History of the Shenandoah Valley

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When European settlers first discovered the Shenandoah Valley’s primeval bottomlands and mountains, it appeared as an isolated Garden of Eden. Native Americans, the Delawares and the Catawbas warred on the northern Valley floor. The Shawnee, the Pumunkie, the Tuscaroras as well as the Seneca roamed the forests, harvested the lands and fished the crystal-clear rivers and streams. Native Americans found an abundance of deer, buffalo, and turkey. They harvested acorns, hickory nuts and walnuts and planted corn, squash, gourds, and sunflowers. As lands to the north and the east became populated and land became hard to come by, the Valley beckoned to immigrants and colonists alike who were in search of comfortable, inexpensive farmland.

Governor Spotswood and his “Knights of the Golden Horseshoe” have been credited by tradition as the first non-natives to enter the Shenandoah Valley, in 1716. However, other sources report that the first European to enter the Valley was Colonel Abraham Wood who entered the Valley from the east in 1654, and in 1666, Captain Henry Batte led an expedition into the Valley. In 1669 a German, John Lederer, was commissioned to make two different explorations into the Valley. Dr. John Wayland in his book The German Element of the Shenandoah Valley presents convincing evidence that Lederer did in fact pass into the Valley. Soon after the first English settlers put down roots in the Valley about 1720, Germans began to move into the area as well, possibly as early as 1730. The German migration came from the north and most early settlements were around Shepherdstown and south of Winchester.

From the early eighteenth century, the Shenandoah Valley became a great proving ground, exploding in harmony between diverse nationalities and their firmly held religious beliefs. The inhabitants of the Valley from the very beginning and over the course of the next 120 years came primarily from England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, France, Africa and many American colonies. Religious sects who came to the Shenandoah Valley were quite varied: Episcopalians, Lutherans, Reformed Church members, Anabaptists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Brethren, Seventh ¬Day Baptists, Dunkards, Mennonites, Quakers, French Huguenots, and Jews, most came searching land and religious freedom; and some, religious solitude. Religion was an important consideration to early Valley settlers since many had fled persecution because of their faith. The Virginia Colony had persecuted various religions, but it later relaxed their strict rules prohibiting religious groups other than Anglicans on the western side of the Blue Ridge. That was in order to attract Germans and Scots-Irish to act as a buffer between eastern Virginia and the west of the Valley, Native American there initiated hostilities.

Most investigators are wont to define the Valley according to the reaches of its main river. The limits of the Shenandoah Valley should be viewed, as a topographical area limited not by physical boundaries but one controlled by interdependence based on folk cultures and socioeconomic factors. The Valley according to that view lies between the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east, the Allegheny Front to the west; it encompasses well over 7,000 square miles. Beginning in the beautiful and productive limestone farmland of Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and Washington County, Maryland, to the north, the Valley is partially bisected longitudinally along U. S. Highways, Rt. 11 and 1-81, by the Massanutten Mountain for a short distance as it  extends for over 200 miles to its southernmost extension in Botetourt County, Virginia. At that point where the watershed flows to the James River and the settlements were primarily of Scots-Irish, the Virginia Piedmont and the Roanoke Valley restrains the Shenandoah Valley.

The Shenandoah Valley is located in an area where the topography dictates that the terrain of its southern reaches is higher in altitude than that of its northern area. This natural event requires the Shenandoah River to flow northward. This northern flow thus, caused the early settlers to say that they were going down the Valley when actually they were traveling north. This down, north, and up, south, in direction, is altitude related and has confused visitors for many years.

It was commonplace for these early migrating people to congregate in settlements according to their nationalities, religions and spoken language. Many settlers of English heritage migrated to the Valley from the East and the eastern Virginia Shore area. Most came down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania and also across the Potomac at Pack Horse Ford near Shepherdstown. These primitive roadways were also in constant use by the German migrants. Some Germans, especially the Mennonites, stayed east of the Blue Ridge as they migrated south, coming into the Valley through Page County. This group soon spilled over into Rockingham County. The Quakers came primarily from the East through Frederick County, Maryland, and Loudoun County, Virginia. Seventh-Day Baptists came south from their Cloister in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, and were joined by similar components from northwestern Virginia (now West Virginia) to settle along the Shenandoah River near Strasburg. That short-lived community lasted 12 to 15 years. French Huguenots in small groups settled in the southern Valley around Rockingham and Augusta Counties. Most Scots-Irish settlers infiltrated the areas of the northern and the southern Valley.

Prior to the advent of industrial saturation of the landscape, the basic and perhaps frivolous needs of the home, be it in town or on the farm, were provided by area tradesmen. Most early tradesmen brought skills from elsewhere with the hope of establishing a successful business. Their products reflected their ethnic background and training, what they saw as perceived style in the world around them and consumer demands. Those original styles passed through a variety of transformations as they succumbed to the diverse hands of the seasoned apprentice. Transformations were either accepted or rejected by Valley consumers. The mix of cultures and styles brought to the Shenandoah Valley contributed, in many forms and mediums, to a recognizable, diverse and modest regional style--or styles, as it were. In some situations tradesmen of the same profession would render products in completely differing forms, or their products would be the same as similar ones made outside the Valley. The result of this variety of approaches was a style spectrum from primitive through sophisticated, localized but at the same time reflecting the influences of contemporary American and European art and craft, trade patterns, and social customs. Winchester, the early town, was comparatively a 'little Philadelphia' in Virginia.
For centuries the Valley society and its citizens, have been embellished with mythological rhetoric by people from the outside. The Valley has been viewed as beautiful and clean, its people shy and industrious, moral and patriotic, and perhaps a half-step behind eastern America in terms of social advancement and consumerism; in short, “a new-world Brigadoon,” a place that existed in the minds of people everywhere except the Valley. The gentry of Boston, New York and Philadelphia would spin romantic myths about their visits to the Valley backcountry to family, friend and foe. In writing and conversation they mostly shared kindly and endearing, but sometimes vulgar, statements about people, attitudes, and enticing accouterments for relaxation.  Above all, they shared the feeling of being in an “enchanting place.”

In the early Shenandoah Valley farming was the largest source of livelihood. The iron industry was large but short-lived. People were (and remain so) friendly, neighborly, and supportive of civic causes. In the slave era Afro-Americans were given mostly gentle treatment, including some education and a religious acceptance. Medical science was at the same level as most large cities.

The War Between the States brought excessive damage to the Shenandoah Valley. Here many battles and burnings brought a devastation that only Valley folk could have recovered from so quickly. And recovery was not fast. In some respects recovery will never be a reality. Artifacts of the War exist beneath the surface of the Valley floor perhaps in greater numbers than do Native American ones. However, the Shenandoah Valley exists today as a very beautiful area of our Nation and all are proud to be called Americans.

After reconstruction the Valley “boomed” and towns and neighborhoods grew into well managed localities. Its commercial and economic climate has followed the Nation in most respects, but one most usually finds the best numbers in the Valley. Industry in the Shenandoah Valley is quite diverse and clean. This leaves the beautiful landscape just as you would imagine it.

You are welcome to visit the many attractions of the Shenandoah Valley. If you do, you’ll come back. We spoil visitors.

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