Early History and Settlement Room

Worth Fighting For
Worth Fighting For


Worth Fighting For

From the arrival of the first American Indians and European settlers, through the coming of the Civil War, the rich natural resources of the Shenandoah Valley shaped both its history and its fate.

Peopling of the Valley

American Indians came to the Valley thousands of years ago where abundant wildlife and crops of maize, beans and squash sustained their communitites. The first European settlers also benefitted from the land's fertile soil, flowing waters, and north-south travel corridor.

East-West Divide

Early settlers shaped the social and political landscapes of the Valley. The German and the Scots-Irish settlers were Lutherans, Presbyterians, Dunkards or Mennonites, while Virginia's established Anglican church played a minor role in the Valley. These settlers were not wealthy, had few or no slaves, and worked small family farms.

Slavery, which played a large role in eastern Virgnia, was less common in the Valley and the mountains. Differences in religion and use of slave labor between the western and Tidewater regions of Virgnia created an east-west tension that led to the ultimate secession of the western Virginia counties during the Civil War.

"The great Valley of Virginia was before us in all its beauty. Fields of wheat spread far and wide, interspersed with woodlands, bright in their robes of tender green. Wherever appropriate sites existed, quaint old mills, with turning wheels, were busily grinding the previous year's harvest; and grove and eminence showed comfortable homesteads. The soft vernal influence shed a languid grace over the scene."
- Confederate Brig. Gen. Richard Taylor, 1862

Born from Stress and Strain
Born from Stress and Strain


Born from Stress and Strain

Natural forces have shaped the Shenandoah Valley landscape creating a distinct mix of geological strata, soil types, drainage patterns, and terrain.

The Virginia landscape began forming roughly 600 million years ago when huge landmasses broke apart and an ancient ocean formed. A series of continental collisions followed, creating mountain ranges as tall as the Himalayas. Wind and rain eroded these ranges. Over time, the eroded sediments compressed the mud into shale, sand inot sandstone and calcium carbonate into limestone.

The dynamic forces that sculpted the Valley left behind a natural travel corridor, an abundance of limestone and flowing water. Over the millenia, people have exploited these resrouces to develop farms, road systems, towns and centers of commerce.


The relationship between two series of strata in this model displays that, on the one hand, the bedding is concordant within each series (i.e. it is parallel in adjancent beds); whereas on the other hand, the upper series (A) lies discordantly (i.e. at an angle in relationship to the underlying beds). This sort of discordance (or angular unconformity) provides that an interval of time elapsed between the deposition of the two series of beds. During that time, the older (underlying) beds (B) were dislocated and partially eroded and developed an erosional surface where subsequent new sediments were deposited and lithified (A).
Born from Stress 3d model


A Bountiful Land
Afternoon, Hawks Bill River, Blue Ridge Mountains by John Key Ross

courtesy of Virginia Historical Society

A Bountiful Land

A combination of fertile soil, abundant water sources and a perfect climate made farming especially profitable to early settlers of the Valley.


After 1690, the Virginia colonial government encouraged settlement to help secure land from French interests and subdue American Indian raids and threats from the North. The promise of religious freedom and land ownership attracted pioneers seeking a new life on one of America’s “first frontiers.” Jost Hite led the way in settling the lower Shenandoah Valley, creating the first permanent homestead west of Blue Ridge, along Opequon Creek (south of modern day Winchester.) Soon after Hite’s son, Isaac, built Long Meadow on the banks of the North Fork of the Shenandoah, and his son-in-law, George Bowman, constructed a large stone house known as Fort Bowman near present-day Strasburg.


The Valley’s natural resources allowed early farmers to flourish and prosper. They worked hard to clear their land, grow a range of crops and build grist mills. Any extra food, beyond what pioneers needed to feed themselves, was sent to outside markets for trade with Great Britain through Philadelphia and Baltimore. By the time of the Revolutionary War, tens of thousands of barrels of flour left the Valley for Europe. The Great Wagon Road, initially an Indian trail, became the route for moving goods to market.

“Nothing but a preference to the choice lands, would tempt men to become adventurers.” —Jost Hite, ca. 1732
Enslavement in the Shenandoah Valley

Enslavement in the Shenandoah Valley

The Shenandoah Valley had small family farms that owned none, one or a few enslaved people. The Valley also had larger plantations with many enslaved people. White residents of the Valley were all economically connected to slavery. Therefore, their culture, like that of the rest of the United States, was part of a system of race-based slavery and they used racism, violence, and fear to maintain it.

Betheny Veney, was an enslaved woman from Luray, Virginia. Bethany achieved her freedom in Massachusetts in the 1850's and later compared her treatment as a slave to a white child, "She was kind to me, as I then counted kindness, never whipping me or starving me; but it was not what a free-born white child would have found comforting or needful."


When Major Isaac Hite Jr. married Nelly Madison in 1783, her father, James Madison Sr. gifted the couple 15 enslaved people. By the time the 1810 census was taken, there were 103 enslaved people at the plantation. Enslaved labor was used for farming as well in the plantation's industries that included a blacksmith shop, gristmill, sawmill, distillery, and lime kiln and quarry.


By the early 1800's slavery in the Shenandoah Valley adapted to meet the needs of local communities. Capitalistic slaveholders leased enslaved workers to local farms for periods of time. A Northern visitor to the Valley in 1847 wrote:

"The system of hiring, feeding, and clothing colored people...is to collect at that place - for that County - on the first of January, those to be hired and to put them up to the highest bidder for the ensuing year, or to bargain with more generally by individual arrangement. The person hiring gives his bond with good security to pay the hire at the end of the year, and the universal custom is to give two good summer suits, and one winter suit of clothing to pay the tax bill, which is assessed by the Court, so much for each slave of both sexes over 16 years."

Annual hiring was most common for farming and industrial jobs, like iron forges.


The United States abolished the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808.

At the same time cotton farming expanded in the Deep South, and the value of enslaved workers rose sharply leading many Virginia slaveholders to sell people south. This 1853 Lewis Miller drawing shows two mounted white men and a group of twenty enslaved men, women, and children who are being forced to walk barefoot from Staunton to Tennessee. The Shenandoah Valley became a corridor for moving enslaved people from Virginia to southern states.

The Staunton Spectator ran a weekly advertisement during the fall of 1836 proclaiming, "1,000 Negroes wanted - I wish to purchase one thousand likely negroes, of both sexes for Southern Market, for which I will give the highest cash prices."
Farmer Focus on Wheat

Painting by Mark Maritato

Farmers Focus on Wheat

Commercial wheat farming became so profitable in the Valley, that by 1850, 96% of its farmers were growing wheat as their prinicipal crop. Daily life centered around the wheat production cycle.
The Age of Grain
Pioneer Wheat Farm

William M. Thayer, Marvels of the New West, 1890

The Age of Grain

The Valley was once the most valuable wheat producing area of the entire South, due to rich soils, a farming culture, and a good road system.


The adoption of the Constitution in 1788 created a strong national government that promoted commerce and international trade. A growing market for American flour in Europe encouraged Valley farmers to improve their land. Soon a thriving population of farmers had such large surpluses that the needs of both domestic and foreign markets could be met. By the 1820s Frederick County was the leading flour producer in Virginia.

At the same time that the small family-owned farms were booming, Isaac Hite Jr. began building Belle Grove on the 483 acres that his father had given him in southern Frederick County. Within twenty years Hite had increased his holdings to more than 7,500 acres and owned more than 100 slaves.

“The fine lime stone valley of Shenandoah . . . the most beautiful, and most bountiful portion of our country.” —John S. Skinner, 1820

Image of Belle Grove in the 1800s courtesy of Belle Grove, Inc.
A Vital Valley Route
A Vital Valley Route

A Vital Valley Route

AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTS had no value unless the farmers could get their produce to market—Alexandria, Baltimore, Philadelphia, or beyond. Improvements to the key travel route, the Great Wagon Road, had come slowly. Travelers complained about its rough and, at times, treacherous conditions. To the relief of many, in 1834 the Virginia General Assembly authorized the Valley Turnpike Company to create a 68-mile macadamized road between Winchester and Harrisonburg. A later extension to Staunton made the entire Valley accessible. Businesses, farmers, and travelers depended on it and its access to markets. The Valley Pike promoted prosperity and became the lifeblood of the Valley.

“The valley seems to be designed as the great thoroughfare between the west and the southwest to northern cities.” —1838 petition to obtain state support for building the Valley Turnpike



“Macadamized” road construction was pioneered by Scottish engineer John McAdam around 1820. It consisted of creating three layers of stones laid on a sloped subgrade with side ditches for drainage. The first two layers consisted of hand broken stone (maximum size three inches), to a depth of eight inches. The third layer consisted of one inch stones. The layers were compacted by a heavy roller, causing the stones to lock together. Though weatherproof, macadamized roads required constant maintenance.

The Valley Turnpike was 22 feet wide and not less than 12 inches deep. As limestone was the most readily available material, it was used almost entirely throughout its construction. In addition to grading and macadamizing, construction of bridges and culverts were planned by surveyors and engineers. The original Wagon Road crossed streams at the easiest fordable location. As the Pike was engineered, bridges were located on high ground to avoid flood waters.
From Dirt to Asphalt


The Valley’s I-81 is a major trucking route and supports an average of 55,000 vehicles per day. This requires three layers of strong, compact material.

Top layer - Concrete –11 inches
Middle layer - Natural aggregates (sand, gravel, crushed stone) – 21 inches
Bottom layer - Compacted Soil
Building the Valley Turnpike

Library of Congress

Construction and maintenance of the Valley Pike was extremely labor intensive, most of the work being done by hand. Here, a worker uses a round headed hammer to break limestone into the proper sized “road metal” in order to maintain a section of the pike, while a farmer hauling a load of lumber approaches.
Civil War Room - These exhibits focus on the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley

Last updated: June 4, 2020

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