By Patrick Farris
The history of the colonial settlement and development of the Shenandoah Valley and the surrounding region is the story of the Shenandoah River, its forks and tributaries.
The Shenandoah River in the 18th century and early 19th century was a settlement path, a commercial highway, a food and water source, a directional sign, a rallying point for taking refuge and making retreat, and a springboard for attack. The valley's waterways are all of these things and more, and even long after these many purposes have been supplanted, the reality of the river remains ever present in the design of modern highways, bridges and developments.
Rivers drew the first European explorers, who found the river further south from its confluence with the Potomac and realized its potential for settling the region. Gov. Alexander Spotswood in 1716 made a foray with several well-heeled Virginia Tidewater planters into the Great Valley or Valley of Virginia as it was then known, and returned after two weeks describing to the rest of the colony the fertility and ease of hunting game in the valley.
The valley was rechristened "Mesopotamia" and the north and south forks of its main river were named the Tigres and Euphrates. The Biblical references were intended to attract settlers to a perceived land of plenty, but it would be another 15 years before Joist Hite and Robert McKay migrated with several other German and Scots-Irish families to the region of the confluence of Cedar Creek and the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, establishing the first permanent settlement in the valley. By 1731, their homes and crops were being established and they were joined by the Chesters, Thomas and Sarah, who likely were Swedes and who came from Philadelphia to operate the first business in the area, a ferry across the forks of the Shenandoah River.
The river became called the "Senedo," "Shenedo" or "Sherando" - all variants of the Iroquoian word for "hunting grounds." The only native peoples in the area at this time were bands of Shawnee who had been invited by the Cherokee to come up from South Carolina in the early 1720s. They mostly migrated on to the Ohio River Valley, the earlier indigenous peoples of the valley having in the late 1600s abandoned their villages or were driven out by larger tribes competing for shrinking resources.
As early as 1798, the Virginia Assembly had chartered the Shenandoah Company to open and extend its navigation, and a Robert McKay of Warren County was among those appointed to receive stock subscriptions. It is certain that the Shenandoah River in both of its branches was navigated by boats and rafts until as late as the 1880s. By the early 1800s, a fleet of company flatboats operated on the Shenandoah River. Many of these were built at Shenandoah or Stanley in Page county and measured 40 to 60 feet in length (although some could be as long as 70 feet), 10 to 15 feet in beam, and drew 4 to 5 feet fully loaded. They could haul up to 10 tons of pig iron and 70 barrels of flour. They were propelled by long poles and guided by long steering oars called sweeps.
In the days before good highways and railroads, valley farmers, merchants, millers and iron-masters depended largely upon the Shenandoah to carry the burden of their commerce. Log rafts and gondolas, loaded with flour, bacon, lumber, iron, tanbark and other produce from "up the valley," floated down, singly and in fleets, to the Potomac and thence to the Tidewater markets at Georgetown and Alexandria. They came from as far up as Port Republic and Mt. Crawford.
Since both forks of the Shenandoah flow through Warren to their junction at Riverton, the county saw all of this river traffic, and (according to Laura Virginia Hale) there was nothing more enchanting than to hear some of its old-timers reminisce about their shipping days on the Shenandoah. T
he gondolas were long, flat-bottomed boats with crews of two or more men who used long, iron-painted poles to aid in pushing the craft along when the natural current was not swift enough, and in steering it safely through the chutes built in the numerous mill dams which blocked the river. The boatman used long slender horns with which to sound a musical warning to each miller to open his chute for them.
Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location. Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society.