The “Venturesome” Virginia Frontiersman – Part 1

Check out the Podcast version: on Apple Podcasts, or at PodBean:, if you’d rather listen….

August 3, 1752 – Augusta County, Virginia.

As the 45-year-old frontiersman began his careful descent along the steep western slope of the long flat mountain he had climbed earlier that morning, he could faintly make out rays of daylight ahead, a sure sign of a clearing in the forest, as dark forest turned to bright meadows in the foothills below. Being a veteran longhunter, Joseph Swope immediately recognized the old clearings ahead as the work of generations of hunting bands of Indians – possibly spanning back to the earlier mound-building cultures, and it heightened his senses. He had encountered them many times before, and they were especially prominent in this fertile limestone valley which he first entered yesterday, camping under the roof of a cave. Many of the first white adventurers over the blue ridge were surprised to see cleared valleys of fields and meadows, where it was assumed would lie nothing but trackless forest, so Joseph knew that cleared areas were indications of fertile ground and good water, and plentiful food for packhorses. In short, good settlement potential, whether red or white.

In 1671, explorers Thomas Batt, Robert Fullam, and Thomas Wood were commissioned to explore “the ebbing and flowing of the waters on the other side of the mountains, in order to the discovery of the South Sea.” It wouldn’t be until the Lewis and Clark expedition 130 or so years later, that the disappointing news of there being no navigable, or practical, water route across the continent was finally put to rest. After crossing the Blue Ridge, the Batt expedition discovered a large savannah, as prairies were called at the time. {Shortly afterwards, in the early 18th century, long before any valley in that area was settled, Col. William Byrd, in speaking of the Roanoke Valley, noted that, “there is scarce a shrub in view to intercept your prospect, but grass as high as a man on horseback.” A History of Monroe County, West Virginia, by Oren F. Morton, 1916, at pp. 19-20.} The Batt expedition found likewise as they entered the southern end of the Greenbrier Valley.

Monroe County in the present day, from a drone being flown on top of Peters Mountain.

When the party reached the general vicinity of present day Union, Monroe County, West Virginia, they found much of the land long ago cleared of timber in places, with stony, but fertile, soil, some of the old fields grown up in weeds, locusts, and old cornstalks. They reached about the site of present day Hinton, West Virginia, and the beginning of West Virginia’s New River Gorge, where at first they thought the westernly course of the water, combined with sunlight reflecting of the water in the distance, was the beginnings of the Pacific Ocean. {A History of Monroe County, West Virginia, by Oren F. Morton, 1916, at p. 21.}

Joseph Swope was acutely aware that these old clearings in the fertile areas of the valley, besides being great indicators of good land, also warned of potential danger, and Joseph hadn’t survived as long as he had by being reckless. As these thoughts flowed through his mind, as often they did when he walked by himself through the woods in complete silence, he thought about the turkey he had just shot minutes before, and it began to give him an uneasy anxiety. A feeling of worry started to develop in the back of his mind. He unconsciously stepped more carefully, avoiding breaking even the smallest twig, yet he make a noise. He hadn’t thought about it at the time, but from atop that mountain, surrounded on all sides by valleys, the sound surely carried far in many directions. Under his breath, or perhaps just in his mind, he cursed himself using some of his favorite tavern insults. How could he be so careless, and in this place, of all places, of which he knew nothing. He was going in blind. Had he thought of it, he could have concealed his trail from the turkey, and set yet another trap in which to spy, and perhaps kill, anyone investigating the shot. He’d done it before. It was a dirty trick, but when it comes to survival, fair didn’t matter. But he hadn’t done it.

To make matters worse, he had virtually no idea who, if anyone, was within the general vicinity of this isolated and completely uninhabited frontier. At times it was easy to get complacent, which was, of course, potentially deadly to the 18th century long hunter. His eyes instinctively began to dart back and forth – even more rapidly and concentrated than usual. He listened for the normal sounds he expected to hear in the woods, which had often served as an early warning indicator that trouble was near . . . .

A view of this country from the top of Peters Mountain.

Even as a child, Joseph Swope had never been able to sit still for extended periods. He had never wanted to waste his life as a farmer. He always preferred shooting, hunting, and trapping, and of course, exploring, over the farming life. He came from a German immigrant family who valued the lifelong establishment of an efficient farm. Germans treasured farmland, as there never was much of it to go around in the old country. They tended to latch onto a farm here in the colony of Virginia, or Pennsylvania, and stay and work at it, until it became a profitable operation. But that wasn’t Joseph; he was a wanderer, always pacing – even when at home in his cabin. Every family seems to have at least one “black sheep” who refuses to do what’s expected of him, and that was Joseph among the Swopes of Leiman. {Leimen is a town in northwest Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany.}

The Swopes hadn’t been in the colonies for long, and even now, Joseph could hardly be understood by many of his fellow Virginians, most of whom were Scots-Irish. {Scots-Irish Americans are generally descendants of Ulster Protestants who migrated during the 18th century, including 200,000 Scottish Presbyterians who settled in Ireland between 1608-1697. Many of this group also moved to Ireland from England proper. When King Charles I attempted to force these Presbyterians into the Church of England in the 1630s, many chose to re-emigrate to North America. Later attempts at conversion resulted in further waves of migration, primarily to Virginia.} And to be sure, the name wasn’t even “Swope,” but rather “Schwab.” But their heavy accents, poor spelling, and broken english somehow resulted in people calling them Swope, probably from the spelling “Swab,” and it stuck. And of course, there was no Germany, per se, at the time. Joseph’s father, Yost, lived in the town of Leiman, in the Duchy of Baden. This is where Joseph was born in 1707. Joseph’s grandfather was the “burgomaster” of Leiman, which is a mayor of sorts. For instance, Joseph himself always carried this heavy German accent, which would have sounded something like, “How do vu do, mein name is Chozeph Svobe, and I’m heated across zee mountains to look for kame and hadffenture.” You can see how “Schwab,” would quickly turn into “Swope.”

Joseph’s father brought him and his siblings across the ocean by ship to the British colony of Pennsylvania. While Joseph was still a child, the family arrived at the port in Philadelphia, and traveling by wagon to the Upper Leacock Township of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – an area where they already had some friends and family nestled among the large German immigrant community in that area. Between 1727 and 1775, approximately 65,000 Germans, mostly from the Rhineland region, moved to Pennsylvania.

There were many reasons that the Germans were migrating to Pennsylvania, but the primary reason was the same one almost everyone who came to America had – to leave the socially-stagnant, feudal, and bloody old world behind for the land of promise and opportunity. The German people had been devastated by the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, and the wars thereafter between German principalities and France.

German immigrants generally arrived in Pennsylvania as family units, and then they would write each other, encouraging others to join them. {See German Settlement in Pennsylvania An Overview, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania;} There had never been any new land available in Germany, or Europe in general, since the days of the Roman empire, and even then it took an army, or armies, to gain it, much less hold it. In Pennsylvania, new land was there for the taking. In Germany, small farms were cherished, and held by a family as long as possible. The idea of new land up for grabs was too much to resist.

In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which was the epicenter of the creation and advancement of what became known as the “American Longrifle,” Joseph became fascinated with the thriving Pennsylvania gunsmithing industry. It was spreading like wildfire through the local settlements, to the west of Philadelphia, as the newly arrived immigrants immediately realized the huge market for their skills. Like other German boys, Joseph had grown up shooting his father’s “jaeger” rifles. His father had two prized finely decorated guns: one which had a smooth barrel, and could fire lead shot, for fowl; and he had one with a rifled barrel, for shooting an accurate solid ball. His uncle had one with rotating barrels, one rifled for large game, and one smooth, for fowl. It was a fine piece. It was expensive too, and thus his uncle rarely used it, except on special occasions.

Germans had always been fascinated with firearms, and combined with talented woodworkers, locksmiths, and blacksmiths, had perfected a weapon all their own, which served an entire profession of serious hunters, combining an accurate rifled barrel, with a short overall length, convenient for reloading, and ease of carrying on a hunt. In the new melting pot of America, German immigrants carried this knowledge and passion with them, and combined it with the entrepreneurship and economic potential of new settlements, and new land, creating by necessity, a new way of life, and a new weapon: what would become the “Pennsylvania Rifle,” later called the “Kentucky Rifle.” It remains today, a symbol of America itself, for a number of reasons: westward expansion, manifest destiny, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the sheer size and wildness of the vast North American continent.

A surviving early example of what would become to be known as the Kentucky Rifle (even though Kentucky wasn’t yet created), which saw use on the 18th century Virginia frontier.

The German immigrants of course brought their expensive, and shorter barreled, Jaegers with them to Pennsylvania. But there was an unanticipated problem from the very beginning, which rendered them less than reliable in the new world: the available gunpowder was extremely low quality. In the old country, they had access to the finest Swiss made gun powder, which made for wonderfully accurate shooting in the short-barreled German rifles. But the gunpowder in Pennsylvania was terrible compared to what they were used to. This poor gunpowder, some of which was made by local entrepreneurs using homemade concoctions mixed together in regional powder mills, wasn’t creating sufficient velocity out of the short German barrels.

The old-world trained gunsmiths quickly adapted, lengthening the barrels of their new builds, and spending less attention to decoration, though still utilizing a basic German style of architecture. These early American rifles were very much akin to the Jaeger style from the old world, and probably impossible to differentiate to some of the more basic jaegers brought over. But the new trend developing was overall more subdued and functional, than the treasured old expensive masterpieces. Some of the old world jaegers were fabulously decorated, with hunting scenes engraved upon them, engraved stags, and so on.

An example of a beautifully decorated German Jaeger, which solves the old problem of rifling vs. no rifling. It has a swivel breach, with two barrels – one rifled and one smoothbore. So when hunting, if you see a turkey or squirrel, use the smoothbore filled with shot. If you see a deer, use the rifled barrel with the solid shot. Like many of the valuable and well-made Jaegers, this one was expertly converted to percussion when the technology arrived.

The new American pieces produced by the same talented German gunsmiths, were all business, and many of them were Moravian artists, centered in the early areas of Bethlehem and Christian Springs Pennsylvania, as well as Old Salem, down in North Carolina. In the American colonies, hunting wasn’t necessarily a recreational activity for the wealthy, or even a make-work “profession,” but rather, a method of survival for the poor and wealthy alike, living a dangerous and unpredictable life on the fringes of the eastern frontier. Even more importantly, hunting using firearms was the primary tool of survival in the deadly game of cat and mouse being played in the border regions, where Indians hunted, and American colonists weren’t supposed to go. It was a weapon of guerrilla warfare, used by both sides, as well as a tool for obtaining food. Engraving became less important, and functioned became tantamount.

Joseph Swope eventually left the colony of Pennsylvania and headed down the well used wagon road into the great interior valley of the Virginia colony, a much different place than he had experienced in Pennsylvania. Whereas Pennsylvania had a somewhat peaceful relationship with the Native Americans on its western end, and was fairly scarcely populated, Virginia seemed to be in a perpetual state of perceived war, combining a frontier which pierced far inland, into a colony with far greater population than that of Virginia. Relations with Indians were much better in Pennsylvania, where it was not uncommon at all for German immigrant gunsmiths to stock and repair guns for friendly Indians, including Shawnee. This would never happen in Virginia, who’s frontier hunters were called the “Long Knives,” by the Shawnee, and both sides were liable to kill the other on site in the dangerous middle ground between their settlements.

An example of a German Moravian mission settlement – this one reconstructed at Schoenbrunn, in Ohio
The inside of the epicenter of a Moravian settlement, the church. This is the largest building to the right in the first photo.

It’s estimated that, as of 1750, even though Philadelphia was America’s largest city, and would be for some decades to come, Virginia had a population of around 231,000 people, while Pennsylvania had a population of only around 120,000. The next decade would further increase the dramatic difference. In 1760, Virginia’s population is estimated at 340,000, and Pennsylvania, only a modest increase to 183,000. {Estimated Population of American Colonies: 1610 to 1780, Dr. Steven Davies, Vancouver Island University,} The Virginia frontier was legendary already for its danger, but widely known as full of opportunity for the enterprising woodsman, and they were flooding in.

Joseph carried with him to Virginia, a rifle of his own design – though not personally made by him. It had a smooth barrel, so that he could fire shot, or solid shot, depending on what he was hunting. But it had all the other attributes of the old world jaeger rifles he grew up with, albeit lacking the decorations, and with a longer barrel. Stocked in a stunning American black walnut, it had a large, thick, almost clunky, butt stock with a sliding wooden patchbox. It had sparse, but well executed, relief carving, with a tear drop shape prominently decorating the handmade lock. It also featured a simple and traditional “C scroll,” carved just behind the plain cheek rest of the stock. It actually wasn’t all that different looking at first glance than a fairly plain jaeger from the old country, but it utilized a much different barrel. This barrel Joseph himself had obtained in trade six months prior to his departure for Virginia, for two worn-out old muskets.

Perhaps what Joseph’s flintlock may have looked like. An original 1750’s example by a German gunmaker from Pennsylvania.

Stocked by a good friend of his, who fortunately spoke the same dysfunctional German English as Joseph, what really made this rifle special, and ideally suited to where he knew he was heading, was the lengthened and smoothbore barrel. The barrel itself was made based on an old design, perfected by the Spanish in the early 18th century, and well known to many of the German blacksmiths, it was characterized by its octagon shape in the thick rear, back by the breach where it screws into the stock. It then dramatically transitions to a round barrel about halfway down the barrel, where there was a decorative ring, much like what would be seen on the famous long fowling pieces used for bird hunting. This made sense for the transition to a longer barrel.

Although it appears as a rifle in every respect of outward appearance, it has a smoothbore barrel, allowing the versatility of different types of ammunition.

The perfectly balanced weapon had both a rear sight, and a front site post, for accurate aiming. He also specifically ordered it to be completed with a sling, attached to small swivels, so that he could drape the rifle across his back when necessary during travel. The lock was of traditional German flintlock style, much smaller and flatter than the large British ones of the era, and was handmade by an expert German locksmith whom he did not personally know. The rest of the hardware on the gun, the buttplate, trigger guard, the sideplate, the ramrod pipes, were all expertly made of brass. Though they lacked engraving, they had graceful lines, were sturdy, and well suited to the balance of the gun, into which Joseph had placed much forethought.

After arriving at his destination, Joseph built a small cabin – temporary in his eyes – in what was then, and still is, Augusta County, Virginia, near present day Staunton, Virginia, in a place now aptly named “Swope’s Depot.” Joseph’s first son, “Joseph” of course, was born there on August 11, 1751. And there the rest of the Swope family stayed while Joseph, Sr., went hunting. Life was not free. Men like Joseph either had to farm, or hunt. Joseph wasn’t the farming type. He loved to hunt. And, and as he frequently attempted to explain to his wife, when she inevitably began her routine attempts at convincing him to change his ways, there was more money in it. Potentially at least.

The cabin itself had a dirt floor, and was set on stones, on the four corners. It had one small window on the rear wall, and of course, the thick wooden front door, with wooden hinges Joseph carved with his small belt axe, which would usually be open to allow light inside. It’s only closing mechanism was the hand whittled bar lock for the inside, with a thick oak plank, which barred the inward opening door from opening, without a hell of an effort from the outside. The small fireplace opening was covered with mud, and some stone on the outside, and leading to a chimney made of green wood, and again lined with mud. It was temporary, and in fact he built the entire house in three days, with help from his neighbor, with nothing but two axes and an inch and a half hand auger, which had been given to him by his father. He wouldn’t be doing this again. Hewing logs, even crudely done, was getting difficult at his age. At least they had been able to use his horse to help pull the heavy white oak logs. Next time, it would be done right, and it would be permanent. With real planks on the floor. And maybe he wouldn’t use white oak again, because the weight nearly broke his back by the third day.

In this manner, much to the chagrin of his wife, Joseph would leave for months at a time on hunting expeditions. Such was the life of the longhunter, as evidenced by the life story of Daniel Boone, with his love Rebecca Bryan, always longing for him, and then some, according to some historians. But, though potentially satisfying and profitable, it was difficult and dangerous work. The Swope cabin in Augusta was at the very fringe of the frontier, and there were basically no settlers beyond that point, short of temporary hunting cabins, thrown up for seasonal or temporary use, with only a couple of isolated exceptions. Joseph had never quite learned the art of properly constructing a fireplace, and the small Swope cabin filled with smoke incessantly, causing his wife to curse him constantly – though mostly while he was gone. She did love him though, and would stay up many nights, with her mind racing, wondering if he was alive, or dead.

In Joseph’s eyes, and in the minds of many like him, the furs, and the skins, were profit; just waiting there for the taking. However, it wasn’t going to be easy, or else everyone would be doing it. Beyond being hard work, there were constantly competitors on the move in the dangerous hunting grounds; namely, the Shawnee, who mostly resided in Pennsylvania’s frontier, but who frequently hunted, much like the Virginia longhunters, down through the Virginia frontier every year. They had trails running down from Pennsylvania, into the Virginia mountains, and also running from the Ohio river, where many large native hunting parties crossed over into Virginia.

It was on one of these hunting expeditions, in which Joseph rambled into the greater Greenbrier Valley for the first time. He was trapping and hunting up the Jackson River country of western Virginia, now Bath and Alleghany Counties. He had spent much of the summer of 1750, two years earlier, in that same valley, working and living with another longhunter, an affable and enterprising man named William Jackson. Both men enjoyed trapping along this beautiful, small fast flowing river, rich with game and fur. The area was beautiful. A few miles up the valley, on the tributaries coming out of the eastern mountain ridges, were hot springs suitable for bathing, even when cold, and nearby was a large waterfall which threw this highly mineralized water into the sky in a dramatic sheet of water.

The “Falling Springs” waterfall, just off Route 220, between Covington, Virginia, and Warm Springs, Virginia.

The rocks surrounding the large waterfall, and the springs several miles above them, were like nothing Joseph had ever seen – full of tiny holes, and easily crumbled under one’s feet, or even in the hand. It was as if the rock itself was alive and growing continuously. Indeed, bathing in the warm mineral spring water, eased Joseph’s joints in his strong, but tired, body. After years of trekking through the woods, sometimes every bone in Joseph’s body would ache, and he could feel every little bone in his feet, and his hands, which felt brittle and painful. And then he got headaches from an old tooth which he had been forced to pull from his jaw, all by himself, which was probably the worst pain he had ever felt. The hot spring water, surrounded by the porous rocks, really helped, he believed. And in any event, it was a rare luxury in the life of a frontiersman to bathe in hot water.

The hot springs at the present day Homestead Resort, near Warm Springs, Virginia, Bath County, now enclosed by a historic building, now under renovation I believe.

Joseph and William spent many a night – and sometimes days, especially when raining – drinking whiskey and singing old songs while encamped in a cave near the bank of that river. The cave, which Jackson had first found, allowed the men to keep a warm, and relatively invisible, fire. There were obvious signs of long-use by Indians, or even their predecessors. The benefit of being in a decently sized cave didn’t guarantee their safety from Indians passing through the area, but it sure helped. Unless of course they were headed to the same cave, which they must have known about.

Spending weeks on end in the wilderness tended to give the extended longhunter the feeling that they were alone in the world – in almost an entirely different universe, where nobody else existed. Of course, that was a false sense of security, since a complacent hunter could, in reality, be ambushed at any moment – by either whites or Indians. But neither Jackson, nor Swope, were ambushed that summer. They fortunately had no problems with Indians whatsoever, and they ended up doing fairly well financially, once their furs and hides were brought back to Staunton.

The only meat the men kept was the bear meat, and and the grease rendered from it, which was easily preserved, and highly valued among the frontier settlers. To the person, any of the frontier settlers Joseph had ever encountered would, without exception, buy bear meat over any other wild game. The fat content was a necessary part of the frontier diet, as the early settlers learned, and in contrast, they found it sorely lacking in venison and turkey. Pigs were kept where possible in settlements, but they were also expensive, and would not be butchered when wild game was available.

Over drunken meals of bear and whiskey, and sometimes even rum – at least in the beginning of the trip – Joseph would become good friends with William. Jackson himself loved the little valley so much that he had decided to settle and build a cabin there, and Joseph didn’t blame him a bit. When he returned to hunt two years later, in 1752, Joseph stopped to see him and to stay for a while in his new cabin. Though not quite jealous, the thought did cross his mind that he needed his own little slice of frontier heaven, as William now clearly enjoyed.

To think that in the old country, his people were still clinging to their small farms, which they had been farming for hundreds of years, never really getting ahead; and now, here was Joseph in a paradise just there for his taking. There was so much land, Joseph knew he didn’t even need to farm it. Just hunt, and maybe some small crops for personal use. Just enough to qualify as a settler on the land. Later such lands would be properly surveyed, and a handwritten deed drafted, in beautiful cursive handwriting, by an expert hand, noting that the land described therein, was conveyed to the owner by virtue of settlement.

Though not ideal, it was mostly effective, assuming a competent surveyor performed the survey. Virginia was fairly competent in that respect. Later, in the rush to claim land in Kentucky, it would be a disaster of conflicting titles, claims and boundaries, spelling financial disaster to many of the great surveyors and frontiersmen, such as Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, and George Rogers Clark; but resulting in wealth and prestige for others who were more careful, such as Daniel Smith and Isaac Shelby.

Joseph’s friend William Jackson had obtained a grant of land around the beautiful fast flowing small mountain river which still today is named after him, Jackson’s River, and by the time of Swope’s 1752 hunting trip, Jackson had already built a crude, but comfortable, log cabin along it, sitting on a small rise of bottomland. Jackson’s cabin was mostly used as a base of operations for hunting and trapping, but also to begin the task of clearing some of the more fertile plots of land for planting. Swope immensely enjoyed staying with Jackson at his new cabin in this wild and free country. There were no neighbors nearer the Calfpasture river settlements, where for years, the legendary old Captain Alexander Dunlap lived in a large cabin, with his large family.

The Calfpasture River

For many years, the old Captain Dunlap had lived in a tall fortified cabin there, which had its own stockade and large gate. It had been the westernmost stopping off point for the more adventurous Virginia longhunters and explorers, as well as a place of welcome upon return . . . if that occurred. One of those men, John Lewis, had his own large fortified plantation of sorts not far from the Swopes, in Staunton. Lewis was also an explorer, or rather a surveyor, and of course a hunter and frontiersman, by necessity. But he was very much in a higher social strata than the lowly Joseph Swope, having come from an influential family in Scotland. But he was very much a humble and down-to-earth man, with a very well adjusted family, who adored and revered the patriarch.

Perhaps as the interior of Jackson’s cabin appeared. The actual spot is at Schoenbrunn Village, in Ohio.

Joseph enjoyed staying at William’s isolated cabin, and he was certainly welcome to stay, as William repeatedly told him. But eventually, Joseph’s obsessive pacing resumed, even inside Jackson’s small cabin on dark and stormy days, as well as many of the nights, much to the annoyance of Jackson, who constantly told him, “less walking, more drinking, eh?” It was inevitable, however, that Joseph’s wanderlust, which was hard wired into his DNA, continued to encourage him to get back on the move; to go even further west, and to explore, hunt, and maybe even find his own isolated frontier headquarters, surrounded by game and fresh mountain streams.

John Lewis, as well as his son Andrew, who often accompanied his father on his explorations, had told Joseph of their explorations down the old Indian trail beyond the Jackson River – of a large stream which was a tributary of the Jackson, named after the old Captain Dunlap: Dunlap’s Creek. There was valuable land for the taking, and they were headed there as well, they told him, as part of a new land venture. It was dangerous territory, they told him, and which he of course knew. It goes without saying , that if he ran into trouble there, nobody was coming to help him. But then again, that was nothing new in his line of work.

Hand hewn log cabin, along a river, much like Jacksons probably was, though this one is much later. This sits on the Kanawha River, near Charleston, W. Va.
Or perhaps, Jackson’s first cabin was more crude like this one, which we’ll be moving shortly. I believe this to be a very early cabin, associated with a nearby small, and likely unstockaded fort, about a stone’s throw away. Note that there was only a thick wooden front door, and no windows, other than a small hole in the rear, and a hole next to it, offset from center, for a mud and wood chimney. These rarely survive, but this one sort of did by being used as a barn for a couple of hundred years. Originally it was chinked, as can be seen from the front, because it’s still covered.

From Jackson’s cabin on the Jackson River, Swope found the confluence of Dunlap’s Creek, named after old Capt. Dunlap, who told the story many, many times, of his dramatic and dangerous exploration in that country. Dunlap Creek flowed into Jackson’s river at a beautiful set of curves, which over the years had created a wide bottomland on either side of the river. {Modern day Covington, Virginia.} Joseph then began up that creek, which was almost as large at its mouth as the river into which it emptied.

Jackson River

As was described to him, there was what appeared to be an old trail heading up the bank of that creek. It wasn’t a road, but rather a footpath, and perhaps even an animal path at times. The path itself was well worn, and mostly clear of brush. Though a footpath, it was wide enough mostly to lead a packhorse – though at times there were narrow spots which were tricky for both man and horse. Both the Indians and the Virginia hunters were required to use packhorses to get their bounty out of the wilderness. None of the streams through these rugged mountain areas were navigable to the point of being able to transport heavy furs and hides with canoes or larger boats. It was generally by horse, or by man.

Remnants of the old trail along Dunlap Creek, as it passes the intersection at Crows, Virginia.

After what must have been ten miles or so, he came to another creek, and a faint small trail leading off in that direction, which had been just as described to him by John and Andrew Lewis, who themselves had already surveyed some of the land up that way, and may have been up there at that time, as far as Joseph knew. Every once and awhile, he noticed red paint markings on some of the trees, and in one place, he saw the letters, “J” and “L” marked on a tree with coal, which he presumed was done by the Lewis. {The present day intersection at Crows, Virginia.}

The remnants of Crow’s Tavern at the trail intersection, now Crows, Virginia.

Joseph decided to continue down Dunlap’s Creek, rather than turning towards the direction of the Lewises’ travels. He wasn’t a wealthy man. He had no land grant. He had no deed, and wasn’t in a position to purchase the land that the Lewises were surveying. But if he found the right place, he knew he could claim land for himself by right of possession. The process had been explained to him probably a hundred times or so, in taverns across the Virginia settlements, usually after one too many cups of rum, and sometimes which was literally acted out inside the tavern, resulting in one or more tomahawks or poll axes sticking out of various ceiling joists and fireplace mantles. He would first establish a “tomahawk claim” by marking his initials in boundary trees, and would then quickly need to build a log cabin there, and establish himself on that land as quickly as possible, in which case, he would eventually be able to register his own deed and survey by right of settlement. If, of course, he found a spot he was willing to stay. If he found a spot he found comparable to Jackson’s spot.

As Joseph continued down the Indian trail along Dunlap Creek, he thought about potential troubles ahead. He knew that no Indian tribes inhabited these parts he was entering, but that they were often occupied by seasonal hunting parties, via several well known trails through the mountains – one of which Joseph was currently following. He knew this was risky, and was determined at some point to get off it and make his own way, as he was adept at doing. But for now, he continued down the wide stone-bottomed creek, flanked on either side by massive mountain ridges, allowing very little sun at most times of the day.

Dunlap Creek at the historic horseshoe covered bridge. It’s a large creek.

After about another five miles, he came to an amazing spot, and found just one of the things he had been searching for – a tremendous amount of beaver sign. Here Dunlap Creek branched into two tributaries on either side, both going into different valleys. The northernmost creek headed into a narrow cove, which didn’t appear to widen out much, if at all, as it entered from the west. {Present day Cove Creek, Alleghany County, Virginia, following the general course of Cove Creek Road.} The southern creek, obviously the larger of the two, roared into the confluence point over a massive and wide waterfall, which very much reminded Joseph of the large one he used to visit with Jackson, back near the hot springs.

The upper portion of the beaver swamp, as it appears today, with the first waterfall below the photo.

The water seemed to be the same mineral content, and the porous rock once again appeared. It wasn’t in the other tributary heading into the cove, but it completely filled the other creek, which itself was like nothing he had seen since leaving Pennsylvania. There were a series of two other waterfalls above the main large one at the confluence. Along those two waterfalls were what appeared to be generations of beaver activity – to the point that there were hardened, almost rock-like, petrified trees and beaver dams, creating a large swampy marsh, with beaver pools in places. It seemed to be a beaver paradise, and with that, he would always remember the place as Beaver Dam Falls. {Present day Beaver Dam Falls, in Alleghany County, Virginia.}

The first waterfall at Beaver Dam Falls.

The Indian trail followed the southern creek with the waterfalls, bounding around the beaver marshes to the south, along the base of the ridge overlooking the area. So of course, Joseph continued to follow that creek, as he would have anyways, even if the trail didn’t go in that direction, since this was clearly the better choice of the two. He could already see where the little valley was starting to rise and widen out. In addition to beaver, there was deer sign, and bear sign, everywhere. Every little sapling, it seemed, was rubbed completely raw by the bucks – with some appearing fresh, and others obviously from prior seasons. There were bear droppings everywhere, filled with berries.

Part of a beaver pond, still in existence at the head of the beaver marsh at the present day Beaver Dam Falls.

At the head of the beaver marsh was a large cave, over which the Indian trail passed. Out of this cave, a strong smell of sulphur emanated, along with a milky-white colored spring water. The animals apparently loved this spot, as there was sign everywhere. Joseph set up behind a deadfall pine for about 45 minutes, before he saw a flash of black, though he heard nothing. A large bear waddled out in front of him, near the entrance of the cave. He took a shot, and killed the bear with one well placed shot to the skull.

The cave
Looking out from the mouth of the cave.

Joseph decided to camp in a nearby rock overhang, full of the same porous rock as surrounded the waterfalls. It was as if the entire area had once been the bed of an ancient ocean, and it left these little overhangs seemingly jutting out of the ground at random. He spent much of that night listening to the sounds of wolves making a racket much of the night, seemingly only feet away. Despite the pitch blackness which resulted following his fire dying down to embers, he could sense them – though he couldn’t see his hand in front of face. They were yipping, and yelping, and carrying on all around him, as if they were playing with each other. He sensed no threat from them, so he didn’t get scared, per se, but it was somewhat unnerving, and kept him from getting much sleep that night. He slept with his hand on his long rifleman’s knife the rest of the night, just in case, he had to fight for his life. But they didn’t bother him that night – other than making noise and keeping him awake.

The Pennsylvania style spring creek, running through the beaver marsh area.

The next day, Joseph continued up the old Indian trail, which skirted the beaver marsh area on its southern edge, at the base of the first ridge of mountains to the south of it. Probably not another mile away, he rounded a bend in the trail, skirting what was not a much smaller creek, and the land opened up dramatically, with some old meadows on both sides of the small creek, with a random cornstalk dotted here and there, in between the weeds, brush, and chest-high grass. {Near present day Sweet Chalybeate Springs, Virginia, just at the border between Alleghany County, Virginia, and Monroe County, West Virginia.}

The “Marle” rock growing out of a cliff face at Beaver Dam Falls.

Joseph continued heading up the valley, passing another small waterfall, and some of the largest springs he’d ever seen – still with the small porous rock in the bed of the creek. The creek itself dwindled beyond that point, and the valley continued upwards from the headwaters of Dunlap Creek, and rounded the top of a hill, where new springs began to form, though he was still in the same valley. On both sides of the valley, which was probably a mile wide, two large mountain ridges enclosed it, as if guarding it from whatever dangers lay beyond. The creek itself, which bubbled up from a few springs, here and there, was small – too small to hold any number of the furbearing creatures he was seeking. And there were no spots, as he had seen the day before, where there was a large amount of beaver activity. Thus he continued, for about another fifteen miles or so, when he reached a gap in the mountains, through which the creek, as well as the Indian trail, followed. {Present day Gap Mills, West Virginia.} He travelled through the gap without incident, with the creek now increasing in velocity and depth, as it flowed through the gap.

A view from the top of Peters Mountain, looking towards the gap in the mountains, middle right, and onto the larger valley of “sinks” beyond. “Little Mountain” runs parallel to it to the left, running parallel with Peters Mountain.
The beautiful Gap Mills valley, looking west, towards the gap, by drone.

On the other side of the gap, the lay of the country took a dramatic turn – from a linear valley, to a large plateau of hilly woodland, with old fields interspersed here and there. It was a land of sinks, with no real creek flowing through, but with small springs and creeks here and there, flowing down into caves, not to be seen again. The creek he had been following took a turn to the north. But the Indian trail went left, overland. So he followed the trail. It wound down past a few sinks, eventually itself finding the headwaters of a small creek, flowing clear cold water off a small mountain serving as a foothill for the large grandmother of a mountain guarding the greater valley itself. {The headwaters of Indian Creek, flowing off of Little Mountain, itself mostly a foothill of the larger Peters Mountain, serving in places as a border of Virginia and West Virginia, on top of which the Appalachian Trail runs for a short jaunt.}

A drone view of the fertile “Sinks of Monroe” limestone hilly valley.

Indeed, he had walked over half a mile through a small creek running parallel to the old Indian trail, before hopping off on a couple of rocks at the spot where the creek hit a steep hill and turned due south for several hundred yards. There he scrambled up the tall, densely forested hill, trying as much as possible to avoid breaking any sticks or undergrowth, and to step on as many stones as possible, rather than to leave footprints. The purpose of this was to conceal his path, as well as the direction of his travel – a necessity on the frontier. A traceable path would likely be a death sentence if noticed by a traveling party of Shawnee. He had no indication that Indians were nearby, but then again, he necessarily wouldn’t if they were coming the opposite direction. Had he left a moccasin print, it might be visible until the next rain. And it was the dry season, with no rain in sight. Already the creeks were fairly low.

The headwaters of Indian Creek, which paralleled the old Indian trail Joseph followed along Dunlap Creek, to its source, then over the eastern divide to the headwaters of Indian Creek. One mile south of present day Union, West Virginia, and on the grounds of what would later be Byrnside’s Fort.
The view of the hill at Indian Creek where Joseph parted from the trail, and the creek, heading west up the hill. Byrnside’s Fort would later be built on this hill, where it’s seen in the upper right of the photo.

From the top of the hill, he headed due west, and made his way across a series of limestone soiled tablelands, full of sinkholes, and rich with water sources. But there were no large creeks in the vicinity, and thus probably no close sources of the valuable fur hides he was seeking to return with.

A wider view of where Indian Creek hits a steep wall, and cuts due south, now the site of Byrnside’s Fort, and the likely spot where Swope cut off the old Indian trail, which ran all the way down Indian Creek to its mouth, in order to head west.

So he continued. But he did notice that the land was highly fertile, due to the limestone content. Joseph, and indeed many of the frontiersmen, judged themselves highly adept at placing a fertility rating on new lands they were exploring, merely by observing the species and traits of the trees growing on it. Had he been looking to farm, he may have stopped already and claimed some of the land – especially since much of it was already cleared meadows, some of which grew thick chest-high grass, waving like a grain field in the breeze. {Present day Union, West Virginia.} But this was too exposed, even if he wanted to become a farmer, and so he decided to climb the highest mountain in the vicinity, and get a better lay of the land – or at least find out what was on the other side.

A drone view looking due west from Indian Creek towards “Swope’s Knob,” in the direction of Joseph Swope’s travel, through what is now Union, West Virginia, and over the mountain in the distance.

Joseph climbed the mountain which would later be named after him – Swope’s Knobs – which contained one large hill, jutting out of the top of a wide and long plateau of a mountain. As he neared the top, the land became more rocky, and the foliage indicated less fertile soil, probably lacking the limestone found below. But it was thick, and he was unable to see out of the foliage. Maybe in a couple more months it would have been possible. Joseph chuckled to himself and being on the tip-top of the mountain, he smiled to himself as he remembered his neighbor back near Staunton, Michael Bickett, whom he had to rescue once from a pack of wolves which had him stranded in a tree – on the top of a mountain of all places. It would remain a running joke between the two, often involving a roaring fire, and a dram of rum, or two or three. He decided then that he’d name that little mountain knob after Michael, so that he could tell him about it, and have a good laugh when he returned. {Joseph indeed later convinced Michael Bickett to move to the area, and the tall knob is still today known as Bickett’s Knob.} Joseph continued on to the backside of the mountain, where in the distance, he could see more light passing through the trees, indicating an opening, or a meadow down the other side of the mountain.

The short and muscular frontiersman hadn’t shaved in several days, and his cloth hunting shirt was nearly black with sweat and grease stains. Though fall was nearing, it was still sweltering hot. Fortunately, despite the heat, there seemed to be no mosquitoes, and a consistent breeze from the north, much to Joseph’s liking. Walking in deer hide moccasins he made himself, he was well used to walking quietly through the woods, and had just now killed a turkey – a hen, trampling through the woods with twenty or thirty others, scratching at last year’s leaves on the ground, looking for grubs or insects.

Driving a side by side down this very spot on the backside of present day Swope’s Knobs.

The large flock of turkeys made so much noise coming through the woods, that Joseph heard them coming quite a ways away, and was able to set up a blind using a fallen tree. As they loudly neared his position, he fired his already-loaded roundball directly through the eye of the closest turkey, killing it instantly, and tearing away half of its bald head. The rest of the flock scattered in almost deafening clatter, with many of them taking to flight. It would generally be better to use a load of shot when turkey hunting, but his “smooth rifle” was already loaded with solid shot by default, since his primary quarry is always humans, at least if rendered necessary in self defense. His primary purpose was scouting, hunting, and exploring.

Stepping out of the thick and shady foliage, coming down the backside of the big knobby mountain, Joseph was overwhelmed by the breathtaking view of a small lush hidden valley – the most beautiful he had ever laid eyes on. This had to be his spot. Not too big; not too small. And somewhat hidden away, off the track of any Indian trail that he knew of. {He was standing on the backside of the present day of “Swope’s Knob” mountain, looking west towards the Wolf Creek valley of present day Monroe County, West Virginia.}

Joseph’s view, as it appears today, looking towards Wolf Creek.

As he stepped out of the dense forest and into the overgrown savannah, he got one of those sixth sense types of feelings; it was as if he was being watched, or being followed. The hair on the back of neck began to stick up. He re-primed the pan of his flintlock with a dab of powder – not too much, not too little – which he had perfected over the years. Too much, and there would be a larger explosion, flash, and somewhat of a minute delay – enough to disturb his accuracy. Too little, and he might just get a flash in the pan, and not ignite the main charge. Which might mean death in a confrontation or ambush.

Slowly, Joseph began to descend the rocky ridge of a foothill he had been traversing, towards the obvious creek which ran below, his eyes darting back and forth, and looking for anything out of place. Once down at the creek it would be much easier to avoid leaving a trail, but for now he was exposed and vulnerable. In the distance, slightly off to the left, he hard a the tell-tale sound of a doe’s bleet, which sounded almost like a loud, explosive sneeze. She bleeted twice loudly, warning other deer of potential danger. It had startled him, but she wasn’t close enough for him to see her, which concerned him.

To be Continued . . . .

(NOTE: Don’t forget to click EMAIL ME NEW BLOG POSTS to automatically receive these posts, at the bottom of the page. It just notifies you and sends you a link to each new post, or you can read it in your inbox.. There’s no spam/offers, etc. Unsubscribe at any time. It’s all automatic through WordPress.)


Also, if you support what we’re doing, please consider becoming a Scavengeology Society member, and get digital access to our first book, the Scav Journal, Vol.1, and more!

  • Become a registered user of the site with access to post on the forum and register for events. No Spam Emails.
    Help us save history and get member-only digital content and access to all Byrnside's Fort and Scavengeology events. 100% goes to Byrnside's Fort restoration. You also receive 15% of STOREWIDE IN THE SCAV STORE, and more.

    Select a Payment Method

    No payment methods are available for the selected subscription plan.
    Applying discount code. Please wait...

1 thought on “The “Venturesome” Virginia Frontiersman – Part 1

Comments are closed.