Pioneers of the Old South: A Chronicle of English Colonial Beginnings

Author: Mary Johnston

Chapter XV. Alexander Spotswood

In the spring of 1689, Virginians flocked to Jamestown to hear William and Mary proclaimed Lord and Lady of Virginia. The next year there entered, as LieutenantGovernor, Francis Nicholson, an odd character in whom an immediate violence of temper went with a statesmanlike conception of things to be. Two years he governed here, then was transferred to Maryland, and then in seven years came back to the James. He had not been liked there, but while he was gone Virginia had endured in his stead Sir Edmund Andros. That had been swapping the witch for the devil. Virginia in 1698 seems to have welcomed the returning Nicholson.

Jamestown had been hastily rebuilt, after Bacon’s burning, and then by accident burned again. The word malaria was not in use, but all knew that there had always been sickness on that low spit running out from the marshes. The place might well seem haunted, so many had suffered there and died there. Poetical imagination might have evoked a piece of sad pageantry—starving times, massacres, quarrels, executions, cruel and unusual punishments, gliding Indians. A practical question, however, faced the inhabitants, and all were willing to make elsewhere a new capital city.

Seven miles back from the James, about halfway over to the blue York, stood that cluster of houses called Middle Plantation, where Bacon’s men had taken his Oath. There was planned and builded Williamsburg, which was to be for nearly a hundred years the capital of Virginia. It was named for King William, and there was in the minds of some loyal colonists the notion, eventually abandoned, of running the streets in the lines of a huge W and M. The long main street was called Duke of Gloucester Street, for the short-lived son of that Anne who was soon to become Queen. At one end of this thoroughfare stood a fair brick capitol. At the other end nearly a mile away rose the brick William and Mary College. Its story is worth the telling.

The formal acquisition of knowledge had long been a problem in Virginia. Adult colonists came with their education, much or little, gained already in the mother country. In most cases, doubtless, it was little, but in many cases it was much. Books were brought in with other household furnishing. When there began to be native-born Virginians, these children received from parents and kindred some manner of training. Ministers were supposed to catechise and teach. Well-to-do and educated parents brought over tutors. Promising sons were sent to England to school and university. But the lack of means to knowledge for the mass of the colony began to be painfully apparent.

In the time of Charles the First one Benjamin Symms had left his means for the founding of a free school in Elizabeth County, and his action had been solemnly approved by the Assembly. By degrees there appeared other similar free schools, though they were never many nor adequate. But the first Assembly after the Restoration had made provision for a college. Land was to have been purchased and the building completed as speedily as might be. The intent had been good, but nothing more had been done.

There was in Virginia, sent as Commissioner of the Established Church, a Scotch ecclesiastic, Dr. James Blair. In virtue of his office he had a seat in, the Council, and his integrity and force soon made him a leader in the colony. A college in Virginia became Blair’s dream. He was supported by Virginia planters with sons to educate—daughters’ education being purely a domestic affair. Before long Blair had raised in promised subscriptions what was for the time a large sum. With this for a nucleus he sailed to England and there collected more. Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester, helped him much. The King and Queen inclined a favorable ear, and, though he met with opposition in certain quarters, Blair at last obtained his charter. There was to be built in Virginia and to be sustained by taxation a great school, "a seminary of ministers of the gospel where youths may be piously educated in good letters and manners; a certain place of universal study, or perpetual college of divinity, philosophy, languages and other good arts and sciences." Blair sailed back to Virginia with the charter of the college, some money, a plan for the main building drawn by Christopher Wren, and for himself the office of President.

The Assembly, for the benefit of the college, taxed raw and tanned hides, dressed buckskin, skins of doe and elk, muskrat and raccoon. The construction of the new seat of learning was begun at Williamsburg. When it was completed and opened to students, it was named William and Mary. Its name and record shine fair in old Virginia. Colonial worthies in goodly number were educated at William and Mary, as were later revolutionary soldiers and statesmen, and men of name and fame in the United States. Three American Presidents—Jefferson, Monroe, and Tyler—were trained there, as well as Marshall, the Chief Justice, four signers of the Declaration of Independence, and many another man of mark.

The seventeenth century is about to pass. France and England are at war. The colonial air vibrates with the struggle. There is to be a brief lull after 1697, but the conflict will soon be resumed. The more northerly colonies, the nearer to New France, feel the stronger pulsation, but Virginia, too, is shaken. England and France alike play for the support of the red man. All the western side of America lies open to incursion from that pressed-back Indian sea of unknown extent and volume. Up and down, the people, who have had no part in making that European war, are sensitive to the menace of its dangers. In Virginia they build blockhouses and they keep rangers on guard far up the great rivers.

All the world is changing, and the changes are fraught with significance for America. Feudalism has passed; scholasticism has gone; politics, commerce, philosophy, religion, science, invention, music, art, and literature are rapidly altering. In England William and Mary pass away. Queen Anne begins her reign of twelve years. Then, in 1714, enters the House of Hanover with George the First. It is the day of Newton and Locke and Berkeley, of Hume, of Swift, Addison, Steele, Pope, Prior, and Defoe. The great romantic sixteenth century, Elizabeth’s spacious time, is gone. The deep and narrow, the intense, religious, individualistic seventeenth century is gone. The eighteenth century, immediate parent of the nineteenth, grandparent of the twentieth, occupies the stage.

In the year 1704, just over a decade since Dr. Blair had obtained the charter for his College, the erratic and able Governor of Virginia, Francis Nicholson, was recalled. For all that he was a wild talker, he had on the whole done well for Virginia. He was, as far as is known, the first person actually to propose a federation or union of all those English-speaking political divisions, royal provinces, dominions, palatinates, or what not, that had been hewed away from the vast original Virginia. He did what he could to forward the movement for education and the fortunes of the William and Mary College. But he is quoted as having en one occasion informed the body of the people that "the gentlemen imposed upon them." Again, he is said to have remarked of the servant population that they had all been kidnapped and had a lawful action against their masters. "Sir," he stated to President Blair, who would have given him advice from the Bishop of London, "Sir, I know how to govern Virginia and Maryland better than all the bishops. in England! If I had not hampered them in Maryland and kept them under, I should never have been able to govern them!" To which Blair had to say, "Sir, if I know anything of Virginia, they are a good-natured, tractable people as any in the world, and you may do anything with them by way of civility, but you will never be able to manage them in that way you speak of, by hampering and keeping them under!"*

* William and Mary College Quarterly, vol. I, p. 66.

About this time arrived Claude de Richebourg with a number of Huguenots who settled above the Falls. First and last, Virginia received many of this good French strain. The Old Dominion had now a population of over eighty thousand persons—whites, Indians in no great number, and negroes. The red men are mere scattered dwellers in the land east of the mountains. There are Indian villages, but they are far apart. Save upon the frontier fringe, the Indian attacks no more. But the African is here to stay.

"The Negroes live in small Cottages called Quarters . . . under the direction of an Overseer or Bailiff; who takes care that they tend such Land as the Owner allots and orders, upon which they raise Hogs and Cattle and plant Indian Corn, and Tobacco for the Use of their Master .... The Negroes are very numerous, Dome Gentlemen having Hundreds of them of all Sorts, to whom they bring great Profitt; for the Sake of which they are obliged to keep them well, and not over-work, starve or famish them, besides other Inducements to favour them; which is done in a great Degree, to such especially that are laborious, careful and honest; tho’ indeed some Masters, careless of their own Interest or deputation, are too cruel and negligent. The Negroes are not only encreased by fresh supplies from Africa and the West India Islands, but also are very prolific among themselves; and they that are born here talk good English and affect our Language, Habits and Customs . . . . Their work or Chimerical hard Slavery) is not very laborious; their greatest Hardship consisting in that they and their Posterity are not at their own Liberty or Disposal, but are the Property of their Owners; and when they are free they know not how to provide so well for themselves generally; neither did they live so plentifully nor (many of them) so easily in their own Country where they are made Slaves to one another, or taken Captive by their Ennemies."*

* It is an English clergyman, the Reverend Hugh Jones, who is writing ("The Present State of Virginia") in the year 1724. He writes and never sees that, though every amelioration be true, yet there is here old Inequity.

The white Virginians lived both after the fashion of England and after fashions made by their New World environment. They are said to have been in general a handsome folk, tall, well-formed, and with a ready and courteous manner. They were great lovers of riding, and of all country life, and few folk in the world might overpass them in hospitality. They were genial, they liked a good laugh, and they danced to good music. They had by nature an excellent understanding. Yet, thinks at least the Reverend Hugh Jones, they "are generally diverted by Business or Inclination from profound Study, and prying into the Depth of Things . . . .They are more inclinable to read Men by Business and Conversation, than to dive into Books . . . they are apt to learn, yet they are fond of and will follow their own Ways, Humours and Notions, being not easily brought to new Projects and Schemes."

It was as Governor of these people that, in succession to Nicholson, Edward Nott came to Virginia, the deputy of my Lord Orkney. Nott died soon afterward, and in 1710 Orkney sent to Virginia in his stead Alexander Spotswood. This man stands in Virginia history a manly, honorable, popular figure. Of Scotch parentage, born in Morocco, soldier under Marlborough, wounded at Blenheim, he was yet in his thirties when he sailed across the Atlantic to the river James. Virginia liked him, and he liked Virginia. A man of energy and vision, he first made himself at home with all, and then after his own impulses and upon his own lines went about to develop and to better the colony. He had his projects and his hobbies, mostly useful, and many sounding with a strong modern tone. Now and again he quarreled with the Assembly, and he made it many a cutting speech. But it, too, and all Virginia and the world were growing modern. Issues were disengaging themselves and were becoming distinct. In these early years of the eighteenth century, Whig and Tory in England drew sharply over against each other. In Virginia, too, as in Maryland, the Carolinas, and all the rest of England-in-America, parties were emerging. The Virginian flair for political life was thus early in evidence. To the careless eye the colony might seem overwhelmingly for King and Church. "If New England be called a Receptacle of Dissenters, and an Amsterdam of Religion, Pennsylvania the Nursery of Quakers; Maryland the Retirement of Roman Catholicks, North Carolina the Refuge of Runaways and South Carolina the Delight of Buccaneers and Pyrates, Virginia may be justly esteemed the happy Retreat of true Britons and true Churchmen for the most Part." This "for the most part" paints the situation, for there existed an opposition, a minority, which might grow to balance, and overbalance. In the meantime the House of Burgesses at Williamsburg provided a School for Discussion.

At the time when Parson Jones with his shrewd eyes was observing society in the Old Dominion, Williamsburg was still a small village, even though it was the capital. Towns indeed, in any true sense, were nowhere to be found in Virginia. Yet Williamsburg had a certain distinction. Within it there arose, beneath and between old forest trees, the college, an admirable church—Bruton Church—the capitol, the Governor’s house or "palace," and many very tolerable dwelling-houses of frame and brick. There were also taverns, a marketplace, a bowling-green, an arsenal, and presently a playhouse. The capitol at Williamsburg was a commodious one, able to house most of the machinery of state. Here were the Council Chamber, "where the Governor and Council sit in very great state, in imitation of the King and Council, or the Lord Chancellor and House of Lords, " and the great room of the House of Burgesses, "not unlike the House of Commons." Here, at the capitol . met the General Courts in April and October, the Governor and Council acting as judges. There were also Oyer and Terminer and Admiralty Courts. There were offices and committee rooms, and on the cupola a great clock, and near the capitol was "a strong, sweet Prison for Criminals; and on the other side of an open Court another for Debtors . . . but such Prisoners are very rare, the Creditors being generally very merciful . . . . At the Capitol, at publick Times, may be seen a great Number of handsome, well-dressed, compleat Gentlemen. And at the Governor’s House upon Birth-Nights, and at Balls and Assemblies, I have seen as fine an Appearance, as good Diversion, and as splendid Entertainments, in Governor Spotswood’s Time, as I have seen anywhere else."

It is a far cry from the Susan Constant, the Goodspeed, and the Discovery, from those first booths at Jamestown, from the Starving Time, from Christopher Newport and Edward-Maria Wingfield and Captain John Smith to these days of Governor Spotswood. And yet, considering the changes still to come, a century seems but a little time and the far cry not so very far.

Though the Virginians were in the mass country folk, yet villages or hamlets arose, clusters of houses pressing about the Court House of each county. There were now in the colony over a score of settled counties. The westernmost of these, the frontier counties, were so huge that they ran at least to the mountains, and, for all one knew to the contrary, presumably beyond. But "beyond" was a mysterious word of unknown content, for no Virginian of that day had gone beyond. All the way from Canada into South Carolina and the Florida of that time stretched the mighty system. of the Appalachians, fifteen hundred miles in length and three hundred in breadth. Here was a barrier long and thick, with ridge after ridge of lifted and forested earth, with knife-blade vales between, and only here and there a break away and an encompassed treasure of broad and fertile valley. The Appalachians made a true Chinese Wall, shutting all England-in-America, in those early days, out from the vast inland plateau of the continent, keeping upon the seaboard all England-in-America, from the north to the south. To Virginia these were the mysterious mountains just beyond which, at first, were held to be the South Sea and Cathay. Now, men’s knowledge being larger by a hundred years, it was known that the South Sea could not be so near. The French from Canada, going by way of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, had penetrated very far beyond and had found not the South Sea but a mighty river flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. What was the real nature of this world which had been found to lie over the mountains? More and more Virginians were inclined to find out, foreseeing that they would need room for their growing population. Continuously came in folk from the Old Country, and continuously Virginians were born. Maryland dwelt to the north, Carolina to the south. Virginia, seeking space, must begin to grow westward.

There were settlements from the sea to the Falls of the James, and upon the York, the Rappahannock, and the Potomac. Beyond these, in the wilderness, might be found a few lonely cabins, a scattered handful of pioneer folk, small blockhouses, and small companies of rangers charged with protecting all from Indian foray. All this country was rolling and hilly, but beyond it stood the mountains, a wall of enchantment, against the west.

Alexander Spotswood, hardy Scot, endowed with a good temperamental blend of the imaginative and the active, was just the man, the time being ripe, to encounter and surmount that wall. Fortunately, too, the Virginians were horsemen, man and horse one piece almost, New World centaurs. They would follow the bridle-tracks that pierced to the hilly country, and beyond that they might yet make way through the primeval forest. They would encounter dangers, but hardly the old perils of seacoast and foothills. Different, indeed, is this adventure of the Governor of Virginia and his chosen band from the old push afoot into frowning hostile woods by the men of a hundred and odd years before!

Spotswood rode westward with a company drawn largely from the colonial gentry, men young in body or in spirit, gay and adventurous. The whole expedition was conceived and executed in a key both humorous and knightly. These "Knights"* set face toward the mountains in August, 1716. They had guides who knew the upcountry, a certain number of rangers used to Indian ways, and servants with food and much wine in their charge. So out of settled Virginia they rode, and up the long, gradual lift of earth above sea-level into a mountainous wilderness, where before them the Aryan had not come. By day they traveled, and bivouacked at night.

* On the sandy roads of settled Virginia horses went unshod, but for the stony hills and the ultimate cliffs they must have iron shoes. After the adventure and when the party had returned to civilization, the Governor, bethinking himself that there should be some token and memento of the exploit, had made in London a number of small golden horseshoes, set as pins to be worn in the lace cravats of the period. Each adventurer to the mountains received one, and the band has kept, in Virginian lore, the title of the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe.

Higher and more rugged grew the mountains. Some trick of the light made them show blue, so that they presently came to be called the Blue Ridge, in contradistinction to the westward lying, gray Alleghanies. They were like very long ocean combers, with at intervals an abrupt break, a gap, cliff-guarded, boulder-strewn, with a narrow rushing stream making way between hemlocks and pines, sycamore, ash and beech, walnut and linden.

Towards these blue mountains Spotswood and his knights rode day after day and came at last to the foot of the steep slope. The long ridges were high, but not so high but that horse and man might make shift to scramble to the crest. Up they climbed and from the heights they looked across and down into the Valley of Virginia, twenty miles wide, a hundred and twenty long—a fertile garden spot. Across the shimmering distances they saw the gray Alleghanies, fresh barrier to a fresh west. Below them ran a clear river, afterwards to be called the Shenandoah. They gazed—they predicted colonists, future plantations, future towns, for that great valley, large indeed as are some Old World kingdoms. They drank the health of England’s King, and named two outstanding peaks Mount George and Mount Alexander; then, because their senses were ravished by the Eden before them, they dubbed the river Euphrates. They plunged and scrambled down the mountain side to the Euphrates, drank of it, bathed in it, rested, ate, and drank again. The deep green woods were around them; above them they could see the hawk, the eagle, and the buzzard, and at their feet the bright fish of the river.

At last they reclimbed the Blue Ridge, descended its eastern face, and, leaving the great wave of it behind them, rode homeward to Williamsburg in triumph.

We are thus, with Spotswood and his band, on the threshold of expanding American vistas. This Valley of Virginia, first a distant Beulah land for the eye of the imagination only, presently became a land of pioneer cabins, far apart—very far apart—then a settled land, of farms, hamlets, and market towns. Nor did the folk come only from that elder Virginia of tidal waters and much tobacco, of "compleat gentlemen" at the capital, and of many slaves in the fields. But downward from the Potomac, they came south into this valley, from Pennsylvania and Maryland, many of them Ulster Scots who had sailed to the western world. In America they are called the ScotchIrish, and in the main they brought stout hearts, long arms, and level heads. With these they brought in as luggage the dogmas of Calvin. They permeated the Valley of Virginia; many moved on south into Carolina; finally, in large part, they made Kentucky and Tennessee. Germans, too, came into the valley-down from Pennsylvania—quiet, thrifty folk, driven thus far westward from a war-ravished Rhine.

Shrewd practicality trod hard upon the heels of romantic fancy in the mind of Spotswood. His Order of the Knights of the Horseshoe had a fleeting existence, but the Vision of the West lived on. Frontier folk in growing numbers were encouraged to make their way from tidewater to the foot of the Blue Ridge. Spotsylvania and King George were names given to new counties in the Piedmont in honor of the Governor and the sovereign. German craftsmen, who had been sent over by Queen Anne—vine-dressers and ironworkers—were settled on Spotswood’s own estate above the falls of the Rapidan. The little town of Germanna sprang up, famous for its smelting furnaces.

To his country seat in Spotsylvania, Alexander Spotswood retired when he laid down the office of Governor in 1722. But his talents were too valuable to be allowed to rust in inactivity. He was appointed deputy Postmaster-General for the English colonies, and in the course of his administration made one Benjamin Franklin Postmaster for Philadelphia. He was on the point of sailing with Admiral Vernon on the expedition against Cartagena in 1740, when he was suddenly stricken and died. He was buried at Temple Farm by Yorktown. On the expedition to Cartagena went one Lawrence Washington, who named his countryseat after the Admiral and whose brother George many years later was to receive the surrender of Cornwallis and his army hard by the resting-place of Alexander Spotswood. Colonial Virginia lies behind us. The era of revolution and statehood beckons us on.


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Chicago: Mary Johnston, "Chapter XV. Alexander Spotswood," Pioneers of the Old South: A Chronicle of English Colonial Beginnings, ed. Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937 in Pioneers of the Old South: A Chronicle of English Colonial Beginnings Original Sources, accessed July 17, 2024,

MLA: Johnston, Mary. "Chapter XV. Alexander Spotswood." Pioneers of the Old South: A Chronicle of English Colonial Beginnings, edited by Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937, in Pioneers of the Old South: A Chronicle of English Colonial Beginnings, Original Sources. 17 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Johnston, M, 'Chapter XV. Alexander Spotswood' in Pioneers of the Old South: A Chronicle of English Colonial Beginnings, ed. . cited in , Pioneers of the Old South: A Chronicle of English Colonial Beginnings. Original Sources, retrieved 17 July 2024, from