Introduction: (cont’d in full post)

This essay is an introductory research guide concerning the twelve-year administration of Colonel Alexander Spotswood, the lieutenant governor of colonial Virginia, from 1710 to 1722. Spotswood was the lieutenant governor from late June, 1710, until early April, 1722, when the king’s ministers in England decided to replace him with the Irish-born ex-soldier Hugh Drysdale. Like other lieutenant governors before and after himself, Spotswood ruled Virginia in absence of the actual governor, George Hamilton, the first earl of Orkney, who reigned over the colony as a sinecure and never actually crossed the Atlantic to see the region.

Including governors, deputy or lieutenant governors, and interim or acting governors, Spotswood was the seventeenth crown-appointed administrator of the British royal colony of Virginia following the dissolution of the English Commonwealth in the year 1660. His twelve year career in this capacity, as well as the subsequent eighteen years of his colonial residency prior to his death in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1740, were well-documented by contemporary standards. Additionally, his gubernatorial career is remarkable because it defied the abbreviated tenure of his contemporaries, more than half of whom, for one reason or another, served terms that lasted less than three years. In fact, only two crown representatives served longer than Spotswood on the ground in the entirety of Virginia’s colonial history. Those two individuals were Governor Sir William Berkeley (1642-1652, 1660-1677) and Lieutenant Governor Sir William Gooch (1727-1740)

The administration of Alexander Spotswood, and the years of his colonial residency that followed, are important because they formed a well-documented period of colonial governorship that eluded the quick turnover rates of the gubernatorial office. But the Spotswood administration is also important because it ran the gamut of critical and prototypical issues of the colonial period. From relocation, education, and even subjugation of hostile and tributary native populations; to controversies over baptizing African slaves and enslaving native youth; to eradication of the local wolf population; to schemes for land appropriation, political patronage, and excessive government expenditures; to regulation and standardization of the local tobacco trade; to imperial expansion of the western frontier and conspiracies of political corruption in nearby colonies; to experimentation with North America’s largest iron-ore industry; to the adoption of African slavery and the decline of European indenture; to intervention with pirates and privateers; to heated contestations between the institutions of Church and State; and, finally, to the fractious relationships that existed between incumbent representatives of the royal crown, the lieutenant governor, and elected representatives of the colony’s various counties, the Spotswood administration tackled it all. Spotswood’s tenure was a veritable smorgasbord of colonial-era situations. His twelve-year administration came at an especially crucial moment between the Tidewater and the early Revolutionary periods of American history. The local burgesses, who had numbered 51 in 1710 (two from every county in the Virginia territory and one from the former colonial capital of Jamestown) and were elected by the white, adult county freeholders were now beginning to lose their political power, and the royal crown was beginning to tighten its hold on the overseas, American colonies.

The colonial narrative of Alexander Spotswood intersected with each and every one of the above-mentioned issues. In it historians can see not only foreshadows of resistance to British tyranny, but the early signs of Manifest Destiny, American industrialization, and Indian Removal. If retold carefully, with close attention paid to its variegated sources and the multiple parties at play, the narrative of Spotswood’s gubernatorial administration has the potential to be a microcosm for understanding the greater colonial world of the early-eighteenth century. The story provides readers of colonial and early-American history with an especially insightful look at the nuanced and competitive balance of powers that existed in the fledgling province of Virginia, on the eve of its greatest transformation. The story also serves as an early point of reference for understanding many issues that would become central to our American story. On this point, consider:

Thirty-four years before the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754, Spotswood portended an imminent collision between the French and the English over colonial dominance in North America. Almost sixty years before the iconic pioneer Daniel Boone blazed his Wilderness Road through the famous Cumberland Gap, Spotswood and his companions had passed through the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Appalachian Range to the Shenandoah Valley in 1716. He then settled forts and outposts on the Rapidan River as a buffer against the French. Over one-hundred and fifty years before the industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie established his first steel mill in the 1870s, Spotswood had built one of the first and largest American tubal, iron furnaces deep in the Virginia piedmont. Before the fantasies of Robert Louis Stevenson, long before Coral Island and Captain Blood, and barely before the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Spotswood had commissioned the very royal naval expedition that tracked and killed the notorious English pirate Blackbeard. And, finally, before the American government of the 1830s, under former President Andrew Jackson, officially gave up on the federal plan of assimilation with the southeastern Indian tribes, Spotswood had tried his hand at Fort Christanna and failed.

This paper offers an introductory research guide to the historical sources of Alexander Spotswood’s life, in hopes that someone will take up the challenge of writing a new biography. A new biography of Spotswood would be an ideal dissertation topic for someone who wants to read against the grain of the European, colonial gaze and recapture the quintessential American colony of Virginia—shared among natives, Africans, Europeans, and people of both genders, all classes, and many temperaments—at one of its most important times and through the eyes of one of its most influential historical actors. Our moment in the twenty-first century is ripe for a retelling of the ambitious story of the deputy governor who stood at the center of the colony’s most pivotal events. Ultimately, a work on Spotswood’s administration could illuminate the greater colonial world in which he lived, the very world that gave his actions structure, context, and meaning.

Overview of Spotswood’s Life:

Alexander Spotswood was born in the English colony of Tangier, Morocco, on December 12, 1676. He was born into a Scottish, royalist family who were devout members of the Church of England. Through his paternal lineage, Spotswood was connected to several prominent figures, including a judge in the Privy Council under James I, an Archbishop of St. Andrews, and a former Scottish King, Robert III. In 1676, his father, Robert Spotswood, was serving in the capacity of a physician with an English garrison in West Africa. Spotswood was transported to England by his mother, Catherine Spotswood (formerly Elliott, née Mercer) when he was only seven years old, exactly one year before the garrison in Morocco was abandoned. Spotswood’s father died five years later, in the year 1688, and Spotswood began his education at Westminster School.

Spotswood began a seventeen-year military career at the age of seventeen. He first served as an ensign in an infantry regiment for the earl of Bath in the county of Flanders, present-day northern France. In the year 1696, during the British campaign in Flanders, Spotswood rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He continued to serve in both France and the Low Countries during the War of Spanish Succession. Spotswood was wounded with a four-pound cannonball in Bavaria, on the banks of the Danube. The incident occurred in the year 1704 at the Battle of Blenheim, and Spotswood kept the cannonball as a battle souvenir for the remainder of his life. He was then taken prisoner in the year 1708 at the Battle of Oudenarde, near present-day Belgium, and the duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, negotiated his release. Spotswood left the British army by 1709 and he was commissioned to serve as the next lieutenant governor of Virginia one year later, in 1710. This political post was probably obtained through a combination of his high birth and his respective friendships with the duke and the earl of Orkney, George Hamilton, who was the absentee governor of Virginia. Spotswood shared the salary from this position with the earl of Orkney.

During his twelve-year career as the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Spotswood tackled the most pressing issues of the colony, which was suffering from poor governance, endemic poverty, and the constant fear of Indian attack upon his arrival in June of 1710. Most historians believe that Spotswood was both well prepared and earnest in his desire to tackle these pressing issues, but the many problems he faced exceeded his available resources and his ability to affect lasting change, especially considering the fact that he found himself ever at odds with English merchants, colonial planters and shippers, imperial bureaucrats, ecclesiastical leaders, and colonial councilmembers. When Spotswood arrived, there had not been a resident governor in Virginia for four years. The previous lieutenant governor had died one year into his term of service in 1706, and his replacement was captured by French corsairs and never made it to the colony. The colony’s affairs were now run entirely by the upper house of the legislature, the Governor’s Council. The lower house of the legislature, the House of Burgesses, had little power to influence the Council’s authority, since the combined legislature, known as the General Assembly, had not been called for the past four years.

Spotswood’s colonial commission set forth his primary obligations in Virginia. He was to facilitate both the economic and moral growth of the colonial territory. In the former category, he was tasked with regulating the tobacco and fur trades, and ensuring that colonists quit paying their taxes with low-grade, inferior tobacco. In the latter category, he was tasked with ensuring that the College of William and Mary met its charter obligations to integrate the school with native youth, and that the colony move forward with its religious obligations regarding baptism for Africans. Last, Spotswood was tasked with protecting colonial subjects on the various frontiers from Indian warfare.

Spotswood’s had several successes throughout his political tenure. In the years 1711 and 1712, he relocated the Virginia militia to the northern border of North Carolina in order to protect Virginian citizens on the southern frontier from hostile natives in the Tuscarora War, a conflict which had broken roughly one year after his arrival in the colony. Shortly thereafter, in 1713 and 1714, Spotswood established financial rewards for killing wolves on the Virginia frontiers; and, although he suggested taking advantage of Spanish wrecks off the Florida coast in 1715, he took a very hostile stance against pirates on the eastern seaboard of America. He stationed two of his majesty’s warships in the Chesapeake Bay to protect trade going in and out of Virginia; and, in late November of 1718, he commissioned the naval expedition led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard that successfully tracked down, captured, and killed Blackbeard and his crew at Ocracoke Island, in the Pamlico Sound of North Carolina. Spotswood also collaborated with factions openly hostile to the allegedly corrupt governor of North Carolina, Charles Eden, in an attempt to have both him and his associates indicted for collusion with piracy. One particular theory suggests that Spotswood wanted to convert the proprietary colony of North Carolina into a royal colony like Virginia.

In 1713, Spotswood passed the controversial Tobacco Inspection Act to standardize the quality and weight of tobacco shipped from the colony’s ports, and also to raise the price of Virginia tobacco overseas by both cutting the market and creating mechanisms of quality control. Spotswood facilitated this program with the creation of forty patronage positions, called inspectorships, which he awarded to twenty-nine members of the House of Burgesses whom he wanted to befriend. He then built a series of public warehouses for the official inspection of plantation tobacco. Spotswood also tried to reform the collection of quitrents to help pay down the colony’s debt; he introduced the writ of habeas corpus to the colony with the Habeas Corpus Act in 1722; and he secured a treaty with the Six Nations of Native Americans in Albany, New York, in which they agreed to abandon regions east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and south of the Potomac River.

In the year 1714, Spotswood established the Indian Trade Act, granting a twenty-year monopoly on American Indian fur trading south of the James River to a joint-stock company called the Virginia Indian Company. He charged the company with the obligation of maintaining a redoubt that he ordered built that same year for the protection, hospitality, and education of tributary Indian groups in southwestern Virginia. He hoped the company would upkeep the fort while maintaining a military force to quell potential Indian uprisings. The fort was called Christanna; it was one of several places Spotswood named using a portmanteau of Queen Anne and something else. Queen Anne had given Spotswood his position in Virginia, and it was under Anne that he had served and taken a cannonball shot during the past war. Spotswood also named the Rapidan River and his Germanna estate after her. Unfortunately for Spotswood, both the Indian Trade Act and the Tobacco Inspection Act aroused the ire of private merchants, shippers, and small farmers, who successfully lobbied for their repeal and refused to reelect almost all of the salaried inspectors. Colonial planters, shippers, and English merchants all disliked tobacco regulation because they made more money the more tobacco that they could ship and receive, regardless of its quality.

Spotswood’s executive policies threatened the autonomy of the colonial Council, which was not used to taking orders. In addition, Spotswood was openly hostile to the lower court of the bicameral house, which he believed was composed of ignorant and unworthy people. The low point of Spotswood’s political career was in 1718. Both the Tobacco Inspection Act and the Indian Trade Act were recently repealed by authorities in London, and the speaker of the House of Burgesses, Daniel McCarty, accused Spotswood of circumventing the colonial constitution. McCarty created and circulated a petition to the king of England for Spotswood’s removal.

Spotswood opened up settlement on the western side of the Blue Ridge Mountain range and into the Shenandoah Valley for white settlers, particularly groups of protestant immigrants who were arriving in the colony of as indentured labor. More specifically, Spotswood arranged for the importation of white indentured servants from the Palatine region of Germany. He set these servants up in a frontier settlement that he called Germanna. This settlement was created after an expedition that Spotswood led in August of 1716, and that he called the “Knights of the Golden Horseshoe.” The expedition was named after a golden, souvenir trinket that Spotswood had made and distributed among those who joined him on the overland expedition. The souvenir was a horseshoe-shaped stickpin, encrusted with small stones and engraved with the Latin phrase Sic juvat transcendere montes, which roughly translates to “Thus, it is pleasant to cross the mountains.”

Certain members of the House of Burgesses, the colonial Council, and the planter elite were well connected with the Privy Council in London, and they negatively influenced Spotswood’s reputation in office. Regardless, Spotswood interpreted his executive powers in such a way that he antagonized the established authorities of Virginia. He created a court of oyer and terminer to hear cases of local treason, felony, or misdemeanor and he boldly selected the judges himself. He called for new elections of the General Court whenever he saw fit, and he tried to replace members of the colonial council that were unfavorable to his political interests. Most notably, he insisted that it was his prerogative to appoint parish ministers, and remove existing parish ministers, without consulting either members of the local vestry or the bishop’s commissary. Finally, he allocated state expenses to build elaborate government buildings and expand the grounds of his gubernatorial estate, which many colonial Virginians believed had been sufficiently completed in 1710.

Spotswood was a man of elaborate style and expensive taste. He spent much of his time in office redesigning the city of Colonial Williamsburg, originally laid out in the late seventeenth-century by an earlier governor named Francis Nicholson. He restored the College of William and Mary, which had suffered from a fire in 1705, and he proposed a new Burton Parish Church five years later. He constructed the colonial powder magazine in 1715, and he oversaw the design and construction of the new governor’s palace between the years 1710 and 1722. Spotswood took up residence in the palace in 1716 and managed to live there for six years before he left office. He offered quibbled with Burgesses and Councilmembers over small matters, such as improving the southern vista on his estate by chipping down the trees on someone else’ property.

On April 19, 1720, the colonial Council and Spotswood achieved a détente, both parties resolving to act cordially toward one another for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, parties that were hostile to Spotswood, namely the planter and trader William Byrd and the Reverend James Blair (who was also commissary of the bishop of London), were already in London engineering his downfall from the ranks of the colonial government. Around this time, Spotswood began making the formal transition from a government representative of the crown to a citizen of the colony. As one of his final moves in colonial office, he somehow convinced the Council to grant him 86,000 acres in Spotsylvania County, the westernmost region of Virginia where he had traveled in 1716. In accepting this unprecedented land grant, Spotswood disobeyed a crown policy that no individual should hold more than 1,000 acres in Virginia. Spotswood was removed from office in April of 1722. After leaving, he settled on his land in Germanna, near the confluence of the Rappahannock and Rapidan River in Spotsylvania County, westernmost Virginia. He built a house, nicknamed the “enchanted castle,” which was even bigger and more baroque than the governor’s palace he built in Williamsburg. Spotswood still maintained a property in eastern Virginia in Yorktown, and he continued to live as a land speculator, ironmaster, and planter until 1739.

Although Spotswood had imported white indentured servants from Germany, but these servants walked off their terms of service and Spotswood turned to African labor to work his iron-ore furnaces; the population of Africans in Virginia had doubled during a thirty-year period (1690 and 1720) and Spotswood was following the labor trend. He left several black slaves in his will. He sold iron products in colonial America while also exporting the raw material (pig iron) to England. Between the years of 1724 and 1729, Spotswood returned to England to secure an official title for his new lands in westernmost Virginia and to determine the amount of taxes, or quitrents, that he would have to pay on the massive grant. While there, he married Anne Butler, daughter of Richard and Anne Brayne of St. Margaret’s Parish, Westminster, and they eventually had two sons and two daughters. In February of 1719, Spotswood returned to Virginia with his wife and sister-in-law. In 1730, Spotswood was appointed to a ten-year term as deputy postmaster general for North America, with an annual salary of £300. In this capacity, he expanded the colonial postal service southward from Philadelphia to Williamsburg; brought the two towns within eight or ten days distance of each other; and he selected a young Benjamin Franklin to be Philadelphia postmaster in the year 1737.

Although Spotswood had not been a soldier for roughly twenty-seven years, he re-entered the military ranks after war broke out between England and Spain in 1739. He was appointed the position of brigadier general in the British army, a prestigious promotion of the type that he had once coveted in the War of Spanish Succession, and he was now second-in-command under Major General Charles Cathcart. He was ordered to lead a command in the West Indies. However, he died on June 7, 1740, of an illness in Annapolis, Maryland, before he left for the Caribbean. He had traveled to Annapolis to organize troops and consult with the colonial governors about strategies for enlistment and embarkation. He was sixty-four when he died. According to the record book of Orange County, Virginia, he died a wealthy man, leaving his country estate to his eldest son, £3000 to his second son, and £2000 each to his two daughters. His gravesite is unknown.

Primary Sources on the Life of Alexander Spotswood:

The Edinburgh Letters:

The John Rockefellder Jr. Library of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has an online “Guide to the Alexander Spotswood Papers, 1646-1830.” This particular epistle collection allows historians to search through five indexed folders of letters pertaining to Spotswood’s life, most of which are not included in Spotswood’s Official Letters. The bulk of this collection contains two-way communications between Alexander his cousin John Spotswood in Edinburgh, along with a few other select people. The collection also includes individuals, like William Elliott and Katherine Mercer, who wrote directly to John, but whose letters might be of interest in a study of Alexander. These letters are the only primary sources on Spotswood’s early life, before he arrived in Virginia. In this collection there are also a few letters from Spotswood’s father, Sir Robert Spotswood. And there are several other interesting epistles, one with a biographical sketch of Spotswood from the year 1744, and another with a genealogy of the Spotswood family from 1746.

The Official Letters:

Alexander Spotswood wrote frequent correspondences during his colonial administration. The Virginia Historical Society has fully reproduced and digitized his Official Letters in two dense volumes, containing roughly six-hundred pages of his personal writings. The first volume in this pair covers the first three years of his administration, from June 20, 1710, to July 26, 1712. The second volume in this pair covers the next nine years, from October 15, 1712, to July 28, 1721. The letters are most frequently addressed to the Lords Commissioners of Trade, also known as the Board of Trade and Plantations, in London. This sixteen-member board, composed half of salaried employees and half of ex-officio members, was a committee of the King’s Privy Council. The Board of Trade constituted the main point-of-contact and the official employer for the overseas colonial governors. But Spotswood also exchanged correspondence with other London committees, such as the Lords of the Admiralty, the Lords of the Treasury, and the Commissioners of Customs. In addition, he wrote to various individual figures, such as the Bishop of London, his agent or representative of the Council, several earls and lords in the Mother Country, and several secretaries and governors in other overseas colonies.

The Official Letters is such a linchpin in the task of reconstructing the administration of Alexander Spotswood, that it is actually interesting to briefly recount its own history. Most of the Spotswood letters were compiled in a manuscript that was probably stored on the Spotswood country estate in Germanna, or possibly at the colonial capitol in Williamsburg, after his death. The American historian George Bancroft borrowed this manuscript to write a portion of his eight-volume survey entitled History of the United States of America, from the discovery of the American continent (1854-1878). Afterwards, Bancroft returned the manuscript to a descendent of the governor, John R. Spotswood, who was at that time living in Orange County, Virginia, the same place where Spotswood had established his frontier settlement of Germanna roughly one-hundred and fifty years prior. John then loaned the manuscript to a British geologist by the name of William Featherstonhaugh, who transported the work with him to England. There it remained until after Featherstonhaugh’s death, when the widowed Charlotte Williams Carter resold the manuscript, which had been considered lost, to the Virginia Historical Society in 1873.

Although many historians have closely examined the Official Letters, it is likely that they will ever be completely exhausted. The many meanings of Spotswood’s letters, unpublished in his own day, continue to change along with the context in which we view them. As far as the present author is aware, no historian has built a study upon them since the waning years of the Civil Rights Movement, since before the American Indian Movement, and before the rise of the Environmental Movement. The letters are bound to suggest many new interpretations.

Individual Contemporaries:

Spotswood’s Official Letters are contrasted with (and also complimented by) contemporary literary material from a strong cast of supporting historical characters, including, but not limited to, the Huguenot diarist John Fontaine, the English novelist Arthur Blackamore, the colonial historian Robert Beverly Jr., the mathematics professor and clergyman Hugh Jones, the planter and councilmember William Byrd II, and, of course, the infamous and the incumbent Reverend James Blair of the age-old College of William and Mary. Many of the relevant works from these individual sources—such as The Present State of Virginia by Jones, The secret diary of William Byrd of Westover and The Progress to the Mines by Byrd, the History and Present State of Virginia by Beverly, The Journal of John Fontaine by Fontaine, and the Sermons and Discourses by James Blair—are fully available online in digital format at the Internet Archive, a non-profit 501 (c) (3) founded as an internet library. As with Spotswood’s Official Letters, one does not need to travel to a public or private archive in order to see these sources.

The Legislative Assembly:

The next category of primary sources includes the journals of the bicameral Legislative or General Assembly, comprised of the colonial council in the upper house and the Burgesses in the lower house. The Virginia State Library first began compiling the journals of the upper house into a six-volume series in the year 1925. Like the Official Letters and the complimentary narratives, this multivolume series is also available online. It is called the Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, and the years of the Spotswood administration fall within the purview of the third volume, spanning the dates of May, 1705, to October, 1721. The journals were obtained from two sources: the British Public Records Office, which houses those colonial correspondences that were originally shipped to England, and the Archives Department of the Virginia State Library.

As for the journals of the lower house of the Legislative Assembly—also known as the House of Burgesses—these can be found in a multivolume series entitled Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia. This series was published in the first two decades of the twentieth century by the now defunct Colonial Press and Everett Waddey Company, once based out of Richmond, Virginia. Today the journal series is also available online, via original copies from the University of Michigan, through the Hathi Trust Digital Library. Spotswood also has speeches to the General Assembly from the years 1714 and 1718, as well as an “Address of the House of Burgesses” saved in the fourth volume of William Maxwell’s text, The Virginia Historical Register, and Literary Notebook. One of the most remarkable facts about the sources pertaining to the career of Alexander Spotswood, is that almost all of the relevant sources fall within the realm of public access and can be viewed from the comfort of one’s own home and personal computer.


Contemporary newsprint is a different story. As a general rule, the British crown banned the production of newspapers in the colonies of North America for roughly the first century of their development, famously stating to its colonial representatives that “great inconvenience may arise by the liberty of printing.” This print ban was embraced by many eighteenth-century colonial governors, including William Berkeley of Virginia. “I thank God,” Berkeley wrote:

there are no free schools nor printing and I hope we shall not have, these hundred years, for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.

Despite this aspiration, the printing ban ended, whether officially or unofficially, with a veritable New England Publishing boom in the decade of the 1720s. The Boston-News Letter, originally published in the year 1704, is considered to be the only colonial newspaper to predate this boom. Ipso facto, it was also the only continuous colonial newspaper in print during the administration of Alexander Spotswood. The first printing office in the colony of Virginia was not established until 1730, and the first newspaper did not appear until six years later, on August 6, 1736, when the English printer William Parks published the first four-page edition of the Virginia Gazette, which ran for the last four years of Spotswood’s life and published advertisements for his plans to leave Virginia in 1739, and may have published his will, terms of property lease, and obituary. His death may also have been covered in the Pennsylvania Gazette and the London Daily Post.

Notwithstanding the absences in newspaper coverage for earlier years, a particularly exciting story from colonial Virginia was sometimes worth running in Britain on one or two occasions during the Spotswood administration, at which time it would have appeared in such newspapers as the London Gazette or the Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer. Researchers can review such database series as Early American Newspapers, “Early Colonial Era (1690-1729),” or the heavily edited volumes of the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and the West Indies for additional printed information on contextual events, like the nearby Carolina Indian wars and the racialization of African slavery, that occurred during the Spotswood era.

Court Records:

The story of the court records for colonial Virginia is also bitter sweet. Of course, there were several levels of judicial authority active in the colony of Virginia during the Spotswood administration. First there were the County courts and the Hustings courts, established in 1618 and 1705 respectively. The former courts attempted to mediate grievances that occurred within the jurisdiction of their county, while the latter courts were tasked with performing the same function for a few of Virginia’s independent cities. Next there was the General Court, which had its name changed from the Quarter Courts around the year 1661. This was basically known as the Supreme Court of the colony, and it handled all major civil matters, capital crimes, chancery matters, and other appellate cases. Finally, there was the Court of Vice-Admiralty, a provincial counterpart of the High Court of Admiralty in London. This court was designed to exclusively deal with maritime affairs, viz., violations of the maritime trade acts, suits to receive wages or compensation at sea, claims for any expenses or damages caused by ship collision, illicit trade, smuggling, privateering, wrecking, piracy, and neglecting to hold the required shipping papers. Speaking generally, the records from these courts can be divided into two primary groups: the official record books, and loose records or court papers. Unfortunately, very few records from either of these categories are extant for the period of the Spotswood administration.

It has been estimated that less than half of the record books from the county courts are extant today. That number is even smaller for the category of loose records and court papers. Most of the proceedings and the proclamations of the General Court are considered to be lost; however, remnants of these records can be gleaned from the Executive Journal of the Council, considering that the twelve, crown-appointed councilmembers (who were appointed by the British Sovereign for life-long terms) also formed the judiciary of that court. The records of the Vice-Admiralty Court, on the other hand, have completely disappeared. Councilmembers “allude to ten trials in the [Vice-Admiralty] court, or to orders for [those] trials to be held, in the years 1706-1721,” but there appear to be absolutely no surviving records of these proceedings. Even worse, all of the official records pertaining to the Vice-Admiralty court for the half-century of 1701-1757 are non-extant. Eight select proceedings from the first four years of the court, prior to the year 1701, survive only because an earlier lieutenant governor, Francis Nicholson, had the foresight to include them in two letters to the Lords of Trade that were written on August 27, 1700, and December 2, 1701. Why he did this seems a matter of mystery. Neither the Board of Trade nor the High Court of Admiralty required colonial governors to transmit copies of court proceedings. As a result, Alexander Spotswood never sent Vice-Admiralty transcripts.

It is not hard to imagine why the various court records are so scarce for the years of the Spotswood administration, and why, in many cases, the only records that survive are those that were transmitted to England. As scholars of the colonial and early-American periods well know, fires (whether accidental or intentional) were both a serious and an endemic problem of the era. The first capitol at Jamestown had burned several times before it was moved to Williamsburg in 1698. Afterward, the new capitol at Williamsburg had its own major conflagration in the year 1747. Historians often credit this fire with the wholesale destruction of the governmental court records from the Spotswood administration. However, it has also been argued that the colonial records were scattered and lost during the American Revolution, or that they were moved to the third capitol location of Virginia at Richmond, where they were destroyed when the confederates set fire to that city during their famous Civil War evacuation of April, 1865.

In all likelihood, the widespread oblivion of the many court records from the Spotswood administration owes itself to both of these major fires. The Vice-Admiralty and General Court records—records from the executive legislature—were probably destroyed in the blaze of 1747. Over a century later, many of the County and Hustings court records were likely destroyed in the Richmond blaze. Ironically, these records may have been recalled to the capitol for safekeeping during the war. In addition, many of the county records were destroyed in provincial courthouse fires or various wartime activities. The Virginia State Library currently maintains a Lost Records Localities Database that separates county records into two separate categories: catastrophic loss and considerable loss. For either category, it is typical to find county listings that read as follows:

York. Recognized in 1634 as an original shire. Most pre–Revolutionary War–era loose records are missing. Volumes that record deeds, court orders, and wills [still] exist.

New Kent. Created in 1654. Records were destroyed when John Posey set fire to the courthouse on 15 July 1787. Many records were lost when the courthouse was partially destroyed by fire during Civil War hostilities in 1862. Additional records were burned in Richmond on 3 April 1865, where they had been moved for safekeeping during the Civil War.

King and William. Created in 1691. Records were lost in courthouse fires in 1828 and 1833. Records were again destroyed by a courthouse fire set by Union troops on 10 March 1864 during the Civil War.

As these sample listings indicate, there exists no shortage of reasons why specific county records from the period of the Spotswood administration might be missing today. Nonetheless, each of these absences makes the surviving corpus of county records—mainly deeds, court orders, and wills—all the more valuable to the modern historian of colonial Virginia.

Parish Records:

The first parishes of the chartered Virginia Company were officially transferred to the General Assembly in the year 1624, when the English Crown officially assumed its authority over the colony. The assembly then coalesced these first parishes into formal vestries in 1642 and 1643.  Exactly twenty years later, the assembly set the number of parish vestries at twelve. These vestries were composed of representatives from each congregation within the jurisdiction of the parish; and each parish was comprised of multiple congregations, taken from multiple churches. Without a resident bishop (only a commissary), the colony of Virginia during the Spotswood administration did not constitute a diocese. But the vestries shared and divided the many social, economic, and political obligations of the colony with each of the individual county governments. For this reason, the historian John Nelson described the local government of Virginia during the early 1700s as a “parish-county” unit. Among the many responsibilities of the parish vestries was the duty to set the annual parish levy, provide for the social and spiritual welfare of the poor and the destitute, recommend ministers for appointments, select individuals to maintain local roads and ferry routes, select individuals to serve as both watchmen and inspectors for the tobacco planters, and serve as churchwardens who presented local criminals to the county of Hustings courts.

Unfortunately, the records of the parish vestries often mirror those of the county courts. Many of the records were taken to Richmond for safekeeping before the Civil War, thus being destroyed in the aforementioned evacuation fire. Many others were burned in provincial fires or destroyed by neglect and the passage of time following the disestablishment of the Anglican state church after the American Revolution. For more information on the parish vestry as a religious, geographic, social, and political unit of early colonial Virginia, readers should consult the work of author Charles Francis Cocke, who has published two books on the subject: Parish Lines, Diocese of Virginia (1978) and Parish Lines, Diocese of Southern Virginia (1996).

Secondary Sources on the Life of Alexander Spotswood:


As for secondary sources, there are at least two salient biographies on the life and career of Alexander Spotswood. The first biography is also the most authoritative. This work was written as the doctoral dissertation of Leonidas Dodson at the University of Iowa in 1927; and, though the book has been out of print since at least 1932, it can still be found at special libraries and requested via inter-library loan. The second biography was written in the year 1967 by Walter Havighurst, a critic, novelist, and social historian (though it seems that Havighurst is more an historian by interest, and not necessarily by either professionalization or academic training). It is likely that Havighurst borrowed heavily from the more-academic work of Dodson when he wrote his slim, concise, narrative, practical, and straightforward biography. However, Havighurst’s ahistorical approach to referencing works may frustrate disciplined students of history.

Next, the historian Randall Shrock covered Spotswood—along with William Gooche and Robert Dinwiddie in his 1980 dissertation, “Maintaining the Prerogative: Three Royal Governors in Virginia as a Case Study, 1710-1758.” The twentieth-century historian and former chairman of the history department at the College of William and Mary, Richard L. Morton, also covered many aspects of Spotswood’s administration throughout his lifelong academic career. For example, the second volume of his dual study, Colonial Virginia, begins during the initial year of the Spotswood administration. These two books are strong supplements to the Dodson and Havighurst biographies. Several other book-length works on colonial Virginia—like Colonial Virginia: A History by W.M. Billings, J.E. Selby, and T.W. Tate and The Virginia Dynasties by C. Dowdy—offer interpretations of the Spotswood tenure. Lastly, there are helpful encyclopedic entries on Spotswood in such databases as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the American National Biography Online, and the Encyclopedia Virginia.


For an ancestral history of the Spotswood line, before and after his governorship in Virginia, readers should see the Genealogy of the Spotswood Family in Scotland and Virginia, written by the nineteenth-century, American historian Charles Campbell. Readers can also consult several other books, including Alexander Spotswood (1676-174), Governor of Virginia: including some of his ancestors, British cousins, and ten generations of his descendants by the historian Charles J. Ragland and Chart of the Spotswood family, particularly the descendants of General Alexander Spotswood who married Elizabeth Washington by Charles Aubrey Nicklas. There is also an entire work by Peyton Franklin Carter and Mary Overton Minor Rootes on Spotswood’s father-in-law and his descendants. The 2002 work is called Who was Richard Brayne?: a look at the father-in-law of Virginia’s greatest colonial governor Alexander Spotswood and his descendants.

Journal Articles, Dissertations and Theses, and Other Relevant Material:

To supplement the books mentioned above, a wealth of secondary-source material on the Spotswood administration can be mined from the archives of several prominent journals. Among those journals are a few quarterly publications that specialize in the lower Chesapeake Bay area. These journals are the William and Mary Quarterly, published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture since 1892, the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, published by the Virginia Historical Society since 1893, the Virginia Cavalcade, published by the Library of Virginia between 1951 and 2002, and the journal of Colonial Williamsburg, published by the foundation of the same name since 1992. Many more articles that cover the Spotswood administration can be found in general research databases like JSTOR, Academic Search Complete, World Cat Local, and America: History and Life.

With maybe one or two notable exceptions (such as the 1900 article “Alexander Spotswood and the Business of Empire” by Bruce Lenman), most of the articles about Spotswood are quite particularistic and not especially broad or conceptual. In other words, they deal exclusively with one aspect of Spotswood’s life or career. Here is a handful of examples: “The Story of Germanna,” written by Raymond E. Myers and published in the Filson Club History Quarterly in 1974; “The Anglo-American Settlement of Virginia’s Rappahannock Frontier” by David Rawson in 1994; “The Opposition to Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood, 1718” by Jack P. Greene from The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 1962; “The Correspondence of Alexander Spotswood with John Spotswood of Edinburgh” by Lester Cappon, in the same periodical in the year 1952; and also “The Route Followed by Governor Spotswood in 1716 across the Blue Ridge Mountains” by Delma R. Carpenter, from the same periodical as well.

Other times, Spotswood’s views are cited in articles that are not primarily about his life or his career. Such is the case with essays like “So Discreet a Zeal: Slavery and the Anglican Church in Virginia, 1680-1730,” published in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 1985; “Arthur Blackamore: The Virginia Colony and the Early English Novel,” in the same periodical in 1967; and also “’The Extension of His Majesty’s Dominions’: the Virginia backcountry and the reconfiguration of imperial frontiers,’” from the Journal of American History in 1998. For locating some additional publications that address the life and career of Spotswood, or perhaps covering the much broader context of the colonial, British, or Atlantic World, the online journal directory of the American Historical Association (AHA) is an ideal resource. For more on Spotswood, scholars can also consult the 1967 honors thesis by Joan Schools of the University of Richmond, entitled Alexander Spotswood’s Struggle with his Council; and the Alexander Spotswood website maintained by the Germanna Research Group.

Material or Archaeological Sources:

Historians, archaeologists, and architects at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Mary Washington College have gone to tremendous lengths in order to recreate the material world of Alexander Spotswood. The former organization has literally rebuilt the gubernatorial mansion off Palace Green Street in Williamsburg. Although the architects followed a building design that was subsequently added upon by Thomas Jefferson in the 1770s, the Gregorian-style building that they recreated is otherwise identical to the one Colonel Spotswood designed from 1710 to 1722, and resided in during his term of office. Moreover, the foundation has created a virtual map of colonial Williamsburg that allows online visitors to navigate the city grounds as they had existed in the early eighteenth-century, during Spotswood’s tenure.

Several other relevant buildings have also been recreated. These include the Bruton Parish Church, which Spotswood designed and where he owned a pew across from the pulpit; the Colonial Courthouse, where the General Court convened, although not in Spotswood’s time; the public goal and the gallows, where many early-eighteenth century prisoners awaited their sentences and were eventually hanged; the powder magazine, which Spotswood designed in 1715; and the Wren Building, one of the signature buildings from the College of William and Mary, which Spotswood probably helped to restore from damages it suffered in a 1705 fire. Scholars studying the life and career of Alexander Spotswood can make a trip to Williamsburg and find narrative inspiration by walking the very grounds that he once walked and even helped to design. For a scholarly work on the palace, see G. Hood’s 1991 The governor’s palace in Williamsburg: a cultural study.

The second organization, May Washington College, has performed extensive excavations at Fort Germanna, the countryside location where Spotswood had operated his ironworks facility, built his ornate private estate, retired after his deputy governorship and served as deputy postmaster general for North America, organized a new colonial county named Spotsylvania, commissioned a frontier expedition, employed white indentured servants from the Palatine region of Germany and black African slaves, and served as the Deputy Postmaster General until the year preceding his death in 1740. Since the year 1956, the legacy of this historic colonial territory has been largely preserved by the Memorial Foundation of the Germanna Colonies of Virginia Incorporated. Other organizations, such as the Society of the Germanna Colonies and the Society of the Golden Horseshoe, have also played an integral part in this historic preservation. For scholarship, see the article “Tectonics of a Virginia Castle: Environmental Archaeology at Alexander Spotswood’s Mansion at Germanna,” by Kerri S. Barile in Historical Archaeology, as well as the 2004 dissertation by the same author, entitled Archaeology, architecture, and Alexander Spotswood : redefining the Georgian worldview at the enchanted castle, Germanna, Orange County.

Folklore, Novels, or Legendary Material:

This 1716 expedition of Spotswood and company over the Blue Ridge Mountains became the basis for a few romantic interpretations since the nineteenth-century. First there was the novel by W.A. Caruthers called The Knights of the Golden Horseshoe (1845). Second there was a short piece by John Esten Cooke, published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1879. Third, there was a short promotional book from 1968, commissioned by the National Park Service and the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, called Alexander Spotswood Crosses the Blue Ridge: “a great discovery of the passage over the mountains.” Finally, the even was the subject of a 35-page address that Armistead C. Gordon delivered before a society known as the Colonial Dames of America in the state of Virginia around 1921. The talk was called “Sic juvat transcendere montes”: Governor Alexander Spotswood and the knights of the golden horseshoe. Without a doubt, this 1716 expedition became the most well-known aspect of Spotswood’s legacy.


Before ending this discussion of material related to Spotswood, it is important to return briefly to a discussion of primary sources in order to answer one remaining question: what did Alexander Spotswood look like? Unfortunately, the portrait at the beginning of this blog post is the only known contemporary image of the lieutenant governor. It is an oil-on-canvas painting, done by the English painter Charles Bridges in the year 1736. Two copies of the picture were made, and both copies are still intact today. One of these copies was presented to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1874 by a Spotswood descendant. This picture has hung at the mansion of the state governor in Richmond, Virginia, since the year 1952. The other copy was sold to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation by its former proprietor, a Louisa Beverly Turner.

All elements considered, the portrait is a flattery. Spotswood was sixty years old at the time of its creation, though he looks much younger. He is poised half-akimbo, a slight bulge indicating his paunch. He is wearing a ruffled, white linen undershirt with a matching cravat, a long and gold vest with floral embroidery on the pockets and the margins, and a high-cuffed and brass-buttoned overcoat in the color of scarlet red. The brass or bronze hilt of his sword is visible at his lower-left side, and he is holding a unidentified scroll of parchment, presumably, a symbol of his bureaucracy. In accordance with the sartorial trends of the early eighteenth-century, he is wearing a Full Bottomed Periwig, cascading with delicate curls. He has a long and plump face, a high forehead, and a pair dark brown eyes. His countenance is one of stern yet removed dignity, perhaps even judgment. Lastly, the ominous and sepulchral looking building that stands in the shadows to the right may represent Blenheim Palace, residence of the Duke of Marlborough in Oxfordshire, England. The building may also represent the Spotswood estate or the ironworks facility at Germanna, where Spotswood officially resided during the creation of the portrait.


To recapitulate, there are several reasons why a new biography of the lieutenant governor Alexander Spotswood would be a unique opportunity—particularly as a dissertation topic—for a scholar of the twenty-first century. First, almost all of the relevant primary sources pertaining to Spotswood’s life have been digitized, and they can be accessed online from the comfort of one’s own home and personal computer. What study would be better poised to test the merits of public access to historical information in the twenty-first century? Second, though biographies of political figures have perhaps fallen out of fashion since the rise of Social and Cultural History, the life and career of Alexander Spotswood have the potential to illuminate the central problems of the colonial American experience as they resided at a watershed moment, separating the Tidewater and early Revolutionary periods. Spotswood’s administration touched dozens of issues that still resonate: the shift to African slave labor, the western advance of colonial civilization, the relocation of native populations, the industrialization of the North America, and even the government standardization of farming, taxing, and shipping practices. In this last item, Spotswood presaged colonial reactions to the infamous Stamp Act of 1756 (see Helen and Edmund Morgan’s study The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution).  Thirdly, no one has attempted to write a book-length study of Spotswood since the late 1960s. The mere passage of fifty years of time guarantees that the next writer will view the sources differently and that his or her work will be undeniably original.