Friday, October 22, 2010

All the King's Horses

We decided to head home via the Del-MAR-VA peninsula and stopped for a couple of nights near Ocean City, MD and Assateague Island. This is the home of the famous Assateague/Chincoteague horses/ponies. The island is shared by Maryland and Virginia – most of it is a National Seashore, and there are also state parks on the island.

We’ve heard in the past about the island and the horses, but didn’t know the island was open to the public. There are two herds of wild horses on the island. The southern herd, which hangs around Chincoteague, VA is the one that gets all of the publicity because each year the horses are made to swim from the island to the mainland where the foals are sold. The northern herd, in Maryland, is maintained as a herd of wild horses – they aren’t fed or cared for by humans, other than occasional emergency vet care – and other than a birth control program. The idea is to maintain the size of the herd, so young mares are allowed to have one foal and then they’re given birth control. Not the pill, but a dart of hormones that supposedly permits all natural behavior but no pregnancy.

The horses, or evidence of horses, can be found throughout the island. Human visitors aren’t allowed to feed or touch theDSC_0056 horses, and are subject to fines for violations, and the horses seem to do very well, some living to a fairly old age, for a horse.

We saw several horses from the truck, but weren’t in a position to get a good photo. This shot was the best I could do, so the image below was lifted from the National Seashore’s web site.

Horses on beach

There are several legends about the origin of these horses, the most widely repeated is the one that says they swam ashore from wrecked Spanish sailing ships 300 years ago. The more likely origin is that the ancestors of these horses were brought to the island a couple of hundred years ago by their owners who were trying to avoid livestock taxes by keeping their horses off the mainland.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Real Jamestown

Did you know there are two Jamestowns in Virginia? One is a nicely developed historical tourist attraction that strives to replicate the actual spot where the British colony was established in 1607. We visited this place, known as the Jamestown Settlement, which includes a fairly large museum as well as outdoor exhibits of a Powhatan Indian village, the Jamestown fort, which was built as soon as the colonists arrived, and replicas of the three ships which brought the colonists to the New World.

I don’t have any pictures of that Jamestown because it was raining when we visited and I didn’t want to get the camera wet. Besides, although the replicas were very informative and helped put the early history of the country in perspective, they were still replicas, and therefore fake.


However, about a mile down the road, the real location of the Jamestown colony is being excavated. This property is jointly  owned by the National Park Service and a private foundation doing archeological studies of the area. Right now the dig is on the site of the original 1607-08 fort. The church in the photo is what remains of a later, 18th century church, but it was recently discovered that the building sits on top of the site of the 1600’s church.


Tours here are given by archeologists who are working on the project, which began around 1994. Many of the artifacts dug up are in the museum located on the site.

With all due respect to the Plymouth Pilgrims, Jamestown was actually the first colony established in the New World. It’s theDSC_0045 place of Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas. It’s truly the birthplace of America, if not the United States, which was born about  170 years later. After the fort was built, a town developed which eventually became the first capital of Virginia. Later, the capital was moved to Williamsburg, and pretty much everything in Jamestown fell into ruin. The archeology that’s going on here is just the beginning. There will eventually be digs at the site of the town, but that’s probably years in the future.

A few miles from Jamestown and Williamsburg is Yorktown, which was the site of the final Revolutionary War battle. The Yorktown Victory Center is a smaller version of the Jamestown Settlement, and depicts life in Virginia at the time of the Revolution with a replica farm and military encampment.

DSC_0052The farm has a bunch of ducks, turkeys and other domestic fowl running around. The picture above seems to prove that a duck will find water wherever  it happens to be.

Shirley You Jest

On the way from Richmond to Williamsburg we visited the Shirley Plantation, which is known as one of the James River plantations, probably because it’s located on the James River. DSC_0029

What’s most interesting about the Shirley Plantation is that it has been occupied by the same family for 11 generations. Operations started on the plantation in 1643, and the place has been occupied by the Hill-Carter family ever since. The current house was built in 1738. The most recent Carter still lives in the upper floors, and the downstairs is open for tours. The 750 acres are leased as farmland. DSC_0031

The tree in this photo is a Willow Oak, and it’s actually 350 years old, so it’s seen a lot of history. Another interesting fact about Shirley is that it wasn’t burned down by the damned Yankees during the Civil War. As it happens, the menfolk were at war when McClellan’s army fought a battle at nearby. After the battle, the Union army units camped at the plantation and the women decided it would be wise to not antagonize them. Instead, they fed the soldiers and treated the wounded. The result was that the house and possessions were spared, and Gen. McClellan provided the Hill Carters with an order of protection which served to protect the plantation for the remainder of the war.

I don’t know if McClellan knew about another tidbit of Shirley’s history, or if he did, he may have been less free with his order of protection. The following is from Wikipedia, but it was also mentioned by our tour guide: “It was at Shirley that Ann Hill Carter was born, and on June 18, 1793 married Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee in the mansion's parlor. The couple would later become parents to the famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Richmond, VA was the capitol of the Confederacy and the first (and only) president of the Confederacy had his home there. DSC_0024 Jefferson Davis and his family didn’t live in the place too long – he somehow didn’t complete his term in office – but while he did live here many meetings took place in these rooms among Davis and his generals. After Richmond fell (Davis and family skedaddled a couple of days earlier) the Union army moved into the house and a few days after that, President Lincoln spent some time here.

After the Union left, the house became a school and eventually wound up in private hands and opened for tours. DSC_0028 Presently, the house is dwarfed by the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, which probably covets the ground it’s on, if not publicly then in closed-door meetings. But since the house is preserved and on the National Registry of Historic Places,  the medical center will never be able to expand it’s emergency department onto this piece of land.

DSC_0026 Interestingly, the big iron pipe next to the house is actually part of the propeller shaft of the Merrimac.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Yes, Virginia

We travelled south on I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley to Natural Bridge, VA. I don’t know how many times we’ve driven past signs for Natural Bridge, but never had time to stop. So here we are. The bridge is in a privately owned park which has a lot of natural beauty and history, and also a wax museum. I guess the owners figured the natural beauty wasn’t enough to attract tourists. DSC_0008 The bridge is pretty big, big enough to actually have US highway 11 running over it. The first private owner of the Natural Bridge was Thomas Jefferson. George Washington also surveyed the bridge (I don’t know if he slept here) and carved his initials about 30 feet up the wall. The initials are outlined in white, but too far away to actually read, so we’ll just have to trust that they are actually there. There are other carved graffiti lower on the bridge wall – the earliest I spotted were from 1810.

While driving along one of the mountain roads we spotted an interesting foot bridge across the Maury River. DSC_0023 This bridge is in the town of Rockbridge Baths, VA, and if you can see the sign, it’s a warning from the VA DOT telling folks not to run or make the bridge sway. The sign doesn’t mention the fact that a lot of the boards are a bit rotted. I went about 1/4 of the way across, feeling those boards squish under my feet. So I turned around and went back before I took a bath at Rockbridge Baths.




As may be apparent, these are the Blue Ridge Mountains, and we’re here in mid-October, so there is some autumn color, especially in the higher elevations. So, here’s a picture of the Maury River among some autumn leaves.

We visited Thomas Jefferson’s other house today. Everyone knows about Monticello,  but Tom also had a plantation near Lynchburg called Poplar Forest. Just like Monticello, he designed this house – but this was more of a retreat than a full-time residence. Apparently, according to the docent, Jefferson got tired of folks dropping in at Monticello for unexpected visits, so he needed a place to hide. Some of the folks he was concerned about were British, and he figured they wouldn’t look for him in the Forest. 250px-PoplarForest

I left my camera in the trailer, so the only image I have of Jefferson’s other house is this one I lifted from Wikipedia. The house is quite small by Monticello standards, just two bedrooms, and built in an octagonal shape. It’s owned now by a private foundation which is slowly restoring it to the way it was when Jefferson owned it. Jefferson’s heirs sold the property when Tom died and the place has been occupied by several families over the years, each making renovations to suit their own living style.  It was also seriously damaged in a fire some years ago, so returning it to it’s original state is a long-term undertaking.

Oh, Maryland

We spent our first couple of nights on this trip near Frederick, MD, mainly because we wanted to see the Museum of Civil War Medicine and the nearby Antietam battlefield. The museum was interesting, but not spectacular. It was located in  a former funeral parlor in downtown Frederick. The building itself had little to do with the Civil War or  the local battle. The museum has a number of dioramas depicting aspects of civil war medicine, which consisted mostly of amputations and the use of medicines which would now be considered poison. I guess you could define arsenic and lead as poisons.

The Antietam battle resulted in 10,000 Confederate deaths and 12,000 Union deaths making it one of the bloodiest battles of the war. There were also many thousands of injured – so many that many buildings in Frederick were converted into makeshift hospitals.

Probably the most interesting factoid was that 95% of the surgeries performed during the civil war, mostly amputations, were done with anesthesia, either ether or chloroform. The old adage about biting the bullet while you leg was being cut off wasn’t true, at least during the civil war. The museum also has a collection of civil war era battlefield surgery kits, but we’ve seen those before. There are no photos of the museum because the taking of photos isn’t permitted, and I didn’t was to get kicked out even though we received both the AAA and the senior discount.

The chief Union Army surgeon in this area was Dr. Letterman (I don’t know if he’s  Dave’s ancestor) and the work he did here, such as setting up field hospitals, and establishing a triage system is credited as the beginning of modern military medicine, and of course, emergency medicine.

DSC_0001 The next stop was the Dry Farmhouse which is within the Antietam National Battlefield, and is operated by the folks who run the other museum as a Civil War Field Hospital demonstration, but that’s a bit of a stretch. The house is original, and was General McClellan’s headquarters during the battle (He could see the battlefield from the upper floors and was far enough away to keep his uniform clean. It’s good to be a general!), but the building was never a hospital.DSC_0003 The barn next to the house was a field hospital during the war, but that’s not open to the public.

The National Battlefield is run by the National Park Service and is very interesting. This battle was Gen. Lee’s first attempt to move into Union territory, and the battle was considered a tactical draw with more than 10,000 dead on each side, but a strategic victory for the North because Lee took his troops back to Virginia.


In the photo above you can see Dunker Church which was the scene of one of the major skirmishes during the Antietam battle. The sign is a photograph taken after the battle from pretty much the same spot as my photo. The close up of the sign below shows the bodies of Confederate soldiers who died right on the spot where I was standing. That felt kind of weird.