The Discoveries of John Lederer

In a previous web page, we reviewed Louis Michel's hike into the Shenandoah Valley in 1707.


Prior to Michel, during the period March 1669 to September 1670, John Lederer actually looked at the valley from the tops of peaks in what is now Shenandoah National Park. He was probably the first park visitor of European origin. Lederer reduced his observations to writing, in Latin, which, together with a map of his travels, was published in London in 1672. Lederer's writings were translated from the Latin and published by Sir William Talbot, then Governor of Maryland. Although not much is known about John Lederer, we do know that he was a physician, a German, a linguist, and a scholar. He was also a bold discoverer, traveling alone among the Indians without being molested. He evidently had extensive knowledge of Indian languages, manners, and customs.


      John Lederer made three hikes from settlements near the fall line in Virginia westward to (1) vicinity, as Harry Strickler believes, of Big Meadows, (2) the area then called Carolina, but not as far southwest as the Smokies, and (3) mountains in what is now Rappahannock County. He was looking for a route to the Indian Ocean.



Lederer began his first hike on March 9, 1669, with three Indians, from the falls of the "Pemaeoncock" (York River, and branches now called the Pamunkey and South Anna) in order to get to the top of the "Apalataean Mountains". The North Anna River he calls by the Indian name "Ackmick".


On the first day out he encountered a rattle-snake which he judged to be two yards and a half or better in length and "as big about as a mans arm". He killed it and "opened her, found there a small squirrel whole; which caused in me a double wonder: first, how a reptile should catch so nimble a creature as a squirrel; and having caught it, how he could swallow it entire." He concludes that "these serpents climb the trees, and surprise their prey in the nest".


On March 10th he had reached the land of Tottopottoma, named for a great Indian king, slain while "fighting for the Christians against the Mahocks and Nahyssan". During that same day, while traveling through the woods, "a doe seized by a wild cat crossed our way...having fastened on her shoulder, left not sucking out her bloud until she sunk under him: which one of the Indians perceiving, let fly a lucky arrow, which peircing him thorow the belly, made him quit his prey already slain, and turn with a terrible grimas at us; but his strength and spirits failing him, we escaped his revenge".


On March 14th he saw the "Apalataeans" for the first time from the top of an "eminent hill" (probably a hill near Gordonsville). The very next day, "not far from this hill...I was almost swallowed in a quicksand". Since Lederer did not reach the top of the Apalataean until March 18th (he was probably traveling about ten miles a day), he was most likely in quicksand in vicinity of the Southwestern Mountains, west of Gordonsville, and not at the head of the Rappahannock River, as indicated on the map.


As John Lederer proceeds with his hike, he describes what he sees: "Great herds of red and fallow deer I daily saw feeding; and on the hill-sides, bears crashing mast like swine. Small leopards I have seen in the woods, but never any lions, though their skins are much worn by the Indians. The wolves in these parts are so ravenous, that I often in the night feared my horse would be devoured by them, they would gather up and howl so close round about him, though tethr'd to the same tree at whose foot I myself and the Indians lay: but the fires which we made, I suppose scared them from worrying us all. Beaver and otter I met with at every river that I passed; and the woods are full of grey foxes".


In the last issue, we left John Lederer, sleeping with his three Indian companions, on the evening of March 14, 1669. They were sleeping at the foot of a tree with the wolves howling, wolves "so ravenous, that I often in the night feared my horse would be devoured by them". The following morning he continued his First March to the "Apalataeans".


After two days, Lederer reached the base of the mountains where "the air here is very thick and chill; and the waters issuing from the mountain-sides, of a blue colour, and allumish taste". By the 18th, leaving his horse with one of the Indians, he had climbed up to the top of one of the higher peaks, evidently somewhere in what is today the Central District of Shenandoah National Park. He named the peak "Mons Guliel Gubern", Latin for Mount William, Governor. William Berkeley was the Colonial Governor.


"The height of this mountain was very extraordinary: for notwithstanding I set out with the first appearance of light, it was late in the evening before I gained the top, from whence the next morning I had a beautiful prospect of the Atlantick-Ocean washing the Virginian-shore." Was this a mirage or was the air actually that clear, three centuries ago? Lederer continued to explore the area until March 24, when he decided to return home, overcome with cold, and having failed to find a passage to the Indian Ocean.



John Lederer spent the early part of 1670 exploring the Blue Ridge in the southern part of Virginia, continuing to look for the hoped-for passage. He provided reason for following the advice of the Indians in getting to destinations, criticizing the English in the party. "My English companions slighting the Indians direction, shaped their course by the compass...obstinately pursuing a due west course, rode over steep and craggy cliffs, which beat our horses quite off the hoof. In these mountains we wandered from the twenty fifth of May till the third of June..."


Deciding that he was better off traveling alone, Lederer, and one Sasquesahanough Indian, proceeded on his Second March, dispensing trinkets of glass and metal to encountered Indians, in order to keep them happy. In those days, one had to keep more than food and clothing in the rucksack.


His gifts to the Indians did not always discharge his fears. At the Indian village of Akenztzy, he was invited to attend a "ball of their fashion" in honor of the visiting "Rickohockan the height of their mirth and dancing, by smoke contrived for that purpose, the room was suddenly darkened, and for what cause I know not, the Rickohockan and his retinue barbarously murthered. This struck me with such an affrightment, that the very next day, without taking my leave of them, I slunk away with my Indian companion."



Having failed to find a passage in Southern Virginia, and perhaps part of Carolina, by late summer Lederer was ready to try again, in the northern part of the colony. "On the twentieth of August 1670, Col. Catlet of Virginia and my self, with nine English horse, and five Indians on foot, departed from the house of one Robert Talifer, and that night reached the falls of Rappahanock-river, in Indian Mantapeuck (near today's Fredericksburg). The next day we passed it over where it divides into two branches north and south (fork with the Rapidan), keeping the main branch north of us. The three and twentieth we found it so shallow, that it onely wet our horses hoofs. The four and twentieth we travelled thorow the Savanae amongst vast herds of red and fallow deer which stood gazing at us; and a little after, we came to the Promontories or spurs of the Apalataean-mountains." After four days of traveling, the party had reached what is today, Rappahannock County. Lederer describes how beautiful was the sight of the Savanae, an area with marshes and waterfalls beyond, created by melting snow, beginning about the first of June. "Their verdure is wonderful pleasant to the eye, especially of such as having travelled through the shade of the vast forest, come out of a melacholy darkness of a sudden, into a clear and open skie... and flowry meads."


According to Harry Strickler, the Savanae, Latin plural of Savana, means many valleys with meadows, like the area along Route 522 between Chester Gap and Sperryville, and beyond, following route 231 south. During the 17th Century, the continent was nearing the end of a "mini-ice age" and the snow was on the mountains until June. The low grounds "at the foot of the Apalataeans, which all the winter, spring, and part of the summer, lie under snow or water". Such moist conditions created lovely "flowry meads" by August.


"The six and twentieth of August we came to the monntains, where finding no horseway up, we alighted, and left our horses with two or three Indians below, whilst we went up afoot. The ascent was so steep, the cold so intense, and we so tired, that having with much ado gained the top of one of the highest, we drank the kings health in brandy, gave the mountain his name (Mons Car Reg, Mount Charles, King), and agreed to return back again, having no encouragement from that prospect to proceed to a further discovery; since from hence we saw another mountain, bearing north and by west to us, of a prodigious height." Once again, there was no passage to the Indian Ocean.


Where was King Charles Mountain? Obviously, since the party had not followed the Rappahannock River to its source near Chester Gap, they had crossed the foothills farther south than originally thought, perhaps near Poe's Mountain. When the monument on Route 55 was dedicated to Lederer, it was thought that Mons Car Reg was near Front Royal. Some have more recently thought that Compton Peak deserves the honor. However, a comparison of Lederer's map sketch with the topography north of Washington, VA leads me to believe that he was probably on North Marshall, having crossed the smaller mountain located just north of The Peak. Everyone is entitled to at least one guess!



The Discoveries of John Lederer, Sir William Talbot, 1672
Discoveries of John Lederer, Harry M. Strickler, Shenandoah Magazine, January-March 1938

©Walt Smith