Living History: Frontier Culture Museum (Staunton, VA)
In this second post in the Living History series, we move from Tidewater Virginia to the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. Nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians on the west, the valley has sheltered families since the beginning of human history.
The word Shenandoah is believed to be of Native American origin; although in its present form, it would probably be unrecognizable to the original native speakers. Legends abound for the word’s origin, giving credit to various groups, but there is no definitive evidence to support one theory over the others. Wherever the word originated, today it engenders images of a wide green valley resting between the softer shoulders of two great mountain ranges. The valley is dotted with towns and farms and lends its name to a beautiful national park. One of the most picturesque drives one can make in the southeastern US begins near Cherokee, North Carolina with mile post zero on the Blue Ridge Parkway and ends on the Skyline Parkway running through the heart of Shenandoah National Park. Shenandoah has been the name of a blockbuster feature film starring Jimmy Stewart, the filming location for movies like Gods and Generals, and the subject of one of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies in all of American folk music (listen here). It is an area rich in both history and Southern culture.
Not far off the parkway lies the small city of Staunton, founded 1746. Staunton is the birthplace of 28th American President Woodrow Wilson, home to The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, Mary Baldwin College, prep school Stuart Hall, the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, the American Shakespeare Center, Heifetz International Music Institute, country music artists The Statler Brothers, and site of the subject of today’s post, the Museum of American Frontier Culture.
If you have ever wanted to observe life as our American ancestors experienced it on what was once considered the wild frontier, this museum offers a peek into the lives of each group that contributed to the culture of the Shenandoah Valley from the 1600’s through the 1850’s. The museum is set up much like a series of learning centers in an elementary classroom, but on a much larger scale, of course. Since the valley during the period highlighted by the museum was populated primarily by farmers, the exhibits center around agricultural practice and rural life. The museum planners have made every effort to ensure the exhibits are accurate in historical detail, going so far as to purchase, dismantle, and import buildings from other nations. Actors in period costume demonstrate activities and give short lectures based on the period and country of origin being featured, for with the exception of the Native Americans who lived there, the Shenandoah Valley was settled by immigrants brought to the New World either by their own desire or that of others.
The Native American exhibit does not feature a particular group or tribe, but rather presents a general understanding of the Eastern Woodlands culture as it existed at the beginning of the European migration into the valley. It gives insights into the effects colonial trade, disease, and territorial expansion brought about by the incomers had on the Native American culture and way of life. As most people are aware, European migration to the New World had devastating consequences for the original inhabitants.
The earliest Europeans arrived at Jamestown from England in 1607. By 1700, around 250,000 persons lived in the colonies, the majority of English descent or heritage. Many of these individuals owned neither property nor wealth as they had arrived either as indentured servants or without fortune but with the hope of making one in the New World. The growing population pressed inland pushing the frontier ever westward. By the mid-1700’s, Anglo-Americans had moved into the Shenandoah Valley seeking land of their own which was not available to them on the coast.
The second largest group emigrating from Europe to the colonies came from southwestern Germany. They generally entered the colonies at Philadelphia beginning around 1668. By 1776, approximately 120,000 persons of German descent had arrived or been born in the New World. Those who chose to leave Pennsylvania, moved south so that by the 1730’s German speakers settled in the Shenandoah region.
The largest single group to emigrate from the British Isles were the Presbyterian Ulster Irish. First pushed out of their native Scotland (Becoming Scots-Irish), they landed in northern Ireland where they demonstrated marked differences with their Catholic neighbors. The lure of the New World drew them with hope of homes of their own in a land where they could not be driven out and where they could establish a way of life to their liking. Those of us who are their descendants, especially those whose roots are deep in Appalachian soil, were taught that we are “Scotch-Irish” by blood and by heritage (Celts in America). The Ulster Irish generally entered the New World at Philadelphia, then pressed south when competition for land with the Germans and English became too great. The first Scots-Irish started arriving around 1718. By 1775, over 100,000 had emigrated. Their numbers moving into the mountains of what became the Southeastern Untied States were so great that their culture became the dominate one in the colonial backcountry. It remains so to this day.
One group that migrated did not do so by choice. Between the founding of Jamestown and the late 1700’s nearly 250,000 Africans were brought from West Africa in the hellholes of slave ships and sold in the human flesh markets of colonial America. As the population moved west from the coastal region, so did those in bondage. The African farm exhibit represents the free Igbo people who lived in the upland area north of the Bight of Biafra, a bay on the coast of present day Nigeria. Nearly 40% of the African slaves imported to Virginia during the colonial period came from that general region.
Life on the early American frontier was difficult, usually the hand-to-mouth existence of subsistence farming, but at least the settlers could lay claim to land of their own and the freedom to live as they wished. The colony of Virginia strongly desired a Protestant buffer along its western frontier, so it enacted policies that made land purchase simple and economical. By selling large blocks to individuals and companies with the requirement that the land be sold in turn to settlers who would farm it, the colony accomplished her goal.
The museum contains two exhibits that celebrate frontier culture once it became truly and wholly American. It offers a view into 1820’s and 1850’s backwoods farming and domestic life in great historic detail.
Each group that lived in the Shenandoah Valley during the colonial period and afterward left its mark upon the culture of the region and the very land itself. Each group made lasting contributions to this beautiful land.