Deputy clerk Megan Schoeman. Photo by Eric Gorton.
Deputy clerk Megan Schoeman. Photo by Eric Gorton.

The case of a Rockingham County man accused of plotting to kill Gen. George Washington and the members of the Continental Congress is getting another look in Rockingham County Circuit Court — from some curious history buffs.

The March 1779 case against Nicholas Weatherholt surfaced in January when Megan Schoeman, the deputy clerk of court, found a surety bond promising Weatherholt would appear for trial, or “tryall,” on the accusations.

“It was a little piece of paper all by itself with a bunch of other papers within this huge folder,” Schoeman said, recounting her discovery. “It was completely unrelated to anything else in the folder. It was amongst a lot of assault and battery cases, some petty theft cases as well.”

The folder had been stored in a box of criminal cases from the late 18th century. Rockingham Circuit Court is working with the history department and libraries at James Madison University to digitize its historic records and make them accessible on a website called “Histories of the Blue Ridge.”

  • The front of the bond document. Photo by Eric Gorton.
  • The back of the bond document. Photo by Eric Gorton.
  • A mention of the proceedings. Photo by Eric Gorton.

Circuit Court Clerk Chaz Haywood has prioritized document restoration and announced the discovery of the Weatherholt document in early May on his Facebook page.

The recognizance is well preserved, with just a couple of small holes along creases where it was folded and some fraying on the edges. The handwriting is neat and the ink is clearly legible. Reading the old writing style “is an acquired skill,” said Annette Guild, an assistant archivist for the court who is helping with the digitizing project.

Schoeman said a number of words in the recognizance, and its accusatory tone, immediately intrigued her.

“I was going through the paper and at first I saw, ‘the tyrant king.’ Well, that’s odd. Different language than I’m used to seeing each day, and I keep reading further and I see Washington, George Washington. And I said, ‘OK, there’s something here,’” she said.

Deputy clerk Megan Schoeman. Photo by Eric Gorton.
Deputy clerk Megan Schoeman. Photo by Eric Gorton.

The only other mention of the case, Commonwealth v. Weatherholt, that has surfaced so far is in the court’s minutes book from that day, March 13, 1779. The entry consists of two short paragraphs recapping what’s in the surety bond, but it also identifies the accuser as Jacob Plumb.

In the bond, a man by the name of Martin Wetsil puts up “ten thousand pounds current money of Virginia” to ensure that Weatherholt will appear for his trial on the accusation that he was “Consulting to raise or Levy men for the service of the Tyrant George King of Great Britain and conspire with several other Torries and enemies of the United States to turn their arms (armies?)____ against the defenseless Inhabitants of the said States and have threatened to murder General Washington and the members of the Continental Congress …”

While the accusation was made during the midpoint of the American Revolution, “Only a small number of people in the Shenandoah Valley identified themselves as loyalists, the people called Tories in the bond,” said Turk McCleskey, an emeritus professor of history at the Virginia Military Institute.

McCleskey emailed his comments after viewing an image of the document. 

He said Weatherholt’s threat to murder Washington and members of Congress “would have been difficult to carry out in late winter, given that Weatherholt was in Rockingham County, over 250 miles away from either Congress or the Continental Army.”

Washington’s headquarters were in New Jersey at the time, and the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia.

McCleskey speculated that the accusation could have come about after “a rowdy drinking bout” and that Weatherholt might not have been a member of an actual conspiracy.

“The great majority of slander suits and prosecutions for seditious words in the Valley during this period involved someone getting drunk and mouthing off in a way that someone found offensive,” he said.

However, some additional research by Guild — using the Ancestry website, military records and other sources — suggests Weatherholt may have been a loyalist. He served as a captain in the British Army during the French and Indian War from 1754-1763, a conflict where the British increased land holdings in North America and imposed more taxes on the colonies to pay for it. That war strengthened tensions between the colonies and the British government and was among the leading causes of the revolution.

Guild also found information stating that Weatherholt was born in Europe and that some of his family members settled in Virginia following the French and Indian War. One document confirms that Weatherholt died in Rockingham County, she said, but she has not found anything indicating where he is buried.

As for Weatherholt’s accuser, Jacob Plumb, little has been found.

“It can be a little bit difficult because the counties have changed,” Guild said.

Another obstacle is various spellings of names, she said.

Guild thinks the men may have been neighbors, but Plumb’s land was in an area that is now Hardy County, West Virginia. Most of Weatherholt’s land was in Rockingham County, she said.

Despite the obstacles, Guild said she doesn’t get tired of looking through the historic documents. “I’ve had so many ‘Oh, that’s so cool’ moments. There’s just so many interesting stories here and we’re trying to make those available to the public.”

Schoeman said, “We have been doing a lot of research and trying to cross check the best we can, but I think there’s plenty out there that still needs to be discovered and researched. Hopefully one day we get a more complete story.”

Eric Gorton works full time as a media relations coordinator for James Madison University and does some...