Rollicking Rivers of the Virginias

A Brief History of the Shenandoah

The Shenandoah Valley seems to have been used largely as a hunting ground in the years immediately preceding the arrival of colonists, although remains of pre-colonial villages continue to be found along the South Fork. These villages were very small and tended to revolve around cave dwellings in the limestone cliffs of the valley. The inhabitants of these villages were here long before the Susquehannock and Catawba tribes of popular legend and were apparently not related culturally or ethnically to these later Native American groups.

The identity of the first European to see the Shenandoah Valley is a matter of controversy. There is evidence that French Jesuits visited the area before 1632. John Lederer, the early geographer, was certainly there in 1669. The most entertaining account of the early explorations of the valley, however, is that of Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood and friends from 1716. History records that Spotswood was not much of a geographer or explorer, but he certainly knew how to have a good time in the Virginia mountains (a skill still pursued by paddlers). Accompanying Spotswood was the young John Fontaine, ancestor of Matthew Fontaine Maury. His diary records the particulars of the journey. The expedition consisted of many gentlemen of Virginia, along with servants, slaves, women, and drovers, and the party carried with them"Virginia red wine and white wine, Irish uisgebaugh [whiskey], brandy shrub, two sorts of rum, canary punch, cider, etc." (Blair Niles, The James, Rivers of America Series, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1940). Crossing the Blue Ridge at Swift Run Gap (the present site of US 33), Fontaine says they "all drank the King's health in champagne, and fired a volley... the Princess' health in Burgundy, and fired a volley... all the rest of the Royal Family in Claret, and fired a volley... then the Governor's health, and fired a volley." Thus was established the honorable tradition of guns and booze at Appalachian mountain parties, which continues to this day. The Governor's expedition did little to further the cartographic knowledge of the valley, but it did draw attention to it as a site of future development. After his expedition, German, Dutch, and Scottish immigrants from Pennsylvania began settling in the valley of the Shenandoah. The names of their descendants are still evident on the mailboxes along Route 11 and other roads in the valley.

During the Civil War the Shenandoah Valley was critically important to both sides. The farms of the valley provided a large portion of the food necessary to keep the Confederate troops fed, and the strategic location of the valley meant that an army could easily threaten Washington, DC. As a result, the valley was the site of constant fighting throughout the war. The most famous of the campaigns fought there was led by Stonewall Jackson in the spring of 1862. Jackson tied up Federal armies several times his own strength, weakening the Union attempt to take Richmond and keeping the federal leadership in constant anxiety over the safety of the Northern capital. Later in the war, when Confederate fortunes began to sink, Union general Philip Sheridan was charged with reducing the valley to such an extent that "a crow flying over the valley would have to carry his own rations" (Mark M. Boatner, The Civil War Dictionary, David McKay, 1959). Following a scorched-earth policy, Sheridan destroyed every barn, burned every crop, and killed animals throughout the entire valley, causing the inhabitants great hardship. When, as predicted by Stonewall Jackson, the valley was destroyed, so went the Confederacy.

The present-day paddler on the Shenandoah will see things much as they might have been before the Civil War, with the addition of an occasional concrete bridge, power line, and tractor. The business of the land—farming—takes place in much the same area it did in earlier years. Some of the fields have been plowed within the same fence rows for generations. The river contains numerous fish dams built by Native Americans. These structures, only visible at low water, are V-shaped arrangements of rocks that point downstream. Some paddlers grumble about running man-made rapids, but who can be offended by a ripple produced by a thousand-year-old pile of cobbles? It is interesting to think that the stones placed so laboriously by hand long ago now bear the multicolor streaks scraped off the aluminum and plastic pleasure craft of today.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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