Berkeley County 1768-1789
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Continue with an essay on the family in Washington County

Leaving Lancaster County

We have no record telling why the three May families left their homes of twenty years in Lancaster County to embark on a new adventure on the Virginia frontier. The end of the French and Indian War in 1763 had given the people of Pennsylvania an opportunity to move south, opening the door to unoccupied regions along the Blue Ridge Mountains where rich land was available at bargain prices. Most of the people migrating to the "Old Dominion State" from Pennsylvania passed through Lancaster, reminding the Mays every day of the number of families that had made decisions to move. Daniel spoke with them as they visited his tavern and inn, Francis sold them shoes that would be hard to find in the countryside, and Leonard probably contracted to haul supplies and merchandise to the growing Virginia market in his wagons.

Leonard May was the brother with the biggest incentive for moving out of Lancaster County. He had seven children, ranging in age from two to eighteen years of age. The young generation of Mays knew that the relatively successful lives of their parents and uncles had come from the opportunities they experienced after arriving in America. Leonard and Christina certainly wanted their children to have similar opportunities in another "new land."

Francis May and his wife, Anna Maria, likely were influenced to move at the same time by his older brother, who had been the head of the family group since their mother had died in 1751. In 1768, Francis' son, John, was eight years old and his daughter, Anna Maria, was fifteen. Earlier that year she completed her catechisms in the Reformed Church, along with her first cousin, Francis (Frantz Peter), Leonard May's sixteen year-old son.

Daniel, who had no children, appears to have been the most established of the May brothers in the Lancaster community. He probably was enticed to leave with aspirations of being influential in the establishment of a new town on the Virginia frontier. Within a few years after leaving Lancaster, he was active in the establishment of Martinsburg, the new seat of justice in Berkeley County, Virginia.

Arriving in Virgnia
After moving from Pennsylvania to Virginia in 1768, the families of the three May brothers began to go their separate ways. The first records of the family living south of the Potomac River are on the tax rolls of Loudoun County, Virginia. In 1768 we find Leonard living in the county, and for at least eighteen years his sons were also property owners there. On the list with Leonard is Francis May, a land owner in the same parish. Daniel May didn't appear on the Loudoun County rolls until 1771. During the intervening three years he may have remained in Lancaster, possibly to close out his business and the businesses of his brothers. By 1776 - probably as early as 1773 - Daniel was living west of the Shenandoah River in Berkeley County on one of the original Martinsburg town lots. There he built his home and opened his business - assumed to be what was then called an "ordinary" (inn and tavern).

The closest German-speaking church the Mays in Loudoun County could attend appears to have been the Evangelical Lutheran Church across the Potomac in Frederick, Maryland. The scant records of that congregation show the Mays attending baptisms in the church in 1774 and 1775. During the turbulent years of the American Revolution, the young men of the family were called to serve the cause of the thirteen colonies. From records of this historic period, we learn of the early manhood of John May, the only son of Francis.

In 1772 the unincorporated town of Martinsburg, Virginia became the seat of justice of newly formed Berkeley County. In 1773 the town had about twenty or thirty houses, two or three ordinaries, a blacksmith shop and a shoemaker. A petition to incorporate the town of Martinsburg, filed on May 14, 1777, provides one of the earliest documents showing the May and Phillips families in the area. The petition, signed by thirty-seven citizens, is catalogued in the Virginia State Library in Richmond. Though a "Court House and Gaol" (jail) were advertised for construction bids in 1773, there were no public building in the town until 1779. On maps of the period and in court records the town was referred to as "Berkeley Court House."

When the petition was sent to the Virginia Legislature, the country was deeply embroiled in the Revolutionary War. General Washington had only recently broken his winter camp at Morristown, New Jersey, and the fiery orator of the Revolution, Patrick Henry, was Governor of Virginia. The petitioners made it clear the citizens of Martinsburg "do most hartily concur to the present form of Government now established, and are ready with their lives and fortunes to support and defend It."

The petitioners included most of the men in town. One name on the petition was "Dan. May," either Johann Daniel May - the immigrant - or his namesake and nephew, the twenty year-old son of Leonard May. During the time this petition was being circulated in town, the elder Daniel was terminally ill and the younger Daniel was probably caring for him and his wife, Mary (Anna Maria). We know that Daniel's nephew was the beneficiary of his estate when Daniel died at the end of May, 1777. Another signatory was "John M. May" - probably not the seventeen year-old John May, son of Francis - who has not been identified. Another name of interest to the May family is "Thomas Phillips," who would soon become the father-in-law of John May.

Martinsburg lots

Central lots in 1779 Martinsburg, Virginia

In October, 1778, the General Assembly of Virginia officially established Martinsburg as a town. The total area set aside was 130 acres to be platted in lots and streets. There were 269 lots, and those not already bought were put up for public auction. The buyers were required to build within two years "a dwelling at least twenty by sixteen feet with a brick or stone chimney," or forfeit their title. Daniel May - and by 1780 his nephew, John - lived in a home on Lot 11, only one block from the Courthouse (B) in the center of town. John's wife, Sarah Jane Phillips, had moved to Martinsburg with her parents about 1776 and lived on Lot 8.

John May, Revolutionary Soldier
Most of the information we have on the Revolutionary War service of John May comes from a declaration made by Sarah May in open court in Pike County, Kentucky on September 15, 1845. She made the declaration "in order to obtain the benefit of the provision made by the act of Congress passed July 7th 1838 entitled, 'an act granting half-pay and pensions to certain widows'." Even though this was recorded over thirty-two years after the death of her husband, Sarah, at the age of eighty-six, said she had a distinct recollection of many of the facts.

Sarah provided sufficient information for us to piece together some of her husband's experiences in the Army: John "entered the services in the county of Berkeley and state of Virginia and her recollection is that his captain's name was Cherry and a portion of the time she thinks he was under the command of General Lee," and Sarah "is satisfied he must have been in the service two years."

From these statements we learn that John's company, at least for part of his service, was led by a "Captain Cherry." This probably was William Cherry, the owner and operator of Cherry Tavern in Charles Town, Berkeley County. Some of John's service, which we can conclude to have occurred over a period of about two and a half years, was with Virginia battalions under the command of General Charles Lee, also of Berkeley County. Captain Cherry's company marched from Martinsburg to the banks of the Hudson, a trek of about twenty days. They probably arrived at Fort Lee, New Jersey by mid-November, 1776, in the heat of a series of critical battles. These historic events provided John a rich source for stories he recounted many times throughout the remainder of his life. He "frequently spoke of being on the opposite side of the river from the battle of Long Island," and saw George Washington's retreat "over the river."

These battles of this winter were vividly recalled by John throughout his life. They had been impressed on the mind of a sixteen year-old soldier who, with no formal military training, had been thrust into the terrible reality of war. During these initial tragic days of service, he saw men wounded and killed for the first time in his life. The size of the British fleet and the number of men fighting on both sides must have overwhelmed this green recruit. The British had over 32,000 disciplined, professional soldiers, including about 9,000 German mercenaries, and over 350 ships manned by 10,000 sailors, in the attacks on Long Island and Manhattan Island. Eyewitness accounts of events of such historic importance were a valuable legacy to pass down to his children.
In a deposition taken in Prestonsburg, Kentucky in 1845, John's son, Samuel, stated, "I recollect to have frequently heard him speak of having served in the army in the Revolutionary War, . . . and of having been married very shortly after the expiration of father's service in the army." Sarah May's 1845 Declaration doesn't mention any other battles John witnessed. However, a review of historical events that followed the British victories at the mouth of the Hudson in November, 1776, provides a wealth of information to illustrate what John must have witnessed and personally experienced in the waning days of that fateful year. Sarah said, "he must have been in the service two years."

Leonard May's Sons in the Revolution
During the extended period of the war from 1775 to 1783, Leonard May's five sons came of age to serve in the army. When the first call went out for volunteers in Virginia in June, 1775, the ages of his sons were: Frantz Peter, 23; Johannes, 21; Johann Daniel, 18; Johann Georg, 16; and (Johann) Michael, 9. It is likely that most, if not all, of them served in some capacity in the Revolutionary cause. A through search for records of these young men wasn't undertaken for this essay, but we have a few to recount.

Johannes May is said to have been a Revolutionary soldier. From letters exchanged between two May genealogists in 1983 we learn that he "served in the Pennsylvania Light Infantry." He later lived and died in Bedford, Pennsylvania. Notes from another May genealogist show that George May, a resident of Loudoun County, was listed as a private at Fort Frederick and as a member of the 3rd Virginia Regiment from Loudoun County that served at Valley Forge. A record from a Revolutionary War veteran, Peter Borders, gives an account of entering service in 1781 as a substitute for a John May - called Michael May in a later account - of Loudoun County, Virginia. This probably was Johann Michael May, Leonard's youngest son, who turned sixteen sometime in the early 1780s. The duty he hired Borders to do was "guarding prisoners who were sent to Winchester Barracks in Frederick County," Virginia.

Deaths of Daniel and Leonard May
April, 1779, when John returned to Martinsburg from his second enlistment in the Army, he lived with his widowed Aunt Mary. His Uncle Daniel's will had been probated on June 17, 1777, with another nephew, "Daniel May, the lawfully begotten Heir of the Body of my brother Leonard May," as the principal beneficiary. Daniel and Anna Maria (Mary) were the young Daniel's Godparents. They apparently favored him over their other five nephews and four nieces. Also, this phrase in Daniel's will tells us that his older brother, Leonard, had preceded him in death. From extant records, it appears that Daniel and Mary had no children of their own.

John May and Sarah Jane Phillips
Immediately after John's return to Martinsburg he first met Sarah Jane Phillips: "She recollects of being in Martinsburg, Berkeley County Virginia, when he returned from the army and she saw two young men one by the name of Jacob Orr and the other by the name of Jacob Pink with many others take him into Skinney Tavern in Martinsburg and treat him something to drink and they seemed to be rejoicing together and on enquiring the cause was told that it was John May who had just returned from the army. Of this she has a distinct recollection."
According to Sarah's Declaration, John "soon after his return purchased the house and lot on which widow May lived. . . " Daniel had willed the property to his wife, Mary, for her lifetime, and then it was to go to his nephew, Daniel. A detailed accounting of Daniel's modest estate is filed in Berkeley County records. On September 20, 1779, Daniel May (of Loudoun County) sold his inheritance to Francis May (of Berkeley County) for the handsome price of £500. John May, the only son of Francis, witnessed this Indenture.

In March 1780 John May and Sarah Jane Phillips, daughter of Thomas Phillips, were married. Sarah recalled that the March after he returned from the army "They were married by publishing the banns and the certificate given her by the preacher that married them was lost with other records of the family." The term, "by Publishing the banns," means that a number of weeks prior to the ceremony the couple posted a statement of their intent to marry on the church door, or at some other public place in town. We have no record of the denomination of the church where their wedding was held. The first two churches in Martinsburg were the "English Church" and a church for the joint Lutheran and Reformed congregations. Since the name Phillips isn't German, we can safely assume that Sarah wasn't of either the Reformed or Lutheran persuasion.

In 1780, there doesn't appear to have been a permanent building for the German congregations. It is likely that the preacher Sarah mentioned, whether he was English or German, served a number of congregations spread over the region, and their wedding took place when his schedule brought him to Martinsburg. We don't know what church the young May couple attended during their remaining years in the Martinsburg area. Sarah certainly must have preferred hearing sermons in English instead of German, and John probably was literate in both languages. Regardless of their preferences, we can assume that they had their children baptized in one of the local churches. Sarah's father died within six months after the marriage, so he never experienced the joy of seeing any of Sarah's children.



John (Jr.)
28 Apr 1781
 8 Oct 1783
 1 Feb 1787
Martinsburg. Virginia
Martinsburg. Virginia
Hampshire, Co. Virginia

 John and Sarah's children born in Virginia

There is no record of John's education or occupation while he lived in Virginia. John's father, Francis, could have practiced his trade as a shoemaker in Martinsburg. It is very likely that John learned shoemaking from his father and took up the trade to support his young family. He also may have worked as a miller or a carpenter, two of the crafts his sons later practiced in Eastern Kentucky. Other than the two years John was old enough to attend a formal school in Lancaster, we are uncertain of the opportunities he had to further his education on the Virginia frontier. If he lived in Martinsburg, he may have attended private schools that are known to have been in the community as early as 1771. The churches in town taught children to "Read, Write and Cypher."

It has previously been assumed that John May lived in Martinsburg from the time he mustered out of the army in 1779 until he migrated to North Carolina about ten years later. The only extant tax record of John May in Berkeley County is for the year of 1782, raising questions of his residence for the next seven years. However, there is a record of a John May on the 1784 tax rolls of adjacent Hampshire County. This John May had two sons under the age of five, as did John May - John, Jr., age three, and Samuel, age one. This leads us to assume that John moved to Hampshire County in 1784, about the same time we know his father moved. However, we have no records of the location of the home of either John or his father in Hampshire County. These facts also lead us to assume that John and Sarah's third child, Thomas May (1787-1867), was probably born in Hampshire County, Virginia instead of Martinsburg, as previously thought.

The Western Movement
The Western frontier that opened for settlement after the end of the Revolutionary War became a strong attraction to many citizens. Following Washington's victory over Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in October of 1781, and the belated acknowledgment by King George III of the sovereignty of the "United Colonies" in 1783, the leaders of the young nation undertook the ambitious task of truly making the states of America "United." Six years later the delegates to the Confederation Congress finally signed the Constitution and elected George Washington the country's first president. The great migration of thousands of settlers to the western lands that began during this period is a dramatic chapter in the history of our country, and in the lives of our ancestors, John and Sarah May.

By the end of the 1780s the northern counties of Virginia were prospering, in part because of the wagon route that passed through the region from Philadelphia to the new frontiers in Western North Carolina and Central Kentucky. Sometime towards the end of the 1780s, John May decided that the best opportunities for his family lay in the mountains of Washington County, North Carolina. No doubt his prospects in Hampshire County were too limited, and the land available on the frontier at bargain prices was too tempting. He and Sarah decided to gather what money they could and move to the Watauga Valley.

John received information about the new settlements in North Carolina from migrating families who stopped to rest and buy provisions in Martinsburg and Winchester, the closest market towns to remote Hampshire County where he lived. Also, many families from Hampshire, Frederick and Berkeley Counties began to move to North Carolina, influencing friends and relatives to follow. There are no family records or stories to provide details of John's decision to move, but we can assume that prior to making the long journey to the southwest, he may have gone ahead to select a locality where he could buy a farm. We know that they moved from Virginia about 1789 to a farm near the "mouth of Roans Creek" in the Watauga River in Washington County, North Carolina.

Frantz Peter Meÿ (Francis May) 1724-1784+
Before we leave Virginia I should note that the last records we have of Frantz (Francis) Peter May are in three deeds of the sale of parcels of Lot 11 in Martinsburg, which he had purchased in 1779. From these documents we know that sometime between September 17, 1783 and November 17, 1784, Francis May moved his residence from Berkeley County (probably in the town of Martinsburg) to Hampshire County. He had substantial proceeds from the sale of the Martinsburg property to buy a modest-sized farm in this western county. We have no records of his wife and daughter, both named Anna Maria, after the family moved from Lancaster. Francis and his wife probably died in Hampshire County, Virginia, possibly before John migrated southwest to the mountains of Western North Carolina.

Continue with an essay on the family from 1789 to 1800 in Washington County, NC, during the period in which the region became Eastern Tennessee.

References to family records and facsimile copies of regional maps are printed in the book on the May/Meÿ family, The Shoemaker's Children.

              © 2000 Fred T. May                Return to Index of John May essays