Chronicles of America 

The Shenandoah

Though the Virginians were in the mass country folk, yet villages or hamlets arose, clusters of houses pressing about the Court House of each county. There were now in the colony over a score of settled counties. The westernmost of these, the frontier counties, were so huge that they ran at least to the mountains, and, for all one knew to the contrary, presumably beyond. But "beyond" was a mysterious word of unknown content, for no Virginian of that day had gone beyond. All the way from Canada into South Carolina and the Florida of that time stretched the mighty system of the Appalachians, fifteen hundred miles in length and three hundred in breadth. Here was a barrier long and thick, with ridge after ridge of lifted and forested earth, with knife-blade vales between, and only here and there a break away and an encompassed treasure of broad and fertile valley. The Appalachians made a true Chinese Wall, shutting all England-in-America, in those early days, out from the vast inland plateau of the continent, keeping upon the seaboard all England-in-America, from the north to the south. To Virginia these were the mysterious mountains just beyond which, at first, were held to be the South Sea and Cathay. Now, men's knowledge being larger by a hundred years, it was known that the South Sea could not be so near. The French from Canada, going by way of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, had penetrated very far beyond and had found not the South Sea but a mighty river flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. What was the real nature of this world which had been found to lie over the mountains? More and more Virginians were inclined to find out, foreseeing that they would need room for their growing population. Continuously came in folk from the Old Country, and continuously Virginians were born. Maryland dwelt to the north, Carolina to the south. Virginia, seeking space, must begin to grow westward.

There were settlements from the sea to the Falls of the James, and upon the York, the Rappahannock, and the Potomac. Beyond these, in the wilderness, might be found a few lonely cabins, a scattered handful of pioneer folk, small blockhouses, and small companies of rangers charged with protecting all from Indian foray. All this country was rolling and hilly, but beyond it stood the mountains, a wall of enchantment, against the west.

Alexander Spotswood, hardy Scot, endowed with a good temperamental blend of the imaginative and the active, was just the man, the time being ripe, to encounter and surmount that wall. Fortunately, too, the Virginians were horsemen, man and horse one piece almost, New World centaurs. They would follow the bridle-tracks that pierced to the hilly country, and beyond that they might yet make way through the primeval forest. They would encounter dangers, but hardly the old perils of seacoast and foothills. Different, indeed, is this adventure of the Governor of Virginia and his chosen band from the old push afoot into frowning hostile woods by the men of a hundred and odd years before!

Spotswood rode westward with a company drawn largely from the colonial gentry, men young in body or in spirit, gay and adventurous. The whole expedition was conceived and executed in a key both humorous and knightly. These Knights set face toward the mountains in August, 1716. They had guides who knew the upcountry, a certain number of rangers used to Indian ways, and servants with food and much wine in their charge. So out of settled Virginia they rode, and up the long, gradual lift of earth above sea-level into a mountainous wilderness, where before them the Aryan had not come. By day they traveled, and bivouacked at night.

On the sandy roads of settled Virginia horses went unshod, but for the stony hills and the ultimate cliffs they must have iron shoes. After the adventure and when the party had returned to civilization, the Governor, bethinking himself that there should be some token and memento of the exploit, had made in London a number of small golden horseshoes, set as pins to be worn in the lace cravats of the period. Each adventurer to the mountains received one, and the band has kept, in Virginian lore, the title of the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe.

Higher and more rugged grew the mountains. Some trick of the light made them show blue, so that they presently came to be called the Blue Ridge, in contradistinction to the westward lying, gray Alleghanies. They were like very long ocean combers, with at intervals an abrupt break, a gap, cliff-guarded, boulder-strewn, with a narrow rushing stream making way between hemlocks and pines, sycamore, ash and beech, walnut and linden.

Towards these blue mountains Spotswood and his knights rode day after day and came at last to the foot of the steep slope. The long ridges were high, but not so high but that horse and man might make shift to scramble to the crest. Up they climbed and from the heights they looked across and down into the Valley of Virginia, twenty miles wide, a hundred and twenty long -- a fertile garden spot. Across the shimmering distances they saw the gray Alleghanies, fresh barrier to a fresh west. Below them ran a clear river, afterwards to be called the Shenandoah. They gazed -- they predicted colonists, future plantations, future towns, for that great valley, large indeed as are some Old World kingdoms. They drank the health of England's King, and named two outstanding peaks Mount George and Mount Alexander; then, because their senses were ravished by the Eden before them, they dubbed the river Euphrates. They plunged and scrambled down the mountain side to the Euphrates, drank of it, bathed in it, rested, ate, and drank again. The deep green woods were around them; above them they could see the hawk, the eagle, and the buzzard, and at their feet the bright fish of the river.

At last they reclimbed the Blue Ridge, descended its eastern face, and, leaving the great wave of it behind them, rode homeward to Williamsburg in triumph.

We are thus, with Spotswood and his band, on the threshold of expanding American vistas. This Valley of Virginia, first a distant Beulah land for the eye of the imagination only, presently became a land of pioneer cabins, far apart -- very far apart -- then a settled land, of farms, hamlets, and market towns. Nor did the folk come only from that elder Virginia of tidal waters and much tobacco, of "compleat gentlemen" at the capital, and of many slaves in the fields. But downward from the Potomac, they came south into this valley, from Pennsylvania and Maryland, many of them Ulster Scots who had sailed to the western world. In America they are called the Scotch Irish, and in the main they brought stout hearts, long arms, and level heads. With these they brought in as luggage the dogmas of Calvin. They permeated the Valley of Virginia; many moved on south into Carolina; finally, in large part, they made Kentucky and Tennessee. Germans, too, came into the valley -- down from Pennsylvania -- quiet, thrifty folk, driven thus far westward from a war-ravished Rhine.

Shrewd practicality trod hard upon the heels of romantic fancy in the mind of Spotswood. His Order of the Knights of the Horseshoe had a fleeting existence, but the Vision of the West lived on. Frontier folk in growing numbers were encouraged to make their way from tidewater to the foot of the Blue Ridge. Spotsylvania and King George were names given to new counties in the Piedmont in honor of the Governor and the sovereign. German craftsmen, who had been sent over by Queen Anne -- vine-dressers and ironworkers -- were settled on Spotswood's own estate above the falls of the Rapidan. The little town of Germanna sprang up, famous for its smelting furnaces.

To his country seat in Spotsylvania, Alexander Spotswood retired when he laid down the office of Governor in 1722. But his talents were too valuable to be allowed to rust in inactivity. He was appointed deputy Postmaster-General for the English colonies, and in the course of his administration made one Benjamin Franklin Postmaster for Philadelphia. He was on the point of sailing with Admiral Vernon on the expedition against Cartagena in 1740, when he was suddenly stricken and died. He was buried at Temple Farm by Yorktown. On the expedition to Cartagena went one Lawrence Washington, who named his country seat after the Admiral and whose brother George many years later was to receive the surrender of Cornwallis and his army hard by the resting-place of Alexander Spotswood. Colonial Virginia lies behind us. The era of revolution and statehood beckons us on.

Back to: Virginia and the Southern Colonies