Jefferson County:

A Crossroads That Compounds Freedom

By Jim Surkamp



First there was gas that lightning made into Life. Then, a planet round.  On its face was a place of shallow seas, warm - teeming with crustaceans.  Their limey carcasses drifted below and had millions of years to become a layer of our limestone.  Drifting continents then ground into our North America, wrinkling it.  We live in the upland Shenandoah Valley, between the first and second wrinkle from the coast. This upland bowl filled up with fertile soil running down from the ridges in charging streams, later a joyous sight to the first builders of gristmills. The limestone layer juts out, last proof of the ancient, epoch collisions.   


A northern glacial intruder enticed birds, elk, bison and blooming life south into this Eden-in-the-making. 


Then came the most efficient predator – us.  From the north, Iroquois found our Eden following the wild geese migrating south.  They named the Patowmack River in this section – “Cohongaroota” – “the land where the wild geese fly.”  An oracle, the recorded legend goes, sent the tribes south.  Decimated tribes would meet for a year at a time in a singular sacred spot here, at the mid-point of the great Warrior Path, running from New York to the Carolinas.  They feasted, drank from a year-round spring, buried their chiefs, married their princesses – so that their dying tribes would be reborn.


In the last twenty years, medicine men, guided mysteriously from Ohio, North Carolina, Long Island, and Oklahoma have arrived on foot and unannounced to this sacred site.  From one to whom they spoke: “They look around, and with tears in their eyes, say something invariably like: ‘It’s just as our ancestors and songs said it would be.’ ” Tears caused when a life-long faith in testimony is miraculously upheld and that the place, so praised for so long, really is, upon sight as perfect as proclaimed.


So Jefferson County is a place as perfect as proclaimed.  “The land where the birds sing and the flowers bloom.”   A crossroads through time at which freedom compounded and its dignity doubly defended.


Jefferson County is unique in its people. So enraptured by this Eden, they learn to fight for All Edens.


Read American history carefully and you find that only here –in Jefferson County’s vicinity – was there a wondrous human experiment.  Only here could you find the first four original ethnic groups to this wild continent in roughly equal proportions actually living and working together. And they were genuinely ornery about their personal freedoms.


A French philosopher once said nations were born from “massive forgettings and massive rememberings.”  You were a German, fed up with the French Catholic King burning barns in the Palatinate to make you convert; a Scot or Irishman, fed up by the tripling of your rent after you improved an English nobleman’s lands for thirty years; a Yoruba or Mandingo tribesman from West Africa angry at being torn from his Promised Land; and a Tidewater Englishman following the lead of Lord Thomas Fairfax and settling the hinterland to breathe the free mountain air, away from stuffy, parlor room pecking orders.


Germans vowed to farm and worship unfettered; Scots and Irish vowed to own their own land and its bounty; Tidewater insurgents, like the Washingtons, vowed to dash the extortive bonds of a fearful English Parliament; African-Americans vowed to keep self, family and traditions alive until it all became a strong counter-culture.


At the call to war in July, 1775 to protect these rights, Washington and Adam Stephen produced in two weeks some 200 men willing to fight and die for scant reward for all the things they cherished and already vowed to defend.   


So when Col. Washington sent out an order that these men from this immediate area prepare to march to Boston to join what was then tentatively called the “Continental Army,” they gathered wearing blouses with the words, “Liberty or Death.” stitched across their chests, with tomahawk, scalping knife, and Kentucky rifle – all under the same defiant sign and regimental banner of the Culpepper Guards – the snake and the challenge: “Don’t tread on me.”  Then in the sweltering month of July, they rambunctiously marched 600 miles in 25 days. Only one recruit was said to have not made it. Not because he was tired, but because he was bad.


As Col. Washington waited for the arrival of his Southern men, he must have wondered if his buddies from the debacle of Fort Duquesne back in 1755 – when he himself had four bullets whiz through his uniform - would come at all.


Washington is in a list of great leaders that includes Robert E. Lee, Clara Barton, Harriett Tubman, and Nelson Mandela.  Each of these people had a supernatural self-control, subordinating a life’s energies to a single Everest-like goal. Their personal example would inspire armies, nations or peoples to reach much higher and try much harder.


Mandela, who paced the exercise yard for years in prison with no hope of release, nevertheless wrote a friend that he made sure his every word and action “would be designed to control the response of the guard.”  Washington was surely as self-disciplined, harnessing a fierce temper.  


Strange they may have appeared, with faces smudged.  But when Col. Washington first saw the 200 familiar faces on the perimeter of the Cambridge drill field, his biographer, Washington Irving, wrote that Washington rode over, and with – not moisture around his eyes – but tears flowing down his cheeks, he dismounted and gratefully shook every pair of tough hands.  Because he knew, as Shakespeare wrote, they “were the thing Itself.” And they came.


They were the best marksmen in the Army, according to Washington and John Hancock, able to regularly hit a seven-inch piece of wood at 200 yards.  The stormed the battlements at Saratoga, and routed the much larger, cruelest, and most feared corps of Cornwallis’ army at Cowpens. They may have been ugly mountain boys with rude manners, but as John Hancock eventually called them “the best riflemen in the world,” anchoring and aiming their 20-pound long rifles with skill borne from a lifetime of hunting. 


So that’s what we mean by “ornery.” All-American Ornery. Good Ornery.


Take care of what you got - or you lose it. Maybe die defending all you hold dear.

Philosopher John Ruskin wrote we grudgingly honor the soldier over the merchant because his job is to be slain.


The Civil War shows the fighting spirit of all Jefferson County’s people in two forms: first, as exceptionally gifted and motivated African-Americans, oft-noted in contemporary diaries, exemplified by Martin Delany, the first black field officer in the U. S. Army.  Second, the white men enlisted in the Confederate Army to the tune of 1600 men out of a County of just some 12,000 white persons.  They clearly enlisted not quite so much because of slavery, which was naturally in decline here all through the 1850s - while it burgeoned further south.  We just get really hot when someone dares threaten our hearth, home and loved ones. Pure and simple. 


This book is about homegrown people of Jefferson County through time.  Each person featured here is a kind of strength personified, born of the land and place, each a lens of being that renders one facet of the spirit of our little Eden.


We read their stories and lives in the context of a curse that is poised to visit us and our land for a second time.


The curse came a thousand years ago.  Tribes of countless names, formed palisaded villages of several hundred or thousand people, up and down both our rivers. They grew corn outside the walled villages, with the bean twining up the stalk and pumpkin sheltering the ground with its broad leaf. The charmed bounty of food and plenty kept attracting more and more settling tribes until they outstripped the good land and began fighting for what good land remained.  The spirit of amity died.   A sharp drop climatic cooling in the 15th century wiped out food stores of several seasons.  All was destroyed.  The Shawnees and many lesser tribes scattered westward.  The curse of greed made its argument.  New white- and black-faced settlers would find only eerie, deserted fields of waist-high, berry-filled grasslands, ringed by dense forests of oak and maples.


These Euro-Americans remained and now face the curse of overpopulation and discontent again.


A county with 11,000 single-family homes has agreed to have at least 13,000 more homes built, many on sacred land, the power of which many do not know. And the finding out will come.  One of our ancient father’s descendants, a wise man in a businessman’s suit named Washington, was told in 2001 that his family’s lands will be paved over by a small city of 3,300 homes.  He worked to preserve his family’s history for fifty years.


When the words sunk in and he could perhaps see in his mind – the many happy carriage rides long past between his family’s homes – Claymont, Blakeley, Happy Retreat, Cedar Lawn, Barleywood, and Harewood – he said of all his family’s good times: “Well, I guess it’s all gone.”  Not just a piece of land but the spirit that bound all these homes and lands.


Will we let speed wreck the harmony of life here?  Will our ways of living, in tune with the seasons and remembered first names, harden and fragment into jagged factions where houses are not homes and strangers outnumber friends?  Was the late Reva White right when she said: “I think the car and telephone made us too aggressive. I really do.” Was she right?  Of course, she was.