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Imagine a world where the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers, Detroit Tigers, and the Chicago Cubs and White Sox were all your “hometown” team. Such would be the case today if Augusta County—which at one time covered all the territory where these major cities now exist—was not chopped up in the latter part of the 18th century to create new counties and states in our ever-growing country.

For more than one hundred years after its founding, Virginia was a colony divided. This division was not based on politics, ethnicity, or even religion… it was, instead, a geographic division.

The Blue Ridge Mountains, which run northeast to southwest, created a natural barrier to the westward movement of the colonists. To the east of the Blue Ridge was civilization: Williamsburg, Hampton Roads, Richmond. To the west: a wild, untamed frontier.

Although Interstate 64 today provides a quick and easy route for travelers to journey back and forth between the two parts of the state, in the 17th and early 18th centuries the “great mountains” provided a daunting, impassable barrier. It wasn’t until the 1720s and 1730s that pioneers began filtering into the Shenandoah Valley beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains from a completely different route, the northeast opening of the valley. These settlers led directly to the creation of a new county west of the mountains: Augusta County.

Named for Princess Augusta (wife of Frederick, the Prince of Wales, and mother of George III), Augusta County had an inauspicious beginning. Although still a part of Orange County in 1732, what would be in just a few years the largest county in America was first settled by John Lewis, an Irish stonemason, who fled Northern Ireland and came to America after killing an “oppressive landlord.” He settled a mile east of what is now Staunton, near “the twin mountains” of Betsy Bell and Mary Gray (named after two similar hills in county Tyrone, Ireland) in the summer of 1732, and built a home there that he called Bellefonte.

This area, right in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley, was soon to be known as Beverley Manor or Beverley’s Mill Place (and thereafter as Staunton, after Lady Rebecca Staunton, wife of Sir William Gooch, the lieutenant governor of colonial Virginia).

Joseph Addison Waddell, in his classic Annals of Augusta County, Virginia, from 1726 to 1871, says:

…Lewis “had been some time in America, when, in 1732, Joist Hite and a party of pioneers set out to settle upon a grant of 40,000 acres of land in the Valley… Lewis joined this party, came to the Valley, and was the first white settler of Augusta.” Lewis is represented as coming, not from Williamsburg, but from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and the date of his arrival here is given as “the summer of 1732.”

The First Visitors

While Lewis was the first settler in Augusta, Virginia Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood and some of his staff (known as the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe) crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains into the valley beyond in 1716, claiming “that part of the country West of the Mountains” for King George I. Virginia east of the mountains had long been settled by the English colonists, but the Blue Ridge represented the Indian frontier until Lewis and others began the influx of Scots-Irish settlers.

Waddell tells of that early trip:

As far as known, the country now embraced in Augusta County, was never entered by white men until the year 1716. Six years earlier, however, some portion of the Valley of Virginia had been seen from the top of the Blue Ridge by Europeans. Governor Spotswood, writing to the Council of Trade, London, December 15, 1710, says that a company of adventurers found the mountains “not above a hundred miles from our upper inhabitants, and went up to the top of the highest mountain with their horses, tho’ they had hitherto be thought to be unpassable, and they assured me that ye descent on the other side seemed to be as easy as that they had passed on this, and that they could have passed over the whole ledge (which is not large), if the season of the year had not been too far advanced before they set out on that expedition.”—[Spotswood Letters, Vol. 1, page 40.] It would seem that the adventurers referred to looked into the Valley from the mountain in the neighborhood of Balcony Falls, but no description of the country seen by them is given.

The first passage of the Blue Ridge, and entrance into the Valley by white men, was made by Governor Spotswood in 1716. About the last of July, or first of August in that year, the Governor, with some members of his staff, starting from Williamsburg, proceeded to Germanna, a small frontier settlement, where he left his coach and took to horse. He was there joined by the rest of his party, gentlemen and their retainers, a company of rangers, and four Meherrin Indians, comprising in all about 50 persons. These, with pack-horses laden with provisions, journeyed by way of the upper Rappahannock river, and after thirty-six days from the date of their departure from Williamsburg, on September 5th, scaled the mountain at Swift Run Gap, it is believed. Descending the western side of the mountain into the Valley, they reached the Shenandoah River and encamped on its bank. Proceeding up the river, they found a place where it was fordable, crossed it, and there, on the western bank, the Governor formally “took possession for King George the First of England.” The rangers made further explorations further up the Valley, while the Governor, with his immediate attendants, returned to Williamsburg, arriving there after an absence of about eight weeks, and having traveled about 440 miles out and back.

The Scots-Irish pioneers were encouraged by then Lieutenant Governor Sir William Gooch to populate the valley for a very simple reason: the Scots-Irish men, women, and children would serve as a human buffer between the civilized areas of Virginia east of the Blue Ridge and the Indian population to the west (in the Appalachian Mountains) as well as the hostile French further west (in the Ohio River valley). Waddell says, “This portion of the Valley was then entirely uninhabited. The Shawnee Indians had a settlement in the lower Valley, at or near Winchester, and parties of that tribe frequently traversed this section on hunting excursions, or on warlike expeditions against Southern tribes; but there was no Indian village or wigwam within the present limits of the county.” When a number of Quakers spoke out in favor of offering the Indians compensation for the valley land, no tribe claimed ownership. The other reason for wanting settlers in the valley is because the Alleghenies had become a haven for runaway slaves; towns and villages in between the two mountain ranges would provide a deterrent.

To Read or post a comment on our site please click here.

All are Welcome.

Augusta County (Virginia) was the largest county in America during the mid-18th century, stretching from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the east all the way to the Great Lakes in the north, the Mississippi River in the west, and North Carolina in the south. Soon after, the county was carved up, eventually resulting in the Augusta County that exists today.