Clarke County, Rt. 7, Berryville Turnpike, looking west from the crest of the Blue Ridge at Snickers Gap, portal to the northern or “lower” end of the valley near Winchester. In the distance on the far left is Signal Knob, an important observation post during the Civil War.
This bountiful, fertile valley ranges in elevation from around 1800 feet in its southern (upper) end, to roughly 500 feet in its northern (lower) end where it continues a short ways into West Virginia. Over 175 miles long by 20 miles wide, the Shenandoah Valley stands out clearly on satellite images as an elongated checkerboard of intensively-worked farmland, dotted with small towns and villages; hemmed in by the Blue Ridge to the east, and the Alleghenies to the west. Roughly dividing the valley in two in its central section is the 50-mile long Massanutten Mountain, a key geographical feature that greatly influenced the course of events in several Civil War campaigns. For three centuries the valley has been the breadbasket of the state owing to its many family-owned farms that grow wheat, barley and other crops on rich limestone-based soils, as well as a major producer of beef cattle, poultry, dairy products, apples and peaches. Settlers arrived here mainly not from the east, but from the north, from Pennsylvania. Thousands of mostly Scotch-Irish and German-Swiss immigrants traveled down this natural northeast-southwest corridor along the “Great Wagon Road”, later to be known as the Valley Turnpike (modern-day Route 11). As early as 1765 most of the route had been cleared and improved for horse-drawn wagons and carriages. By the time of the American Revolution it was one of the most heavily traveled roads in the colonies as south-bound immigrants began to pour into the Shenandoah to start small farms on some of the finest soil in the New World or begin small industries;mills especially for exporting wheat to the big cities. Some stayed, like Abraham Lincoln’s great-grandfather, others were just traveling through on their way to more open lands in Kentucky and Missouri. All were seeking the radical American Dream of owning land and the quest for a new start in a place where hard work and self-reliance were the norm.
“I hired a horse to go to Winchester. For more than half of the way the country is wild. As you draw nearer the town in the Valley, many well-stocked farms appear, the land being very fertile. On the slope there range strong, long-wooled sheep, not afraid of wolves during the summer. Such war is made upon the wolves that even in this heavily timbered country there is little danger from them except when the snow lies deep upon the ground. It is a magnificent country about Winchester.” – A Journey Into the Interior of the United States, to Bath, Winchester, the Shenandoah Valley, etc., etc., During the Summer of 1791, Ferdinand Marie Bayard, retired Captain of Artillery, Paris, 1798. Broadhead School Rd., looking east towards the Blue Ridge, Greeneville area
Attitudes towards the Native Americans in the 1800’s are shocking to read today, such as the following “scholarly” treatise;
“At the period, 1716, of Col. Spotswood’s discovery of the Valley, it was the camping, hunting ground or residence of numerous tribes of Indians. These tribes, while wandering in pursuit of game from place to place during a considerable part of the year, possessed a few scattered villages, comprising a limited number of habitations, of the most imperfect construction, where they were in the Habit of passing their winters and where they left their wives, children and old men during their absence. Round about these rude villages some feeble and ill directed attempts at agriculture announced the more frequented and permanent haunts of savage life. Many learned disquisition’s exist as to the origin of these red men, and it cannot be denied that the origin, history, languages, and condition of the aborigines present ample materials for speculation. Among the Central and South American nations, notably in Mexico and Peru, many evidences exist of a regular, but limited civilization, but for the most part the tribes of both North and South America were, on the discovery of Columbus, composed of roving savages in a brutal state of abasement.” – NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBES IN AUGUSTA COUNTY, VA, Extracted from the History of Augusta County, VA, By J. LEWIS PEYTON 1882
“Make me a map of the Valley from Harper’s Ferry to Lexington, showing all the points of offence and defence [sic] in those places.” – General Stonewall Jackson’s order to his Chief Topographical Engineer, Maj. Jedediah Hotchkiss, March, 1862
“Always mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy; and when you strike and overcome him, never let up in the pursuit. Never fight against heavy odds if you can hurl your own force on only a part of your enemy and crush it. A small army may thus destroy a large one, and repeated victory will make you invincible.” – Stonewall Jackson, 1862
The “Chancellorsville photograph”, last photo of C.S.A. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, April, 1863, two weeks before the Battle of Chancellorsville and his subsequent death from friendly fire while on a night reconnaissance of the front lines.
“Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.” – last dying words of Stonewall Jackson, May 10, 1863
“Soon the order came to cross the Blue Ridge; never will I forget that beautiful spring morning. It had rained a little and sleeted a little during the night. The long lines of infantry, four abreast, filled the winding road thru Standard’s Gap. On the top of the mountain you could look over the country that lay behind us to the Potomac and before us lay the beautiful Valley of Shenandoah…In the midst of that valley the Massanutten Mountain rears his crest into the clouds, and miles and miles beyond the beautiful valley extends to the foot of the Alleghenies.” – C.S.A. Captain William C. Oates, 15th Alabama, memoirs
No one knows for sure where the name “Shenandoah” comes from, other than it is obviously an Anglicized corruption of a Native American word or phrase. The most widely cited translation, purportedly of Shawnee or Iroquois origin though without any historical merit, is “Beautiful Daughter of the Stars.” The Shawnee seem to have had a stronger documented presence in the valley than any other tribe and yet the official web site of the Shawnee Tribe makes no mention of their history in Virginia nor the Shenandoah Valley. Thru the mists of time indeed.
Rt 33 straightaway, @10 miles west of Harrisonburg as it passes thru the George Washington National Forest
“October 21. – Marched from Captain Smity’s and crossed Great Cape Capon, beautiful prospect and the best land I ever yet saw. We encamped this night on the top of a mountain. The roads, by far, were the worst this day, and our march was for that reason but thirteen miles. Our men, never the less, were in high spirits.” – 1755 Journal of Colonel Charles Lewis of the Byrd Plantation, description of passing thru the Shenandoah Valley
“I am well assured by Gentlemen, whose veracity I can depend upon, that the back Country of Virginia, particularly towards Lord Fairfax’s1 property, is as fine, and rich land, as any in the world, producing all kinds of grain and grass in perfection, and great abundance, being also extremely temperate as to Climate, and having scarce any Musquitos, or other troublesome Insects.” [Note 1: 1 Thomas Fairfax, whose estate, comprising nearly one fourth of Virginia, lay for the most part between the Rappahannock and the Potomac.]
“The Soil of the lower part of Virginia is light, tho’ often a whitish clay at bottom, producing the best Tobacco in the World, and many other useful Crops.–From the high Duty on that Commodity, its value is fallen, and many people are going upon Hemp, which it is hoped may succeed, if the Bounty is continued.”
“This Province was the first Settled of any on the Continent, it has always been a Loyal one.–The first Settlers were many of them younger Brothers of good Families, in England, who for different motives chose to quit home in search of better fortune, their descendants, who possess the greatest land properties in the Province, have intermarried, and have had always a much greater connection with, and dependance on the Mother Country, than any other Province, the nature of their Situation being such from the commodiousness and Number of Navigable rivers and Creeks, that they may Export to, and import from, home everything they raise or want, from within a few miles of their own houses, and cheaper than any neighbouring province could supply them.”
Nearby is the birthplace cabin of Sam Houston, one of the founders of the Lone Star State of Texas and hero of the Battle of San Jacinto. Young Sam was only 14 when his debt-ridden father decided to move the family to Tennessee to seek a new beginning. His father died before the family had completed the move and within two years Sam ran away from home and lived with the Cherokee for several years before migrating west to “Tejas”.
“Upon the whole, was [it] the case to live in America, this Province(Virginia), in point of Company and Climate, would be my choice in preference to any, I have yet seen; the Country in general is more cleared of wood, the houses are larger, better and more commodious than those to the Southward, their Breed of Horses extremely good, and in particular those they run in their Carriages, which are mostly from thorough bred Horses and country Mares,–they all drive Six horses, and travel generally from 8 to 9 Miles an hour–going frequently Sixty Miles to dinner–you may conclude from this their Roads are extremely good–they live in such good agreement, that the Ferries, which would retard in another Country, rather accelerate their meeting here, for they assist one another, and all Strangers with their Equipages in so easy and kind a manner, as must deeply touch a person of any feeling and convince them that in this Country, Hospitality is every where practised.”
– JOURNAL OF AN OFFICER WHO TRAVELLED IN AMERICA AND THE WEST INDIES IN 1764 AND 1765. The author of this journal, Lord Adam Gordon, was an officer of the Sixty-sixth Regiment of Foot which was stationed in the West Indies.
“Sunday, March 13th. Rode to his lordship’s quarter. About 4 miles higher up the River Shenandoah we went through most beautiful groves of sugar trees, and spent the best part of the day in admiring the trees and the richness of the land.” – A Journal of My Journey over the Mountains, George Washington, 1747
“O, Shenandoah, I love your daughter,
Away you rolling river.
I’ll take her ‘cross yon rolling water.”
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.”
-1910 version of “O Shenandoah“
A few miles downstream from the area seen in the photo above is the Thunderbird Archeological Complex, an ancient Paleo-Indian site that was occupied off and on for a staggering 10,000 years, from circa 9,000 B.C. to 1700 A.D. Archeologists’ have unearthed the foundations of a hunting camp, a primitive rock crushing site, projectile points and possible habitations that could be the oldest yet discovered on this side of the Atlantic. Even as late as the 1700’s, the first white settlers in this area reported seeing roaming bands of Indians from different tribes, stopping briefly at the Thunderbird site to camp and rest for a few days (and perhaps reflect?) before moving on.
The National Park Service designated the Thunderbird Archeological District as a National Historic Landmark in 1977, and for several years a museum and archeological park located at the site provided public education. The museum is gone and the archeological site is now subdivided and surrounded by modern houses. After excavations were completed, four lots were purchased by Archeological Society of Virginia and are the only part of the 1,800-acre site now protected by easement. – VirginiaPlaces.org
Side note to the above sad update: in the summer of 74′ I was hitchhiking thru the valley and got a ride out of Front Royal from a interesting, bearded man who, turns out was an archaeologist. He told me he was coordinating the excavation of an ancient paleo-indian site nearby. I rode with him for about twenty miles on Rt 340 before he pulled off on a side road. I remember seeing him join a group of fellow archaeologists and students who were taking a break and sitting on a grassy hillside overlooking the Shenandoah River. He invited me to stay but instead I just thanked him for the ride and like a dumb ass continued on my way. There I was, so close to the Thunderbird dig site and I missed the opportunity of a lifetime to see it up close, before it was buried forever under the pavement, garages, swimming pools and homes of yet another modern subdivision.
“Nestled here in the countryside south of Staunton, along historic Middlebrook Road, is one of the oldest villages in the region. William and Nancy Scott sold the first 27 lots in April 1799 to Scots-Irish and German settlers. In 1851, the stagecoach road through the village became the Middlebrook and Brownsburg Turnpike. By the late 19th century, Middlebrook, the center of a prosperous agricultural community with 274 inhabitants including an African American community, was the county’s largest village. Because 20th-century railroads and highways bypassed Middlebrook, the rows of closely spaced dwellings and stores lining the main road retain the picturesque character of the village’s heyday in the 1880s.” -Virginia Historical Marker
“The face of the country between the Blue Ridge and the North Mountain was, of course, diversified by hill and dale, as it is now; but forest trees were less numerous than at the present time, the growth of timber being prevented by the frequent fires kindled by hunting parties of Indians. Old men living within the writer’s recollection, described this region as known by them in their boyhood. Many acres, not stately forests, were then covered by mere brushwood, which did not conceal the startled deer flying from pursuit.” – Annals of Augusta County, Virginia from 1726 to 1871, Joseph Waddell 1886
The Shenandoah Valley landscape first viewed by English, Scotch-Irish, and German settlers was frequently characterized by “prairies”, or “old fields” where the ancient inhabitants had intentionally kept large areas burned over to provide open grazing lands that would attract deer, bison and elk.
Much the greater part of the country between what is called the Little North Mountain and the Shenandoah River, at the first settling of the Valley was one vast prairie, and like the rich prairies of the west, afforded the finest possible pasturage for wild animals. The country abounded in the larger kinds of game. The buffalo, elk, deer, bear, panther, wild-cat, wolf, fox, beaver, otter, and all other kinds of animals, wild fowl, &c., common to forest countries, were abundantly plenty. – Samuel Kercheval, A History of the Shenandoah Valley, 1833
“Oct. 27. We rose early to dry our clothes, and the sky cleared. We were very thankful to the Saviour for giving us good weather again; it was badly needed for without it we could hardly have gone forward, for our wagon is very heavily loaded, and the ascent of the hills is almost more than we can manage. We had two miles of bad road, up hill and down. Then we reached the house where the Brn. Gottlob and Nathanael had spent the night, and were well served at a reasonable price.”
“This is a pretty, fruitful neighborhood; in the distance one sees the encircling high mountains. This morning for the second time we had to take off half our load, in order to climb the hill, for it was so slippery that the horses could not keep their feet in pulling but fell constantly to their knees. Our noon rest was at Buffler Creek (Buffalo Creek) which is half as wide as the Lecha, but in flood runs far over the banks. Br. Lösch shot the first turkey, which we ate for supper. Passing over the creek we came immediately to a long high hill, which took us an hour to climb, and we all had to push on the wagon. But we had fine pleasant weather, and from the top there was a beautiful view of the great mountains, and the valleys on either side of us. We drove some miles along the ridge.”
“At two and a half miles we found a foot-path leading to the left, and as we had heard that there was a spring a short way down in the valley and we were very thirsty some of the Brn. went for water which greatly refreshed us.“
“Br. Hermanus followed this path to a plantation to try to buy feed for our horses but could get none. Then he went to another man, named Illison, where he purchased several bushels of corn, and stayed over night. Our road was bad, always up and down hills. In the evening we set up our tent eight miles from Buffler Creek, by a stream, made a good fire and rested from our labors which today have been rather trying. Br. Nathanael held the evening service, and we were all so tired that we dispensed with the night-watch.” – DIARY OF A JOURNEY OF MORAVIANS FROM BETHLEHEM, PENNSYLVANIA, TO BETHABARA IN WACHOVIA, NORTH CAROLINA, 1753
Not one frame was shot in the Shenandoah Valley but who cares, this 1965 drama remains one of the best Civil War films ever made. Very low marks on historical accuracy; a family with six sons, none of whom care to fight for the Confederacy?%$!!#$?? But that’s part of going to the movies, you gotta suspend disbelief. More importantly, on an emotional level this film hits the viewer in the gut, many times over. And on that level it triumphs.
Gabriel the slave is set free by a patrol of Union soldiers while his master’s son and fishing companion, “Boy”(far right) is taken prisoner. “Go tell my papa” , young Boy tells Gabriel, to which the black Union soldier (actor 2nd from left, uncredited, boo! ) steps forward and defiantly says, “You don’t have to tell him nothin’, you’re free.”
“A region of repose it seems,
A place of slumber and of dreams,
Remote among the wooded hills!”
– Tales of a Wayside Inn, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863