Washington and Lee University

Washington West of the Blue Ridge
John W. Wayland

Note: The following is taken from the July 1940 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 48), pp. 193–201.



Even after all these years it seems difficult, and often undesirable, to get away from the footprints of George Washington. This is true whether we take it literally or figuratively. I found it literally true today. When I came across the Blue Ridge at Swift Run Gap, on U. S. Route 33, I was following the old trail along which Washington rode on horseback in early October 1784, returning to Mount Vernon from a trip to the West.

This trip in 1784 was only one of a number. It was by no means the first time he had been west of the great mountain, nor was it the last. His journeys westward were so frequent over a long stretch of time, and of so much significance, that I am devoting this paper to Washington West of the Blue Ridge.

Not counting the period of several years during the French and Indian War that he spent mostly in the Shenandoah Valley, chiefly in and around Winchester, I find that he made at least fifteen visits or tours into the western country. I say at least fifteen—probably more. The first was in the spring of 1748, when he, George Fairfax, and the surveyor James Genn spent 30 days, chiefly on the South Branch of the Potomac, in what are now the counties of Hardy and Hampshire, West Virginia, exploring and surveying for Lord Fairfax. The last, or the last of which I have found record, was forty years later, in June 1788, when he was at Harper’s Ferry, Charles Town, and adjacent points, promoting the work that was then in progress for opening navigation along the Potomac and the Shenandoah.

These items have been gleaned mainly from Washington’s diaries, which, of course, are the best sources for his goings and comings, though they are not complete. For considerable intervals he either did not keep diaries, or if he did they have been lost.

There are, of course, a few traditions that cannot always be accepted. For example, there is, in certain parts of the Shenandoah Valley a persistent myth that Washington surveyed or helped to survey the Fairfax Line, a line 76 miles long, running from the head spring of Rappahannock (Rapidan) to the head spring of Potomac. This line crosses the Valley just a mile above (southwest of) New Market. This line was run in September, October, and November, 1746. The fact that Washington at that time was only between fourteen and fifteen years old, and not yet in Lord Fairfax’s employ, does not seem to count with those who have a zeal for capitalizing a good story. Thomas Lewis, one of the surveyors of that line, made a rather minute record of that work, naming in his journal the several commissioners and surveyors on both sides. He does not name Washington.

Washington’s first tour across the Blue Ridge in the spring of 1748 has been mentioned. During the next several years, employed by Lord Fairfax, he very probably made other and extended tours into the Shenandoah Valley and beyond, though we lack definite records of them. Within this period, 1748 to 1753, Fairfax established himself at Greenway Court, now in Clarke County, Va., and opened there his main land office. We may be sure that young Washington was in this region frequently in the years immediately preceding 1753, as he was several times afterward.

In the late autumn of 1753 we come to an incident in Washington’s early career that is notable and generally familiar—his journey to the French commandant beyond the Ohio and his return after more than two months of strenuous and perilous experiences. This expedition into the West was the young patriot’s first important public service.

The next year, on the last day of March 1754, Washington was commissioned by Governor Dinwiddie a lieutenant-colonel in the Virginia regiment commanded by Joshua Fry, with orders to take the troops which were at that time quartered in Alexandria and lead them out towards the Ohio River, there to aid Captain William Trent in building forts and in defending against the French. This expedition went up through Loudoun County and crossed the Ridge by Vestal’s Gap, entering the Valley near the site of Charles Town, and proceeding thence by way of Winchester to Will’s Creek, now Cumberland, Md. Colonel Fry died at the end of May, and Washington succeeded him. After some successes against the French, Washington and his command were forced to surrender on July 3 at Fort Necessity.

The next year the same general course westward was followed by General Braddock and his ill-fated army, in which young Washington was in charge of Virginia troops but largely ignored until his valiant service in the day of disaster near Fort Duquesne proved his ability no less than his unheeded wisdom. For the next two or three years he was charged with the impossible task of defending the long Virginia border against the French and the Indians, after it had been laid open to attack by the defeat of Braddock. It was an impossible task because of the long extent of the frontier and because of the small number of men whom he had available and who could be depended upon in an emergency. A number of small forts were constructed at wide intervals from the Potomac down almost to the line of North Carolina, and Washington made an extended tour to inspect these forts in the fall of 1755 or 1756. It was on this tour probably, if at all, that Washington wasted time and risked his neck in climbing the Natural Bridge. But a young fellow of 24 may do some foolish things, even when not in love.

During the latter part of 1755 and for two or three years following, Washington had his headquarters at Winchester, and there he drew plans for and directed the building of Fort Loudoun, a strong fortification, parts of which still remain. In the city of Winchester are two hills of moderate elevation, one of which, south of the public square, is called Potato Hill. The other, farther north, is the one on which Fort Loudoun was built, and is still known as Fort Hill.

The settlements west of Winchester, exposed to sudden and devastating inroads of the French and Indians, were almost deserted by the terrified pioneers, and young Washington was sorely perplexed by their piteous appeals and by his lack of men and means for protecting them. However, he put forth his best efforts; he remained with them, and purchased property in the town. He came to be regarded as one of them, and on two or three occasions he was a candidate to represent them in the House of Burgesses. The first time he was a candidate he was overwhelmingly defeated in the election, receiving only 40 votes.

The small vote he received was due, we are told, to his refusal to provide a plentiful supply of liquor for the voters at election time. The next time, however, yielding to the importunities of James Wood, his campaign manager, he provided liquor, with other refreshments, to the cost amount of $39.00, and was elected. Accordingly, he represented Frederick County for several years, continuing in this capacity for a year or two after he married and settled down at Mount Vernon. His marriage to the widow Custis took place in January 1759. In the preceding November the English had gotten possession of Fort Duquesne and the settlers west of the Ridge had some respite from invasion.

By the will of his half-brother Lawrence, George Washington had come into possession of Mount Vernon and also of valuable lands in Frederick County. In this county, especially in the part now Jefferson County, W.Va., he also acquired lands by purchase. On these lands he had slaves and overseers. In May of 1760, as he tells us in his diary, he made a trip to Frederick to look after some of his Negroes who lay ill of smallpox. On this trip he also inspected a site upon which a bloomery and other iron-working enterprises were projected.

One of the places in Frederick County in which Washington was much interested was Bath, now Berkeley Springs, in Morgan County, W.Va. He owned property there, and in the late summer of 1769 he, Mrs. Washington, and her daughter Patsy Custis spent over a month there, in a round of entertainment and enjoyment, in association with Lord Fairfax, James Wood, Rev. Charles Mynn Thruston, and other persons of distinction.

About 1765 George Washington’s first-cousin, Warner Washington, with his second wife, Hannah Fairfax, had moved to the Valley and had settled at Fairfield, a splendid country estate about 13 miles east of Winchester. Fairfield is located a short distance below Berryville and on the direct course that Washington would follow from Snicker’s Gap in the Blue Ridge to his farm lands on the Bullskin. Warner Washington was 17 years older than George, but the two men were evidently fond of each other, and George often stopped with his cousin Warner at Fairfield. On the trip to the springs, just mentioned, the company from Mount Vernon were entertained at Fairfield, going and returning. Later two of George’s brothers, Samuel and Charles, also settled in the Valley, not far from Fairfield. No doubt George’s work for Lord Fairfax and his high appraisal of Valley lands had much to do with directing the attention of his kinsmen to this region; and after they had settled here his own interest in the locality was naturally kept alive and stimulated by their presence.

One of the most notable trips that Washington made into the West was in the autumn of 1770, exploring lands along the Ohio River. He set out from Mount Vernon on the 5th of October in company with Dr. James Craik. The Doctor had one servant, Washington two, one of whom was William Lee, who later attended Washington through the Revolution. An extra horse was led along, carrying baggage. They went out by Romney and the Great Meadows to Fort Pitt, now Pittsburgh, having been joined on the way by Captain William Crawford and others. This Captain Crawford was the same who was later burned to death by the Indians near Sandusky, Ohio. For nearly two months they explored and measured lands in the Ohio Valley, going down the Ohio River as far as the mouth of the Great Kanawha, over 250 miles below Pittsburgh.

Washington got back to Mount Vernon from this tour on December 1, after an absence of nine weeks and one day. At least, so he states in his diary; but I think he overstated the period by one week.

The purpose of this expedition was to spy out lands that were to be allotted to Washington and other officers for their services in the French and Indian War; and the next spring Washington spent several days at Winchester and other places in Frederick County writing out instructions for the surveyors of these lands, which altogether aggregated about 200,000 acres.

On all these tours into the western country Washington was not only on the lookout for good tracts of land for himself and others, he was also giving careful attention to the best and most direct courses for overland trails and roads and for the possibilities for navigation on the rivers. By the opening of improved ways for travel and transportation he was not only advancing the personal interests of himself and his friends, he was also promoting the public welfare in an important and permanent way. The development of internal improvements became one of the passions of his life. This is manifest in his records concerning the extended tour that he made in 1784, to which reference was made in the beginning of this paper.

During the long years of the Revolutionary War his affairs in the West as well as at Mount Vernon had been neglected—at least had not received his own personal attention; but in the autumn of 1784 he set out again for the Ohio Valley. He wrote in his diary:

Having found it indispensably necessary to visit my Landed property West of the Apalachean Mountains, and more especially that part of it which I held in Copartnership with Mr. Gilbert Simpson—Having determined upon a tour into that Country, and having made the necessary preparations for it, I did, on the first day of this Month (September) set out on my journey.

He left Mount Vernon about 9 o’clock in the morning, with three servants and six horses, three of which carried baggage. He was accompanied again by Dr. James Craik; also by William Craik and Bushrod Washington. Bushrod was the General’s nephew; later the owner of Mount Vernon and an eminent jurist. To this journey the General devotes much space in his diary. His observations in what are now western Maryland, western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia are exceedingly discerning and interesting, but cannot be detailed here. His attention was still given to good land, navigable rivers, and the best routes for overland trails and roads. Not only so, the industrial activities and social conditions of the people received his attention, and by no means least the political leanings of the men on the frontier.

“The Western Settlers—from my own observation”—he declares, “stand as it were on a pivot—the touch of a feather would almost incline them any way—they looked down the Mississippi until the Spaniards . . . threw difficulties in the way, and for no other reason that I can conceive than because they glided gently down the stream, without considering perhaps the tediousness of the voyage back, and the time necessary to perform it in; and because they have no other means of coming to us but by a long land transportation and unimproved Roads.

“A combination of circumstances make the present conjuncture more favorable than any other to fix the trade of the Western Country to our Markets.”

To Washington it must have been plain that the political sympathies and allegiance of the men on the western waters were also on a pivot, and that they would naturally follow with their trade and travel along the most favorable lines of transportation and communication.

In going out westward on this trip in the autumn of 1784 Washington followed the familiar route up the Potomac and Will’s Creek. Coming back he turned southward, crossing the South Branch and the South Branch Mountains in the vicinity of Moorefield, now in Hardy County, West Virginia, and coming down into Rockingham County through Brock’s Gap, northwest of Broadway. He reached the home of Thomas Lewis, three miles below the site of Port Republic, about sundown, September 30, after a ride that day of about 40 miles.

Several reasons, we believe, inclined Washington to come by way of Thomas Lewis’s, much out of his direct course to Mount Vernon. He and Thomas Lewis, it is said, were mutually interested in certain surveys and tracts of land. And there may have been a social reason, a sentiment of auld lang syne. Thomas Lewis and two of his neighbors, John Madison and Gabriel Jones, had married Strother girls, sisters, who had grown up at or near the Ferry Farm, opposite Fredericksburg, where Washington had spent a number of his boyhood years.

Thomas Lewis at this time had a daughter Elizabeth, a girl of about 18, who soon thereafter married a neighbor boy, Thomas M. Gilmer. Thomas Gilmer and his wife had a son named George Rockingham Gilmer, who was a member of Congress and twice governor of Georgia. Governor Gilmer wrote a very interesting book, first published in 1855, in which he tells of this visit of Washington to the home of his grandfather Thomas Lewis in 1784, and declares that it was as well remembered in the family as the visit of King Charles to Tillietudlum. Governor Gilmer also relates an amusing story in connection. Let me give it in his own words:

My father, then a youth of nineteen, returning from my grandfather Lewis’s, where he had been visiting my mother, met Gen. Washington fording the Shenandoah River, in the dusk of the evening. Gen. Washington asked him how he should go to Mr. Lewis’s. My father taking him for some big Dutchman of the neighborhood who was poking fun at him for his frequent visitings there, answered, “Follow your nose.”

The only incredible thing about this story that I can see is, why a young fellow of 19, visiting his sweetheart, should have been going home in the dusk of the evening.

No doubt it was very pleasant for General Washington to renew old acquaintance with Mrs. Lewis, Mrs. Jones, and Mrs. Madison; and, as has been intimated, he and Thomas Lewis may have had personal business to transact concerning land surveys in which they were mutually interested; but the General does not mention either of these things in his diary; but he does record at some length what Mr. Lewis told him about the possibilities of navigation on the Shenandoah River and other streams farther west. This accords thoroughly with what we have seen in other connections.

Under date of October 2 (1784) the General wrote:

I set off very early from Mr. Lewis’s who accompanied me to the foot of the bleu Ridge at Swift run gap, 10 Miles, where I bated and proceeded over the Mountain.

When I came over today I saw an old house near the summit of the gap which I am satisfied must have been standing there in 1784 when the General rode by.

In those wonderful diaries I find record of two more visits west of the Blue Ridge that General Washington made, one in 1785 and one in 1788. Both times he was at Harper’s Ferry and other places in that neighborhood giving his best endeavors to promoting the navigation of the rivers and otherwise improving the means for internal trade, travel, and communication. In short, Washington west of the Blue Ridge was what he was everywhere else, first, last, and always, the astute business man, the valiant soldier, the practical statesman, and the far-seeing patriot.


* A paper read by Dr. Wayland at the annual meeting of the Sons of the Revolution in the State of Virginia, held in Richmond on February 22, 1940 (Washington’s birthday celebration).