• David Joyce

Governor Alexander Spotswood and the importance of the Transmontane Expedition

Updated: Jan 6, 2020

The exploration of the Virginia frontier occurred during a time of economic and political expansion. As new areas were explored, political and ecclesiastical officials took notice. With the goal of exploring new trade routes, establishing new Anglican parishes, and purchasing additional plots of land, they thrived on this westward expansion. One such influential pioneer, Governor Spotswood, proved instrumental in this movement. Determined to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains, he and his expedition team began a journey that opened up opportunities for European settlers.

Beginning in August of 1716, Spotswood, Governor of Virginia, embarked from Germanna, a German colony, in Essex County, Virginia.1 Situated in the wilderness of the unexplored part of the colony, the governor realized that the adventure ahead would be exciting, but yet, also challenging. As he and his comrades rode toward a river they called “Expedition Run,”2 he remembered the “palisaded” fortifications surrounding Germanna.3 Designed to protect the inhabitants from hostile Native Americans, they also had built a “block-house” in which they could retreat.4 Despite this foreshadowing, Spotswood and his crew continued on their journey.

The obstacles they encountered were numerous. After John Fontaine and Austin Smith, members of his party, experienced a “violent fever,”5 it is recorded that Spotswood’s team survived by hunting deer and bears. Frequently delayed, they either had to cross deep rivers, catch runaway horses, and watch as their baggage and clothing were being “torn all to rags.”7 However, once they reached the top of the Appalachian Mountains and had completed their goal, they could celebrate.

Proving that pioneers could cross the Blue Ridge Mountains,8 they toasted to the health of King George and the royal family. Drinking all sorts of liquors such as “Virginia red wine and white wine, Irish Usquebaugh, brandy, shrub,”9 and they even “fired a volley” in honor of the King. However, this wasn’t their only contribution. It was later in 1716 that Governor Spotswood awarded those who accompanied him.

Creating the organization known as the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe, he gave each member a golden horseshoe with the engraved phrase “Sic juvat transendere montes” or “it is delightful to cross the mountains.”11 A badge of honor for those who were among the first Europeans to explore that part of Virginia, Spotswood also had a secondary reason for establishing this society. The publicity gained from the founding of the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe encouraged adventurers to settle around the Blue Ridge Mountains.

By 1721, when Spotslvania County, Virginia was formed from Essex County, the county had already begun attracting a steady flow of settlers, particularly the Scots-Irish. This migration would continue for years, even after Augusta County, Virginia was formed in 1745. Despite the increasingly frequent Native American attacks, there is no doubt that the Transmontane Expedition was essential in the expansion of the Virginia frontier.


1. John W. Wayland, Germanna (Mary : Wildsidebooks), 29.

2. Wayland, Germanna, 29.

3. John W. Wayland, Germanna (Mary : Wildsidebooks), 25.

4. Wayland, Germanna, 25.

5. Wayland, Germanna, 29.

6. John W. Wayland, Germanna (Mary : Wildsidebooks), 29-31.

7. John W. Wayland, Germanna (Mary : Wildsidebooks), 31.

8. Stephen Bonsal, The Golden Horseshoe (London, England : MacMillan, 1900), 36.

9. Rev. James Fontaine, John Fontaine, Anny Maury, Memories of a Huguenot Family (New York, New York : George P. Putnam & Co., 1853), 289.

10. Fontaine, Fontaine, Maury, Memories of a Huguenot Family, 289.

The National Orders of the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe, The National Orders of the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe, 4; Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/nationalorderofk00knig/page/n9 : accessed 10 May 2019). P

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