Alexander Spotswood's Transmontane Expedition

Extract From History of the Colony and Ancient Dominion of Virginia, by Charles Campbell
(Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1860), 387-90


Spotswood's Tramontane Expedition - His Companions - Details of the Exploration - They Cross the Blue Ridge - The Tramontane Order - The Golden Horseshoe.

It was in the year 1716 that Spotswood made the first complete discovery of a passage over the Blue Ridge of mountains. Robert Beverley, in the preface to the second edition of his "History of Virginia," published at London in 1722, says: "I was with the present governor (Spotswood) at the head-spring of both those rivers (York and Rappahannock), and their fountains are in the highest ridge of mountains." The governor, accompanied by John Fontaine, who had been an ensign in the British army, and who had recently come over to Virginia, started from Williamsburg, on his expedition over the Appalachian Mountains, as they were then called. Having crossed the York River at the Brick-house, they lodged that night at the seat of Austin Moore, now Chelsea, on the Matapony River, a few miles above its junction with the Pamunkey. On the following night they were hospitably entertained by Robert Beverley, the historian, at his residence in Middlesex. The governor left his chaise there, and mounted his horse for the rest of the journey; and Beverley accompanied him in the exploration. Proceeding along the Rappahannock they came to the Germantown, ten miles below the falls, where they halted for some days. On the twenty-sixth of August Spotswood was joined here by several gentlemen, two small companies of rangers, and four Meherrin Indians. The gentlemen of the party appear to have been Spotswood, Fontaine, Beverley, Colonel Robertson, Austin Smith, who returned home owing to a fever, Todd, Dr. Robinson, Taylor, Mason, Brooke, and Captains Clouder and Smith. The whole number of the party, including gentlemen, rangers, pioneers, Indians, and servants, was probably about fifty. They had with them a large number of riding and pack-horses, an abundant supply of provisions, and an extraordinary variety of liquors. Having had their horses shod, they left Germantown on the twenty-ninth of August, and encamped that night three miles from Germanna. The camps were named respectively after the gentlemen of the expedition, the first one being called " Camp Beverley," where "they made great fires, supped, and drank good punch."

Aroused in the morning by the trumpet, they proceeded westward, each day being diversified by the incidents and adventures of exploration. Some of the party encountered hornets; others were thrown from their horses; others killed rattlesnakes. Deer and bears were shot, and the venison and bear-meat were roasted before the fire upon wooden forks. At night they lay on the boughs of trees under tents. At the head of the Rappahannock they admired the rich virgin soil, the luxuriant grass, and the heavy timber of primitive forests. Thirty-six days after Spots- wood had set out from Williarnsburg, and on the fifth day of September, 1716, a clear day, at about one o'clock, he and his party, after a toilsome ascent, reached the top of the mountain. It is difficult to ascertain at what point they ascended, but probably it was Swift Run Gap.

As the company wound along, in perspective caravan line, through the shadowy defiles, the trumpet for the first time awoke the echoes of the mountains, and from the summit Spotswood and his companions beheld with rapture the boundless panorama that lay spread out before them, far as the eye could reach, robed in misty splendor. Here they drank the health of King George the First, and all the royal family. The highest summit was named by Spotswood Mount George, in honor of his majesty, and the gentlemen of the expedition, in honor of the governor, named the next in height, Mount Spotswood, according to Fontaine, and Mount Alexander, according to the Rev. Hugh Jones (He says that Spotswood graved the king's name on a rock on Mount George; but, according to Fontaine, " the governor had graving-irons, but could not grave anything, the stones were so hard."). The explorers were on the water-shed, two streams rising there, the one flowing eastward and the other westward. Several of the company were desirous of returning, but the governor persuaded them to continue on. Descending the western side of the mountain, and proceeding about seven miles farther, they reached the Shenandoah, which they called the Euphrates, and encamped by the side of it. They observed trees blazed by the Indians, and the tracks of elks and buffaloes, and their lairs. They noticed a vine bearing a sort of wild cucumber, and a shrub with a fruit like the currant, and ate very good wild grapes. This place was called Spotswood Camp. The river was found fordable at one place, eighty yards wide in the narrowest part, and running north. It was here that the governor undertook to engrave the king's name on a rock, and not on Mount George.

Finding a ford they crossed the river, and this was the extreme point which the governor reached westward. Recrossing the river, some of the party using grasshoppers for bait, caught perch and chub fish; others went a hunting and killed deer and turkeys. Fontaine carved his name on a tree by the river-side; and the governor buried a bottle with a paper inclosed, on which he wrote that he took possession for King George the First of England. Dining here they fired volleys, and drank healths, they having on this occasion a variety of liquors - Virginia red wine and white wine, Irish usquebaugh, brandy, shrub, two kinds of rum, champagne, canary, cherry punch, cider, etc. On the seventh the rangers proceeded on a farther exploration, and the rest of the company set out on their return homeward. Governor Spotswood arrived at Williarnsburg on the seventeenth of September, after an absence of about six weeks. The distance which they had gone was reckoned two hundred and nineteen miles, and the whole, going and returning, four hundred and thirty-eight. "For this expedition," says the Rev. Hugh Jones, they were obliged to provide a great quantity of horseshoes, things seldom used in the eastern parts of Virginia, where there are no stones. Upon which account the governor upon his return presented each of his companions with a golden horseshoe, some of which I have seen covered with valuable stones resembling heads of nails, with the inscription on one side, 'Sic juvat transcendere montes.' This he instituted to encourage gentlemen to venture backward and make discoveries and settlements, any gentleman being entitled to wear this golden horseshoe on the breast who could prove that he had drank his majesty's health on Mount George." Spotswood instituted the Tramontane Order for this purpose; but it appears to have soon fallen through. According to Chalmers, the British government penuriously refused to pay the cost of the golden horseshoes. A novel called the "Knight of the Horseshoe," by Dr. William A. Caruthers, derives its name and subject from Spotswood's exploit.*

* Memoirs of a Huguenot Family, 281, 292; Introduction to Randolph's edition of Beverley's Hist. of Va., 5; Rev. Hugh Jones' Present State of Virginia. The miniature horseshoe that had belonged to Spotswood, according to a descendant of his, the late Mrs. Susan Bott, of Petersburg, who had seen it, was small enough to be worn on a watch-chain. Some of them were set with jewels. One of these horseshoes is said to be still preserved in the family of Brooke. A bit of colored glass, apparently the stopper of a small bottle, with a horseshoe stamped on it, was dug up some years ago in the yard at Chelsea, in King William County, the residence of Governor Spotswood's eldest daughter.

Exploration, Settlement and Conflict (1600-1799)