Dr. John Lederer

In 1669, Virginia Governor William Berkeley had a plan, somewhat as of twenty years gone, to go out to the West "with 200 gents," and find the Indian Sea. Continued rains prevented, and he was not regretful, remembering, as he said, Sir Walter Raleigh.

Then in 1670, he seems to have authorized Dr. John Lederer, a German, to set about exploring west and southwest. Dr. Lederer went to the mountains, (the Quirauk, Ricahecrian, or Blue Ridge), but as for the southwest, the narrative he has left looks to be fiction, the working up, no doubt, of Indian trader's talk. Click Here to read his account of his expedition of 1670 and to see the map he produced.

It is possible that 1670, the year the Hudson's Bay Company was chartered, saw new impulse given the Indian Trade in Virginia. There were many settlements in Carolina by then, and curiosity may have come thence, besides that Sir William Berkeley was not only governor of Virginia but also one of the originial eight Lords Proprietor of Carolina.


When and why Dr. John Lederer came to Virginia is not known. He was born in Hamburg, attended the Hamburg Academic Gymnasium, where he must have studied medicine as he later became a much sought-after physician in the North American colonies.

By 1669, Dr. John Lederer, then twenty-five years old, was in Virginia, setting out to explore and find a path through the Appalachian Mountains. The Virginies settlements were then mostly coastal, hugging the tidewater areas. In less than two years Lederer made three expeditions into the Appalachians with Indians as guides and occasionally with other gentlemen.

He was the first European to stand on the highest peak, on August 20, 1670, and to look into the Shenandoah Valley, which in short time would be the goal of many German immigrants. He found the gap, later called "Harpers Ferry" (after another German immigrant), and opened up a trail to the Catawba tribe for fur trade.

Lederer also left intelligent instructions "touching trade with Indians." John Lederer was the pioneer for German settlements in Virginia. His geographical explorations reserved the fantasies of the times. No mountain peak is named after Lederer; no roadway records his journey along the now industrialized Piedmont route that he helped open to commerce. He might say about this oversight, as he commented on another similar situation, "I have lost nothing by what I never sought to gain--popular applause."


Dr. John Lederer explored the Alleghany mountains in 1669-'70, and wrote in Latin an account of his discoveries, which was translated by Sir William Talbot with the title "The Discoveries of John Lederer in Three Several Marches from Virginia to the West of Carolina, and other Parts of the Continent" - begun in March, 1669, and ended in September, 1670.

Lederer also produced a General Map of the whole Territory which he traversed (London, 1672). The translator says in the preface that Lederer's presumption in going "where Englishmen never had been, and whither some refused to accompany him," brought on him "affronts and reproaches" in Virginia, so that he was obliged to flee to Maryland.

Here he became known to Sir William Talbot, who, though at first prejudiced against him by popular report, found him "a modest, ingenious person and a pretty scholar," and determined to vindicate him by translating his account of his travels.

Lederer appears to have reached only the "top of the Apalatean mountains," but gives reasons for supposing that "they are certainly in a great error who imagine that the continent of North America is but eight or ten days' journey over from the Atlantic to the Indian ocean." Sir William Talbot's volume is rare.


European explorers beginning in 1670 documented contacts with the piedmont Siouan tribes. In 1670, Dr. John Lederer visited a Saponi town near Charlotte Court House, an Occanneechee town near Clarksville, and then six other towns in piedmont North Carolina.
John Lederer's writings are an important source for the early history and mapping of the Southeast.

Lederer, a German-born physician, led three expeditions to explore the Blue Ridge Mountains and Carolina piedmont region in the hope of finding an easy route to Asia. (It was a common misconception that the Pacific was only a few days' march from the head of the James River.) Lederer scaled the Appalachian ranges, searching for passes through which traders and settlers might travel. Although he obviously did not see the Pacific Ocean in this area, he did return convinced that he had almost reached it.

After his third "march," he moved to Maryland, where he met Sir William Talbot, secretary of that colony and nephew of its proprietor, Lord Baltimore. Talbot translated Lederer's account from Latin into English and arranged to have the journal published in London.

Lederer may or may not have been the first European to reach the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, but he was the first to publish an account of his discoveries. He was an astute observer of Indian customs and beliefs, and his book was the first scientific report on the western portion of Virginia. His influential map provided new data about unknown areas, but it also contained several errors, most notably the "barren Sandy dessert" and a nonexistent lake in North Carolina that were often reproduced by other map makers.

Lederer's expeditions inspired other explorers searching for passes through the mountains, and they helped to develop the fur trade with the Catawba and Cherokee.


The first European who explored west of the Blue Ridge was not English but a German, Dr. 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..."

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, Sir 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.


 


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