History of The Shenandoah Valley

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Native American archaeological sites in the Shenandoah Valley are seldom studied. However, historical documents and archaeological evidence show surprising cultural connections in the Shenandoah Valley at various periods to the Ohio Valley, northern Georgia and southern Canada. It appears to have been a place where Native Americans from the north and south generally traded, but sometimes fought. That tradition continued to several major battles in the American Civil War.

It is very difficult to go anywhere in the northern part of the valley or along the North Fork of the river and not find history of national or regional importance with all the wonderful Shenandoah Valley historic homes. This is where George Washington spent much of his early manhood as either a surveyor or commander of the Virginia Militia. Historical markers denoting Indian massacres or Civil War battles can be seen everywhere. There are several rural hamlets that have not changed significantly in appearance since 1860. Several of those villages are composed primarily of houses built before 1820. More remote locations such as around Liberty Furnace on Cedar Creek contain log houses dating from the 1730s and 1740s. Furthermore, the lineage of most, if not all of America’s champion thoroughbred racehorses can be traced to ancestors in the Shenandoah Valley.

With such a rich broth of history pertaining to the European occupation being so visible in the Shenandoah Valley, its, almost invisible Native American heritage is not part of the public consciousness. As will be discussed later in this series, the earliest settlers were quite aware of their predecessors, because the ruins of many Native American settlements and mounds were still visible. However, most of the structures created by Native Americans were leveled over two centuries ago, while Shenandoah Valley historic houses literally stained with the blood of Civil War soldiers are still quite common.

There is a major obstacle to examining the Colonial Era history of western Virginia. No maps were made of the region until all the Native Americans were gone in the mid-1700s. This particularly astonishing since, in contrast, there are maps showing the Native American ethnic groups of the 13th colony, Georgia, as early as 1566 . . . 51 years prior to when Jamestown, VA was founded.

The pre-European past of the Shenandoah Valley has long been a tierra incognita for Virginians. However, a map accompanying the published journal of explorer Johann Lederer’s 1671 expedition along the Blue Ridge Mountains, does show the Rickohocken Tribe occupying the same territory in southwest Virginia that after 1718, was labeled “Cherokees.”

Virginia’s historians and anthropologists have assigned the same cultural periods to Native Americans on both sides of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The standard descriptions of these cultural periods usually do not mention the construction of mounds and stone cairns, or the development of large permanent towns.

A closer examination of the archaeological evidence reveals that the indigenous peoples of the Shenandoah Valley apparently were far more similar to their contemporaries in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia than to those living east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, there were distinct differences from the regions on either side that reflect influence from the Lower Southeast. The unique natural environment of the Valley of Virginia also made possible the existence of large herds of bison, deer and elk. This asset made possible lifestyles for some ethnic groups there, more similar to the Midwestern prairies. Therefore, the following descriptions represent a synthesis of Virginia’s, West Virginia’s, eastern Tennessee’s and northern Georgia’s Native American cultural periods.

Much about the Pre-European history of the Shenandoah Valley is still not fully understood by anthropologists and historians. What factual information that is available is typically omitted from the books and web sites readily available for public consumption. In the public’s perspective, several the myths still remain constant. One is that the Shenandoah Valley was uninhabited when Virginia was settled. Official documents describe the inhabitants of the Shenandoah as being primitive hunters and gatherers, who were massacred by a mysterious tribe of “Southern Indians.” In fact, until the late 1600s the Shenandoah Valley was the most densely populated region in the Colony of Virginia. Western Virginia contains the majority of Virginia’s mounds, large indigenous town sites and visible Pre-European ruins.

Exploration and Settlement of the Shenandoah Valley

The first recorded exploration of the Shenandoah Valley was by German immigrant, Johann Lederer, and several associates in 1670. They went as far west as present day Strasburg, VA, then turned around. His journey came on the heels of a decade of ethnic cleansing by the Rickohockens. Colonel Cadwallader Jones explored the central part of the valley in 1673. Colonial records do not document any more expeditions until 1705, when George Ritter, from Bern, Switzerland, led a party into the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, then decide to settle east of the valley.

In 1719, Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord of Cameron, inherited the 5,282,000 acre Northern Neck proprietary estate in what is now Northern Virginia. Unlike most portions of the British North American colonies, it was operated as feudal manor in which tenants paid land rents, rather than owning their farms fee simple. However, some tracts were sold outright to purchasers from prominent families in England, and later in Fairfax’s life, to anyone with the money. Between 1719 and 1732, Robert “King” Carter became extremely wealthy working as Lord Fairfax’s agent. Carter focused sales and rentals on the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There were few settlers in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley until after 1732. That was when Lord Fairfax moved to Virginia and began developing his plantation. He sent agents to Europe to recruit tenants, who were skilled yeoman farmers.

The Shenandoah Valley’s unique man-made landscape is a result of its mid-and-late 18th century settlement patterns. The Germanic settlers were accustomed to intensive farming of tracts ranging between 50 and 60 acres in size. The North Fork of the Shenandoah Valley was almost exclusively settled by Protestant immigrants from the German Palatinate, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Moravia and Denmark. The portion of the valley north of where the two forks join was settled at the same time by Germans, Ulster Irish and Quakers from Pennsylvania. The western half of Rockingham County, in the southern end of the valley was settled by Mennonites from Pennsylvania. The first Mennonites arrived around 1730, but there were not substantial numbers of Mennonites until the 1820s.

Native Americans continued to live on lands officially owned by Fairfax until 1753. Early Shenandoah County resident and historian, Samuel Kercheval, wrote in his book, A History of the Valley of Virginia, that European and Native American settlers lived side by side. The Indians did not pay land rent to Lord Fairfax. Relations were peaceful between Europeans and Native Americans until 1754. Those Natives not involved with the hostilities between Great Britain and France left the region, when war began.

Apparently, none of the Natives in the heart of the valley were indigenous. Immediately prior to the arrival of British settlers, the northern tip of the Shenandoah County had been occupied by a branch of the Huron (Wyandot) Indians. The Wyandot cultivated high quality tobacco, which was traded throughout New England, southern Canada and Great Lakes region. According to tradition, the Huron were driven out of the Valley in the late 1600s by the Iroquois Confederacy. By the time that the settlers arrived in the valley, the northern tip was occupied by Tuscarora refugees from North Carolina.

Some Shawnee villages were located in the vicinity of present day Winchester and Front Royal, VA. The principal town of this band of Shawnee was located at Shawnee Springs, immediately west of Winchester, VA. In 1753 emissaries traveled to the Shenandoah Shawnee and invited them to move west. All Shawnee soon left the valley and relocated in eastern Ohio.

There were Native American farmsteads and extended family hamlets scattered about the Shenandoah Valley until 1754. There is very little information about their ethnicity. Apparently, they migrated from various parts of eastern Virginia, or were remnant tribes. It is believed that they moved south during the French & Indian War and joined the Cherokees.

Midwestern tribes continued to attack the Shenandoah Valley farmsteads until around 1766. Attacks on frontiersmen in present day West Virginia continued to beyond the end of the Revolution. After 1756 there is no mention in official records of any Native American living in the Shenandoah Valley.

Thornton, Richard. Native Americans of the Shenandoah Valley.

While there are not as many multi-million dollar Central Virginia historic homes for sale in the Shenandoah Valley (they were burned down) on occasion a gem of an 18th century home will come on the market.

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