Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

The Knights of the Golden Horseshoe

On a fine day in the pleasant month of August of the year 1714 a large party of horsemen rode along Duke of Gloucester Street, in the city of Williamsburg, Virginia, while the men, women, and children of the place flocked to the doors of the houses cheering and waving their handkerchiefs as the gallant cavaliers passed by. They were gayly dressed, in the showy costumes worn by the gentlemen of that time, and at their head was a handsome and vigorous man, with the erect bearing and manly attitude of one who had served in the wars. They were all mounted on spirited horses and carried their guns on their saddles, prepared to hunt or perhaps to defend themselves if attacked. Behind them followed a string of mules, carrying the packs of the horsemen and in charge of mounted servants.

Thus equipped, the showy cavalcade passed through the main streets of the small town, which had succeeded Jamestown as the Virginian capital, and rode away over the westward-leading road. On they went, mile after mile, others joining them as they passed onward, the party steadily increasing in numbers until it reached a place called Germanna, on the Rapid Ann—now the Rapidan—River, on the edge of the Spotsylvania Wilderness.

No doubt you will wish to know who these men were and what was the object of their journey. It was a romantic one, as you will learn,—a journey of adventure into the unknown wilderness. At that time Virginia had been settled more than a hundred years, yet its people knew very little about it beyond the seaboard plain. West of this rose the Blue Ridge Mountains, behind which lay a great mysterious land, almost as unknown as the mountains of the moon. There were people as late as that who thought that the Mississippi River rose in these mountains.

The Virginians had given this land of mystery a name. They called it Orange County. There were rumors that it was filled with great forests and lofty mountains, that it held fertile valleys watered by beautiful rivers, that it was a realm of strange and wonderful scenes. The Indians, who had been driven from the east, were still numerous there, and wild animals peopled the forests plentifully, but few of the whites had ventured within its confines. Now and then a daring hunter had crossed the Blue Ridge into this country and brought back surprising tales of what was to be seen there, but nothing that could be trusted was known about the land beyond the hills.

All this was of great interest to Alexander Spotswood, who was then governor of Virginia. He was a man whose life had been one of adventure and who had distinguished himself as a soldier at the famous battle of Blenheim, and he was still young and fond of adventure when the king chose him to be governor of the oldest American colony.

We do not propose to tell the whole story of Governor Spotswood; but as he was a very active and enterprising man, some of the things he did may be of interest. He had an oddly shaped powder-magazine built at Williamsburg, which still stands in that old town, and he opened the college of William and Mary free to the sons of the few Indians who remained in the settled part of Virginia. Then he built iron-furnaces and began to smelt iron for the use of the people. Those were the first iron-furnaces in the colonies, and the people called him the "Tubal Cain of Virginia," after a famous worker in iron mentioned in the Bible. His furnaces were at the settlement of Germanna, where the expedition made its first stop. This name came from a colony of Germans whom he had brought there to work his iron-mines and forges.

After what has been told it may not be difficult to guess the purpose of the expedition. Governor Spotswood was practical enough to wish to explore the mysterious land beyond the blue-peaked hills, and romantic enough to desire to do this himself, instead of sending out a party of pioneers. So he sent word to the planters that he proposed to make a holiday excursion over the mountains, and would gladly welcome any of them who wished to join.

We may be sure that there were plenty, especially among the younger men, who were glad to accept his invitation, and on the appointed day many of them came riding in, with their servants and pack-mules, well laden with provisions and stores, for they looked on the excursion as a picnic on a large scale.

One thing they had forgotten—a very necessary one. At that time iron was scarce and costly in Virginia, and as the roads were soft and sandy, as they still are in the seaboard country, it was the custom to ride horses barefooted, there being no need for iron shoes. But now they were about to ride up rocky mountain-paths and over the stony summits, and it was suddenly discovered that their horses must be shod. So all the smiths available were put actively at work making horseshoes and nailing them on the horses' feet. It was this incident that gave rise to the name of the "Knights of the Golden Horseshoe," as will appear farther on.

At Germanna Governor Spotswood had a summer residence, to which he retired when the weather grew sultry in the lower country. Colonel William Byrd, a planter on the James River, has told us all about this summer house of the governor. One of his stories is, that when he visited there a tame deer, frightened at seeing him, leaped against a large mirror in the drawing-room, thinking that it was a window, and smashed it into splinters. It is not likely the governor thanked his visitor for that.

After leaving Germanna the explorers soon entered a region quite unknown to them. They were in high spirits, for everything about them was new and delightful. The woods were in their full August foliage, the streams gurgling, the birds warbling, beautiful views on every hand, and the charm of nature's domain on all sides. At mid-day they would stop in some green forest glade to rest and pasture their horses, and enjoy the contents of their packs with a keen appetite given by the fresh forest air.

To these repasts the hunters of the party added their share, disappearing at intervals in the woods and returning with pheasant, wild turkey, or mayhap a fat deer, to add to the woodland feast. At night they would hobble their horses and leave them to graze, would eat heartily of their own food with the grass for table-cloth and a fresh appetite for sauce, then, wrapping their cloaks around them, would sleep as soundly as if in their own beds at home. The story of the ride has been written by one of the party, and it goes in much the way here described.

The mountains were reached at length, and up their rugged sides the party rode, seeking the easiest paths they could find. No one knows just where this was, but it is thought that it was near Rockfish Gap, through which the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad now passes. There are some who say that they crossed the valley beyond the Blue Ridge and rode over the Alleghany Mountains also, but this is not at all likely.

When they reached the summit of the range and looked out to the west, they saw before them a wild but lovely landscape, a broad valley through whose midst ran a beautiful river, the Shenandoah, an Indian name that means "daughter of the stars." To the right and left the mountain-range extended as far as the eye could reach, the hill summits and sides covered everywhere with verdant forest-trees. In front, far off across the valley, rose the long blue line of the Alleghanies, concealing new mysteries beyond.

The party gazed around in delight, and carved their names on the rocks to mark the spot. A peak near at hand they named Mount George, in honor of George I., who had just been made king, and a second one Mount Alexander, in honor of the governor, and they drank the health of both. Then they rode down the western slope into the lovely valley they had gazed upon. Here they had no warlike or romantic adventures, fights with Indians or wild beasts, but they had a very enjoyable time. After a delightful ride through the valley they recrossed the mountains, and rode joyously homeward to tell the people of the plain the story of what they had seen.

We have said nothing yet of the Golden Horseshoe. That was a fanciful idea of Governor Spotswood. He thought the excursion and the fine valley it had explored were worthy to be remembered by making them the basis of an order of knighthood. He was somewhat puzzled to think of a good name for it, but at length he remembered the shoeing of the horses at Williamsburg, so he decided to call it the Order of the Golden Horseshoe, and sent to England for a number of small golden horseshoes, one of which he gave to each of his late companions. There was a Latin inscription on them signifying, "Thus we swear to cross the mountains." When the king heard of the expedition, he made the governor a knight, under the title of Sir Alexander Spotswood, but we think a better title for him was that he won for himself,—Sir Knight of the Golden Horseshoe.