Pittsylvania to California: A Short Walk?

By Henry H. Mitchell

In 1728 Col. William Byrd II and a party of surveyors marked the Virginia-Carolina boundary (see map and article in The Pittsylvania Packet, Pittsylvania Historical Society, Chatham, Virginia, Spring 1993, pp. 8-11). In 1767 that line became the southern border of the newly-established Pittsylvania County. When Byrd came into this area in 1728 he found no European settlement, but his work and his diary presaged and presumed a rapid influx of settlers, which indeed happened within a generation. It had taken over 125 years for the area of settlement to move west 250 miles from Jamestown, an average rate of only 2 miles per year!

Looking back, the rate seems slow. However, the earliest English-speaking Virginians felt no need to rush: they thought the “East India Sea” (the Pacific Ocean) and the potentially dangerous Spanish California settlements were only an eight to ten days' walk from Jamestown, just beyond the “mountains” (we call them hills) of the Piedmont. The first European reports of the Piedmont were compiled by explorers who eventually, in the 1670's, searched for a safe passage to the Pacific.

Even then, the English found Piedmont hills and forests — and its unconquered Monacan inhabitants — quite threatening in comparison to their familiar cleared flatlands of the Tidewater, and its subjugated Algonquian tribes. The presence of these Piedmont tribes and various legal restrictions on trade with them, and an even greater fear of the more powerful Spanish settlements to the south and west, effectively confined English Virginia to the Tidewater. Finally, during the 1670's, legal and mental barriers began to fall, thanks largely to Virginia's Governor Sir William Berkeley, and Abraham Wood, an indentured servant who rose in wealth and influence to become one of Virginia's most politically powerful planters. Wood actually owned the colony's most important western fortification and trading post, Fort Henry (at present-day Petersburg).

Berkeley wanted to establish a westward passage to the sea, but without intruding upon or disturbing the Spanish. To that end, his first authorized explorer was a German physician by the name of Johann Lederer, who had in March 1669 spotted the distant Blue Ridge in a probe west of the falls of the Pamunkey River (in the general direction of Charlottesville). In May 1670 Lederer headed west from the falls of the James (now Richmond), accompanied by a Susquehanna interpreter/guide named Jackzetavon and twenty Henrico County mounted militiamen. The Englishmen were afraid of getting lost, so the group moved in an almost undeviating due-west compass course, attacking all obstacles straight-on rather than following the natural lay of the land. After stubbornly and laboriously pushing 60 straight-line miles in 12 days, the English militiamen were so uneasy and exhausted they returned home, leaving Lederer and Jackzetavon to fend for themselves. The militia commander, Maj. William Harris, reported they had passed over “high and rocky” mountains (in rolling Powhatan, Cumberland, and Buckingham Counties!) which were so foggy in the morning that they presumed that they were close to the western ocean.

So on June 5 the militia left Lederer and Jackzetavon on the banks of the James River forty miles northwest of Lynchburg at Bent Creek. From there, now free of the militia's compass restrictions, the two men visited “Sapon” town in the hairpin bend of the Staunton River west of Charlotte Court House. Then they moved on to Akenatzy (Occaneechee) town on an island (now under the waters of Buggs Island Lake), and on to North Carolina, where they visited six widely-scattered tribes before making their way to Fort Henry.

In August 1670 Lederer unsuccessfully tried to find a passage through the “mountains” west of the falls of the Rappahannock River (generally toward Culpeper). Although he had failed in his objective, Lederer began to dispel the English terror of the frontier by documenting in writing that the region was not impossible to traverse, and that it was very thinly populated (though he did have some close calls with the tribes he met). His experience diminished any hopes Englishmen had of profitable trade with the Piedmont tribes, but apparently planted the first thoughts of English colonization of the hilly lands to the interior of Virginia, including today's Pittsylvania County.

On September 1, 1671, Abraham Wood sponsored a five-man expedition, again to find the western ocean. The explorers were Thomas Batts, Robert Fallam, Thomas Wood (probably Abraham's son), Jack Weston, and an Appomattox Indian dignitary by the name of Penecute. The party traveled to the Saponi town Lederer had described near Charlotte Court House, then to a second Saponi village (where Thomas Wood fell ill and eventually died) on Long Island in the Staunton River on the northeastern boundary of present-day Pittsylvania. From there they moved across northern Pittsylvania County toward Rocky Mount, Adney Gap, Christiansburg, Radford (where they found the Totero/Tutelo town), Narrows, Bluefield, and on to Matewan (WV) on the Tug Fork River. There they came to the erroneous conclusion that the river was rising and falling due to the tides of the western ocean. Batts had seen white flecks on the horizon in the distance, and assumed them — though Fallam disagreed — to be Spanish sails on the California coast. Having established to their own satisfaction that they had at least found the tidal plain near the shore of the western sea, they returned home proud of their success.

In 1673 Abraham Wood made another attempt to probe the interior and find a passage to the Pacific, this time using James Needham — recently arrived from England, but already with wilderness experience in Georgia/Florida — and an indentured boy named Gabriel Arthur. Needham and Arthur traveled through Occaneechee (Clarksville) and on through present-day Morganton and Asheville (NC) to Rome, Georgia. In the midst of his travels Needham was killed by an Occaneechee, but Arthur accompanied his Georgia “Tomahitan” hosts on various war expeditions to coastal South Carolina, the Mobile Bay, the Florida panhandle, and the West Virginia/ Kentucky area. Miraculously, young Arthur survived his amazing adventures as well as several attempts on his life, and returned safely to Fort Henry on June 18, 1674. Having traveled more widely in North America than any 17th-century Englishman, Arthur brought Abraham Wood first-hand testimony that the western ocean was not so close, after all. He also left evidence for us that small Native American tribes were not isolated, but had friends and enemies scattered all across the continent.

By 1674, then, it was becoming evident that Virginia and all of North America were a lot larger than any Englishman had imagined. A century later the Pittsylvania County region, which had once seemed such an impenetrable barrier, became a literal funnel as many poured through on their way toward new settlements still farther west (their descendants now becoming our Society's members!). But it was not until the Gold Rush of 1849 — 178 years after Batts and Fallam thought they had walked to the West Coast — that Virginians in any significant numbers finally made it all the way to California!


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This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.