James Kirke Paulding provides a window to the early nineteenth century Shenandoah

Posted on January 26, 2015 by


James Kirke Paulding

James Kirke Paulding

In digging backwards from the Civil War, through the literature that mentions the Shenandoah Valley, I came upon a great work written by James Kirke Paulding. In 1816, Paulding ventured into the Valley and apparently stuck around a bit, providing some details as to what he encountered.

So, what is the value of reading experiences (especially those of an outsider) from 1816 (during the administration of James Madison) in better understanding the Shenandoah Valley and the Civil War?

For one, we get a better understanding of the progression of “the situation” within the area. In conveying an “understanding” of a place within the South and its particular place within the “national” story, I think some folks make the mistake of taking the “national” story and attaching it to a region without fully understanding that particular region. As I’ve mentioned before, I think the “top down” view of history fails miserably when being used as a tool to try to better understand a region. It’s far better to work from the “bottom up”, whereby one should examine the region, through its people, and consider how it all plays out, in the bigger, national story.

If you’ve given time to understanding Virginia history, I think it’s obvious that there are particular differences between eastern and western Virginia that reach back to the colonial era, and actually reach far enough forward to be worth noting at the time of the Civil War. Paulding’s account is one of those which give us a little help with this.

For those who might not be aware of who Paulding was, consider his bio sketch in Wikipedia.

LettersFromtheSouth1816Let’s join (though I’ll be cutting out some of his “fluff”) Paulding on page 107 of his work, Letters from the South, Written During An Excursion in the Summer of 1816:

We rose in the morning, bright and early, to descend the mountain [via Rockfish Gap, and into Augusta County], “all in the merry month” of June, the sweetest month of all the year…

In descending the mountain, we had a view, which, not being common even here, and entirely unknown among you, citizens, deserves at least an attempt to sketch it. We saw, what seemed a vast and interminable waste of waters, spreading far and wide, and covering the whole face of the lower works. The vapours of the night had settled in the wide valley, at the foot of the hill, and enveloped it in one unbroken sheet of mist, that in the grey obscurity of the morning, looked like a boundless ocean. But as the sun rose, a gentle breeze sprung up, and the vapours began to be in motion. As they lifted themselves lazily from the ground, and rolled in closer masses towards the mountain, the face of nature gradually disclosing itself in all its varied and enchanting beauty. The imaginary sea became a fertile valley… in the midst of the green foliage of oaks and solemn pines, were seen rich cultivated lands, and comfortable farm-houses, surrounded by ruddy fields of clover, specked with groups of cattle grazing in its luxuriant pastures, or reposing quietly among its blossoms. Still, as the mists passed silently away, new objects disclosed themselves, with a sweet delay, that enhanced their beauty. Here was seen a little town, and near it a field animated with sturdy labourers. In one place two little rivers, after winding and coquetting through the meadows, sometimes approaching, sometimes receding, sometimes hid, and sometimes seen, joined their currents, and finally disappeared in the distant woods, beyond which a high peaked cliff, towering above the ascending vapours, glittered in the beams of the morning sun…

At the foot of the mountain we quitted the direct road, and deviated eighteen miles to the left [I think he means the right], in order to visit a famous cave [better known today as Grand Caverns] on the bank of the Shenandoah. We now entered on the limestone country, one of the most verdant, fruitful, and picturesque regions of the United States. The fields are greener, and the people that cultivate them are white men, whose labours being voluntary, seem to make the landscape smile. They are, a majority of them at least, laborious Dutchmen, who have gradually rolled down these valleys from their northern extremes, to the frontiers of Georgia. You see but few slaves, and every thing is the more gay for not being darkened by them – at least to my eyes. Here too, the rivers which, east the mountain, are muddy and turbid, become pure and transparent as the fount of Parnassus [ironic that Paulding mentions that as there actually is a village in Augusta County named “Parnassus” though to the west of “the cave”], out of which poets drink – because they can get nothing stronger.

The mountain called the Blue Ridge, not only forms the natural but the political division of Virginia. I know not whether you have observed it, but all the considerable States, to the south of New-York inclusive, have two little scurvy, distinct, and separate local interests, or rather local feelings, operating most vehemently, in a kind of undertone not much heard abroad, but, like certain domestic accents, exceedingly potent at home. The east and west sections of these States are continually at sixes and sevens, and as the west is generally the most extensive, as well as fruitful, it is gradually getting the upper hand of the other, and removing the seat of power farther into the interior. These distinctions, so far as I have been able to trace them, originated in the struggles of little village politicians striving to become popular, by affecting to be the guardians of the village rights, which they defend most manfully, long before they are attacked. Their wise constituents in time begin to perceive very clearly, that they have been very much imposed upon, and in fact made slaves of, by a few people in a distant corner of the state – and then nothing will do but a convention, to set matters right, and put things topsy-turvy.

This snug little rivalry is beginning to bud vigorously in Virginia. The people of whom I am now writing, call those east of the mountain Tuckahoes, and their country Old Virginia. They themselves are the Cohees, and their country New Virginia. The origin of these Indian phrases, I am not able to trace…

Certain it is, that however these names may have originated, they are now the familiar terms by which the people of Old and New Virginia are designated east of the Blue Ridge. It is the old story of Mrs. Farmer Ashfield [representing the Cohees] and Mrs. Planter Grundy [representing the Tuckahoes]. Mrs. Ashfield, who leads the ton among the Cohees, squints at Mrs. Grundy, the fine lady of the Tuckahoes, because forsooth, and marry come up, my lady gives herself airs, and wears such mighty fine clothes, when she goes to the Springs. Now Goody Ashfield, for her part, don’t care for fine things, not she; but then she can’t bear to see some people take upon themselves, and pretend to be better or more genteel than other people. Then Madam Grundy, if the truth most be told, is sometimes apt to turn up her nose, when she sees plain Mrs. Ashfield industriously mending a pair of breeches, the original colour of which is lost in the obscurity of patches. She wonders at her daughter pulling flax, or weaving, or turning a great spinning-wheel that deranges people’s nerves sadly. Wonders, in a very kind and friendly way, why Farmer Ashfield can think of making such a slave of his daughter, and why, as he can afford it, he don’t send her to one of the great boarding-schools in Philadelphia, to get a polish, and learn to despise her vulgar father and mother. All these wonderments are, of course, wormwood to Mrs. Ashfield, who thereupon pulls Mrs. Grundy to pieces, when she goes away.

As to Squire Grundy and Farmer Ashfield, they have certain snug matters of dispute to themselves. The Farmer insists upon it, at town-meetings and elections, that the Squire enjoys greater political privileges than he does; that the country of Tuckahoe has more representatives in the legislature than it ought to have; that all Squire Grundy’s negroes go to the polls, and vote; that the seat of government ought to be removed, that the poor enslaves Cohees may not be toted all the way to Richmond to hear orations, and get justice; and that, finally, the Squire gives himself such airs of superiority, that there is no such thing as getting along with him. On the other hand, Squire Grundy maintains that he pays more taxes than the Farmer; that taxation and representation as naturally go together as whiskey and vagabonds; that not numbers but property ought to be represented; that his negroes are included in the number of voters because they are taxed; and that, finally, the Cohees, not being able to comprehend all of this, are a set of ignorant blockheads. The Farmer says, “It is a dom lie;” and both parties are more convinced than before. The end of all this will be, that the Cohees will probably at least carry their point, and, in consequence thereof, be just as well off as they were before.

More observations from Paulding to follow…