William Byrd Approaches the Blue Ridge, 1736

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In 1728 William Byrd of Westover served as one of three Virginia commissioners to define the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina. Byrd provides a detailed account of the expedition, describing conditions, and making observations about the events, terrain, wildlife, plants and people encountered along the way. These observations were recorded in a manuscript, which was published posthumously in 1841. The expedition penetrated something like 248 miles from the head of the Currituck Sound, to within ten miles of the Blue Ridge. There, with winter coming on, fear of inclement weather forced the party to return.

From: Source:Byrd, 1841

[October] 25th.-The air clearing up this morning, we were again agreeably surprised with a full prospect of the mountains. They discovered themselves both to the north and south of us, on either side, not distant above ten miles, according to our best computation. We could now see those to the north rise in four distinct ledges, one above another, but those to the south formed only a single ledge, and thut broken and interrupted in many places ; or rather they were only single mountains detached from each other. One of the southern mountains was so vastly high, it seemed-to hide its head in the clouds, and the west end of it terminated in a horrible precipice, that we called the Despairing Lover's Leap. The next to it, towards the east, was lower, except at one end, where it heaved itself up in the form of a vast stack of chimneys. The course of the northern mountains seemed to tend west-south-west, and those to the southward very near west. We could descry other mountains ahead of us, exactly in the course of the line, though at a much greater distance. In this point of view, the ledges on the right and left both seemed to close, and form a natural amphitheatre. Thus it was our fortune to be wedged in betwixt these two ranges of mountains, insomuch that if our line had run ten miles on either side, it had butted before this day either upon one or the other, both of them now stretching away plainly to the eastward of us. It had rained a little in the night, which dispersed the smoke and opened this romantic scene to us all at once, though it was again hid from our eyes as we moved forwards, by the rough woods we had the misfortune to be engaged with. The bushes were so thick for near four miles together, that they tore the deer skins to pieces that guarded the bread bags. Though, as rough as the woods were, the soil was extremely good all the way, being washed down from the neighbouring hills into the plain country. Notwithstanding all these difficulties, the surveyors drove on the line four miles and two hundred and five poles.

In the mean time we were so unlucky as to meet with no sort of game the whole day, so that the men were obliged to make a frugal distribution of what little they left in the morning. We encamped upon a small rill, where the horses came off as temperately as their masters. They were by this time grown so thin, by hard travel and spare feeding, that henceforth, in pure compassion, we chose to perform the greater part of the journey on foot. And as our baggage was by this time grown much lighter, we divided it, after the best manner, so that every horse's load might be proportioned to the strength he had left. Though, after all the prudent measures we could take, we perceived the hills began to rise upon us so fast in our front, that it would be impossible for us to proceed much farther.

We saw very few squirrels in the upper parts, because the wild cats devour them unmercifully. Of these there are four kinds : the fox squirrel, the gray, the flying, and the ground squirrel. These last resemble a rat in every thing but the tail, and the black and russet streaks that run down the length of their little bodies.

26th. We found our way grow still more mountainous, after extending the line three hundred poles farther. We came then to a rivulet that ran with a swift current towards the south. This we fancied to be another branch of the Irvin, though some of the men, who had been Indian traders, judged it rather to be the head of Deep river, that discharges its stream into that of Pee Dee; but this seemed a wild conjecture. The hills beyond that river were exceedingly lofty, and not to be attempted by our jaded palfreys, which could now hardly drag their legs after them upon level ground. Besides, the bread began to grow scanty, and the winter season to advance apace upon us. We had likewise reason to apprehend the consequences of being. intercepted by deep snows, and the swelling of the many waters between us and home. The first of these misfortunes would starve all our horses, and the other.ourselves, by cutting off our retreat, and obliging us to winter in those desolate'woods. These considerations determined us to stop short here, and push our adventures no farther. The last tree we marked was a red oak, growing on the bank of the river; and to make the place more remarkable, we blazed all the trees around it.

We found the whole distance,- from Coratuck[1] inlet to the rivulet where we left off, to be, in a straight line, two hundred and forty-one miles and two hundred and thirty-poles. And from the place where the Carolina commissioners deserted us, seventy-two miles and three hundred and two poles. This last part of the journey was generally very hilly, or else grown up with troublesome thickets and underwoods, all which our Carolina friends had the discretion to.avoid. We encamped in a dirty valley near the rivulet above- mentioned, for the advantage of the canes, and so sacrificed our own convenience to that of our horses. There was a small mountain half a mile to the northward of us, which we had the curiosity to climb up in the afternoon, in order to enlarge our prospect. From thence we were able to discover where the two ledges of mountains closed, as near as we could guess, about thirty miles to the west of us. and lamented that our present circumstances would not permit us to advance the line to that place, which the hand of Nature had made so very remarkable.

...27th. This being Sunday we were not wanting in our thanks to Heaven for the constant support and protection we had been favoured with. Nor did our chaplain fail to put us in mind of our duty by a sermon proper for the occasion. We ordered a strict inquiry to be made into the quantity of bread we had left, and found no more than would subsist us a fortnight at short allowance. We made a fair distribution of our whole stock, and at the same time recommended to the men to manage this, their last stake, to the best advantage, not knowing how long they would be obliged to live upon it. We likewise directed them to keep a watchful eye upon their horses, that none of them might be missing the next morning, to hinder our return. There fell some rain before noon, which made our camp more a bog than it was before. This moist situation began to infect some of the men with fevers, and some with fluxes, which however we soon removed with Peruvian bark and ipocoacanah. In the afternoon we marched up again to the top of the hill to entertain our eyes a second time with the view of the mountains, but a perverse fog arose that hid them from our sight. In the evening we deliberated which way it might be most proper to return. We had at first intended to cross over at the foot of the mountains to the head of James river, that we might be able to describe that natural boundary so far. But, on second thoughts, we found many good reasons against that laudable design, such as the weakness of our horses, the scantiness of our bread, and the near approach of winter. We had cause to believe the way might be full of hills, and the farther we went towards the north, the more danger there would be of snow. Such considerations as these determined us at last to make the best of our way back upon the line, which was the straightest, and consequently the shortest way to the inhabitants. We knew the worst of our course, and were sure of a beaten path all the way, while we were totally ignorant what difficulties and dangers the other course might be attended with. So prudence got the better for once of curiosity, and the itch for new discoveries gave place to self-preservation. Our inclination was the stronger to cross over according to the course of the mountains, that we might find out whether James river and Appomattox river head there, or run quite through them. It is certain that Potomac passes in a large stream through the main ledge, and then divides itself into two considerable rivers. That which stretches away to the northward is called Cohungaroota,* and that which flows to the south-west, hath the name of Sharantow. The course of this last stream is near parrallel to the Blue Ridge of mountains, at the distance only of about three or four miles. Though how far it may continue that course has not yet been sufficiently discovered, but some woodsmen pretend to say it runs as far as the source of Roanoke ; nay, they are so very particular as to tell us that Roanoke, Sharantow, and another wide branch of Mississippi, all head in one and the same mountain. What dependence there may be upon this conjectural geography, I will not pretend to say, though it is certain that Sharantow keeps close to the mountains, as far as we are acquainted with its tendency. We are likewise assured that the south branch of James river, within less than twenty miles east of the main ledge, makes an elbow, and runs due south-west, which is parallel with the mountains on this side. But how far it stretches that way, before it returns, is not yet certainly known, no more than where it takes its rise.

In the mean time it is strange that our woodsmen have not had curiosity enough to inform themselves more exactly of these particulars, and; it is stranger still that the government has never thought it worth the expense of making an accurate survey of the mountains, that we might be masters of that natural fortification before the French, who in some places have settlements not very distant from it. It therefore concerns his majesty's service very nearly, and the safety of his subjects in this part of the world, to take possession of so important a barrier in time, lest our good friends, the French, and the Indians, through their means, prove a perpetual annoyance to these colonies. Another reason to invite us to secure this great ledge of mountains is, the probability that very valuable mines may be discovered there. Nor would it be at all extravagant to hope for silver mines, among the rest, because part of these mountains lie exactly in the same parallel, as well as upon the same continent with New Mexico, and the mines of St. Barb.

28th. We had given orders for the horses to be brought up early, but the likelihood of more rain prevented our being over-hasty in decamping. Nor were we out in our conjectures, for about ten o'clock it began to fall very plentifully.


30th. In the morning early the man who had gone astray the day before found his way to the camp, by the sound of the bells that were upon the horses' necks. At nine o'clock we began our march back towards the rising sun ; for though we had finished the line, yet we had not yet near finished our fatigue. We had after all two hundred good miles at least to our several habitations, and the horses were brought so low, that we were obliged to travel on foot great part of the way, and that in our boots, too, to save our legs from being torn to pieces by the bushes and briers. Had we not done this, we must have left all our horses behind, which could now hardly drag their legs after them, and with all the favour we could show the poor animals, we were forced to set seven of them free, not far from the foot of the mountains.