The First White Men in the Shenandoah Valley

The First White Men in the Shenandoah Valley

On a summer’s day in the year 1716, Governor Alexander Spotswood, with a party of twenty or thirty horsemen, set cut from Williamsburg, the capital of the Virginia colony, to ascertain for himself what sort of country lay west and north of the great “Blue Mountains.” There was good reason to believe that several Indian tribes of uncertain friendship might be found there; and who else or what else nobody seemed quite certain, save the ignorant and superstitious, who declared that there were monsters and mysteries numerous and dreadful enough.

The Governor may have had predominantly in mind objects much more commonplace and practical than the simple clearing up of superstitions and mysteries. Doubtless the elements of romance and danger afforded a considerable stimulus toward a jaunt; but he must have been seriously in earnest about something, to undertake an expedition of nearly two hundred miles up country, past the very frontiers and into the wilderness.

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At any rate he came, and a gallant company with him. They crossed the Blue Ridge, probably by Swift Run Gap, into what is now the county of Rockingham; and one day early in September watered their horses in the Shenandoah River—the “Euphrates,” they called it. They may have gone across the Valley to the first ranges of the Alleghanies; but this point does not seem quite definitely settled. Somewhere, on a couple of prominent peaks of either the Alleghanies or the Blue Ridge, they went through a formal ceremony of drinking King George’s health in nobody knows how many kinds of wine; and, upon their return, endeavored to provide for the perpetual commemoration of their achievements in the order of the “Knights of the Golden Horseshoe.”

Governor Spotswood is usually regarded as the first white man to look upon the great Valley of Virginia; and yet Governor Spotswood himself tells of other Europeans who saw it six years earlier.

Writing on December 15, 1710, to the London Council of Trade, he says that a company of adventurers reached the mountains “not above a hundred miles from our upper inhabitants, and went up to the top of the highest mountain with their horses, the they had hitherto been thought to be unpassable, and they assured me that ye descent on the other side seemed to be as easy as that they had passed on this, and that they could have passed over the whole ledge (which is not large), if the season of the year had not been too far advanced before they set out on that expedition.”

These men are supposed to have ascended the Blue Ridge somewhere near the James River Gap, and to have looked upon the Valley from the vicinity of Balcony Falls; though no description is given of the country seen by them.

Half a century earlier still, further to the southwest, other white men had penetrated and probably crossed the Valley. In 1654, Colonel Abraham Wood, who lived near or at the site of the present city of Petersburg, first discovered and named New River, going through the Blue Ridge probably by the way of “Wood’s Gap,” near the line between Virginia and North Carolina.5 Between 1666 and 1670, Captain Henry Batte, with fourteen white men and fourteen Indians, started from Appomattox and, crossing the Blue Ridge, followed the New River some distance; likely going by the same route as Colonel Wood.

But it may fairly be said that these men, particularly Wood and Batte, do not properly belong to the explorers of the Shenandoah Valley. Even the party that gazed down from the heights above Balcony Falls in 1710 did not look upon the Valley of the Shenandoah: they too were far to the southwest of it.

Even yet, therefore, we might reserve the place of pre-eminence for the gallant Governor, were it not for a few stubborn facts and a “Dutchman” or two.

In the year 1722, Michael Wohlfarth, a German sectarian, visited Conrad Beissel, the famous Pennsylvania mystic, at the Muhlbach, while on a journey to North Carolina by way of the Valley of Virginia. In 1705, the General Assembly of Virginia passed an act encouraging trade with the Indians; and, among other things, it was provided that any person who should make discovery of “any town or nation of Indians, situated or inhabiting to the westward of or between the Appalatian Mountains,” should enjoy for the space of fourteen years the exclusive right to trade with them.88 On and dangers and uncertain terrors beyond the great mountains; and Wohlfarth may have traversed the Valley in 1722 alone; with a friend or two; or making his friends as he found them among the savage tribes.

But there is another person of whom we may speak with the greater assurance of more complete knowledge: one who likely was, so far as we now know, the first white man to cross the Blue Ridge; and the first also, doubtless, to look upon the fair valley of the Shenandoah.

In the year 1669, the same in which La Salle came down to the falls of the Ohio, and ten years before he set out from Canada to complete the work of Joliet and Marquette, and find the mouth of the Mississippi; twelve years before Penn’s “Holy Experiment” in the forests west of the Delaware; and forty-seven years before Spotswood and the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe crossed the Blue Ridge, he came to the Valley, crossed it, mapped it, and described it, together with other sections east, south, and southwest.

This man’s name was John Lederer; and he was a German.

But little is known of John Lederer, except that he is said to have been once a Franciscan monk; and he was evidently a man of some learning. He was commissioned by Governor Sir William Berkeley, to make explorations; and under this commission he made, from March, 1669, to September, 1670, three distinct tours or “marches,” on two of which he crossed the Valley; on the other he went far into the southwest, possibly into the present boundaries of North Carolina and Tennessee.

Soon after his return from the third expedition, he was forced to leave Virginia: because, he says, of the jealousy and misrepresentation of those he had outdone in the work of exploration; because, it may be, of debt. Probably race prejudice was a factor in the case, whatever may have been the conditions in other matters.

Upon leaving Virginia Lederer went to Maryland, where, under the friendship and patronage of Sir William Talbot, the governor of the colony, he prepared a map of the districts he had explored, and wrote out in Latin an accompanying account of his adventures and observations. Talbot translated this journal into English and had it published, with the map, in London, in 1672. For years the work has been rare and but little known; and the small edition recently reprinted for a bookseller of Rochester, New York, will not likely go very far toward making it familiar to the general reader.

Source: The German Element of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia

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