The Wilderness – The Early Years

Initially, this series on History in Our Backyard described how the Wilderness became the Wilderness.  Now we will delve into the early inhabitants who came to what would become known as “The Wilderness.” All things Wilderness were synonymous with Alexander Spotswood, the colony’s Royal Lt Governor in the early 1700s. He initiated the economic progress of the region through his efforts to establish Germanna fort and an iron industry. One source states that “there, thirty miles from the last outlying farms, the Germans set to work, clearing a site on the riverbank and building a fortified town.” The same source references the fort being supplied by pack-trains of mules and horses.

Those same pack-trains were instrumental in his 1716 venture into the mountains to the west. His band of adventure-seeking explorers departed from the Germanna fort accompanied by animals laden with supplies including a healthy supply of spirits. He later awarded each participant with a golden horseshoe pin thereby identifying them as the “Knights of the Golden Horseshoe” for eternity.

At the time of Spotswood’s term as Lt Governor of Virginia in 1722, he had firmly established his presence in the area. Through a somewhat devious plan he had accumulated over 80,000 acres of land. Records show that he never sold a single acre of the land, choosing instead to lease lots, mostly in 50 acre parcels, a few in parcels of up to 500 acres.

English law at that time dictated that settlers construct a home and plant an orchard on their leased property within three years. They also had to clear and plant a minimum one-acre garden and/or cropland. Initially, many chose to plant tobacco. The Colony was cash-strapped in those days and tobacco became the medium of exchange in most commercial transactions.

A 1724 inventory of Spotswood’s properties shows that he owned his fort, his large home, dozens of farm animals and the basis of the iron works, namely the Tubal site, about 12 miles east of his residence. At Germanna, he established the first County seat of Spotsylvania and held court in his home. The presence of the court quickly brought its own society; travelers arrived routinely for appearances before the justices.

County courts developed “Order Books” in those days. Both the Spotsylvania and later Orange (after 1734) books contain references to orders issued to Spotswood, primarily dictating that he organize work crews to maintain the road to Germanna and the bridge over Wilderness Run, located near the present day intersection of State Route 3 and US 20. Local residents provided the labor for the crews, usually their slaves. Spotswood did maintain the ferry that operated over the Rapid Anne River, today’s Rapidan. He also maintained his own road from Germanna to the Tubal Iron Works.

Eventually, small enterprises sprang up in the area. Those that were not located at the Court complex would be found along the Germanna Road. Retail stores, grain mills, saw mills, post offices, wagon makers and leatherworks businesses all found their place. Physicians took up residence in the area and church spires began to become part of the local scenery. By 1725 there were 7 plantations alone in the area surrounding the Tubal Iron Works site. The new Wilderness society was beginning to take shape.