, because between 1820 and 1841 there are multiple deeds recorded in Culpeper and Rappahannock counties in which Francis VI sold the land that he had inherited from John Augustine Thornton. The first of these deeds in 1820 was for the sale of Lot 6 containing one-half acre in “a little town laid off by me, the said Francis Thornton Jr. and surveyed by Johnston Menefee … the village is in a flat adjoining the lands of John Menefee between the Pass Mill (today’s Fletcher’s Mill) and Thorntons Gap.”
This lot was sold to John Hopkins who was issued a license to operate an “ordinary” (a tavern) in the same year. Undoubtedly this is the person from which today’s Hopkins Ordinary bed and breakfast establishment is derived. The second deed, also in 1820, reiterated that Francis VI had laid off the “little town.” Because of the location of the land that Francis VI had inherited, the “little town” can only be today’s village of Sperryville.
In 1826 Francis VI gave (for $1) a one-acre lot to Martha L. Cloud “for her uniform and unremitted kindness and faithful services.” One can only speculate about what Martha did for Francis VI and his family to deserve this gift. Between 1827 and 1836 he sold two additional lots in the town and the remainder of the land that he and Jane had been bequeathed by Jane’s brother, amounting to about 800 acres of land. Of this, almost half was sold to John Miller.
Jane Thornton died in about 1819, and on Sept. 10, 1820, Francis VI married Susan Beverly Wormeley of Frederick County, Virginia. Around 1840 the family moved to Jefferson County, Kentucky, where Francis VI died in 1881 at the age of 87 years. With this, the last of our Francis Thorntons departed Rappahannock County.
Maureen Harris lives near Woodville and is a researcher for the Rappahannock Historical Society.