John Lederer

The first European who explored west of the Blue Ridge was not English but a German, John Lederer. He went on three expeditions to the Blue Ridge between 1669-1670. Lederer wrote an account of his three journeys to the Blue Ridge in Latin. From them, we know that by 1670 he had identified the major landforms and physiography of Virginia.

Evidently Lederer's discoveries were not honored by the English in Tidewater Virginia. His translator noted that Governor William Berkeley had authorized Lederer's travels, but that "our Traveller at his return, instead of Welcome and Applause, met nothing but Affronts and Reproaches..." 1 Lederer's traveling companion on his second trip, Major Harris, returned early while Lederer himself continued further west. Harris apparently disparaged the German, in order to increase his own reputation as an adventurer in Virginia... and probably assuming that Lederer would never return alive to contradict him.

The translator, William Talbot, attributed this rejection to jealousy and embarrassment that a non-Englishman had been brave enough to explore the unknown. In addition to personal jealousy, the Tidewater landowners recognized that increasing the supply of tobacco-growing land west of the Fall Line would inevitably attract settlers. This would make it harder to obtain the labor needed for growing tobacco on existing lands in Tidewater, so the enthusiasm for western exploration may have been limited by the recognition that western settlement would create competition.

The First Journey, March 1669

On his first exploration, Lederer followed the Pamunkey River upstream from "Pemaeoncock Falls" to the Southwest Mountains, near modern-day Orange.

We can try to follow Lederer's route using his place names and trip description, but it's difficult to match up his journal exactly with our modern maps. He started at an Indian town named Shickehamany, apparently on the north bank - though if you pronounce the word rather than emphasize the spelling, it could be "Chickahominy" on the north bank of that river. That tribe was located south of the Pamunkey River. In addition, on a modern map it's not immediately clear what falls are downstream from the current site of Ashland, and could thus be Pemaeoncock Falls.

Lederer ran into marshy ground between the Pemaeoncock (Pamunkey) and Matapeneugh (Mataponi) rivers, so he crossed to the south bank of the Pamunkey "where its North and South-branch (called Ackmick) joyn in one." 2

[Later, the English named the two main branches of the Pamunkey the North and South Anna, but obviously the Native Americans did not name places after English queens...]

Lederer may have identified the junction of the two branches forming the Pamunkey at a location further downstream than our modern definition. He said one stream in the peninsula formed by the two branches was named after Tottopottoma, who had died in battle while assisting the English settlers. (The battle was in 1653 at Bloody Run on Church Hill in Richmond, when the Algonquian-speaking Powhatans had allied with the English to prevent "western" Indians from starting at settlement at the falls of the James.) Modern Tottopottomy Creek joins with the Pamunkey River just west of where modern-day US Route 360 crosses the river in Hanover County, a dozen miles away from the modern junction of the North and South Anna.

Lederer's reference to marshy ground forcing him to detour is another piece of evidence that the initial definition of the two branches was downstream from the current definition of the start of the Pamunkey River. The current junction of the North and South Anna is not mapped as "marshy," but downstream of Moncuin Creek the Pamunkey is lined with marshes. However, a close look at the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer or the USGS quad maps show that the bottomlands upstream (almost to Route 1) have been cleared for farming purposes. Odds are, these were once marshes, and were far harder to navigate by Lederer about 330 years ago...

Lederer's first recorded journey started on March 9, 1669. Four days later, he reached the "first Spring" (headwaters) of the Pamunkey River, and on the March 14th "from the top of an eminent hill, I first descried the Apalatean Mountains, bearing due West to the place I stood upon: their distance from me was so great, that I could hardly discern whether they were Mountains or Clouds..."3 (The modern traveler driving west on Route 17 from Fredericksburg may have a similar experience near Morrisville, and looking west from Mountain View on Route 627 in Stafford County can be equally deceiving.)

Assuming that the water level was low in March, before the spring runoff (Lederer reports snow on the mountains rather than flowering plants...), he may have been at approximately the location of modern Lake Anna. He reports that he crossed the "South-branch" of the Rappahannock River, presumably what we now call the Rapidan, and reached the mountains on March 17 after traveling for 8 days.

On the 18th, Lederer climbed the mountain, leaving his one remaining Indian guide at the bottom with the horse used to carry supplies - after failing in his effort to ride to the top. He claimed to be able to see the Atlantic Ocean to the east, but more than likely he saw just low clouds on the horizon. His report of higher mountains to the north and west is more credible, and indicates he may have climbed the Southwest Mountains stretching from Charlottesville to Orange.

No major modern road follows that path today from the Pamunkey to the mountains. Route 20 goes from the Fall Line on the Rappahannock (Fredericksburg) to Charlottesville, Route 33 goes from the Fall Line on the James River (Richmond) to Swift Run Gap, and both Route 250 and I-64 go from Richmond to Rockfish Gap... but no direct route developed into a major highway leading from the Pamunkey to Rockfish Gap through the Blue Ridge.

Lederer thus shares one characteristic with Lewis and Clark - their first crossing over the Rocky Mountains at Lemhi Pass near modern-day Missoula, Montana is not a major highway today. Instead, I-80 goes through South Pass in Wyoming. (What do you think are the odds that the first Surveyor landing site on the moon, or the first Viking landing site on Mars, will evolve into a

The Second Journey, May 1670

John Lederer travelled with a Major Harris on his second journey, from the falls of the James to Carolina southwest of modern-day Petersburg. The start of the trip showed Lederer's willingness to listen to the Native Americans in contrast to the Englishman's. They asked a Manakin how to reach the mountains, and he drew two paths in the dirt using a stick. Major Harris insisted on using his modern compass in order to go due west - resulting in a trip over "steep and craggy cliffs" that could have been bypassed had the European men followed directions...

After two weeks of travel, from May 20-June 3, they reached the "south branch" of the James River. He may have defined the "north branch" to have been where the Rivanna joins the James at modern-day Columbia (the junction of Fluvanna, Goochland, and Cumberland counties) or where the Rockfish River joins at Howardsville (the junction of Albemarle, Nelson, and Buckingham counties). Lederer reports that Major Harris had become excited at seeing the south branch veer to the north, and the nearby hills were impassably steep but the river was still as broad as at Manakin 4. Based on those clues, by June 3, 1670, they may have passed upstream of the major shift in the James River's direction near modern-day Lynchburg, but not reached the Big Island or the actual passage of the James River through the Blue Ridge.

Lederer was happy to part from Major Harris and the retinue of Indians there, continuing on with just one guide. He thought he was 100 miles from Manakin when he reached the Nahyssan town of "Sapon" on the Roanoke River on June 9th. He recognized the tribe as having been at war with the "Christians" for the last decade, but successfully bargained glass and metal for hospitality. He exchanged information with them, describing his travels and learning [Lederer must have been a good diplomat; he was invited to marry into the tribe.]

Lederer indicated he continued to travel south and southwest along the east slope of the mountains, visiting different towns and trying to discover what lay on the other side to the west of the mountains. He started back home on June 28, after five weeks of exploration. It took him two weeks to reach the capital of the Tuscaroras at "Katearas." Finding them a threatening tribe, he quickly moved, crossing the "Rorenoke," "Menchoerinck" (Meherrin), and "Natoway" rivers before reaching "Apamatuck" (modern Petersburg) on July 18th after a journey of two months.

[A year later, Batts and Fallam started their journey across the Blue Ridge to the New River from Fort Wood, which was established at the falls of the Appomattox River.]

The Third Journey, August 1670

Lederer let no moss grow underneath his feet. A month after returning from his second journey, he travelled up the Rappahannock River from the falls (location of modern-day Fredericksburg) to the crest of the Blue Ridge.

They left from Robert Talliaferro's home on August 20, 1670. (Lederer spelled it "Talifer,"5 reflecting the pronunciation of the family name.) It took a day for Lederer, Col. Catlet, and five Indians to reach the falls, and another day to reach the junction of the north branch (Rappahannock River) and south branch (Rapidan River). By August 26 they had reached the mountains and were no longer able to ride horses. That day they climbed to the top and "drank the Kings Health in Brandy." 6

Lederer, Catlet, and their Native American companions started back home the next day, in part because Lederer had been stung by a spider and his arm had become inflamed.

"Conjectures of the Land beyond the Apalataen Mountains"

Lederer concluded that "They are certainly in great errour, who imagine that the Continent of North America is but eight of ten days journey over from the Atlantick to the Indian Ocean..."7 he speculated that an arm of the Gulf of California stretched inland to the west side of the Appalachians.

He guessed that the North American mountains would be similar to the Andes in South America, with long rivers stretching to the eastward but short streams falling quickly into the ocean on the west side. With surprising (but incorrect) insight, he thought the migration of the waterfowl from across the mountains to the rivers running into the Atlantic Ocean indicated that there were no equivalent rivers on the western slope.

map of Lederer's journeys
map from The Discoveries Of John Lederer
Source: University of North Carolina



1 Lederer, John, The Discoveries of John Lederer, translated by Sir William Talbot, Readex Microprint, 1966, in facsimile of original 1672 preface
2 ibid, p. 6
3 ibid, p. 8
4 ibid, p. 10
5 ibid, p. 20
6 ibid, p. 22
7 ibid, p. 23

Exploring Across the Blue Ridge
Exploring Land, Settling Frontiers
Virginia Places