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Knights of the Golden Horseshoe

My brother and I grew up listening to the story of Lt. Governor Alexander Spotswood and the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe. We never tired of hearing our grandmother Lulu tell this exciting tale.

While on the Internet yesterday, I ran across an event that was celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe Expedition, which took place in August and September 1716 and ended at Fort Germanna. Oh, how I wish I could have been in Virginia this past weekend.

Governor Spotswood was a visionary, as well as an entrepreneur. He designed the Governor’s Palace, the magazine,  and St. Bruton’s Church in Williamsburg. Looking for ways to expand the colony of Virginia, he recruited a “company of gentlemen,” to prove that the Blue Ridge could be easily crossed.  And he was the first to cross the Appalachian Mountains.

It was an illustrious group who mounted their horses and rode into uncharted forests, over rivers, and up mountains.

Many of these recruits had sons and grandsons who played important roles in the development of the American Republic. Among them was George Mason, whose son worked with George Washington to draft the Fairfax Resolves, and who designed much of the constitution of the new state of Virginia. Then there was James Taylor, the ancestor of two Presidents—James Madison and Zachary Taylor. Robert Brooke’s grandson became governor of Virginia in 1798, and Thomas Todd’s family helped secure Kentucky for the Americans during the Revolution, and produced a future First Lady for Abraham Lincoln.

We know about their adventures because John Fontaine described  and wrote about them; he kept a diary. Then there were others who recounted the narrative.

The reality started on August 20, 1716. Pack horses carried ample provisions. After all, this was a gentleman’s journey.

(See how Spotswood’s party lived on the trail in the picture to the right.)



Before beginning the ascent, the well-mounted, well-armed company had their horses shod, horses being accustomed to traverse the low country, where there were few stones, without shoes, and then camping and eating and drinking by night and pressing sturdily on by day the party finally reached the mountain’s summit, where they cut his Majesty’s name upon the rock of the highest peak, naming it Mount George, in honor of their sovereign, King George I, and the next highest peak Mount Alexander, in honor of Governor Spotswood.

The men, including the Indian chief, who had led their party sat on various rocks to behold the splendor of Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Governor Spotswood carried his thoughts into the future, and imagined the fine country which he beheld, peopled and glowing under the hands of the husbandman, and all his bright anticipations were more than realized. He could see farms, crops, dirt roads, and villages. At length he turned the man who sat near him not less entranced, and said, “They call me a visionary, but what imagination ever conjured up a vision like that?”

tomajestyFinally they descended to the Valley of the Shenandoah, loaded their muskets and feasted. They drank the health of the King in champagne and fired a volley; the health of the Princess in burgundy and fired a volley; the health of all other members of the royal family in claret and fired a volley, and wound up by drinking to the health of the energetic Governor who had led them to the promised land — not forgetting the volley.

goldenhorseshoe1And then they rode homeward as cheerily as they had set out reaching Williamsburg on September 17.

To commemorate the event and encourage new enterprises and settlements westward, Governor Spotswood gave to each of the company a miniature golden horseshoe, set with garnets to represent nail heads. Upon each was the inscription “Sic juvat transcendere montes” translated “Thus it is delightful to cross the mountains.” (Lulu’s voice took on a sense of wonder as she said these words.)

Thus the members of the expedition were known as the “Knights of the Horseshoe” and any gentleman entitled to wear this golden horseshoe proved he had drunk his Majesty’s health upon the summit of Mount George.

This is the only portrait of Governor Spotswood. The last time I saw it was hanging at Carter’s Grove Plantation. Don’t you love his wig? But his face is so kind. I believe I am going to be sharing more stories about this adventurer, because he was a Renaissance man that helped change America’s history.

Today in 1714: Virginia Gov. Spotswood takes note of new colony of Germans

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