The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Governor Spotswood Crosses the Blue Ridge

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1992

Issue: July-August-September, 1992

The following was taken from the book, Stories of the States - Makers of Virginia History" printed in 1904 by J.A.C. Chandler, LLD.

It is a simple little book, probably one designed to acquaint school children with history. We found it in a used book store. As it was originally printed in 1904, it has probably been out of print for many, many years.

It is fun to find obscure history books such as this one. They often present a different prospective from modern history books, and usually offer little details that get left out of later books. When you can find them, they certainly are a history lover's delight! This story will set a perspective of what Virginia and the nation was like in the early 1700s.

"Alexander Spotswood was born in 1676, at Tangier in Northern Africa. His father, Robert Spotswood, a physician to the governor and garrison of Tangier, was of a prominent Scotch family. From his childhood Alexander was familiar with military life. Entering the English army, he rose from an ensign through the various offices until he became a lieutenant-colonel. He served under the great Duke of Marlborough at the battle of Blenheim, in Germany, and was there wounded. He came to Virginia in 1719, and was lieutenant governor for twelve years.

At the time of Spotswood's arrival in Virginia, there were twenty-five counties containing a population of about seventy-two thousand whites and about twenty-three thousand negroes. Williamsburg was the capital.

When Spotswood became governor of Virginia, few settlements had been made outside of the Tidewater region. Generally speaking, a line drawn from Alexandria through Fredericksburg, Richmond and Petersburg, to North Carolina, marked the western limit of the occupation of Virginia by the English. Some pioneers, however, had pushed into the wilderness and settled there, while others had explored to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but so far as we know, none of the Virginians had crossed the Blue Ridge and looked into the beautiful valley which lies between the ridge and the beautiful rugged Alleghenies.

About the first of August, 1716, Governor Spotswood determined to cross the Blue Ridge. With some members of his staff he left Williamsburg and drove in his coach and with other gentlemen who joined him, proceeded on horse along the Rappahannock river, and in thirty-six days from the time he left Williamsburg, he scaled the mountains near Swift Run Gap.

The company descended the mountains on the west side and reached the Shenandoah River. "Proceeding by the river, they found a place where it is fordable, crossed it, and there on the western bank, the governor formally took possession for King George I, of England. After eight weeks, he returned to Williamsburg, having traveled in all four hundred and forty miles."

It is hard for us to believe that less than two hundred years ago [remember, this book was written in 1904] when Spotswood entered the beautiful valley of Virginia it was the haunt of bears, wolves, panthers, wild cats and buffaloes. The Indians did not live there, but preserved it for their hunting grounds. Those who accompanied Spotswood on the famous expedition have been known in history as the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe.

At that time in eastern Virginia, on account of the sandy soil, few horseshoes were used, but, when Spotswood and his expedition set out from Fredericksburg over the rocky, untraveled wilderness, it was found necessary that the horses should be shod. Upon the return from his journey, the governor presented "each of his companions with a golden horseshoe,. . . covered with valuable stones resembling heads of nails with the inscription on one side, 'Sic juvat transcendere montes'." [Latin for; Thus it delights to cross the mountains.'

The climbing of the mountains was regarded in those days as a dangerous and wonderful undertaking, and it was noised abroad throughout the colony.

In this expedition was an ensign in the British army, John Fontaine, who wrote an account of the trip. After telling of crossing the Shenandoah River, he said, "It is very deep. The main course of the water is north. It is four score yards wide in the narrowest part. We drank some health on the other side and returned, after which I went a swimming in it . . . I got some grasshoppers and fish, and another and I, we catched a dish of fish, some perch, and a kind of fish they call chub. The others went a hunting and killed a deer and turkeys. I graved my name on a tree by the river side, and the governor buried a bottle with a paper enclosed on which he writ that he took possession of this place in the name and for King George I. of England."

Four years latter, this land was formed into a county named Spotsylvania, after Governor Spotswood. Glowing reports of this country were circulated and in a few years settlers were entering the valley. Forty thousand acres of land near where Winchester now stands were granted by Governor Gooch in 1730 to two Pennsylvania brothers, John and Isaac Van Meter. Their grant was bought by another Pennsylvanian, Joyst Hite, who removed his family to Virginia in 1732, and fixed his residence a few miles south of the present day town of Winchester. Hite is thought to be the first white man to settle in the valley. In a few years came the many Scotch-Irish who settled the valley downward and made it into one of the most prosperous parts of Virginia.

After Spotswood was removed from the governorship, he settled in America and owned about eighty-five thousand acres of land. He discovered iron on his land and started an iron works, shipping iron to England. He was reputed to be the first to start an iron works in America.

In 1730, Spotswood was made deputy postmaster for the colonies and it was he who appointed Benjamin Franklin as postmaster for the Providence of Pennsylvania.

In 1740 Spotswood was appointed a major general in the English army to command troops in an attack upon Carthagena in South America, but when he joined his troops in Annapolis, Maryland, just as they were getting ready to sail, he died on June 7, 1740.

It is probable that he was buried in Annapolis, although there were claims that he was brought back to Virginia and was buried at Yorktown."

[Just a note - Governor Spotswood put down piracy in the Chesapeake Bay and in Albemarle Sound in North Carolina against the infamous pirate John Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard! When the pirate's vessel was discovered in Pamlico Sound, North Carolina, Blackbeard had instructed his men to blow it up if it were discovered that it was going to be captured. Before that order could be carried out, his ship was boarded and Blackbeard with many of his followers were killed.]