Shenandoah Germanic Heritage Museum

George Keller, The Justice from Dunmore County

In The History of the Descendants of John Hottel is this sentence; "He was an outstanding citizen in the early history of Shenandoah County, having been one of the justices of the first court." I have long believed George Keller, the husband of Barbara Anna Hottel, deserved more insight into his participation in local government than this brief mention affords him.

The early records of the colony of Virginia offer a wealth of information for those who wish to research specific individuals within the social context of their era. Through the use and study of these records, researchers can add "flesh" to a name and/or situation.

George Keller immigrated to the colony of Pennsylvania in 1732. He settled near the John Hottel family, where Barbara Anna soon caught his eye. George and Barbara Keller established their family, raising nine children to adulthood. By 1750, the Keller family had migrated to the Shenandoah Valley where 400 acres of land was patented from Thomas, Lord Fairfax. Over the course of years, George took up additional patent lands. At the time of his death in the winter of 1782/1783, the majority of his land holdings were located near the headwaters of Toms Brook (Mt. Olive).

The court system in the colony of Virginia was a combination of traditional English doctrines with additional rules for unique situations. Most non-capital criminal cases began and ended in the county courts, as did most civil lawsuits. Holding court in the counties were the Justices of the Peace also referred to as the Magistrates or the Gentlemen Justices. Besides their judicial duties, the Justices directed the laying out of roads, the location of bridges, appointed road surveyors and imposed fines on those who neglected to maintain their assigned sections of highways. They licensed water mills, ordinaries, ferries and courthouses. The Justices even advised the colonial legislature on the placement of warehouses, ferries churches and courthouses in their counties. There were eight Justices per county with a quorum of four to conduct judicial business. How often the county courts met was contingent upon many variables: the weather, conditions of the roads, the crop cycles, the number of cases filed and the availability of the Gentlemen Justices. All county Justices served at the appointment of the Royal Governor. A vacancy on the county court usually arose with the death of a Justice. The remaining Justices submitted a worthy gentleman's name to the Governor for his consideration. The worthy gentleman was a "Justice in waiting". He was a gentleman of impeccable reputation and honor. He was a respected individual within his community. He had served a "Justice" apprenticeship in governmental functions. This apprenticeship involved serving as a juror, overseeing the performance of wills, viewing property to ascertain ownership, the examination of disputed accounts, estate appraisals of deceased persons and orphans, and assisting the court in determining damages. He gained his legal expertise through "on the job training" and observing his more experienced colleagues. Writing in 1736, Virginia Justice George Webb stated he had "avoided all references to law and law books". That the "far greatest part of our inhabitants are unfurnished with those books, or are diverted from reading them by necessary affairs of their plantations, and the innocent pleasures of a country life."

In 1727, the first permanent white settlement in the Shenandoah Valley was Germanic immigrants. The Tidewater English now began to take up large holdings of land in speculation. Within a short period, hundreds of immigrants arrived to patent this land and the land of the Northern Neck Propriety. The ethnic background of those who settled the Valley were English, Scots, Northern Irish, and Germanic. The listed order represents the social standing within the Valley of these ethnic groups.

In 1772, the tax paying population of Frederick County had reached adequate size to support the formation of a new county. This new county was Dunmore (Shenandoah) County named for Governor John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore. From the four ethnic groups, Governor Dunmore appointed the first Justices. Of those eight worthy gentlemen, one was George Keller from the headwaters of Toms Brook.

Let us now "flesh out" the gentleman justice, George Keller. We know that he had served his "Justice in waiting" apprenticeship. He was highly respected and had great influence in his community. George Keller was important enough to come to the attention of the Royal Governor. He could understand and speak the English Language. As German was his native language, he would function as a translator when necessary. He was highly respected and had great influence in his county. He was intelligent, as he had to attend to public business by administrating justice. He had an impeccable reputation and great personal honor. Justice George Keller deserved more than just that one sentence.

Researched by Gae Grinnan Ward

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