Research show Looney’s Ferry site along the James has a long history; a Colonial one that dates to 1740s

Contributing Writer

Looney’s Ferry is described as the only inhabited place in Botetourt County shown on Joshua Fry’s & Peter Jefferson’s “A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina.” The map dates to 1755.

The history of life along the James River stretches back for centuries, and the evidence of human activity is right under our feet. Just outside the downtown area of Buchanan, there is a site that shows this fact better than many other sites in our region – the area which used to be home to Looney’s Ferry.

Research has been done on the site in the past century. In October 1968, archaeological investigations by the Archaeological Society of Virginia, Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission, and the Virginia State Library began. The report reads that “the Looney Mill Creek site encompasses a series of human occupation. There was slight utilization of the area during the Archaic period from 6000 to 2000 B.C., followed by a more intensive settlement during the Late Woodland period. Robert Looney’s homestead beginning in 1742 constituted final utilization of the site.”

In 1742, the site of Looney’s Ferry was the westernmost point of civilization built by immigrants from Europe. Noted on a survey by Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas Jefferson, the site was included on a map he created in the year 1755. The site of Looney’s Ferry was along a major road, called the “Great” or “Philadelphia Road,” which was utilized by settlers traveling south from Lancaster, Pa., through the Shenandoah Valley, and down to other southern settlements such as Bristol, VA, Knoxville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., and even as far as Augusta, Ga. as expansion fanned out farther beyond the Appalachian Mountains.

The existence of Looney’s Ferry played no small part in the expansion of the town that we know today as Buchanan. The land eventually came to be owned by a man named James Patton, who encouraged people to settle around the ferry, near his plantation called Cherry Tree Bottom.

The town which sprang up around the ferry would eventually be known as Pattonsburg, and was located roughly behind where Limestone Park is today, across the river and in the large open field now used as farmland.

Bo Trumbo, who has been doing research into the site and its historical significance to the country, has discovered why Pattonsburg no longer exists, and Buchanan does.

“After Patton’s death at the massacre at Draper’s Meadow,” Trumbo says, “his son-in-law, John Buchanan, arrived to administer his estate. It is said that he may have established a new ferry just east of Looney’s Ferry and Pattonsburg that crossed the James River close to where the Route 11 bridge now crosses the river, helping to end the need for a ferry further west. That’s what began the formation of the Town of Buchanan south of the James, with Pattonsburg to the north.”

Once the old ferry site became obsolete, the town of Pattonsburg went into decline. Though it was located less than a mile from where Buchanan began to grow, the economy brought in by the river completely shifted the geography of the region. Soon enough, Pattonsburg faded into memory, while Buchanan prospered.

Without Looney’s Ferry to support Pattonsburg, the buildings that once stood on the site degraded and disappeared, only to be unearthed by archaeologists decades later. The James River and its ferries played a huge role in the establishment of the towns surrounding its waters, and without the ferries, the Town of Buchanan would not exist as we know it today.

The Looney Mill Creek Site, which is on private property, was added to the Virginia Historic Landmarks Register in 1977 and to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

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