First Settlers of the Shenandoah Valley

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The Shenandoah Valley stretches 200 miles between two mountain ranges-- The Blue Ridge Mountains to the East and The Allegheny Mountains (part of the Appalachian Mountain Range) to the West--as well as the Potomac River to the North and the James River to the South.

Four centuries ago, when all of America was Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley, a fertile and bountiful 200-mile natural thoroughfare formed by ancient oceans, was the site of old legends and revered tales. Native Indians detailed to the first Englishmen arriving on American soil in the 1600s of vast herds of grazing animals and endless forests of American trees including Chestnut Trees, many 600 years old and 100 feet high. For thousands of years the American Indians had thrived in the bountiful Shenandoah Valley hunting ground, later trading highly valued furs to be worn in Europe.

Such an abundance of pristine land and game was not to go unnoticed back in England (still in the late 1600s) where young Lord Fairfax, a court favorite of Charles I and II, had just became heir of 5,282,000 acres of land in Virginia.

The word "Shenandoah" is of unknown Native American origin. It has been described as being derived from the Anglicization of Native American resulting in words such as: Gerando, Gerundo, Genantua, Shendo and Sherando. Likewise the meaning of these words is of some question. Schin-han-dowi, the "River Through the Spruces", On-an-da-goa, the "River of High Mountains" or "Silver-Water, and an Iroquois word for "Big Meadow" have all been proposed by Native American etymologists. The most popular and romanticized belief is that it comes from a Native American expression for "Beautiful Daughter of the Stars."[1]

Another legend relates that it is derived from the name of the Iroquoian Chief Sherando, who had fought with Chief Opechancanough, ruler of the Powhatan Confederacy 1618-1644. Opechancanough liked the country so much that he sent his son Sheewa-a-nee with a large party to colonize the valley. Sheewa-a-nee drove Sherando back to his home in the Great Lakes, and descendants of Sheewanee's party, according to this account, became the Shawnee. Another branch of Sherandos called the Senedos, according to tradition, had lived in present-day Shenandoah County, but were exterminated by "Southern Indians" (Cherokees) some few years before the arrival of white settlers.

Lord Fairfax, residing in regal splendor at his comfortable abode in England, heard about a German explorer in the 1670s that told of the Shenandoah Valley as "wonderfully fertile with grass so tall that the tops could be tied together in front of your chest as you sat in your saddle." Other explorers in the intervening years brought back similar tales. Naturally, since this was Fairfax’s land, he was curious to see if all he heard was true.

While Lord Fairfax was unable to leave England immediately (later he was to live out the remainder of his life in Virginia, riding almost every day for uncountable miles), he found the perfect explorer in the person of Alexander Spotswood, the first Governor of Virginia. Spotswood had become acting governor of Virginia in 1710, by which time pressure on the colony to expand had become more acute than ever. An adventurer at heart, and a great horseman who loved the saddle, Spotswood needed little encouragement to leap upon Lord Fairfax’s request to ride to the Blue Ridge Mountains and see what lies beyond.

Spotswood had become acting governor of Virginia in 1710, by which time pressure on the colony to expand had become more acute than ever. An adventurer at heart, and a great horseman who loved the saddle, Spotswood needed little encouragement to leap upon Lord Fairfax’s request to ride to the Blue Ridge and see what lies beyond.

With ample funds from Fairfax to finance the ride, capable support staff and all the liquor that could be carried, Spotswood gathered a group of 11 fellow riders, all gentlemen cavaliers, who promptly dubbed themselves "the Knights." As explained to them, their ride was to be comprised of riding 320 miles of narrow Indian and game trails from Williamsburg over the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Shenandoah River, and back.

The principal source of this historic event comes from the diary of John Fontaine, a member of the party. The 12 gentlemen riders, plus "rangers and assorted servants and guides" accounted for a total of about 50 persons in all. The main body of these "gay young cavaliers" would, for the first time ever, not only surmount the Blue Ridge but descend into the hitherto seen-but-never-explored Shenandoah Valley. Spotswood’s party took eight days to travel the 160 miles, moving swiftly at first from Williamsburg to Germantown, then more slowly as they met with minor accidents, rough country, steep slopes and thick underbrush along the way. There was a long hold at one point when they decided the horses would need shoes because of the rough going ahead.

During such delays, when their crews were busy attending the horses, the adventurers passed the time by toasting the King, toasting the Royal Family, toasting their friends and relatives, and toasting anyone else they could think of while intermittently firing "volleys" into the air as a salute. Fontaine says of his equestrian companions, "…we had several sorts of liquors, viz., Virginia red wine and white wine, Irish usquebaugh (whisky), brandy, shrub, two sorts of rum, champagne, canary, cherry, punch, water, cider, etc."

The spirit of adventure pulled them onward, and upward. After the long hard climb using ancient Indian trails up to the summit of the blue-ridged mountains, the Governor and his men found themselves standing at the summit, looking out over what has since been called the Valley of Virginia!

An early Victorian writer, waxing poetic in the flamboyant manner of his day, wrote, "What a panorama there burst upon the enraptured vision of the assembled young chivalry of Virginia! Never did the eye of mortal man rest upon a more magnificent scene!” In literary rapture the writer exclaimed how the vale beneath "looked like a great sea of vegetation, rising and falling in undulating and picturesque lines, as far as the eye could reach... north-east and south-west; their vision interrupted only by the majestic walls of the Massanuttens and Alleghanies".


View of the Shenandoah Valley from the Massanutten Mountains. copyright - Auriga Productions
For hours Spotswood remained on that spot, drinking in the beauty which he beheld. Few words were spoken by anyone after the first exclamations of surprise and enthusiasm. The royal standard of the King flapped gently overhead, the only sound in a scene too overpowering to describe. The grand solitudes, the sublime stillness, the great beauty of the land gave rise to profound emotions which found no utterance. At length Spotswood turned to his nearest companion, Moore, who sat alongside no less entranced, and said, "They call me a visionary, but what imagination ever conjured up a vision like that?"

History recorded that they eventually descended from the mountains that we now call the Blue Ridge, continuing their ride until they reached the mighty river below. There they stood in vast awe of the deep and flowing waters and, directly across the river, the eastern ridge of the mighty Massanuttens.

Spotswood and his fellow riders christened the Shenandoah as the "Euphrates," and noted in their journals that it was "very deep" and "fourscore yards wide in the narrowest part". Having met their goal of conquering the Blue Ridge and reaching the river, the gay cavaliers drank a toast to everyone’s health, and took possession of the entire vista with a standard planted in the name of George I. Fontain records that at dinner they drank the King’s health in champagne and fired a volley; they drank the Princess’s health in Burgundy and fired a volley; they drank to other members of the royal family in claret, and fired a volley; they drank the Governor’s health, and fired a volley.

Weeks later, back in Williamsburg, after the hard 10-day return ride of 160 miles, mitigated by the final consumption of whatever liquor remained, Governor Spotswood called together his fellow riders and awarded each "knight" of his expedition with a small golden horseshoe bearing the inscription Sic jurat transcendere montes ["All sworn to have climbed the mountain"]. A more perfect symbol could not have been devised to encompass the romance and adventure of the intrepid cavaliers and their ride to the Valley of Virginia that would become as the Native Indians termed it, "The beautiful Daughter of the Stars.

Adventurous Europeans, mostly of German and Scots-Irish heritage were lured by the excellent farmland of the Shenandoah Valley. They began to settle and fence their claims in the Shenandoah Valley. Immigration into the valley, and trade from the valley back to market centers, was connected first with Pennsylvania Germans. Because of the physical barrier of the Allegheny Front on the west the settleres were steered south into Virginia. The Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the slow population growth in the Virginia Piedmont deterred the English from moving into the Shenandoah Valley.

As newcomers often traveled in cultural groups to build and live together, towns and settlements began to quickly proliferate.

They may have lacked some of the fine goods that Benjamin Franklin enjoyed in the "big city," but valley residents imported cloth, guns, glass, wine, and other goods from Europe and acquired sugar, rum, and other products from the Caribbean. They paid for those goods by selling a product that was created in surplus west of the Blue Ridge - food.

The Shenandoah Valley residents grew more grain and raised more farm animals than they needed, and exported food (rather than tobacco as in the East) to the towns on the eastern seaboard. Virginia had seaports at Richmond, Fredericksburg, or Alexandria where merchants would pay well for the food from the valley, but it was easier to move wagons or grain and cattle, pigs, horses, and chickens to market by walking downhill to the Potomac, then along relatively level paths to Philadelphia or Baltimore.

Valley farmers avoided the climb up and over the Blue Ridge. The topographic relief between the valleys and the "gaps" was 1-2,000 feet, and that was a difficult climb for animals as well as people. Farmers relied upon four horse-powered wagons loaded with corn or wheat to carry their surplus to market. The return trip brought imported goods that were not manufactured in the local area. The Conestoga wagon, made famous in western movies, was developed in the Conestoga Valley near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for such trade. Such large freight wagons tied the Shenandoah Valley economically to the Philadelphia business community initially.

Both geographical and cultural reasons caused the valley farmers to drive their livestock and wheat haul to market in Philadelphia or Baltimore. As expected according to the laws of supply and demand, the concentration of immigrants around Philadelphia drove up the price of land in southeastern Pennsylvania by the 1740's, and many of the first settlers in Frederick, Augusta, and Rockingham counties had come from that area then. Their social connections with the north were strong.

By the early 1700's, when the first European explorers entered the valley, there were no longer Native Americans living in the Valley. Several tribes used the Valley as hunting grounds, among them the Shawnee, Iroquois, Occoneechee, Monocans and Piscataways, but no tribes laid claim to the land.

Regardless of who actually owned the land, immigrants were already found squatting on land in the Valley in the early 18th century. Lured into Virginia from Pennsylvania by the promise of cheap and abundant land, settlers followed a trail from Philadelphia down present-day Route 11 on what would become known as the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. (Prior to the Revolution all settlement took place east of the Appalachians since the English Government prohibited settlement west of this mountain chain.) The Wagon Road carried settlers from Pennsylvania down through Virginia and eventually into the Carolina Piedmont and Kentucky. In later years, Conestoga wagons would become a familiar site along the road but in the early years, settlement was accomplished under harsh conditions and travel was often accomplished on foot.

Unfortunately, the benign tolerance of the native Indians began to evaporate with the increased pressure of this growing population, and while the early inhabitants of the valley suffered few reported fatalities from Indian attacks, during the French and Indian War the settlers were in constant danger from the Indians.

A series of forts were erected at strategic points throughout the valley. In 1758, 50 Indians led by four Frenchmen raided a small village just west of Fort Valley and took 48 prisoners. After nightfall, one young boy escaped and ran 15 miles shoeless, hatless and only scantily clad over the Massanutten into the Fort Valley to Keller’s Fort for aid. A small party came back with him the next morning, but when they learned how large the force was, they gave up pursuit. Three years later some of the captured returned home. Many of the children taken lived the remainder of their lives with the Indians. Years after the raid, one woman returned home married to an Indian trader. She had forgotten her native German tongue and spoke only the Indian tongue.

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