The exploration of Virginia and present West Virginia gained momentum after the restoration of the Stuart monarchs in England in 1660 and the ensuing return of Sir William Berkeley, an ardent expansionist, as Virginia governor. Hoping to locate the South Sea (Pacific Ocean) and to promote trade with frontier Indians, Berkeley sent out in 1669–70 three expeditions under John Lederer, a young German then in the colony. On one of these trips, Lederer scaled the Blue Ridge Mountains and gazed down upon the Shenandoah Valley.
In 1671, Abraham Wood dispatched from Fort Henry, at the falls of the Appomattox River (present Petersburg, Virginia), the most important exploring expedition of the time. Known for Thomas Batts, its leader, and Robert Fallam, who kept a journal, the party crossed the Blue Ridge to the New River. Historians once believed that Batts and Fallam continued downstream to Kanawha Falls, a few miles below the juncture of the New and Gauley rivers in present Fayette County. In 1912, however, Clarence W. Alvord and Lee Bidgood, making use of Fallam’s journal, concluded that the little band traveled only to Peters Falls, near the present Virginia-West Virginia border. In 1987, Alan Briceland, a geographer, set forth the view that Batts and Fallam turned southwestward from the New River to East River Mountain and then followed the East River, Guyandotte River, and Tug Fork to what is now Matewan, Mingo County.
Whatever their route and destination, Batts and Fallam had penetrated well into the Ohio River watershed, and the expedition became one basis for England’s claim to the entire Ohio Valley. Meanwhile, with claims emanating from an alleged visit to the Ohio River by the great explorer La Salle in 1669, France had reason to challenge England’s position.
By the beginning of the 18th century, western exploration in Virginia began to center around land acquisition schemes. In 1703, Louis Michel, a resident of Bern, Switzerland, who was associated with Swiss settlement promoters, enlisted the support of Baron Christopher de Graffenreid. In 1706, in the company of three French traders, Michel examined lands around the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers although the Swiss eventually accepted a more attractive offer from North Carolina. In 1716, Gov. Alexander Spotswood of Virginia, with 50 mounted gentlemen, along with their servants and Indian guides, crossed the Blue Ridge. On the banks of the Shenandoah River, he ceremoniously took possession of the Shenandoah Valley for England.
Explorations of Western Virginia again became important in the 1740s. Settlement promoters or speculators vied with each other in the search for desirable lands. Christopher Gist covered much of the Ohio Valley lowlands for the Ohio Company; Thomas Walker discovered the Cumberland Gap and viewed much of eastern Kentucky for the Loyal Company; Walker and others observed moves by the Greenbrier Company in southeastern parts of West Virginia; and John Howard and John Peter Salling (or Salley) explored the Coal River area, where, at present Peytona, they discovered fine coal seams. French authorities in Canada countered Virginia’s moves by sending Celoron de Blainville down the Ohio to bury at strategic locations, including Wheeling and Point Pleasant, lead plates asserting French rights to the Ohio Valley.
This Article was written by Otis K. Rice
Last Revised on July 19, 2012
Alvord, Clarence W. & Lee Bidgood. The First Explorations of the Trans-Allegheny Region by the Virginians, 1650-1674. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, 1912.
Briceland, Alan Vance. Westward from Virginia: The Exploration of the Virginia-Carolina Frontier, 1650-1710. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1987.
Lederer, John. The Discoveries of John Lederer. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1958.