April 25, 2008

Looney's Ferry

One of the landmarks on the Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia to the Carolinas was Looney's Ferry across the James River.

It is indicated on the 1751 Fry-Jefferson map depicting 'The Great Waggon Road to Philadelphia'.

I found it referenced in Emily McMullan Williams' account of John McMullan's Trek from VA:

The wagon trains moved slowly southwest from the counties of Rockingham (formed 1778), Augusta (1745), Rockbridge (1778), through Fincastle (1772-1777) and into Botetourt (1770). Reaching Looney's Ferry was a point of both anticipation and concern. Getting the horses onto the ferry could sometimes be difficult. Would the James River be frozen over? Would they have to wait a day or two for the right conditions to cross? Robert Looney operated the ferry and inn as early as 1745. The ferry license for this crossing was granted by the Orange Court at the time the road was blazed to wagon width.

Looney's Ferry is also mentioned in an article on the Birth of the Frontier Culture at the University of Virginia website...

In 1744 William Linville's father-in-law Morgan Bryan himself settled near his daughter and her husband. According to Moravian Leonhardt Grubb, who founded Bethabara (Winston-Salem, N.C.) in 1753, Bryan and William Linville were the first to take wagons from the 'Shanidore' to the 'Etkin' [Yadkin]" in 1748. It took them three months to get there. At one point Bryan even removed the wheels of his wagon and hauled it "peacemeal" to the top of a mountain.

Bryan wasn't ferried over James River as Moravian Lenohardt Grubb was in 1753 by Manxman Robert Looney, a Quaker from Conestoga Township, Pa. who prior to 1740 took his family from the Fairfax grant and established a mill on Looney's Creek. Bryan forded the river near where Moravians forded it in 1749 to the music of wolves, and where they found "few houses and no bread." When Grubb passed through in 1753 things had changed. Not only did Looney operate a ferry at Cherry Tree Botton (Buchanan, Va.), there was grain enough for Mrs. Looney to bake bread for the Moravians. Looney's decision to move to Cherry Tree Bottom may have been influenced in part by a 1749 flood that lifted the bed in which his wife and two of their children slept, and carried it about "until they woke up."

In addition to operating the ferry our ancestor Robert Looney and his sons ran an Inn where travelers could spend the night, operated a grist mill, farmed, hunted and explored the western frontier deep into indian territory. Due to the threat of Indian attack, a fort was ordered built in 1755 around the Looney homesite. This fort was named Fort Looney and was at the junction of Looney Creek and the James River. This fort was part of a series of forts ordered built along the frontier to protect settlers and to keep the French from claiming the territory. Fort Looney was visited in 1756 by Col. George Washington, future first president of the United States.

Robert Looney and his family defended the fort during the French and Indian War. George Washington references sending troops to the fort in some of his correspondence found in the National Archives. Fort Looney was also referenced in the writings of Col. John Buchanan in his letter of June 1756 to Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie. Col Buchanan wrote: "I have ordered ten men to Looney's Fort on James River." The importance of the fort diminished as the French and Indians were defeated and other more remote forts held the line. In 1758 it was renamed Fort Fauquier in honor of the newly arrived governor of the Colony.

The Looney house and parts of the original fort continued to stand until 1914. Two archaeological excavations were conducted at the "Fort Looney" site in 1968-69. The digs produced a number of artifacts and is discussed in an article by archelogist Howard A. MacCord, Sr. in the Quarterly Bulletin of The Archeological Society of Virginia, Vol. 26, No. 2, December 1971.

...A farm road perpendicular to the river leads from the high ground south of the river valley to the river bank at the western edge of the site. A corresponding road leads north from the north bank of the river. The river between the two ends of the road is still and deep, and here was the only suitable place for miles for ferrying across the river. The present farm roads are the survivors of the "Carolina Road" along which so many pioneers moved during the mid-18th Century, and the ferry is the well-known Looney's Ferry.

Because of the ideal topography of the site and its proximity to the road and ferry site, it was almost inevitable that the site would have been settled at an early date. While the earliest history of the site is unknown, it is certain that on July 30, 1742, Mr. Robert Looney patented the site. Presumably, he also kept a tavern for lodging and feeding the travelers using his ferry and the Carolina Road.

With the growing threat of Indian attacks in 1754-55, Looney was obliged to fortify his homestead. He probably had enough men (he had 5 grown sons) at the tavern-ferry to run the fort for routine guard duty, and he could count on neighbors and travelers to augment this force if an attack came. The fort was already in existence in 1755 and was called Fort Looney. Apparently the fort was never attacked, possibly because it was too strong. In 1758 the fort at Looney's ferry was renamed Fort Faquier in honor of the newly arrived Governor of the Colony. The subsequent history of the fort is uncertain. We know that Robert Looney died in 1769, and one son (Absalom) pioneered into Tazwell County (Stoner, 1962). Looney's house continued to stand, with additions and changes until about 1914, when it was torn down. A solitary pear tree still stands as an indicator that the site was formerly a homestead. In addition, there are people in the neighborhood who can remember the house. The site is now a plowed field, and such debris from more than 175 years of occupation still litters the ground. Where the house formerly stood, the soil is filled with bricks and stones from the old foundations.

Today, the site of "Fort Looney" is found 15 miles west of Buchanan, VA, and .4 miles east of the crossing of the James River by Interstate 81. There is a historic sign on Route 11 just outside of Buchanan marking the spot.

For more information on Robert Looney, Looney's Ferry and Fort Looney visit the following websites:

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