Landmarks of American Nature Writing

4. Westward Journeys

Of the many westward journeys that compose Virginia history, two of the most significant are the Spotswood Expedition to the Blue Ridge Mountains, led by Governor Alexander Spotswood in 1716, and the 1728 survey of the Virginia-North Carolina boundary line, chronicled by William Byrd in his histories. The documents below recount these journeys in word and image.


John Fontaine. Journal of John Fontaine: An Irish Huguenot Son in Spain and Virginia, 1710-1719. Ed. Edward Porter Alexander. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1972. Shown: "Germanna to Shenandoah."

Francis Makemie expressed the feelings of many Tidewater residents at the beginning of the eighteenth century when he wrote in A Plain and Friendly Perswasive (1705) that "the best, richest, and most healthy part of your Country is yet to be inhabited, above the Falls of every River, to the Mountains, where are sundry Advantages not yet generally known." With the dual goals of encouraging westward settlement and securing the Indian trade against the French, Governor Alexander Spotswood organized a party of 63 men (including Robert Beverley) to explore the western frontier of Virginia in 1716. The only detailed account of the expedition is the Journal of John Fontaine, the most famous passage of which describes the many different liquors consumed by the explorers upon their arrival at the top of the Blue Ridge. As the modern map shown here demonstrates, the exact route of the expedition remains unclear.

Hugh Jones. The Present State of Virginia. Giving a Particular and Short Account of the Indian, English, and Negroe Inhabitants of that Colony. Shewing their Religion, Manners, Government, Trade, Way of Living, &c., with a Description of the Country. London: Printed for J. Clarke, 1724. McGregor Library. Shown: First page.

In The Present State of Virginia, Hugh Jones provides a piece of information about the Spotswood Expedition that has influenced generations of historians, treasure-seekers, and novelists:

For this expedition they were obliged to provide a great Quantity of Horse-Shoes; (Things seldom used in the lower Parts of the Country, where there are few Stones:) Upon which Account the Governor upon their Return presented each of his Companions with a Golden Horse-Shoe, (some of which I have seen studded with valuable Stones resembling the Heads of Nails) with this Inscription on the one Side: Sic juvat transcendere montes [How delightful it is to cross mountains]: And on the other is written the tramontane Order.
Although several persons in the nineteenth century claimed to have seen them, none of the small, golden horseshoes described by Jones has yet been found.

William Alexander Caruthers. The Knights of the Horse-shoe: A Traditionary Tale of the Cocked Hat Gentry in the Old Dominion. Wetumpka, Ala.: Charles Yancey, 1845.

The first self-consciously "literary" interpretation of the Spotswood Expedition was Expeditio Ultramontana, a 1717 poem written in Latin by Arthur Blackamore, who accompanied Spotswood on the expedition. (Although Blackamore's original Latin text is now lost, a 1729 rendering in English by George Seagood remains.) More than a hundred years would pass before the next literary treatment of the expedition appeared: William Alexander Caruthers's The Knights of the Golden Horse-shoe, based loosely on the Journal of John Fontaine. In his novel, Caruthers exaggerates the size of the expedition, introduces a love plot, and invents an Indian fight to bring his tale to a climax. More importantly, he also imposes a nineteenth-century nationalism and sublime aesthetic on a century-old event.

William Byrd. The Westover Manuscripts. Ed. Edmund Ruffin. Petersburg,Va.: Printed by E. and J. C. Ruffin, 1841. McGregor Library. Shown: First page.

Like the Spotswood Expedition, much of the fame of the 1728 survey of the Virginia-North Carolina boundary line comes from texts, in this case the History and Secret History of William Byrd of Westover. Although Thomas Jefferson, Peter Collinson, and Mark Catesby all saw manuscript copies of Byrd's journal, the History of the Dividing Line was not published until 1841 and the more revealing Secret History remained out of the public eye until 1929. Of the two accounts, the more formal History contains a greater amount of botanical and zoological commentary, in addition to its moving descriptions of the distant mountains rising "like ranges of blue clouds" on the horizon. Yet it is the Secret History in which Byrd labels his party of explorers the "Knights of the Rum Cask," alluding to the extensive alcoholic consumption of the Spotswood Expedition.

Virginiae Pars, Carolinae Pars. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1986.

This map of the Virginia-North Carolina border traversed by William Byrd is one of 50 copies printed from an original copperplate uncovered at Oxford amongst a collection of plates given to the university in 1755 by Richard Rawlinson. The top part of the map extends from the Dan River in the west to Currituck Inlet on the Atlantic, while the lower part of the map is an enlargement of the section from Sommerton Creek east to Dismal Swamp, Notts Island, and the ocean. March 6 1727-8 is printed at the eastern edge of the map and April 2, 1728 printed just east of the Meherrin River. The cartographer's name and details of previous publication are unknown.


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