Governor Spotswood's Expedition
to the Blue Ridge - 1716

Dave Mazel

The following information and excerpts were drawn from a fascinating book written by Dave Mazel entitled, Pioneering Ascents - the Origins of Climbing in America (ISBN 0-8117-3045-X). After much searching, I was able to locate the author of the book and secure rights to reproduce this information in our club newsletter. While the book is now out of print, determined searchers can probably still locate copies.

Alexander Spotswood became acting governor of Virginia in 1710, by which time pressure on the colony to expand had become more acute than ever. In the first year of Spotswood's administration he was authorized to send an exploratory expedition westward; this party, like John Lederer, climbed to the crest of the Blue Ridge but did not descend into the Shenandoah Valley below. Six years later a second expedition set out for the transmontane valley, this one led by Spotswood himself. On the eighth day out the party reached the base of the mountains. With their axmen clearing the way and only occasionally being forced to dismount, these "gay young cavaliers" climbed to a modest summit and "drank King George's health, and all the Royal Family's, at the very top of the Appalachian Mountains." The summit, dubbed "Mount George" by Spotswood, was not the "highest peak of the Blue Ridge,' as the selection below claims, but was probably today's High Top, which overlooks Swift Run Gap near present-day Elkton, Virginia.

[Editor's Note: Debate among scholars continues today concerning the actual gap and mountain climbed by Spotswood. Some feel that Spotswood actually climbed to Bootens Gap and sumitted Bearfence Mountain.]

Spotswood's expedition did not lead to immediate settlement of the valley and probably had little practical impact on the colony. Yet it became a part of the lore of the Old South as a result of its glorification in The Knights of the Golden Horse-Shoe, an early historical romance authored by William Alexander Caruthers and first published in 1841. Caruthers is considered the first important Virginia novelist, and Knights is considered the best of his books.

 


The route to Germana was little varied by adventures or mishaps of any kind; but the country through which they passed was hourly becoming more bold and picturesque, and the scenery more grand and imposing. The land commenced to be what, in the language of the country, is called rolling. It was broken into long wavy or undulating lines, scarcely amounting to a hill, and yet relieving the eye, in a great measure, from the monotony of the dead level tide water country. The romantic and excited youths who surrounded the Governor, were already expressing themselves in raptures at the new views every moment bursting upon their vision. Many of them had never in their lives beheld any thing so lovely At these raptures the old chief would smile, and sometimes encourage their enthusiasm, but always foretelling them of the Apalachian wonders which they would behold. Indeed, being a native of a bold and mountainous country himself, he longed as much as any of them to feast his eye on the top of a crag, from which he could behold a horizon with mountains piled upon mountains, one behind another, reaching, as it were, to meet the clouds.

Leaving Germana, the course of the expedition was directed for several days in a diagonal line towards the direct route to the mountains. That time brought our adventurers into a region of country such as many of them had never seen before. The land was thickly strewn with rocks, and stones, and pebbles. These were a subject of curiosity and admiration at first, but soon turned to one of annoyance, as will be seen as we progress with our narrative.

Several spurs of mountains stretching in broken lines from the main chain of the Blue Ridge, already presented their formidable barriers before them, and being able to grasp an extended view from their base, they thought that they had already arrived at the long desired point of their journey. Eager were the emulous young cavaliers in their struggles to see who should first lead their followers to the top of these heights, but, alas! they were only destined to meet disappointment, for the same interminable view of broken and rolling country met the view beyond, bounded still by that dim blue outline in the back ground, and seeming rather to recede as they advanced. Hearty was the laughter of the Scout - in which even the Governor joined - as they stood upon the highest summit of the first of them and surveyed with dismay, the mountains piled upon mountains beyond.

Governor Spotswood now, for the first time, began to have clear conceptions of the vast region which lay before him - the difficulties of the undertaking, and the hardships which would have to be endured before he accomplished his design.

In enthusiastic admiration of the matchless succession of panoramas which hourly greeted his sight, he was not a whit behind any of them. Often would he halt his suite, as they preceded the main body over some high hill, and all, with one voice, would burst out in admiration at the new scenes presented, sometimes stretching far away into green, secluded valleys, and then towering up from their very borders into the most majestic and precipitous heights. As they advanced nearer and nearer to the mountains, these characteristics gradually thickened upon them, until now the army was often closed up entirely between surrounding hills, and at the other times the front ranks of the imposing array would be ascending one hill, while the rear guard was descending another.

Every one saw now, that they had indeed arrived at the veritable Blue Ridge, for the fire that had commenced in the spur beneath which the army had encamped, had by this time, swept around its base, and entered upon the wider field of the main mountain, revealing what the governor had been so fearful of not being able to find, the gap of the mountains.

[Following the ficticious "battle" with the Indians] the Governor assembled the young gentry and the officers of rangers around him, to witness the interesting ceremony of planting the British standard upon the highest peak of the Blue Ridge, in the name of his sovereign. They still, however, called it under the general term of Apalachee, under the mistaken impression with which they set out, that there was but one chain of mountains. After a toilsome struggle from the table land before described, and upon which the battle had been fought, they at length found themselves on the real summit of the long sought eminence, and the Governor planted the British standard upon the highest rock, with due form, and in the name of his royal master.

It was a bleak and barren spot, made up wholly of huge fragments of rock, piled up one upon the other, as if in some far remote age, they had been cast there by a violent convulsion of nature. It was fortunate, however, that it was thus barren of vegetation in one respect - for it gave them an uninterrupted view of what has since been called the VALLEY OF VIRGINIA! 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! The vale beneath looked like a great sea of vegetation in the moon-light, rising and falling in undulating and picturesque lines, as far as the eye could reach towards the north-east and south-west; but their vision was interrupted on the opposite side by the Alleghanies. For hours the old veteran chief stood on the identical spot which he first occupied, drinking in rapture from the vision which he beheld. Few words were spoken by any one, after the first exclamations of surprise and enthusiasm were over. The scene was too overpowering - the grand solitudes, the sublime stillness, gave rise to profound emotions which found no utterance. Nearly everyone wandered off and seated himself upon some towering crag, and then held communion with the silent spirit of the place. There lay the valley of Virginia, that garden spot of the earth, in its first freshness and purity, as it came from the hands of its Maker. Not a white man had ever trod that virgin soil, from the beginning of the world. What a solemn and sublime temple of nature was there - and who could look upon it, as it spread far out to the east and west, until it was lost in the dim and hazy horizon, and not feel deeply impressed with the majesty of its Author.

Governor Spotswood carried his thoughts into the future, and imagined the fine country which he beheld, peopled and glowing under the hands of the husbandman, and all his bright anticipations were more than realized. At length he turned to Moore, who sat near him not less entranced, and said, "They call me a visionary, but what imagination ever conjured up a vision like that?"