Sunday, October 2, 2022

Finding the Kirks' 18th Century Berkeley County, (West) Virginia Farm

In early 2018, mounting DNA evidence indicated that my fifth great-grandfather, Thomas Kirk (1778-1846), was the younger brother of his neighbor Mary (Kirk) Geiger (1774-1832). Digging into Mary's genealogy, I came across notes from her grandson George W. Geiger that identified her parents as Joseph and Sarah Kirk of Berkeley County, (West) Virginia. 

The genetic link made it plausible that Joseph and Sarah were also Thomas' parents and my sixth great-grandparents.

Naturally, I focused my research on Berkeley County, Virginia [now part of West Virginia]. I soon discovered land and tax records that confirmed there was indeed a Joseph and Sarah Kirk living in the area. On April 9, 1773, just 16 months before Mary was born, Joseph Kirk leased from George William Fairfax a 100-acre farm that was "lying and being in the parish of Norborne in the County of Berkeley being part of a tract of land of [seventeen] hundred acres and called Poplar Spring." 


Joseph died in about 1784. Sarah continued to maintain her lease with Fairfax and lived on the property until at least 1802 (when she was identified as a neighbor in the land indenture for a neighboring farm). Beginning in 1796, a male of legal voting age (over 16) and approximately the same age as Thomas, appeared in Sarah's household. It looked as though Thomas aged into legal voting age and was finally recorded by county tax assessors. Another promising sign that I was investigating the right family.

Where is the Kirks' Berkeley County farm located? Could I find it and walk the property?

Unfortunately, the 1773 lease provided boundary descriptions that were archaic to my Google Maps dependent brain. The property was staked out using ephemeral geographic features like trees: "Beginning at a stake near a black oak, white oak, and hickory and near a corner of Joseph Evans and Michael Close..." Nearly 250 years later, those trees (and Joseph and Michael) were unlikely to still be around to help point me in the right direction!

I quickly learned that the land description was based on the metes-and-bounds system or the indiscriminate-survey system where "the land was chosen indiscriminately (independently) of the survey system." In this system, used in Virginia and the other original colonies, "the crown gave land either to the colony itself or a major proprietor, who then transferred the title to individuals." 

George William Fairfax was one such proprietor who held millions of acres in Virginia's Northern Neck (now much of West Virginia). 

The Library of Virginia notes that, "The Northern Neck Land Office controlled 5,282,000 acres in land grants located between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, which were given to seven loyal supporters of King Charles II [in 1649, after he fled England in exile following the execution of his father King Charles I]." The Northern Neck Proprietary (or Fairfax Land Proprietary) was eventually inherited by George William Fairfax, who leased portions of the 1,700-acre tract known as Poplar Spring to men like Joseph Kirk. 

I taught myself how to map or plat metes-and-bounds land descriptions by hand (which required the use of a protractor - who knew it would ever come in handy?!). I platted the 100-acre Kirk farm. When I put my pencil down, I saw that I had drawn a box. I was underwhelmed. 


In isolation, Joseph's platted land didn't help me pinpoint where exactly he lived. I repeated these steps for his neighbors and was slowly able to stitch together chuncks of Fairfax's original 1,700-acre Poplar Spring tract. 


Despite assembling the land like a puzzle, I still had little idea where the farms would be situated on a current day map. 

A break came in January when Jeff Hollis, a member of the Remember in Martinsburg when ........ Facebook group, posted a photograph of a ramshackle limestone farmhouse called Protumna. Hollis, a longtime resident of Martinsburg who was familiar with the area's history, shared that the home was built by Henry Bedinger in 1801 on part of the Poplar Spring tract. 

Protumna, Berkeley County farmhouse built by Henry Bedinger
Photo by Jeff Hollis

My eyes widened when I read about the Poplar Spring tract and the Bedinger name immediately set off alarm bells. Having already mapped out many of Joseph Kirk's neighbors, I knew that Bedinger was a neighbor to the southwest. If I could identify where Bedinger's farmhouse was located, perhaps I could climb my way up to the Kirk farm. 

Unfortunately, the crumbling ruins of the home were removed in 2013 to build a Sheetz convenience store. Berkeley County lost a centuries-old historic home to neglect and development (and one that the widowed Sarah Kirk would have seen, as she was still in the area until at least 1802). 

Family Sleuther at the Berkeley County Sheetz
once the site of Bedinger's Protumna

Tossing the protractor aside, I turned to online platting software integrated with Google Maps. Carefully examining the map, I discovered I could make out the faint lines (tree lines, hedgerows, and roads) of historic property boundaries. Moving west from the Bedinger home, I began to find the borders for Joseph Kirk's neighbors: Adam Tabler's 245-acre farm (bordered along its southern edge by Tabler Station Road - another modern day clue hiding in plain sight). Heading north, I traced the outline of Philip Pendleton's 200-acre farm. Navigating further north brought me to Michael Close's property, which finally revealed (drum roll, please...) Joseph Kirk's 100-acre farm.


Located a few miles southwest of the courthouse in downtown Martinsburg (Berkeley's county seat), the property is now split in half by Interstate 81. On either side of the highway, a few modern homes with expansive yards occupy the remains of the Kirk farm. 

Although it took several years, one clue eventually led to another and finally disclosed the location of Joseph Kirk's farm where his children Mary and Thomas were likely born and raised. Sadly, Jeff Hollis passed away in July. If he hadn't shared his photograph of Bedinger's Protumna home and its location, I would still be searching for a modern day marker to help direct me to the Kirk farm. I am forever grateful! 

In June, I was finally able to visit the Kirks' Berkeley County, West Virginia farm (which you can view on Google Maps here). 

6 comments:

  1. So good to see you blogging again, and it's been amazing to follow you through this journey. I've learned so much along the way about a type of genealogy research I've still not tried myself.

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    1. I'm glad to be back and appreciate your cheerleading and insights along the way!

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  2. Welcome back, Michael. I've done the plotting with Tract Plotter but haven't gotten around to finding a platting software that works with Google Maps. Is the one you mention easy to use and free?

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    1. I used a free online service by DaftLogic that is integrated with Google Maps and let me draw boundaries while tallying acreage. It helped me verify if the boundaries corresponded with the acreage summarized in the land deeds - an incredibly helpful resource. The tool is called "Google Maps Area Calculator Tool."

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    2. Thank you, Michael. I've noted the tool and will check into it.

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  3. What a great find, and very clever how you were able to create a map from the land deeds and then recognize fence rows in the area to find his farm! Have followed your blog for several years and it's been a huge help in my research, as this is my family too, I'm descended from Joseph's brother John Kirk. I've been studying the surrounding families in the area, looking for clues of who my John was married to, I believe he must have met his wife somewhere in Berkeley County around 1780 or so. I do have DNA matches from some of these families but the DNA is very tricky to analyze when that far back. I'm guessing John may have also lived on the same farm with Joseph's family for a time before moving on to Ohio/Brooke County? I think John was younger since his children were born in the 1780s rather than the 1770s as Joseph's were. It would be great to see more of your maps of the neighboring farms with the names of his neighbors!

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