Our history begins over 1000 years ago.  In Bolivar, Native American artifacts have been found from the 12th Century—300 years before Columbus arrived in the New World.  The Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia was the home of tribes of the Iroquois Nation when European settlers first arrived.  The Delaware and Shawnee tribes hunted in the area during spring and summer seasons.  Explorer Louis Michel, looking for land for a Swiss settlement, reported Indians in the area during his 1706 travels along the west bank of the Potomac River.




Soon after the 1607 establishment of Jamestown, Virginia, English settlers moved inland and grew in numbers to establish the Colony of Virginia for the Royal Crown.  The Colony was divided into eight counties in 1634, and the land, which is now Bolivar, was part of the Indian District of Cickacoan.  The Eastern Panhandle was part of Virginia until 1863 when the State of West Virginia was admitted to the Union during the Civil War.  At varying times in history, we were part of Essex County (1691-1720), Spotsylvania (1720-34), Orange (1734-38), Frederick (1738-72) and Berkeley County.  In 1800, residents of southern Berkeley circulated a petition to become a separate county to be called Richland.  One hundred eighty seven white property owners signed the petition set to the Virginia General Assembly.  The Virginia Assembly responded in January of 1801 by declaring a new county to be cut from Southern Berkeley County, and naming it in honor of the sitting President, Thomas Jefferson.  During the Civil War (1863) that state of West Virginia, cut from the larger state of Virginia, was admitted to the Union.




King Charles II of England granted the land that became Jefferson County to Thomas, Lord Fairfax.  An Iroquois Treaty opened the Blue Ridge to English settlement.  Fairfax sold some of his five million acres to speculators, farmers and businessmen including Robert Harper and Gersham Keyes who bought in this area.  Harper was a Philadelphia architect who settled in “The Hole” at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.  He ran a ferry service across the Potomac from what was then called Shenandoah Falls.  In time, the town at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers became Harpers Ferry.  Keyes settled on land, which is now within the township of Bolivar and built his home and tavern on Washington Street.  According to tax records for 1790, Keyes owned a grist mill, saw mill, smithy (blacksmith shop), and two distilleries.  He grew wheat and corn, and owned 10 horses, 16 each cows and pigs, 32 sheep and seven pet deer.  Keyes owned eight books, an indication of wealth and education. Keyes also owned two slaves, likely a house servant and skilled worker rather than agricultural slaves.


Smaller divisions of land were sold from the three major land grants. These were farms, homes and a small town named Mudfort. In 1810, Charles Varle surveyed the area and noted Mudfort had “A good tavern, several large stores for goods, a library, a physician and a Professor of English….”  By 1825, the town population was 270.


The county set rates for various commercial enterprises, including tavern and boarding house costs.  If you were to stay at Mr. Keyes “ordinary” or tavern, your costs would be:


Overnight                        7 cents

Breakfast                        10 cents

Supper                        28 cents

Board for your horse    10 cents

Quart of whiskey              $1.25


Heirs of Robert Harper sold much of their land during the period before 1830, including lands upon which the US built an armory in 1796.  Harper’s heir, his nephew John Wager, never saw his land, but his son, also named John, settled in Mudfort on tracts north and east of Washington Street.  He owned land and public accommodations in Harpers Ferry and bought land in Charles Town.


According to oral history, Mudfort got its name because of boys with good throwing arms.  Children from Harpers Ferry would come up the hill on what is now Washington Street, and be repelled by the boys of Mudfort who literally used mud balls to send the approaching children back.


In 1825, citizens of Mudfort and surrounding lands petitioned the Virginia Assembly to become a town, named after South American freedom fighter Simon Bolivar.  Approval from the Assembly was granted in December of 1825 and the town of Bolivar came into existence 16 years before Harpers Ferry was granted a charter.




The armory in Harpers Ferry was a large part of the economic engine that drove development in the Eastern Panhandle.  But most of the land was agricultural, with wheat and corn as primary crops.  Plantation style agriculture was concentrated in the Southwest portion of the county.  Farmers in and near Bolivar had less land to work. They owned and operated gristmills, distilleries and smelting facilities.  While one third of the county was African American, mostly slave laborers, Bolivar’s African American population was 10 percent of the town, and a number of freedmen settled here before the Civil War.


Harpers Ferry employed large numbers of workers, but Bolivar was home to farmers, merchants and skilled armorers.  The numbers of transient workers in Harpers Ferry was high; the number of long-term residents in Bolivar was high.  Prior to the Civil War, armory workers who put down roots often selected Bolivar.  In the 1820 census, for example, William Smallwood is listed as a skilled rifle borer at the armory, renting a small house in Mudfort.  By the mid 1830s, Smallwood had purchased a home from the Wager estate, and had begun farming.  By the late 1840s, Smallwood had a family, a store and a farm, which reached as far as Bolivar Heights.




Construction in Bolivar began with log structures.  Easily kilned clay in the area made building with brick affordable to many middle class residents.  Stone construction was popular in the late 18th Century,

and all of these types of materials can be seen in homes today.  The unique Armorers House style is brick, and often a duplex.  These homes date to the early 1800s.


Smokehouses and well houses of brick still sit in backyards, and a public well house is in the middle of Bolivar Children’s Park. 




The population of Bolivar continued to grow until the Civil War, with stores, farms, taverns and schools serving the community.  Many early schoolhouses were on Gilbert Street.  Public academies for boys existed in Jefferson County as early as 1762 with a curriculum including reading, writing, arithmetic and surveying.  In 1795 Charles Town Academy was founded to teach basics as well as Latin and Greek, with expansion to include French, English, geography, astronomy and philosophy as enrollment grew. While educational institutions often included the word public in their titles, schools were maintained by subscription—what each family paid--and donations. 


A similar academy in Charles Town was later established to teach girls and included many of the same subjects as boys were taught.


Some families employed tutors or sent their children to “Professors” who were free lance educators teaching from their lodgings or church facilities.


In 1846 the Virginia General Assembly authorized free schools in several counties including Jefferson.  A local election followed approving free schools by a 7 to l majority.  Restricted to the 3 R’s and when possible English, geography, history and philosophy, children in the County could go to school regardless of the ability of their parents to pay.  Free and public education did not mean the same thing in the 19th Century that it does today.  While indigent children between the ages of 5 and 21 could attend free, other children paid 50 cents per quarter year.  The first year of operation of the Jefferson County School System cost $10,000 to fund 23 schools serving 1100 students.  Teacher’s pay in the 1840s was between $275 and $300 a year.


By 1856, public schools were firmly established in Bolivar and Jefferson County.




Part of Virginia, the Eastern Panhandle supplied soldiers to both the Confederacy and Union.  In the spring of 1861, Bolivar Heights was the scene of recruitment into the Virginia infantry and Calvary.  Known as Camp Jackson after General Stonewall Jackson, more recruits came to volunteer to march with Virginia than with Union troops.  The first AWOL soldier from these Virginia Regiments was named Buzzard.  He was from Bolivar and his family lived in a house, which can still be seen today on Union Street.  The question of allegiance in this far flung Virginia county fractured along regional lines with industrialized Wheeling the center of Union support and Shenandoah counties loyal to the State of Virginia, and hence the Confederacy.  In 1863, West Virginia was formed as a new state and admitted to the Union.  Because the Civil War still waged, the new state was far from a unanimously happy new member of the Union.  The benefits of becoming independent of Virginia however, were attractive to those counties whose wealth was based on industry, small farming, mining and transportation.  Splitting a large Virginia served Union purposes as the war went on, adding to the number of Union states by cutting a new state from lands in the Confederacy.  Jefferson County’s inclusion into West Virginia was not settled until 1871.  The US Supreme Court ruled that a small poll taken May 28, 1863 in the eastern panhandle was valid and that Jefferson and Berkeley Counties were part of West Virginia, not Virginia.


The Eastern Panhandle was the site or staging area for many Civil War battles, and the confluence of the two rivers mirrored the confluence of spying from each side, and scavenging from local farms and families.  As a battle site, Bolivar is best known for an engagement which resulted in the largest Union surrender in the history of the war.  Twelve thousand Union troops were captured in the Battle of Bolivar Heights.  Advances and retreats by Union and Confederate troops laid waste to much of the area through battle damage and fire.   Property values were cut in half, and many residents left the area.  And a few Union soldiers came back to settle.  According to local newspapers, the

region was left “destitute” by the war.  The Spirit of Jefferson and the Shepherdstown newspapers reported that returning soldiers did not see the prosperous farming and merchant community of Bolivar.  The town was a weed overgrown track of land with some homes in burned ruins.  Trees had been felled or their branches shot away.





The armory closed after the Civil War and the industrial prosperity of the area came to a halt.  The Federal government tried selling the property and buildings and believed it was successful in 1869.  But the purchasing group had wanted ownership in order to file a lawsuit against a railroad. No payments were made on the property.  No improvements were made either.  A final sale was completed only in 1884 when the armory land was sold to a pulp mill operator.  In the meantime, floods in 1870 severely damaged the buildings that were left along the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.  For almost 20 years after the Civil War, industry in the eastern panhandle languished. 


There were also labor shortages for building and farming.  A number of African American freedmen lived in the area but a combination of prejudice and lack of training kept unemployment numbers high.  Local leaders sought both labor and capital investment from the North.  It came slowly.


Today, there are 26 fewer people living in Harpers Ferry-Bolivar than in the years just before the Civil War.  The area changed hands from Confederate to Union at least seven times and as many as 11 times.  And still the Civil War reached into the 20th Century. 


In the 1900s, church members of the Methodist Church in Bolivar found the remains of a Union soldier who had crawled, wounded, near the foundation.  His remains were found 40 years later and identified by his buttons. 


A Union officer of Scottish background came back to the area shortly after the Civil War to build a castle on Bolivar Heights which existed for 100 years on the site of what is now National Park Service land and the scene of today’s annual 4th of July fireworks. 


Until the 1920s, a Civil War cannon was moved from Camp Hill to the Point at Harpers Ferry each year and a round of ordinance fired across the Potomac to Maryland.


A more positive outgrowth of the Civil War was the establishment of Storer College on Camp Hill.  For 90 years Storer College educated African Americans, at first to be teachers through a two year college program, and later in a four year program in all academic areas. The Storer campus houses the Park Service today. 


The county and the town of Bolivar remained split between Unionists and Southern sympathizers after the Civil War was over.    Only 300 of the voters registered before the war in Jefferson County could vote.  Another 1500 could not because of prohibitions against confederate soldiers and sympathizers from participation in government. 


The first years after the war saw government by Unionists who became the Republican Party.  Secessionists became the Democratic Party.  By the 1870s voting prohibitions were gone and political parties were no longer identified with Civil War ideas.  A local Democrat elected from Bolivar to the state legislature, E. Willis Wilson, went on to become Governor in 1885-90 and then to serve several terms in the US Congress. The Governor E. Willis Wilson home is on Washington Street in Bolivar.




A variety of textile and paper mills powered by water sustained much of the local economy as those in Bolivar continued farming and merchant activities.  The population was much lower than it had been before the Civil War and the economy fluctuated almost as much as the high water marks of the Potomac.  Floods were often named after the time of year.  For example the Pumpkin Flood in the fall of 1870 damaged much of the water powered industries.  A major flood occurred in 1889 and the most devastating flood of all washed over Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry as well as other Potomac towns in 1936. But it was the floods in the late 19th Century that effectively ended industrial production in the area.


In the 1890s a series of rumors led residents to believe Bolivar would enjoy a much needed economic boom.  From a lime quarry in Kearneysville, to an alleged find of oil near Moler’s Cross Road, citizens felt that development would soon follow discoveries of natural resources.  In Bolivar, rumors of iron ore and high quality marble were encouraged by a rich investment group from the North.  Most of these hoped for economic booms did not mature due to misrepresentations, lack of capital, and outright lies by those pushing investment.   The possibilities, however, were real enough for investors in the county to build office space.  This optimism trickled down to a small building boom in the county and in Bolivar.  But the reality was that offices were not inhabited for many years.


The late 19th Century saw school improvements that had the strong support of local taxpayers.  A nine month school year was instituted and in 1887 a new idea was adopted for Jefferson County’s rural schools.  The idea is a school as we know it today.  Students were assigned grades by age and ability with specific goals for learning each year and progression to graduation.  Before this time, some students were taught the same things year after year until they left.  Our innovative school superintendent was William Wilson who went on to serve the Nation as Postmaster General where he initiated rural postal delivery.


The early part of the 20th Century posed social questions for Bolivar and Jefferson County.  Prohibition passed in 1912, and women’s suffrage was defeated by a 75 to 25 percent margin.  At the same time, modern conveniences were being introduced to Bolivar.  A water generated electric plant was constructed in 1901 across the Potomac, telephones were connected to homes and businesses ($18 per year), and all roads but one became freeways by 1903.  In 1909, Jefferson County won second prize in a national contest to select the best country roads anywhere between New York and the Roanoke.  The prize was $500.  In 1912, Bolivar was awarded the contract for construction of a high school but it was not until 1929 that a bond issue was approved for construction. 


In World War I, Bolivar and Jefferson County did more than their share to support US soldiers in Europe.  The county exceeded its quotas on war bonds, Red Cross contributions, and sale of Victory Loans.  Five hundred and forty eight men were registered for service in the war and 30 lost their lives. 


The war helped the local economy, especially production of leather and harnesses for the cavalry.  A $25 million investment in war materials was a much needed boon to this struggling rural area.


State or national issues did not consume life in Bolivar.  Farmers farmed, merchants bought and sold, and our town council and mayor attended to streets, lighting, snow removal, maintenance and other day to day responsibilities to keep the town running. 


Some special circumstances make this period of time interesting.  In 1899, the mayor received a number of complaints about cows wandering the streets of Bolivar unattended.  He asked the town council to enforce an existing law about loose cows.  Months later, there was still a problem and the mayor ordered a fence to be built around the town jail (the white building next to the community center).  All unattended cows were hauled to jail.  Owners had to post bail to retrieve the cows, but the problem seemed to have been solved.


The independence of Bolivar was shown in an incident in 1920.  The German Ambassador to the US was caught speeding in town.  He was given a ticket but refused to pay.  The town insisted on payment of the $5.60 ticket but the Ambassador claimed diplomatic immunity.  The US State Department tried to intervene and Bolivar finally backed down on payment of the ticket.  Bolivar did not send an apology, however, and the Governor of West Virginia stepped in to write one to the Ambassador.  The speed limit had just been raised from 8 miles per hour for horses and automobiles to 10 miles per hour.


Bolivar endured the Depression-era difficulties of the entire Nation.  As an agricultural community, however, farmers, churches and neighbors met immediate family needs for food.  Bolivar and Jefferson County strongly supported the New Deal of President Roosevelt and the work programs it brought to West Virginia including a fishery located at Leetown.


World War II found Bolivar again a strong supporter of the national government and the military.  Hundred of soldiers served from Jefferson County: dozens from Bolivar.  World War II marked a major change in Bolivar with the establishment of the National Park at Harpers Ferry.  The Park both preserved and reconstructed our neighboring town.  New bridges and highways opened our area to day tourists from the Baltimore-Washington area.   The CharlesTown racetrack was another attraction, which began just before World War II.  Still a rural economy, Bolivar became more interwoven with the regional economy and has shown itself resilient in moving from an agricultural and self-contained merchant community into an economic development area ranging from Frederick, Maryland to Winchester, Virginia.


In 1999, a survey was conducted in Bolivar to assess what residents wanted to preserve or change about the town.  As a result of this survey, and ordinances which grew from it, Bolivar will retain its small town character with increasing new initiatives such as the farm market held in summers, the Childrens Park, and appropriate new businesses.






Bushong, Millard K.  A History of Jefferson County West Virginia (CharlesTown, WV, Jefferson Publishing Company, 1941)



Norris, J.E., ed. History of the Lower Shenandoah Valley (Berryville, VA:Virginia Book Company, 1890)


Williams, John A. West Virginia (NY, Norton and Co., 1984)


Uncollected papers of the Town of Bolivar (Bolivar Community Center), courtesy of Elizabeth Blake, Esq.



And special thanks to William Theriault, author of numerous publications and articles and the CD-ROM Explorer: The West Virginia History Database Jefferson County Module (West Virginia Division of Culture and History, 1996)