This article is the sixth in a series commemorating the American Evolution – Virginia to America 1619-2019 . See articles one, two, three, four, and five here.
From its first days as a colony, Virginia has been a land of industry and opportunity. As early as 1619, the new colonial governor Sir George Yeardley, who was personally heavily invested in the colony’s success, actively recruited colonists who would turn a profit for the colony’s investors with the promise of fertile land in return. These are the roots of the enduring idea that America is a land of opportunity. For this reason and throughout its history, Virginia was a magnet for industrious, innovative people who continued to push the boundaries, geographic and scientific.
Here are five sites around Virginia that commemorate the men and women who advanced the ideal of American ingenuity while benefiting the lives of countless people.
In addition to being a mastermind in revolutionary political philosophy, the author of the Declaration of Independence also exhibited a lifelong obsession with developing devices to improve proficiency. A quick glance around Thomas Jefferson’s “cabinet” at Monticello reveals a scattering of such inventions, including the swivel chair and his polygraph machine, which made a facsimile copy of every written document he produced at home. Truth be told, a tour through the house is like walking through a laboratory, with inventions ranging from the overt (the Great Clock in the Entrance Hall) to the nuanced (the wine dumbwaiter hidden within the fireplace surround). While many people are familiar with these ingenious, albeit sometimes whimsical, creations, Jefferson’s most unheralded invention had the widest practical impact: the moldboard plow. Drawing upon his astute grasp of mathematical principles, Jefferson devised a technically improved and much lighter-weight plow that cut through and turned over earth with greatly reduced effort, making this age-old vital task quicker and less exhausting for both man and beast.
—FRONTIER CULTURE MUSEUM OF VIRGINIA AND THE WILDERNESS ROAD—
While most attention is focused on settlers who landed directly on Virginia’s shores, the group that made incalculable contributions to the development of Virginia and U. S. culture actually arrived in Virginia by land. Protestant settlers from Ulster self-identified as Scots-Irish to distinguish themselves from their Roman Catholic counterparts.
Originally landing in Eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland, they soon discovered the best available land in those colonies was already taken. However, the vast swathes of fertile land available over the Blue Ridge in Virginia lured these people to move en masse and settle all throughout the Shenandoah Valley and the mountainous region of Southwest Virginia.
Their rich culture, which they brought from their native Northern Ireland and adapted to the realities of the New World, is graphically displayed at the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia. Modern roads largely mirror the course of The Wilderness Road, the great migration route the Scots-Irish took to in wagons as they populated the areas over the Blue Ridge. Today, visitors can travel six different routes and explore the historic towns and villages, such as Fincastle in Botetourt County, built by these pioneers.
The Scots-Irish people brought with them engrained character traits from their native country, including a stubborn streak of independence, an established custom of self-governance and a rugged sense of self-reliance that would later make them enthusiastic supporters of the American Revolution. Living on the leading edge of the frontier, far from commercial centers like Williamsburg, Alexandria, Norfolk and Richmond, they could not rely on “store-bought” goods imported from Europe. But far from being uncouth “hillbillies,” as they have so unfairly been stereotyped, much like their cousins in even the remote reaches of Scotland, they placed high value on learning. This rare combination of extreme necessity with mathematical and technical knowledge created a fertile environment for the creation of practical devices to meet everyday needs.
—THE CROOKED ROAD, VIRGINIA’S MUSICAL TRAIL—
In addition to their practical know-how, the Scots-Irish also brought with them and adapted rich folkways. Their traditional Celtic music, especially accompanied by stringed instruments, mingled with an enduring oral folk-tale tradition to create distinctive and timeless poetic ballads. These innovative pioneers adapted their native music to new instruments that have become iconic – the banjo, the fretted dulcimer and the American fiddle. Their lyrical musical tradition eventually evolved into Bluegrass and today’s County-Western genres, especially in the Heart of Appalachia and the Blue Ridge Highlands regions. With a seemingly innate pioneer spirit, descendants of these early settlers filtered further throughout the Appalachian region and the West, taking their musical traditions with them. The Crooked Road – Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail is an ideal way to explore the history of this musical tradition and its vast influence.
Inheritors of this tradition such as the Carter Family and the late Ralph Stanley brought this music international exposure and attention with the advent of radio and musical recording. The Scots-Irish and their descendants continued to merge their music with that of other cultures they encountered, including African-American and German, to create new musical forms, including Southern Gospel. The Blue Ridge Music Center, the Birthplace of Country Music, and the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center, along with numerous festivals and informal jam sessions throughout the region, are all great ways for visitors to immerse themselves in this culturally valuable slice of Americana.
—CYRUS MCCORMICK’S FARM & WORKSHOP—
A near descendent of the original Scots-Irish immigrants who moved down from Pennsylvania, Cyrus McCormick was born in the Shenandoah Valley in Rockbridge County in 1809. Son of an inventor-farmer, McCormick’s father raised him in environment that encouraged and nurtured scientific advances in farming. Spurred by his father’s 28 years of experimentation to try to develop an improved mechanical method for reaping cereal crops, McCormick dedicated his career to furthering and perfecting his father’s work.
In 1831, at just 22 years of age, McCormick collaborated with Jo Anderson, a slave who worked on the family farm, to create the first practical mechanical reaper. The horse-drawn device successfully cut, reeled in and collected the ripe grain, significantly reducing the manpower previously required for harvesting grain. McCormick continued to improve the device over the subsequent decade, and became an innovator in principles such as mass production, advertising, warranties and credit extension. After relocating his operations to the wild and swampy frontier town of Chicago, McCormick merged his company with a handful of others to found International Harvester Company.
During a stop at Cyrus McCormick’s Farm & Workshop, visitors can explore the blacksmith shop where young Cyrus inherited so much of his work ethic, technical training and inspiration from his father. It proved to be time well spent as the foundation Cyrus’ father laid later revolutionized farming practices. The manufacturing empire built by McCormick established the standard practices that would make the U.S. the great industrial power of the twentieth century. This created new opportunities for American citizens, including the wave of immigrants who have so richly enhanced our nation’s culture.
—INSPIRING 400 YEARS OF INGENUITY—
Beginning in 1619, Virginia’s enduring spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation has inspired centuries of Virginians to regard age-old challenges as an invitation to create new solutions. It fueled the imaginations and kindled the spirits of numerous Virginia luminaries, including Walter Reed, who came from humble beginnings in a tiny house in Gloucester to become the doctor who discovered the cause of and vaccine for yellow fever. During the golden age of sail, it produced Matthew Fontaine Maury from Fredericksburg, who became the father of modern oceanography, earning a commemoration on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Before the days of reliable roads, the spirit inspired the digging of the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, which from the 1780s facilitated vital inland commercial transport throughout the Tidewater (and later served as a valuable conduit for the Underground Railroad.) And it continues to inspire tomorrow’s inventors, doctors, engineers, and scientists – both residents and visitors. Our rich history invites you to visit and find your inspiration.
The 2019 Commemoration, AMERICAN EVOLUTIONTM, is a three-year tribute to Virginia’s history and heritage. Featuring events and activities that inspire travelers from around the country and the world to engage in the themes of democracy, diversity and opportunity. AMERICAN EVOLUTIONTM positions Virginia as a global leader in education, economic development and tourism.
Visit www.virginia.org/history to plan your next vacation, and discover why Virginia is for History Lovers.
For more information on AMERICAN EVOLUTIONTM, visit www.AmericanEvolution2019.com
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