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In 1780 Charles Washington, George Washington’s youngest brother, left his home in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and moved to the Lower Shenandoah Valley. Charles had inherited land in what was then Berkeley County, Virginia, from his older half-brother Lawrence. Upon arrival he began construction of his home, Happy Retreat, located on a rise overlooking Evitts Marsh.
In 1786 Charles petitioned the Virginia General Assembly for permission to incorporate a town. The petition was granted and Charlestown, Virginia was founded. In addition to naming the corporation for himself, Charles memorialized the Washington family by the naming of town’s streets. The main street, running east to west is named Washington Street. Cross streets are named for family members with the Town Square named in honor of brother George, the streets to the east named for his bother Samuel and wife Mildred, and the streets to the west named for himself and his brother Lawrence. In a show of patriotism the streets parallel to Washington are named Congress and Liberty.
At the time of Charles’ death in September 1799, Charlestown was still located in Berkeley County. In his will, Charles indicated that should Berkeley County be divided and Charlestown named county seat of a new county, he desired that the town lots on the town square formed by George and Washington Streets be used for public buildings.
Jefferson County was formed from Berkeley in 1801 and Charlestown became the new county seat. As the executor of his father’s estate, Samuel Washington acceded to his father’s wishes and deeded the Town Square to be used for public buildings.
In 1803 the Jefferson County Courthouse became the first public building to occupy the Town Square. This smaller brick structure was replaced by a larger courthouse in 1836. The 1836 courthouse was the setting for the trials of abolitionist John Brown and six of his followers. In October 1863, during the Civil War, the courthouse was heavily damaged by artillery fire rendering it unusable. Following the War the county seat was temporarily located in Shepherdstown. In 1871 the county seat returned to Charlestown and the courthouse was rebuilt.
The Jefferson County jail was the second public building to occupy the Town Square. Completed in 1806, perhaps its most famous occupants were abolitionist John Brown and six of his raiders. The seven men were housed in the Jefferson County jail from the time of their capture in October 1859 until they were executed.
During the Civil War, the jail was destroyed and was rebuilt in 1873 after the county seat returned to Charlestown. That building was torn down in 1919 and the jail was moved to the southeast corner of George and Liberty Streets. In 1920 the United States Post Office was constructed on the former jail site and has been there ever since.
Circa 1806 a structure was built at the northwest corner of the Town Square. The first floor was used as a market space and its second floor had an auditorium as well as meeting rooms. Like many places in Charlestown, the market house was completely destroyed during the Civil War. It was initially replaced by a number of frame buildings. Town fathers decided to construct a more permanent building and in 1874 Charles Washington Hall was built. Since then the Hall has been home to the United States Post Office and to a number of restaurants and businesses.
The southeast corner of Town Square was initially the location of a one-story building known as “Lawyers Row.” Lawyer’s practicing before the Jefferson County court occupied these offices which was also home to Thompson’s Shaving Parlor. In 1908 the building was demolished and replaced by the Farmers and Merchants Deposit Bank. The Bank of Charles Town purchased the property and moved there in the 1930’s. Today the building houses the offices of the City of Charles Town.
Through the years Town Square has reflected the many changes which have occurred in Charles Town. But whatever the challenge the town and its citizens have shown great resiliency and remain today a strong and vibrant community.