Rowdy Quakers Once Roiled Unison

By Tara Connell

Ah, the peaceful, quiet Quakers of Unison. What a genteel, highbrow legacy for our lovely village.

Well…not so much.

The founding Quakers of Unison were basically a rowdy bunch of troublemakers.

“The South Fork Quakers were difficult,” confirmed Carolyn Unger in an email. Mrs. Unger is a historian for the Goose Creek Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends in Lincoln. You can almost hear her sighing.

Their “crimes?” Horse racing through the streets. Gambling. Drinking. Marrying outside the faith. DANCING.

But to many Quakers of the 1700s, this was bad stuff. To understand why, there is context: Beyond the fact this was the 18th century, Quakers argued among themselves about the tenets of their faith (Drinking? No drinking?) and Unison was pretty much the edge of nowhere.

Where They Came from and Why

Quakers in the early 1700s were on the move. There were settlements throughout Pennsylvania (thank you, William Penn), New Jersey and northeastern Maryland. But the population was growing and more land was needed.

Families were moving downriver from the Bucks County area of Pennsylvania and settling in western Maryland and, finally, northern Virginia.

“The early settlements were all west of what is now Rt. 15, the Carolina Road, because the soil to the east was much poorer,” said Paul Hodge, one of Unison’s present day Quakers.

These families all tended to stay together. And then friends tended to stay close together, married within their tight-knit community and had large families.

Pretty soon, to shorten a couple of generations of Unison history, clumps of friends, all with wives and children related to each other, had founded the village and were living close together. Surrounding them was very little but trees, rocks, wildlife, bad roads, Native Americans, disease, death and very hard work.

Which meant to get to Meetings, weddings and other functions, families traveled up to 40 miles through rather rough territory, according to “Ye Meetg Hous Smal, A Short Account of Friends in Loudoun County, Virginia 1732-1980” by Werner and Asa Moore Janney.

The arduous travel prompted Quakers settling in Fairfax and Loudoun counties to get permission from their home Meetings in Pennsylvania and Baltimore to hold Meetings nearer their homes. Baltimore, by the way, was the yearly (or supervising) Meeting for all Quakers in our area, and it was of the strict no drinking/no gambling strain of the faith at the time.

Waterford became the first designated Meeting in Loudoun, then Hamilton and Goose Greek (now Lincoln). South Fork, or Unison, began as the responsibility of Baltimore and the Goose Creek Meeting and stayed that way through most of its history.

It’s a bit unclear, but both “Ye Meetg Hous Smal and a report by Rivanna Archeological Services done for a history of the Unison Battlefield, say the first Loudoun County Meeting to mention the South Fork Quakers was in 1745. The South Fork Quakers were granted a Meeting of their own in 1768. That is pretty clear.

Trouble

What also is pretty clear is that South Fork was a pain in the neck for its supervising Meetings—especially the Goose Creek Friends—almost from the beginning. According to Rivanna Archeological Services, “Individual South Fork Meeting members were regularly charged with violations of rules of discipline including drinking, quarreling, fighting, and marrying outside of the Quaker faith. In 1787, Thomas Scattergood (a traveling Quaker minister) commented ‘there appears to be much rawness’.”

In “Ye Meetg Hous Smal,” another traveling minister is quoted saying “all they thought at South Fork was cock fighting and horse racing. The Meeting’s worldliness caused concern, for it seemed its members drank to excess, fought, gambled, and in general were lax morally. Indeed, they were exceedingly lax; one member was disciplined because he ‘steals watermelons.’”

Things hadn’t quieted down by 1820. At a Meeting of the Goose Creek Friends that year, five South Fork Quakers were named and shamed for their “improper use of Spiritus Liquors.” They were: William Smith, David Smith, William Piggot, Benjamin Bradfield and Stephen McPherson, said Ye Meeting Hous Smal.

By 1829, South Fork was feeling the effects of all this infamy. Membership was dropping precipitously. Visiting minister John Comley noted there were “but few friends there, the Meeting was chiefly composed of Methodists and other denominations,” according to Rivanna Archeological Services.

Oh dear.

Consequences

The salad days of rowdy Quakerism in Unison were fairly short-lived. Most of the 10 acres bought by the Quakers in 1771 for a Meeting house and graveyard were sold in 1868. The 25-foot by 25-foot Meeting House that opened in 1785 was sold in 1916 after spending long years as a papered-over, tumbledown building. It was eventually demolished.

The only remaining trace today of the boisterous South Fork Quakers is their burial ground. Many of the names called out as rowdy or as good, upstanding and peace-loving citizens are there, on the west side of Unison Road as you go south toward, appropriately, Quaker Lane.

It is still the responsibility of the thriving Goose Creek Meeting in Lincoln, and remains to some of the Friends what “Ye Meetg Hous Smal” describes: “a headache for Goose Creek four score and ten years later.”

Seems fitting.

[Tara Connell is a member of the Board of the Unison Preservation Society (UPS). This article is a slightly modified version of one she originally published in the UPS newsletter, and it appears here with the Society’s permission. To learn more about UPS, go to unisonva.org. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. To learn more about the organization, or to participate in the Rural Roads Initiative, go to loudouncoalition.org.]

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