Look Back: Parkersburg’s beginnings

June 20 of this year was to be the first of three days of celebration, recognizing two hundred years since the Town of Parkersburg was made official by an Act of the Legislature of Virginia; this Act was passed Jan. 22, 1820. Unfortunately, after months of planning for the three-day celebration, current social distancing rules would have made the occasion or events impossible to be fully appreciated at this time.

Using early news items and recorded history, the next few weeks of Look Back will chronicle the formation and growth of the town of Parkersburg, Va.

The item that follows is an excerpt from “The Parkersburg Story,” published by Union Trust and Deposit Company in 1953:

“Thorntonburg Grows Up. The Early Years. Of the manifold legends about the founding of early Parkersburg, first called Thorntonburg, one accredited is that the incentive may have originated from the command, “Robert, bring me some wood; I’ve no end of baking to do today and must have an early start.” This, voiced by Elizabeth Thornton to her husband Robert, may have been the impetus that culminated in building a city. It was the spring of 1773 and the Thornton’s lived in a crude log cabin on the Ohio River bank where Wheeling now stands; the oven mentioned was an outdoor affair built of homemade brick.

“Probably the motive that induced Robert Thornton to loose his canoe, place his gun by his side, and drift away downstream, will never be known. It may have been the harsh tone of a tired wife who had more than the usual duties for the day ahead, it may have been the lure of the beautiful Ohio in the spring that called to an adventuresome spirit, or it could have been a desire to do better by his family; nevertheless it was three months before Thornton returned to “fetch” the wood for his wife’s oven.

“Thornton may have stopped to spend the night at the cabin of Samuel and Joseph Tomlinson at the mouth of the Muskingum [at what is now Williamstown], on the way, but eventually he came to what must have seemed to him journey’s end, the place where the [Little] Kanawha flows into the Ohio. And it was here to the confluence of the two rivers that he later returned to build his cabin at the point where the land juts out into the river, and thus laid claim to 1,000 additional acres.

“In building his cabin and cultivating the small plat of ground to make his claim valid, Thornton exemplified the determined spirit of all pioneer settlers. Without doubt, money in those days was scarce and $50 in cash looked like a fortune; consequently Robert Thornton, after holding his land for ten years, sold his claim, in 1783, to Captain Alexander Parker of Pennsylvania and gave up his dream of having a town called Thorntonburg. Thornton’s will and inventory of goods is the first listed in the record books of Wood County.”

The year 1783 was undoubtedly an unprecedented one in the life of Captain Alexander Parker for whom Parkersburg was named. It was then that his soldierly duties ended, that he purchased the land that is now Parkersburg, and that he married Rebecca Blair. To this union four children were born. The fact that the Parkers never occupied this land but continued to live in Pennsylvania, might be attributed to the hostility of the Native Americans on the frontier settlements. It was in Pennsylvania that Captain Parker died in 1791, at the age of 38.

The next Look Back will peer into the dangers here in 1790.


Bob Enoch is president of the Wood County Historical Society. Would you like to help preserve our past for future generations? The society offers informative monthly meetings and an interesting, 20-page quarterly newsletter. Dues are just $20/year. Send to: WCHPS, P.O. Box 565, Parkersburg, WV 26102.­


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