Is History Irrelevant?

History deals with the past, which is dead and gone. The future does not exist. We spend our lives on a razor-thin edge of time that separates the dead from the non-existent. The present is a precarious perch to live on without a thought for the past, wherein lie our perspective, our roots, our identity.

The historian's job is to collect quantities of source materials: to evaluate, sift, winnow, and cull; to assign different degrees of credibility to different witnesses; and to distill a product which, if it can't be called "Objective Truth", is at least plausible.

Source materials are, in order of decreasing credibility: documents (courthouse vital statistics and land records); family bibles, diaries, journals, letters and photographs of people who lived the history we hope to learn; physical evidence (in our case the mountaineers' cemeteries, those possessions and tools that still exist, and the ruins of their homesites); eye-witness accounts by outside observers, written at the time of the event reported; oral history—people telling what they remember of events, or of what their parents told them; last and least, writers who have made use of these primary sources with various degrees of skill.

Courthouse records give names and dates, and tell who owned what piece of land. The mountain people wrote few diaries or letters. History passed down by word of mouth is a story told by storytellers,who know that their first responsibility is to tell a good story. If the teller fails to hold the listener's attention, then the story is at fault and must be improved. Eye witness accounts by outside observers tend to contradict one another; an observer sees more or less what he expects to see, and filters his account through his personal preconceptions. And as for other writers, I find many of them more credulous than credible.

Therefore, when I tell you of Shenandoah's past, please remember that each sentence begins with an unwritten "maybe".

 In The Beginning

The story begins eleven thousand years ago, give or take a handful of centuries. The form of the Blue Ridge was very much as we see it now. With a present-day topographic map we would have been able to identify all the familiar peaks and hollows. Hawksbill, then as now, was the highest point. There were cliffs on Mt. Marshall, waterfalls in Whiteoak Canyon, and talus slopes on Blackrock and Trayfoot.

But we would have found the climate uncomfortably cold. The most recent ice age was nearing its end, but there still were glaciers 200 miles to the north. The mammoth, the mastodon, and the long-horned bison were still the dominant animals, though all three were now endangered species. Hemlocks, balsam fir, and gray birch grew in the Valley and the Piedmont. And on the mountain—who knows? Perhaps no trees at all; only an alpine flora of very small and hardy plants.

That was the setting when man first appeared here: very primitive Indians (we think) who must have come from somewhere in the West. These people were wanderers who lived by hunting. At places suitable for camping—more or less flat areas beside the streams—the hunting parties left physical evidence of their passing: spear points, knives, and scrapers chipped from quartzite, and the chips that were their byproduct. (As you might expect, these same sites were later used by more recent Indians, and then by the white settlers who became our Mountain People, and now by backcountry campers.)

Over a period of perhaps fifteen hundred years, say 9,500 B.C. to 8,000 B.C., the ice age ended and the glaciers retreated far to the north. The great mammals of the ice age became extinct. The climate slowly grew warmer. The gray birches and firs and hemlocks, which do better where it's cold, retreated to the colder mountaintops. And they moved northward as well as upward; so that those we now find on the mountain are isolated, stranded, with no place to go. The Indians remained primitive, few in number, nomads and hunters still.

Q: How can a glacier, or a tree, "retreat"?
A: Figure of speech. The glaciers melted, from south to north. A tree produces a great many seeds, which are spread in all directions by wind and water, birds and mammals. Seeds that sprout where conditions are suitable will prosper; those that sprout elsewhere will die. By this means, over a period of many tree-generations, hemlocks moved from the valley to the mountain. It took a long time, but Nature has all the time in the world.

 Then Came the Woods

Over a span of many years, say from 8,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C., the Blue Ridge changed slowly. The deciduous forest of oak, hickory, and chestnut gradually developed, and the animals that thrive in such a forest—deer, bear, turkey, elk, and woods bison—appeared and slowly increased in numbers. (I don't mean to imply that the trees or the animals developed as species; they merely returned from farther south, where they had earlier "retreated" before the advancing glaciers.) The hemlocks moved to the coolest places—the north-facing slopes of high ridges.

During this time the Indians became foragers for wild foods as well as hunters, collecting nuts, fruits, berries, and edible bulbs and roots.

 And "Modern" Indians

Between 1,000 B.C. and the appearance of European settlers in Virginia, change accelerated. Agriculture began; the Indians raised corn, and probably squash, and possibly beans. Because farmers can't be nomads, a more or less settled village life developed. Pottery, which was unknown to the more primitive Indians, came into use. Hunting (to say nothing of warfare) was easier after the invention of bow and arrow. Broken pottery and burial mounds show us where the villages were. Both are common in the Shenandoah Valley. On the mountain we find arrowheads, spear points, some broken pottery, and various stone tools. Clearly, hunting parties roamed the mountains, and may have camped here for extended periods during the summer. But there were few if any permanent villages within what is now the Park.

Even in the valley, the villages were only semi-permanent. They were moved or abandoned when game or firewood got scarce, or pollution became unpleasant, or the occupants fled from hostile raiders. The Indians, in spite of what we may have read or imagined, were not conservationists. Hunting parties sometimes burned hundreds of acres of forest, to drive game animals to a point where they could be easily killed. The first white man to climb the Blue Ridge and look down into the Shenandoah Valley did not look down on unbroken forest, but on forest spotted with clearings. Indians sometimes drove herds of bison over a cliff, but used relatively few of the dead animals. It was because of their primitive technology, and because by various means they contrived to limit their population, that they did relatively little damage to the environment.

 The Tribes

Here's how things were when Jamestown was settled in 1607. The Powhatans occupied most of tidewater Virginia, and their villages surrounded Jamestown. Farther west, in the Piedmont, were tribes of the Manahoac and Monacan confederacies. The Shenandoah Valley was sparsely populated. There were a few Shawnee villages (one report says Moneton and Saponi also.) The Valley was unpopular because it was a dangerous place to live. Raiding parties of Catawbas from the south and Delawares from the north swept through the Valley from time to time, killing, looting, and burning (as did the Yankee troops of Phil Sheridan in a later, more civilized age.)

The Powhatans, so I've heard, were friendly and hospitable toward the white settlers. Until, that is, they found out that the white men were not just visiting, but intended to stay forever. The Powhatans might then have wiped out the colony, except for their perennial enemies, the Monacans. Because the Powhatans feared a two-front war they dallied too long—until the white man's numbers became, as Indians tend to say in western movies, like the sands of the desert. They yielded at last to the white man's pressure and moved westward, forcing the Monacans northward and westward before them. Pressure and movement continued for a century and a half, until the Indians were gone from Virginia.

 The First Explorer

The Colony of Virginia, by virtue of its Royal Charter, claimed lands that extended to the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. In the mid-l600's settlement was almost confined to tidewater; the western lands were wilderness over which the colony had neither economic nor political control. Virginia therefore encouraged exploration. In 1669 Sir William Berkeley, Governor of the Colony, sent John Lederer, a "German scholar", to explore the Blue Ridge.

Lederer, with the help of his Indian guides, reached the crest of the mountain on March 18, 1669. He later made two more trips to the Blue Ridge, reaching the crest at two other points, and then went home to write his journal. Lederer reported wolves, beavers, "great herds of red and fallow deer feeding, and on the hill-sides bear crashing mast like swine." (The "deer" were probably Virginia white-tail and wapiti; "mast", in case you don't have a dictionary handy, refers to acorns and chestnuts.)

Because Lederer had no maps of the Blue Ridge and the peaks had no names, we can only guess, from his rather hazy descriptions, the points at which he reached the mountain crest. Various guesses include Manassas Gap (a little way outside the Park, to the north), Big Meadows (Mile 51.2), Milam Gap (52.8), Bootens Gap (55.1), and Hightop (66.7).

Lederer gets credit for being the first white man to climb the Blue Ridge. Which is somewhat irrelevant, and probably false. I strongly suspect that a few white trappers and traders had crossed the mountain before Lederer climbed it. The true accomplishment of John Lederer should be more accurately defined. He was, so far as we know, the first person of either sex and of any color to climb the Blue Ridge and leave a written account of his trip.

 Golden Horseshoes

Lederer's trip did nothing to promote settlement of the western lands. Virginians began to worry that the French, moving down from Canada, might get there first. To publicize the land beyond the Blue Ridge, Governor Alexander Spotswood in 1716 led a party of men across the mountain to the Shenandoah River and back again. Those are the bare facts. Filling in the details gives this expedition a quality of legend.

The principal source of information is the diary of John Fontaine, a member of the party. There have been several other accounts, some of which must be classified as "historical fiction".

The Governor's party consisted of 63 men: the Governor himself, 16 "rangers", a number of "gentlemen", and their servants and guides. They took 74 horses and several hunting dogs. The party moved slowly because of minor accidents, rough country, steep slopes and thick underbrush. There was a long time-out when they decided the horses would need shoes because of the rough going ahead. (Legend: during such delays they passed the time by toasting the King. Fontaine says, "We had several sorts of liquors, viz., Virginia red wine and white wine, Irish usquebaugh, brandy, shrub, two sorts of rum, champagne, canary, cherry, punch, water, cider, etc.")

The explorers ate venison, bear meat, and other wild game, roasted on "wooden forks." (Legend: at each meal they drank to the health of the King, and to each of his children, and to anyone else who came to mind.) But the "gentlemen" were unaccustomed to sleeping on the ground; they suffered from aching bones, chills and fever (and, I should imagine, an occasional hangover.)

Fontaine saw the tracks of elk and bison, vines with a sort of "wild cucumber", shrubs with fruit like currents, and good wild grapes. The party crossed the mountain and descended into the valley, where they found a northward-flowing river which they called the Euphrates; it was "very deep", and "fourscore yards wide in the narrowest part." They drank some healths, and took possession in the name of George I. At dinner they drank the King's health in champagne and fired a volley; they drank the Princess's health in Burgundy and fired a volley; they drank to other members of the royal family in claret, and fired a volley; they drank the Governor's health, and fired a volley. (After which, I presume, they got down to serious drinking.)

Governor Spotswood later presented each member of the expedition with a small golden horseshoe bearing the inscription Sic jurat transcendere montes. Some of these golden horseshoes became prized family heirlooms, although not one of them can be located now.

It has been assumed that the Spotswood party crossed the mountain at Swift Run Gap (Mile 65.5). Monuments beside the highway there commemorate the crossing, and that part of U.S. 33 is called the Spotswood Trail. But a more recent theory favors Milam Gap (Mile 52.8) as the crossing point. Fontaine says they climbed to a spring near the ridge crest. A "musket shot" from there, on the far side of the ridge, they found another spring. They tried to descend westward from the second spring, turned back when they came to a precipice, and then made a "good, safe descent" from another point. From the foot of the mountain they travelled seven miles before they reached the river. None of that fits very well at Swift Run Gap. But if we assume that they went to Milam Gap, then Lewis Spring, then Lewis Falls, then Tanners Ridge, it fits like a glove.

Q: Were these men really such heroic drinkers? Was the Shenandoah River deeper and wider then than it is now?
A: Everybody wants to make a good story better.


The Spotswood expedition brought quick results. Settlers of English and German ancestry began moving into the Piedmont and toward the mountains. James Taylor II, an ancestor of presidents Madison and Taylor, built an estate in 1722 near the present town of Orange. Spotswood had, some time before his expedition, established a colony of Swiss and German artisans at Germanna (between the present cities of Fredericksburg and Culpeper.) Some of the Germans from this colony moved in 1725 to the foot of the Blue Ridge, at the mouth of Whiteoak Run. Some of their descendants are still there.

The Governor had made grants of large areas of land, including much of what is now the Park, in 1712. James Barbour bought a large part of this area in 1730, and began selling small tracts on the Blue Ridge to prospective settlers. He later bought back many of these tracts, and regained possession of others when the buyers abandoned them.

The Blue Ridge, with no roads across it, was still a barrier to settlement of the Shenandoah Valley from the east. But not to settlement from the north. In 1727 Germans from Pennsylvania crossed the Potomac and moved up the Shenandoah Valley, where they started a settlement called Massanutten, west of the present town of Luray. During the next ten years German Quakers and Mennonites from Pennsylvania established several other settlements in the Valley.

The first settler in this part of the Blue Ridge was probably Michael Woods, who built a home near Jarman Gap in 1734. Records show that Francis Thornton owned the land east of Thornton Gap in 1733, although he lived on the Piedmont, south of the present town of Sperryville. It was not until 1740 or 1750 that settlement of the Blue Ridge hollows began. At that time there was plenty of land available in the Piedmont and the Valley. But some people chose to live in the mountains, probably because they or their parents had come from the mountainous parts of Europe.

 The Northern Neck

The Northern Neck includes more than half of Shenandoah National Park, or almost none of it, depending on how you look at things. The Northern Neck is bounded by the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac River, the Rappahannock River, and a line connecting the sources of the two rivers.

In 1649 King Charles II of England granted this tremendous area to seven English noblemen. One of the seven was Thomas, Lord Culpeper, who later bought the shares of the other six. The Northern Neck was owned, successively, by:

    Margaret, widow of Lord Culpeper
    Catherine (the widowed Lady Fairfax), daughter of Margaret.
    Thomas (sixth Lord Fairfax), son of Catherine.

Lord Fairfax was living in England when he inherited the Northern Neck. He visited his Virginia property in 1736, and was profoundly impressed by it. He instructed his agents to do two things: begin a survey to locate the sources of the rivers, and start selling land. He then returned to England to dispose of his Scottish and English properties. He came back to Virginia in 1747 and spent the rest of his life here, an eccentric but apparently contented bachelor.

The Fairfax agents followed orders. They immediately began selling tracts of land, many of which lay within other grants, especially Barbour's. And they surveyed all branches of both rivers, finally choosing the Conway River as the principal source of the Rappahannock. Colonel William Byrd, an ancestor of a distinguished Virginia family, protested vigorously. He got nowhere.

The agents of Lord Fairfax made two possible errors. First, they chose the Rapidan, rather than the Rappahannock, as the source of the Rappahannock. Second, they chose the Conway, rather than the Rapidan, as the source of the Rapidan. These two choices brought the size of the Northern Neck to about five million acres—nearly double what it should have been. Whether these mistakes were honest and therefore pardonable errors, I can't say. But I can grumble "The rich get richer."

 The Fairfax Line

Ten years later, in 1746, the agents of Lord Fairfax undertook to survey a line that would connect the sources of the two rivers, and thus determine the missing boundary of the Northern Neck. They led a surveying party to Bootens Gap (Mile 55.1 on the Drive), where they spent several days trying to decide which of the three small branches at the head of the Conway River was the true source of the Rappahannock. They finally decided that none of the three was the source, and led the party four miles back down the river to the mouth of Devils Ditch. The Fairfax agents then suggested that the trickle of water that issues from Devils Ditch was in fact the true source of the Rappahannock. The surveyors rejected this suggestion as preposterous, and the party returned to Bootens Gap.

If the Fairfax Line had been run from the head of Devils Ditch, at about Mile 57 on the Drive, Lord Fairfax would have acquired an additional 50,000 acres. But I can't condemn these men. They were simply exercising a very human trait that all of us possess in one degree or another, namely greed.

 A Century of Litigation

During the last half of the eighteenth century, agents of Fairfax and Barbour continued to sell land in what is now the Park: Fairfax as far south as the Fairfax Line at Bootens Gap (and occasionally much farther south); Barbour as far north as the Hazel Country (and sometimes farther north.) Much of what is now the Central District of the Park was claimed by two different owners. The resulting disputes and court actions continued almost until the Civil War.

This concerns us only in that it gives some insight into the character of the Mountain People. It has been reported that they were surly and hostile and suspicious of strangers, whom they called "furriners". In some cases this was true, and for various good reasons. The disputed land was one. When a stranger comes to tell you that you're only a squatter on land your grandfather bought and paid for, you're entitled to feel hostile, and your children will remember.

In 1795 James Barbour (who was probably a grandson of the original James Barbour) had a survey made of the Barbour property. His surveyors reported that it consisted of 42,700 acres, and extended as far north as Thornton Gap. On a map drawn by the surveyors are the names of 33 people who were apparently "squatters" on the Barbour land. More likely they had bought the land they were living on, but not from Barbour. Incidentally, several of the "squatters" have the same surnames as families who were displaced by the Park 135 years later.

 The Golden Age

The Golden Age of the Mountain People, during which a reasonable amount of labor could ensure them a reasonable standard of living, lasted until the Civil War. The first settlers moved into a magnificent forest, where one tree in five (or possibly one in three) was a chestnut; and each chestnut tree might produce a bushel of food each year. Wild game was abundant, and fish swam in every stream. The soil, though thin and rocky, was rich enough to produce good crops.

One by one, roads were built across the mountain: first at Jarman Gap (Mile 96.8); then, in 1785, at Thornton Gap (31.5). Roads at Browns Gap (83.0), Swift Run Gap (65.5), and Fishers Gap (49.4) were completed long before the Civil War. These roads ensured Virginia's political control of the Valley, and provided a means for transporting its produce to eastern markets.

After the Revolution, settlement accelerated. Virginians of English descent farmed the Piedmont, all the way to the foot of the mountain. More Germans, my great great great grandfather among them, moved from Pennsylvania to the Shenandoah Valley. And as the population increased, industry expanded, Cider presses and tanneries, grist mills, carding mills, and up-and-down sawmills—all operated by water power—sprang up at the foot of the mountain hollows. The mills used the products of the mountains, and encouraged more and more people to settle in the hollows.

Valley farmers bought large tracts of land near the top of the Blue Ridge, and used them for grazing. They allowed poorer families to live on the land, to build homes and raise gardens, and to graze sheep and cattle of their own—in exchange for labor: protecting the owner's cattle, and keeping the fields free of locust trees and brambles.

Thus some of the mountain people were employees of absentee owners. Some were squatters, who simply moved in and built homes. But most of them owned the land they farmed, or at least thought they did.

Between 1800 and the Civil War, the isolated people of the mountain hollows were probably as well off as small farmers in the Valley and the Piedmont. Some time around 1810, prosperity in the hollows must have reached its maximum. But by 1840 the mountains had passed their carrying capacity; and after that, as the population continued to increase, things could only get worse.

 To Make a Living

The mountain people were farmers. They cleared the land for homes and fields by cutting trees, pulling stumps, and laboriously moving rocks. During many years of work the clearings grew larger, as did the piles of rocks stacked here and there throughout the fields. Rock walls served as fences and boundary markers, sometimes with the help of split-rail fences and, much later, barbed wire. A few trees were left in the meadows to make shade for cattle. (Which is why, as you hike through young second-growth forest, you'll occasionally see a tree much bigger than the rest.) Some families had chickens and a hunting dog or two. Some had one or more cows; many had sheep or goats, sometimes horses or mules. Many had hogs, which they ear-marked and then allowed to forage for themselves, to be rounded up at slaughter time.

Many people lived in log cabins, usually with a single room and a loft; the adults slept downstairs, the children in the loft. A wood-burning fireplace gave radiant heat downstairs, and warmed the loft by convection. Access to industries at the foot of the hollow was, at first, by trail. Later the people built roads, using hand tools and a little help from horses or mules. On sloping ground, which is to say nearly everywhere, they built up the lower side of the road with stones, to level it and keep it from washing away. The roads were rough, and barely wide enough for a team and wagon. Traces of the old roads are still there, and you'll see them when you hike in the hollows.

Wealth came from the forest. Black walnut trees provided food and dye, as well as wood. From the chestnut trees they cut logs for cabins and rails for fences. They used the wood of oaks and hickories to make roof shingles, furniture, farm tools, and webbings for chairs and baskets. The nuts and acorns were food for domestic animals and wild game. Black birch was one of many trees and herbs that they used for medicine; its inner bark was thought to cure rheumatism. And the crushed end of a black birch twig became a toothbrush with a built-in wintergreen flavor.

They hunted the large game animals while they lasted, and when these were gone they trapped or hunted coons, bobcats, foxes, possums, squirrels, rabbits, beavers, minks, and muskrats. There was a ready market for furs and hides.

The mountain people gathered chestnuts, walnuts, and berries, for their own use and to sell. They cut trees and dragged the logs to the up-and-down sawmills, where they exchanged them for cash or lumber. They took hides to be tanned, and paid the tanner with hides. They took wool to the carding mills (which made it suitable for spinning) and paid with wool. They took corn to be ground at the grist mills, and paid with corn.

Many mountain homes had a few apple trees, and sometimes an orchard of an acre or more. They ate the apples raw; they peeled and sliced them, and dried them on the cabin roof for winter use or for sale; they made cider, and vinegar, and apple butter, and applejack.

The mountain people preserved vegetables and fruits, and smoked or salted meats for winter use. They stripped tanbark from the chestnut oak trees and sold it to the tanneries. They collected wild honey. They made moonshine whiskey, and sold a part of it.

They wove woolen cloth and made their own clothes; they made their own shoes, household furnishings, and sometimes farm implements. But no one family tried to do everything. There were farmers especially skilled at butchering, and they performed that service for their neighbors. Others had special skill as stone masons, or shoemakers, or blacksmiths, or carpenters. The people used the skill of their specialists, and paid them with goods or with their own special services.

 The Mountain Culture

The mountain people had a rich traditional culture. They were isolated, it's true; the next-door neighbor might be a mile away. And they spent most of their time working to make a living. But those things were true also of small farmers in the Valley and the Piedmont. The only schools were at the mouth of the hollows, which might be several miles from home. Nevertheless the mountain children attended school when they were not needed for work on the farm. Most had dropped out completely before the fifth grade. And those things too were true in the Valley and the Piedmont. Before the Civil War, the illiteracy rate in the hollows was probably about the same as that of the general population.

Many parents taught their own children to read, write, and do simple arithmetic. Some families owned books. Most had a Bible, and read from it, though not easily. A typical mountain man might have said (though I'm sure none ever did), "Well, yes, I kin read. But I don't take no pleasure in it." Oral tradition was strong; folklore and folk wisdom, legends, ballads, and tall stories—all were passed down by word of mouth.

Medicine was mostly home-made, from garden herbs and plants of the forest. Few of the mountain people ever saw a hospital. And they rarely sent for a doctor although, oddly enough, the doctor usually came when sent for.

The mountain people were mostly Baptists, and many attended church, even though that might involve a walk of several miles. After the Civil War, as families became poorer, church attendance declined. Many felt that their clothes weren't good enough for church. Some were "excluded" by the church in an attempt to regulate their morality. But the people continued to observe Christmas as a religious holiday; some exchanged presents; some decorated Christmas trees. Many families hid eggs at Easter. There were religious revivals in the mountains from time to time. Crescent Rock (Mile 44.4) was the site of frequent meetings and revivals. (They continued for a while after the Park was established, which accounts for the extra parking space there.) Most of the mountain people were superstitious; they believed in ghosts and signs and omens, as did country people in the Valley and the Piedmont.

Because of the distance between homes, "hollering" was a useful means of communication, and different hollers conveyed different messages. When a mountaineer went to visit a neighbor he stopped at the edge of the dooryard, gave the appropriate holier, and waited for an answer. To walk up to the door without hollering was a breach of courtesy, and sometimes dangerous.

They made their own music, mostly with fiddle, banjo, and guitar. Here again they depended on specialists; each major hollow had its own musicians. They had square dances in their houses, and sometimes on wooden platforms they built in the woods. Raising a new house or barn was often a cooperative effort and a social occasion. So, too, was apple butter boiling in the fall, with music and dancing, courting, drinking moonshine and homemade beer, games, and fighting.

In the musical play "Shenandoah", a chorus of young men sings "Next to lovin' I like fightin' best." Fighting was a frequent pastime. The mountain people admired feats of strength. Such feats became legends, to be passed down by word of mouth, and the legends grew larger with the passage of time.

 War Between the States

When war came, some of the mountain men went off to join the Confederate Army. Others chose not to. A squad of soldiers might come into the mountains from time to time to search for draft evaders; but there were plenty of hiding places, and hollering gave ample warning.

There was little military action in what is now the Park. Stonewall Jackson, during his Valley campaign, marched his army across the mountain twice at Browns Gap (Mile 83.0), and once at Fishers Gap (49.4). Early's army retreated through Browns Gap in 1864, and there was a minor skirmish there. A few cavalry engagements took place near the foot of the mountain, on both sides. And that's all.

But there were major battles in the Shenandoah Valley, which was of strategic importance as the back door to Washington. It was also important as the bread basket of the Confederacy. Phil Sheridan's scorched-earth policy was designed to empty the basket, and it did. After Sheridan passed through, some people actually starved to death in the Valley.

My great grandfather, who was a Mennonite and therefore a conscientious objector, spent a large part of the Civil War in the mountains, safe from Federal troops as well as conscription squads. When Sheridan came my great grandfather looked down at night, and the light of burning barns flickered like fireflies in the Valley. This is oral history, passed down in my family.

 After the Civil War

One by one, sources of wealth in the mountains withered away. The woods bison disappeared in colonial times. and the elk soon after. Deer and bears followed, and then the smaller animals, until at last there was nothing to hunt but squirrels and rabbits.

After the war Virginia was an impoverished land. Barns, livestock, and farm implements were gone. Slaves, once a major asset of the big landowners, had been freed. Confederate money was worthless. Taxes were high, and had to be paid with Yankee dollars. The landowners did what they could to regain their lost fortunes. Those with mountain land sent in logging crews for lumber.

When the Shenandoah Valley railroad was completed in 1882, steam- powered mills were built beside it. The primitive water-powered industries at the foot of the mountains could not compete, and were quickly abandoned. The mountain people could no longer cut trees and drag them to the sawmills. They could no longer barter corn for meal, or hides for leather. The people now had to pay cash for meal, flour, and shoes, while means for earning cash were dwindling.

When a mountain man died, his land was usually divided among his children. Thus farms became smaller and smaller. The mountain people too had to pay taxes, and when they couldn't pay they lost their land. Others, when times were hard, borrowed from banks; and if they could not repay the loan they lost their land. Population in what is now the Park may have been more than 10,000 in 1900. In the next 25 years it dropped by half.

Public schools came to this area in 1870; then the railroad, and finally the automobile. Some of the mountain people now worked as hired hands for farmers outside the mountains. Some made axe handles, or baskets, or other handicraft items that brought in a little cash. A few found work at the Skyland resort. The mountains still produced blueberries each summer, and they could be sold for 25 cents a gallon. The sale of tanbark from the mountains reached its peak about 1900, and tanbark brought as much as nine dollars a cord. Each September a man could gather a bushel of chestnuts in a day, and sell them for up to twelve dollars.

Then came a one-two punch. The tanneries developed a new process, and the market for tanbark disappeared. The chestnut blight reached the Blue Ridge about 1915, and within a few years the chestnut trees were dead.

As other sources of income dwindled or vanished, the moonshine industry became more important. Lookouts and hollering warned of approaching revenuers, who rarely caught anyone making moonshine, but who destroyed many stills. Disputed lands, tax sales, foreclosures, and broken stills—all the work of strangers. Some of the mountain people had reason to be suspicious and hostile.


When the Park was established there were still 432 families, with about 2,250 people, living within its boundaries. Some of them had been unable to leave their farms; they had no savings, no marketable skills, nothing to help them get started in a strange and frightening outside world. Others stayed because they wanted to, hard times or not; because the mountains were home.

But all of them had to leave. A few did so without help. The Resettlement Administration of the Department of Agriculture set up resettlement communities at seven points near the Park, where a displaced family could buy a house and land with no down payment, and a 30-year mortgage at very low interest. Many families moved to these communities. The rest were resettled by the Virginia state welfare department.

Seventeen older people were allowed to live out their lives here. The last of them left the Park in 1975.

The displaced families were moved to houses that were closer to schools, jobs, and stores. In the mountains they had spent all their time trying to earn a living. Now the living was easier, and people had leisure time. Just the same, they tell us, life in the mountains was better.


Some employees of the Park and the concessioner are from families that were displaced when the Park was established, and some of them were born here.

You can't take a hike of any distance without seeing evidence of the mountain people. Traces of the roads they built will be visible for decades more. Many of their rail fences are still standing, though most have fallen and decayed. Some cabin foundations are intact, and around many homesites you can find battered tubs and buckets, broken tiles, bottles, and crockery. Most of the cabins were torn down, but a few dozen were not; these are now in ruins. Many of the cabin chimneys are standing, some of them as good as new.

There are over a hundred cemeteries in the Park. Families or private organizations can maintain them if they wish; the Park does not. The Dean Cemetery (Mile 63.2) and the Tanners Ridge Cemetery (51.6) are large and well maintained. (Burials may still take place there, as in other family burial areas, until the remaining space within these surveyed sites is filled.) Most of the rest are inactive, with no recent burials. and get little or no maintenance. Many are badly overgrown, and the headstones are leaning or falling.

Graves marked with inscribed headstones belong to families that had enough money to pay the stonecutter. Many graves are marked only by a small slab of fieldstone with no inscription. Who is buried beneath these slabs was a part of the oral tradition, a chain of information that was broken when the culture was disturbed in 1935. Now no one knows who is buried there.

The cemeteries, like the roads and houses, will slowly melt into the land. The most durable reminders left by the mountain people are the great piles of stones that they heaped up while clearing their fields. Those will last a thousand years. (Want to bet?)

I've heard that many families tore their cabins down and took the logs to the new homesite, to rebuild their old homes on the new land. I've heard that some homes were demolished when the family threatened to return to them. The Park Service made a study of the remaining houses to see which should be preserved as historic structures. But preservation and maintenance of scattered buildings would have been costly, and no money was available. Matters drifted, and the buildings decayed.

 What Were They Really Like?

The people who lived for generations in these mountains—what were they really like? Was the mountain man like Davy Crockett? Daniel Boone? Snuffy Smith? You can decide for yourself. And whatever you decide, there's plenty of expert testimony to back you up.

Mozelle R. Cowden studied the mountain people in the early 1930's, and paints this picture of the "median" family. There are five people, farming five acres, with a total cash income of from $100 to $150 a year. The family head is between 36 and 40 years old; his wife between 31 and 35. The adults have from one to four years of schooling; the children have none. The children are of normal height and weight. Their general health is good; their teeth are bad. The log house is reasonably clean, and flowers are planted around the door. The people are not hungry. They have chickens and a cow; and a hog to kill for winter meat. They have stored food to take them through the winter: canned fruit and vegetables, dried apples and beans, potatoes, pumpkins, cabbage, and at least ten gallons of kraut. Their cash income is enough to buy a year's supply of flour, meal, salt, sugar, and coffee.

It has been reported that the mountain people suffered a chronic malaise, a gnawing discontent. Darwin Lambert, who lived with a mountain family for nearly three years, tells me that, despite hardships, they enjoyed life as much as anyone he has ever known.

Surely there were "good" and "bad" people in the mountains, as there are everywhere. There were good and bad hollows, just as there are good and bad neighborhoods in a city. But most of the mountain people were reasonably well behaved, clear thinking, and industrious.

 The Park: An Outline of History

In 1923, the only National Parks east of the Mississippi are Acadia, in Maine and Hot Springs, in Arkansas. But various people have recommended creation of another eastern Park. This year Stephen T. Mather, Director of the Park Service, submits a report recommending that a Park be established in the Appalachian Mountains.

1924. Hubert A. Work, Secretary of the Interior, appoints the Southern Appalachian National Park Commission. Its assignment is to study possible sites for National Parks in the East, and to make recommendations. Various groups are vigorously promoting their favorite sites, including the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, and the Massanutten and Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Virginia. The Commission recommends that two Parks be created, one in the Smokies and one in the Blue Ridge. (It's likely that George Freeman Pollock, founder and owner of the resort at Skyland, was instrumental in persuading the Commission to recommend the Blue Ridge.) The Commission, in its report, suggests that a Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge park would be its outstanding feature, and writes "Few scenic drives in the world could surpass it."

1925. An Act of Congress authorizes and directs the Secretary of the Interior to determine possible boundaries for the proposed Shenandoah National Park.

1926. An Act of Congress authorizes establishment of the two parks, Smokies and Shenandoah. It specifies that land for the Shenandoah park be acquired at no expense to the Federal Government, and that the Park have a minimum area of 521,000 acres.

1928. An Act of Congress reduces the minimum area of Shenandoah National park to 327,000 acres. An Act of the Virginia Legislature authorizes the state to acquire land for the Park and donate it to the Federal Government. The Legislature appropriates $1.2 million to buy land, and this sum is to be matched by private donations. On the recommendation of Governor Harry F. Byrd, the Legislature creates the Virginia State Conservation and Development Commission to supervise land acquisition for the Park. (Acquisition will take years. Eventually 3,870 separate tracts will be bought, many of them with unclear titles and uncertain boundaries.)

1931. Construction of the Skyline Drive is begun, with money from the Federal Drought Relief Administration, as an emergency relief measure to provide work. Land acquisition is still under way, and there is no Park as yet. A 100-foot right-of-way for the Drive is acquired by gifts and special purchase.

It's now clear that money appropriated by the Virginia Legislature, plus private contributions, can't buy the amount of land specified by Congress as a minimum area for the Park. So Congress passes a new act, reducing the minimum to 160,000 acres.

1933. Young men of the newly created CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) move into the future Park. They fight fires, work to reduce fire hazards, control erosion, and grade and plant the areas beside the Drive.

1934. The CCC force increases, and eventually numbers about 1,000 men, in six separate camps. They begin to build trails and shelters; this, and work on the Drive, will continue until the Corps leaves the Park at the outbreak of World War II. On September 15 of this year the central section of Skyline Drive is opened to the public, although the guard walls and many of the overlooks are still incomplete. During the first few days, long lines of cars wait bumper-to-bumper to get onto the Drive.

1935. Picnic grounds are opened at Pinnacles and South River. (Those at Elkwallow, Dickey Ridge, and Big Meadows, will come later.) On December 26, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes accepts deeds from the Commonwealth of Virginia conveying 176,429 acres to the Federal Government, and Shenandoah National Park is officially established.

1936. On July 3, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicates the Park in a ceremony at Big Meadows. On October 1, the north section of the Drive is opened to the public.

1937. The Park Service signs a contract with the Virginia Skyline Company of Richmond to provide food and lodging in the Park. The company takes over the existing dining room, cabins, and stables at Skyland, and the restaurants and gas stations at Thornton Gap and Swift Run Gap. They enlarge and modernize all three, and begin construction of a dining hall at Dickey Ridge. The Big Meadows Campground is opened to the public, and the first camper appears within five minutes.

1938. The Dickey Ridge development is opened, with a dining room, coffee shop, outdoor dancing terrace, and gas station. Waysides are opened at Big Meadows and Elkwallow.

1939. The Big Meadows Lodge, built of stone and chestnut, is completed and opened to the public; it has a dining hall for 150 people, and 26 guest rooms. At Dickey Ridge twelve cabins of native chestnut are completed; they have from two to four rooms each, and can accommodate a total of 60 guests. On August 29 the southern section of the Drive is opened. The Skyline Drive is now complete (at a total cost of about $5,000,000, or $50,000 per mile.)

1940. Lewis Mountain campground and picnic ground are opened "for Negroes." During this year the last of the mountain people are resettled outside the Park.

1958. The former dining hall at Dickey Ridge is converted to a Visitor Center, and the cabins to ranger quarters. (The cabins will later be demolished or removed because of maintenance problems.)

1961. The new highway interchange in Thornton Gap is completed. During construction the old restaurant and gas station have been demolished, and the present facilities built.

1964. Loft Mountain campground opens.

1966. Big Meadows Visitor Center opens.

1967. Mathews Arm campground opens.

1983. A very ambitious project begins: resurfacing Skyline Drive and rebuilding the stone walls beside it. This will take many years to finish.

 The Land Changes

The Park was created on clearings and cut-over forest. Cutting, plowing, and grazing were stopped abruptly, and the land began to change. The mountain people had built an extensive network of roads and trails. The Park continued to maintain a few of them, but abandoned most. Men of the CCC graded and cleared the best of the trails, and chose a few mountaineer trails and roads to make "truck trails". The roads of the mountain people had been rough and narrow. The truck trails were rough and a little wider. When World War II ended, and the Park could resume its development, it improved some of the truck trails to make fire roads and administrative roads, to facilitate backcountry patrol and firefighting. Other truck trails were abandoned.

Some environments are fragile. In meadows of the high Sierras, for example, an abandoned road or trail might last for centuries. But the Blue Ridge ecosystem is tough and resilient. An abandoned trail will disappear within a few years. The old roads last longer, especially where the sides were built up with rocks. But these too will disappear.

Thistles and brambles moved quickly into the abandoned meadows; black locust, hazel and pine soon followed. In the cut-over forests young oaks and hickories grew unhindered, and began slowly to replace the pioneer species in the meadows. With the return of food and cover the birds came back, then small mammals, and finally the deer and bears. The change goes on. If the land remains undisturbed it will begin, within a century or two, to approach the climax forest that the first settlers found here. But it can never return entirely to its primitive state because the area is too small, too closely hemmed-in by civilization.

 Ah, Wilderness!

In November of 1976 the Congress passed, and the President signed, a Wilderness Act that set aside a number of natural areas for preservation, including a large part of Shenandoah National Park. If the law remains in effect it will ensure the return of our mini-wilderness to climax forest. As I've said, we're running a museum here, and a climax forest would make a magnificent exhibit.

The law provides that there shall be no man-made development in the wilderness areas. To comply with this law, the Park has "put the wilderness to bed." Shelters and bridges in the designated areas have been removed. All fire roads and administrative roads in the wilderness have been redesignated as trails. Culverts have been removed and the natural drainage of the area restored. The former roads are permanently closed to vehicles by large boulders at each end.

The future of trails in the wilderness is uncertain. The Park plans to keep them open, but just "one person wide." If you meet someone, you'll have to edge by sideways. Horse trails will be kept "one horse wide", so that when two horses meet the results should be interesting. At the height of the growing season, trails "one person wide" can grow completely shut in a few weeks. Unless, that is, we keep them buzzing with maintenance crews, which would conflict with the basic idea: to create a refuge where you can get away from, and put out of mind, your fellow man and all his works. It's possible that some of the trails will be abandoned.

The more extreme advocates of wilderness would like to go further. They would like to demolish the lodges, close the campgrounds, and tear up the Skyline Drive. I've head some of them say that no one should have access to any part of this Park except on foot. I don't agree with this view, but I think we need it to counterbalance the opposite fringe. For there are people who want swimming pools, golf courses, self-guiding motor "nature" trails, more lodges, more campgrounds, and a four-lane Skyline Drive.

Whether we who walk the middle ground will continue to have a Park here, I don't know.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved