Byrd and Bearskin Remembered

By Henry H. Mitchell, 1989.

Saponi highway marker

This historical marker is the first in Virginia to honor a cultural aspect of a Native American tribe.

Blairs Middle School Class Commemorates 1728 Expedition

At the southern end of Danville, on the right-of-way of northbound U.S. 29 Business near where it enters Virginia from North Carolina, stands a marker erected during 1988 to honor the Saponi guide Ned Bearskin and his people. Bearskin and his employer Col. William Byrd, along with munerous surveyors and woodsmen, camped nearby in October 1728. It was at a site in Pittsylvania County, about 2/3-mile west of the sign, that Bearskin related to Byrd many of the religious beliefs of the new-extinct Saponi tribe.

This unique glimpse into one of the native tribes which inhabitied this area was made possible through the carefully-written diaries of William Byrd. As students in a gifted/talented class at Blairs Middle School have learned this year, those same diaries provide detailed information about the appearance of southern Pittsylvania County before English-speaking settlers began to populate the area in the mid-1700's.

Josh Owen, April Nester, and Sheri Shields

Blairs Middle School students Josh Owen, April Nester, and Sheri Shields measure Col. Byrd's progress on U. S. Geological Survey maps.

Teacher Judith Alderson and Steven Bradford recently conducted a three-week study, with classes after school each Thursday, entitled the “William Byrd Survey Project.” The class was one of ten selections offered during the school year. Nine students from the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades traced Byrd's progress in surveying the political boundary (“Dividing Line”) between North Carolina and Virginia, paying close attention to his diary entries for the days which he spent crossing what is now southern Pittsylvania County. As a culminating activity for the study, they spent Saturday, May 20, traveling to several of the camp sites and river corssings Byrd had discussed in his History of the Dividing Line (his official report to the Governor of Virginia) and the Secret History of the Dividing Line (his own private notes, containing more observations of the personalities involved in the expedition).

Brandon Talbott, Chris Dameron, and Patrick Adkins

Blairs Middle School students Brandon Talbott, Chris Dameron, and Patrick Adkins stand on the banks of the Dan River at the Milton bridge, where Col. Byrd described the stream in 1728 as “perfectly clear,” and upon seeing the mica fragments which spangled the river-bottom and banks, admitted that his surveying party did “fancy them to be Gold-Dust, and consequently that all our Fortunes were made.”

Starting at the Dan River Bridge route 62 (the Milton Road), the students saw where Byrd described the river as “perfectly clear.” Moving on to the banks of Cane Creek (at which point, it appears from the diaries, that both Cane Creek and the Dan River were given their names by Byrd), to the Goodyear plant area (from nearby hill Byrd first spotted the mountains to the west, looking across what is now Danville), to the Byrd/Bearskin site and the historical marker, to Cascade Creek, the students and their instructors saw numerous examples where the face of nature has been drastically altered since 1728, and other locations where today's description would be almost identical to Byrd's.

Students at Cane Creek bridge

Students look north from the bridge over Cane Creek to the campsite where Col. Byrd first used the name “Dan River” in his diary.

Rebecca Smith, gifted/talented resource teacher who coordinated the afternoon class offerings through the year, states, “What I was most excited about in this ‘William Byrd Survey Project’ was that it was interdesciplinary in nature: the students read and discussed Col. Byrd's journals as literature, even down to the way Byrd might word certain passages, using verbs that are archaic to us; they examined the historical aspects and culture of the Indians; they went into map-reading, which was wonderful for math and geography; and then they culminated with a field trip during which they applied what they had learned.”

Students at Saponi marker

Students cluster around historical marker.

Comments instructor Stephen Bradford, who obtained U.S. Geological Survey maps (on which the students tracked, measured, and marked Byrd's daily progress) for the class, “The students were struck by Byrd's description of the clear, gold-spangled river and its current murky, muddied state. Besides the obvious benefit of working on map-reading skills, the students had first-hand experience in what is actually involved in historical research. They came to a better awareness of the local area and William Byrd's part in it — such as with the origins of the names of the Dan River, Cascade Creek, and other geographical features — and a better perspective on local history.”

Judith Alderson, who conducted the students page-by-page through Byrd's diaries, adds, “The students were very surprised at the spelling of the words — much more phonetic spelling then than now. I had particularly wanted them to recognize the vocabulary, spelling, and usage of the English language in that day. I also had as an objective that they would understand what had taken place here in 1728: the survey itself, the recording of Bearskin's legends, his superstitions, and the description of his people's religion.

Students at Cascade Creek

Blairs Middle School students see and hear the series of waterfalls along Cascade Creek, where 261 years earlier Col. William Byrd had said, “We markt out our Quarters on the Bank of a purling Stream, which we call'd Casquade Creek, by reason of the Multitude of Water-Falls that are in it.”

“The students were amazed at the difficulty these men must have faced: the tools they used to conduct the survey, the transportation problems they had as they moved through here. On the day of the trip, the highlight turned out to be the stop at Cascade Creek. Besides the beauty of the natural scene there, they met a scientist from the Virginian Museum of Natural History in Martinsville who was working along the creek, and they were able to contribute a snake to his collection!”

The students seemed to unanimously agree that the Cascade Creek stop was the highlight of the day's trip. Sheri Shields says, “We enjoyed the trip a lot, especially Cascade Creek. We learned a lot about William Byrd and the history of Virginia. I especially loved getting soaked while wading in the water… Three of the boys found a live snake… I almost stepped on a leech and a snake, which was yucky! But fun! We enjoyed the sights and would love to go again.”

Teachers Judith Alderson and Steven Bradford

Judith Alderson and Steven Bradford were instructors for the indisciplinary study of Col. Byrd's surveying experiences in southern Pittsylvania in 1728.


This webpage is hosted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, as part of a web compilation of local cultural and historical information.