An Almost Boundless Panorama

View of the Peaks of Otter from just south of the town Liberty (Bedford), in Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Virginia, Charleston: Babcock, 1852.
View of the Peaks of Otter from just south of the town of Liberty (Bedford), in Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Virginia, Charleston: Babcock, 1852.

After riding about a mile and a quarter, we came to the point beyond which horses cannot be taken, and dismounting our steeds, commenced ascending on foot. The way was very steep, and the day so warm, that we had to halt often to take breath. As we approached the summit, the trees were all of a dwarfish growth, and twisted and gnarled by the storms of that high region. There were, also, a few blackberry bushes, bearing their fruit long after the season had passed below. A few minutes longer brought us to where the trees ceased to grow; but a huge mass of rocks, piled wildly on the top of each other, finished the termination of the peak. Our path lay for some distance around the base of it, and under the overhanging battlements; and rather descending for awhile until it led to a part of the pile, which could with some effort be scaled. There was no ladder, nor any artificial steps—and the only means of ascent was by climbing over the successive rocks. We soon stood upon the wild platform of one of nature’s most magnificent observatories—isolated, and apparently above all things else terrestrial, and looking down upon, and over, a beautiful, variegated, and at the same time grand, wild, wonderful, and almost boundless panorama. Indeed, it was literally boundless; for there was a considerable haze resting upon some parts of “the world below;” so that, in the distant horizon, the earth and sky seemed insensibly to mingle with each other.

I had been there before. I remember when a boy of little more than ten years old, to have been taken to that spot, and how my unpractised nerves forsook me at the awful sublimity of the scene. On this day it was as new as ever; as wild, wonderful, and sublime, as if I had never before looked from those isolated rocks, or stood on that lofty summit. On one side, towards eastern Virginia, lay a comparatively level country, in the distance, bearing a strong resemblance to the ocean; on the other hand, were ranges of high monntains, interspersed with cultivated spots, and then terminating in piles of mountains, following in successive ranges, until they were lost also in the haze. Above and below, the Blue Ridge and the Alleghanies ran off in long lines; sometimes relieved by knolls and peaks, and in one place above us making a graceful curve, and then again running off in a different line of direction. Very near us stood the rounded top of the other peak, looking like a sullen sentinel for its neighbor. We paused in silence for a time. We were there almost cut off from the world below, standing where it was fearful even to look down. It was more hazy than at the time of my last visit, but not too much so to destroy the in-
terest of the scene.

There was almost a sense of pain, at the stillness which seemed to reign. We could hear the flapping of the wings of the hawks and buzzards, as they seemed to be gathering a new impetus after sailing through one of their circles in the air below us. North of us, and on the other side of the Valley of Virginia, were the mountains near Lexington, just as seen from that beautiful village—the Jump, North, and House Mountains succeeding each other; they were familiar with a thousand associations of our childhood, seeming mysteriously, when away from the spot, to bring my early home before me—not in imagination, such as had often haunted me when I first left it to find another in the world, but in substantial reality. Further on down the valley, and at a great distance, was the top of a large mountain, which was thought to be the great North Mountain, away down in Shenandoah county—I am afraid to say how far off. Intermediate between these mountains, and extending opposite and far above us, was the Valley of Virginia, with its numerous and highly cultivated farms. Across this valley, and in the distance, lay the remotest ranges of the Alleghany and the mountains about; and I suppose beyond the White Sulphur Springs. Nearer us, and separating eastern and western Virginia, was the Blue Ridge, more than ever showing the propriety of its cognomen of the “backbone;” and on which we could distinctly see two zigzag turnpikes, the one leading to Fincastle, and the other to Buchanan; and over which latter we had travelled a few days before. With the spyglass we could distinguish the houses in the village of Fincastle, some twenty-five or thirty miles off, and the road leading to the town.

Turning towards the direction of our morning’s ride, we had beneath us Bedford county, with its smaller mountains, farms and farm-houses—the beautiful village of Liberty, the county roads, and occasionally a mill-pond, reflecting the sun like a sheet of polished silver. The houses on the hill at Lynchburg, twenty-five or thirty miles distant, are distinctly visible on a clear day, and also Willis’ Mountain away down in Buckingham county.

I had often visited Bedford, and had been more or less familiar with it from childhood; but at our elevation, distances were so annihilated, and appearances so changed, that we could scarcely recognise the most familiar objects. After some difficulty, we at length made out the residence of Dr. M., we had that morning left, and at that moment rendered more than usually interesting, by containing, in addition to the other very dear relatives, two certain ladies, who sustained a very interesting connexion with the doctor and myself, and one of whom had scarcely laid aside the blushes of her bridal hour.

I then saw it from the Peaks of Otter: but it touched a thousand tender cords; and I almost wept when I thought, that those I once there loved were far away, and that the scenes of my youthful days could not return.

A little beyond this, I recognised the former residence of a beloved sister, now living in a distant southern state. It was the same steep hill ascending to the gate, the same grove around the house, as when she lived there, and the same as when I played there in my boyhood. And it was the first time I had seen it since the change of owners. I then saw it from the Peaks of Otter: but it touched a thousand tender cords; and I almost wept when I thought, that those I once there loved were far away, and that the scenes of my youthful days could not return.

Myself and companions had, some time before, gotten on different rocks, that we might not interrupt each other in our contemplations. I could not refrain, however, from saying to one of them, “What little things we are! how factitious our ideas of what is extensive in territory and distance!” A splendid estate was about the size I could step over; and I could stand and look at the very house whence I used often to start in days gone by, and follow with my eye my day’s journey to the spot where, wearied and worn down, I dismounted with the setting sun. Yet I could look over what seemed so great a space, with a single glance. I could also look away down the Valley of Virginia, and trace the country, and, in imagination, the stage-coach, as it slowly wound its way, day and night for successive days, to reach the termination of what I could throw my eye over in a moment. I was impressively reminded of the extreme littleness with which these things of earth would all appear, when the tie of life which binds us here is broken, and we shall be able to look back and down upon them from another world. The scene and place are well calculated to excite such thoughts.

It is said that John Randolph once spent the night on these elevated rocks, attended by no one but his servant; and that, when in the morning he had witnessed the sun rising over the majestic scene, he turned to his servant, having no other to whom he could express his thoughts, and charged him, “never from that time to believe any one who told him there was no God.”

I confess, also, that my mind was most forcibly carried to the judgment-day; and I could but call the attention of my companions to what would, probably, then be the sublime terror of the scene we now beheld, when the mountains we saw and stood upon, should all be melted down like wax; when the flames should be driving over the immense expanse before us; when the heavens over us should be “passing away with a great noise;” and when the air beneath and around us should be filled with the very inhabitants now dwelling and busied in that world beneath us.

— A Ride to the Peaks of Otter, in Bedford County, Virginia, Southern Literary Messenger, December, 1841.

In All Its Beauty

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. The theatre of war in this region was from Staunton to the Potomac, one hundred and twenty miles, with an average width of some twenty-five miles; and the Blue Ridge and Alleghanies bounded it east and west. Drained by the Shenandoah with its numerous affluents, the surface was nowhere flat, but a succession of graceful swells, occasionally rising into abrupt hills. Resting on limestone, the soil was productive, especially of wheat, and the underlying rock furnished abundant metal for the construction of roads. Railway communication was limited to the Virginia Central, which entered the Valley by a tunnel east of Staunton and passed westward through that town; to the Manassas Gap, which traversed the Blue Ridge at the pass of that name and ended at Strasburg; and to the Winchester and Harper’s Ferry, thirty miles long. The first extended to Richmond by Charlottesville and Gordonsville, crossing at the former place the line from Washington and Alexandria to Lynchburg; the second connected Strasburg and Front Royal, in the Valley, with the same line at Manassas Junction; and the last united with the Baltimore and Ohio at Harper’s Ferry. Frequent passes or gaps in the mountains, through which wagon roads had been constructed, afforded easy access from east and west; and pikes were excellent, though unmetaled roads became heavy after rains.

But the glory of the Valley is Massanutten. Rising abruptly from the plain near Harrisonburg, twenty-five miles north of Staunton, this lovely mountain extends fifty miles, and as suddenly ends near Strasburg. Parallel with the Blue Ridge, and of equal height, its sharp peaks have a bolder and more picturesque aspect, while the abruptness of its slopes gives the appearance of greater altitude. Midway of Massanutten, a gap with good road affords communication between Newmarket and Luray. The eastern or Luray valley, much narrower than the one west of Massanutten, is drained by the east branch of the Shenandoah, which is joined at Front Royal, near the northern end of the mountain, by its western affluent, whence the united waters flow north, at the base of the Blue Ridge, to meet the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry.

The inhabitants of this favored region were worthy of their inheritance. The north and south were peopled by scions of old colonial families, and the proud names of the “Old Dominion” abounded. In the central counties of Rockingham and Shenandoah were many descendants of German settlers. These were thrifty, substantial farmers, and, like their kinsmen of Pennsylvania, expressed their opulence in huge barns and fat cattle. The devotion of all to the Southern cause was wonderful. Jackson, a Valley man by reason of his residence at Lexington, south of Staunton, was their hero and idol. The women sent husbands, sons, lovers, to battle as cheerfully as to marriage feasts. No oppression, no destitution could abate their zeal. Upon a march I was accosted by two elderly sisters, who told me they had secreted a large quantity of bacon in a well on their estate, hard by. Federals had been in possession of the country, and, fearing the indiscretion of their slaves, they had done the work at night with their own hands, and now desired to give the meat to their people. Wives and daughters of millers, whose husbands and brothers were in arms, worked the mills night and day to furnish flour to their soldiers. To the last, women would go distances to carry the modicum of food between themselves and starvation to a suffering Confederate. Should the sons of Virginia ever commit dishonorable acts, grim indeed will be their reception on the further shores of Styx. They can expect no recognition from the mothers who bore them.

— Lieutenant-General Richard Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1879.

A Mapp of Virginia Discovered to ye Hills

"A mapp of Virginia discovered to ye hills, and in it's latt. from 35 deg. & 1/2 neer Florida to 41 deg. bounds of New England"; originally published in 1651 by John Farrer, a representative of the Virginia Company, this 1667 edition was issued by Farrer's daughter, Virginia. It perpetuates the notion that the Pacific Ocean lay just across the Allegheny Mountains -- separated by a narrow strip of land that could be traversed in but a "ten days marche." The cartographic propaganda linked Sir Francis Drake's 1577 landing in New Albion (Point Reyes, California) with the recently settled Virginia colony, thereby substantiating English claims to the breadth of the North American continent.
“A mapp of Virginia discovered to ye hills, and in it’s latt. from 35 deg. & 1/2 neer Florida to 41 deg. bounds of New England”; originally published in 1651 by John Farrer, a representative of the Virginia Company, this 1667 edition was issued by Farrer’s daughter, Virginia. It perpetuates the notion that the Pacific Ocean lay just across the Allegheny Mountains — separated by a narrow strip of land that could be traversed in but a “ten days marche.” The cartographic propaganda linked Sir Francis Drake’s 1577 landing at New Albion (Point Reyes, California) with the recently settled Colony of Virginia, thereby substantiating English claims to the breadth of the North American continent.