It’s a stretch of mountains and valley ranging from the Blue Ridge in the east to the Alleghenies in the west and from the James river in the south to the Potomac river in the north. But Shenandoah is so much more than a geographic region. Visitors from all over the world sojourn to Shenandoah in a quest to see America, the same way they sojourn to the Golden Gate Bridge or the Grand Canyon or New York City. Shenandoah is part of the national soul. It’s like the Ganges to Indians or the Nile to Egyptians –the mystical giver of life, the great mother-god of the American nation.
Why? How did this largely rural, gentle stretch of countryside become so iconic? What does “Shenandoah” really mean?
“Shenandoah” is derived from native American languages, most likely the Algonquin “schind-han-do-wi.” Many translations have been proposed, but the most enticing is “Beautiful Daughter of the Stars.” As that legend goes, Shenandoah was once a great lake in the mountains of Virginia. Sitting in their camps at night, looking down at the huge lake, Native Americans could see the heavens in the mirrored water – the beautiful daughter of the stars.
When Europeans first came to Shenandoah, they saw fertile farmland. The region was quickly settled, in American fashion, by a diverse group of ethnic and religious immigrants as well as wealthy plantation owners and the enslaved people they brought with them, all drawn to the fertile, broad valley.
Shenandoah During the Civil War
During the Civil War, the region was known as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy.” Troops from both North and South took turns encamping in the towns and living off the local farms – whether invited to or not. Our town, Front Royal, was under Union control for almost as many days as it was under Confederate control. Dozens of major battles and countless skirmishes were fought in the region and tens of thousands died. The Union army practiced its scorched earth campaign there, before unleashing it on the heart of the Confederacy during Sherman’s march from Atlanta to the sea. In many ways, Shenandoah was ground zero for that awful war.
Shenandoah in the 20th Century
In the 20th century, Shenandoah almost became the 3rd ever national park, following Yellowstone and Yosemite, but legislation supported by Teddy Roosevelt failed to pass in 1901. Efforts to make it a park were continued by the State of Virginia and then picked up again by the Federal government during the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt employed over 100,000 workers through the Civilian Conservation Corps to undertake various cleanup and public works projects in Shenandoah, chief among them being construction of the Skyline Drive, one of the country’s first ever national scenic parkways, traversing the ridges of Shenandoah and launching the great American tradition of the auto tour and the motels catering to auto tourists. In 1935, the area officially became Shenandoah National Park, the second National park east of the Mississippi.
Creating Shenandoah National Park was like framing this beautiful region and hanging it in the national parlor. Now the whole country could witness Shenandoah and bask in its beauty. But creation of the park also led to the displacement of thousands of mountain families who lived in the cabins and worked the hard scrabble farms lining the ridges. Through eminent domain, the government took their farms and forced them down from the mountains, never to return. Just recently, many local towns in Shenandoah have erected monuments to these displaced people.
Shenandoah in Music
The first known song about Shenandoah is also one of the countries most beloved folk tunes, dating from the 1790’s.
I long to see you,
And hear your rolling river.
I long to see you,
Way, we’re bound a way
Across the wide Missouri.
The musical impact of Shenandoah continued to grow as America grew. A quick Spotify search shows 13 current artists with “Shenandoah” in their names. Countless other songs about Shenandoah have been recorded over the years. In modern times, the best-known reappearance of “Shenandoah” was in John Denver’s “Country Road” where the coming home theme is explicit. The song is an anthem to life in rural America, and still gets trotted out regularly by cover bands from coast to coast, often as a sing-along with lively audience participation.
It’s no accident that Shenandoah has been widely celebrated in music. One of America’s classic musical genres – the bluegrass of fiddles, banjos and soulful ballads – grew up in the Appalachians, forming the roots of country western music and, in Shenandoah, leading to the incredible Patsy Cline.
The tune is known as a “shanty,” a working song originally sung by trappers and flatboatmen plying the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. It’s a love song about Shenandoah, the daughter of an Algonquin chief, who the singer longs for. The tune quickly spread, becoming a “sea shanty” sung on clipper ships circling the world, before eventually becoming enshrined in American musical lore. It’s been recorded by Judy Garland, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Keith Jarret, Bruce Springsteen, and many, many more. Its timeless appeal (my theory) rests on a misunderstanding that the tune is not a love song about the daughter of an Algonquin Chief but rather a love song about Shenandoah – the river, the mythical region, the peaceful, stable, serene home left behind as Americans struck out across the continent and the globe.
Perhaps it all comes back to the pretty word. “Shenandoah.” Say it. Like the Yogi saying ‘Ohmmm.” It centers the soul. The first Americans, the settlers, the warriors, the musicians, the travelers – all celebrated “Shenandoah.”
Next time you’re here, take in the full scope of this incredible place and its meaning. While you’re at it, visit us in Virginia at Vibrissa Beer in either our Front Royal or Winchester (coming Summer 2022) location and take in one of our brews as well. We’ve infused each one with the spirit of Shenandoah.
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