The Great Wagon Road Project has advanced with new discoveries and amazing documents of the old road route through the colonial period and moving forward. Each of these concentrated studies have enabled the Research Team to discover the fascinating history of these old roadbeds. So many aspects contribute to this research which involve key essential events from the past enabling us all to be enticed and knowledgeable of this nation’s history and development. One of these key major events occurred during the late summer of 1716 involving a journey through the wilderness. Governor Alexander Spotswood embarked on an expedition that lead his party across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley. For the most part, this particular group seemed to be delighted upon the adventure and the undertaking of this mission. The objective goal for the traveling party leads us to believe a success of completing the journey safely and more. Also within several documents, the goal apparently was also to sustain proof of land ownership and officially claim the traveled area as British property for the crown. During this time period, France eased inward while advancing to the western and northern territories, namely along the Mississippi River. Governor Spotswood wanted to ensure the crown and the local inhabitants that the fertile lands west of the Blue Ridge Mountain range were indeed the distinct property of the British Parliament.
First, a brief history of Governor Alexander Spotswood during the years of 1710 through 1716. The town of Williamsburg was a thriving community during these early years. The Governor mansion was deemed luxurious and pleasing to the eye. Spotswood was the first of the royal governors to occupy this residence. Through his personal letters and correspondence, one can catch a glimpse into a man who ruled over the affairs of the Virginia colony during his reign ending in 1722. Spotswood is very active with North Carolina’s Indian trade and the struggles of considerable actions such as Cary’s Rebellion during the year of 1711. The letters also give an account to the soaring profits of the British crown while also partaking with bits of conversation by inserting the sentiments of the local people at the time. Advancing one’s self has not changed from one generation to the next and this was no different during Spotswood’s reign as governor of Virginia. The tobacco trade had decreased slightly in association with profits to the colony and Spotswood organized a full inspection of the product prior to export beginning in 1713. The action potentially expands on the quantity and success of Virginia farmers and plantation owners to compete with a higher quality resulting in a higher profit. New forts were planned during his reign as well and this too was often mentioned in his letters to entice needed supplies to fortify his plans, expand his opportunities and encourage growth with new settlements. The colonial period’s main opportunity for advancement leads everyone to land ownership including Governor Alexander Spotswood. This creates automatic success, respect and proper colonial recognition that is so desired from all men of this time period.
The Expedition of 1716
The Research Team of the Great Wagon Road Project uncovers the actual journals and documents referencing Spotswood’s journey during 1716 to the Shenandoah Valley. The exact intentions of the expedition are still somewhat unclear to the team. Evidence proves that upon the arrival along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a toast was given in honor of the King that the land would forever be known and recognized as the lands of the British crown. Evidence also shows a huge party of men, supplies, servants and Native American guides who embark on a late summer tour of the countryside. The finest horses, a chaise and ample amounts of rum, liquor and wine all accompany the men along their journey through the wilderness. What really enhanced the team to research this expedition was a discovery made by a few of the men during a descent along the westward side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The amazing discovery of an unknown trail marked by the markings on the trees only. The humble beginnings of what will soon become the first major highway in our nation’s history, The Great Wagon Road.
Reflecting upon a much deeper approach into the journal of John Fontaine, the team studies every word found within his personal account of the expedition. The first journal entry dates Monday, August 20, 1716 and describes the party making final preparations for the trip. The party leaves Williamsburg at approx. 10 am with a group of 50 men consisting of servants, guides, horses, and supplies which contain a personal chaise of the governor and a huge amount of liquor. One can vision this scene using Fontaine’s description as the citizens of Williamsburg see them off. Upon reaching the York River just after 4 pm, they crossed by way of the ferry. By 6pm they arrived at the home of Austin Moors. The group prepared to retire for the evening and Fontaine noted in his journal that they were being well entertained. A short and modest first day mileage.
Moving forward to the entry of Saturday, September 1, 1716, we find the party crossing a six mile stretch across a level plain near the forks of the “Rappahannoc River”. Fontaine goes further to remark about the timber proclaiming the trees as the largest his eyes have gazed upon. The soil is fertile with the tall grasses swaying in the breeze. At some point during the day, the party stumbles across a hornets nest and several men were stung as well as their horses. A great many of the supplies were scrambled about and were in need of order before the party could travel any further. A picturesque of the landscape is provided by Fontaine while describing the plentiful bounty of bears, deer and turkey. The men are hunting daily while enjoying various different meals at the campsites. Bear was not a chosen meal as Fontaine remarks. “It taste like veal and its good if you didn’t know it was bear.” A day caught in the moment during the 1716.
Wednesday of September 5, 1716 holds a special interest with the Great Wagon Road Project. The entry by Fontaine gives a description of the “Spotswood Camp” location and goes further into detail about a party of men and their descent along the western edges of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Fontaine states that the men are now riding the crestline of the mountain range and looking for a possible trail to descend. The first attempt failed forcing them back four miles near the original starting point. It was at this second attempt that several trees came into view and were noted as “marked”. The men began following these trees and discovered this to be a navigable trail to the valley below, a distance covering two and a half miles. Fontaine goes on to state that at 5 pm they arrived at the bottom and traveled seven more miles until a large river was discovered. Here they prepared the campsite and stayed overnight, “Spotswood Camp”.
The GWRP Research Team members are currently researching the vicinity of Swift Run Gap which is believed to be near the campsite of September 6, 1716. The team begins calculating the distance of two and a half miles referencing the actual descent and another seven miles to reach the questioned waterway. This involves the area between Dry Run and Naked Creek. The Boone’s Creek is also part of this research area as well as Hawksbill Creek. Other surrounding areas are Tanner’s Ridge and Elk Run. The party reached the south fork of the Shenandoah River safely by following the trail marked by the trees. The Native Americans were known to use this type of trail blazing as well as the early settlers and colonial travelers. It was a well known fact to “mark” your trail while hunting or traveling in order to follow the same route again and again.
A TOAST TO THE KING”S HEALTH
The day of the famous toast to the king takes place on Thursday, September 6, 1716. The party crossed what they called the “Euphrates River” and fished while making preparations for an overnight camp. The name Euphrates did not stick however; and the Shenandoah was referred to the actual name of this major waterway. Spotswood brought with him an engraving iron which he planned to engrave a stone or rock to document the occasion. However; the stones in the area were not cooperating with the task at hand. Fontaine carved his initials in a nearby tree and settled in for the evening meal. After dinner, the men loaded their firearms and fired in honor of the occasion while drinking champagne to the king’s health, burgundy to the prince’s health and a special toast to Governor Spotswood and his health.
There are so many more details involving this 1716 expedition of Gov Spotswood and his men. Months later, a golden horseshoe was given to each of the men who accompanied Spotswood on the expedition. Spotswood proclaimed them as Knights of the Golden Horseshoe to preserve the history and the significance of their journey. The actual golden horseshoe has been described as fitting in the palm of a hand filled with gold and embellished with garnets. Legends, myths and several kinds of stories have survived all through the generations from one family to another. Tales of romance, dangerous skirmishes while sharing survival skills used while on the trail have all transpired to modern day conversations. The actual facts seem to paint a different picture as the truth emerges through various documents and sources. Many of these are listed in the sources section below. As for the knights and their future, many lived their entire lives in colonial Virginia and traveled with Spotswood on other remarkable journeys.
As the project nears closer and closer to our ultimate goal, the discoveries along the trail are filled with personal adventures, fascination and a nearness to our ancestors of long ago. How they lived and traveled are just as important as we live and travel today. Preserving our heritage and our history offers us all the opportunity to learn more about our family, our community, our state and our nation. The Great Wagon Road played a significant part in all of this vast amount of history and genealogy. Quoting Parker Rouse from his book, “The Great Wagon Road” the old roadbed was “The most heavily traveled road in America” and out of respect for that statement alone, the Great Wagon Road Project works diligently everyday on pursuing the documents, reading through the materials, locating the old deeds and maps that will allow the project to reach our goal and preserve this historic road for all generations.
- Campbell, Charles History of The Colony and Ancient Dominion of Virginia 1860 378-434pp.
- Collections of the Virginia Historical Society Official Letters of Alexander Spotswood Volume I 1882 49, 88, 109,
- Delma R. Carpenter. “The Route Followed by Governor Spotswood in 1716 across the Blue Ridge Mountains.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 73, no. 4, 1965, pp. 405–412. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4247155. Accessed 29 Oct. 2020.
- Fontain, John Alexander, Edward The Journal of John Fontaine, an Irish Huguenot Son In Spain and Virginia 1710-1719 published 1972 100-109pp.
- Havighurst, Walter Alexander Spotswood; Portrait of a Governor 1967 68-72pp.
- HINKE, WILLIAM J. “THE FIRST GERMAN REFORMED COLONY IN VIRGINIA: 1714—1750. (Continued).” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (1901-1930), vol. 2, no. 2, 1903, pp. 98–110. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23322692. Accessed 29 Oct. 2020.
- Map Photo Published 1747 Warner, John Fairfax, Thomas Library of Congress