Somebody had to do it! That somebody was Dr. Johannes Lederer, a German doctor who was also an explorer. Lederer was the first white man to climb the Appalachian Mountains. He was born in or near Hamburg, Germany in 1644. He arrived in the Jamestown Colony at the beginning of 1669, not to do medicine but to explore the mountains. He became the first white man to climb the Appalachian Mountains.
The early Americans believed the South Seas, the Indian Ocean, and the China Sea were but a few days journey west. Early Spanish maps showed only a narrow strip of land on the other side of the Appalachians. Today we know this as the Midwest and West.
The Spaniards to the south were busy digging for gold; they didn’t care about exploring or annexing land. The Native Americans had ventured into the mountains, primarily traveling north and south. They didn’t know too much of what existed to the west. It took a new 25-year-old German to navigate the oldest mountains in a new land.
The First Attempt
In March of 1669, Lederer explored the Blue Ridge Mountains to the present site of Charlottesville, Virginia. He took three Indians with him as guides. On the fifth day, they reached what they thought was the top. Instead, they found larger mountains in the distance. Or were these clouds? The Indians thought they must be in the presence of God. Continuing on the next day, they found the air thick and cold. Brilliant blue waters ran down the mountain sides.
Three days later, Lederer and two Indians began climbing again. They climbed on their hands and knees through the bush. They reached dizzying heights and said they could see the Atlantic Ocean. However, it was the Pacific Ocean they were hoping to see. The cold and the snow were so intense the explorers gave up and returned to Jamestown.
The Second Attempt
The next year, Lederer, took with him a Major Harris, five Indians and horses. They made a second attempt to find a passage over the mountains. They left from present day Richmond, Virginia, stopping at the Staunton River. They continued to Spencer, NC through the Uwharrie Mountains. Finally they reached Rock Hill, South Carolina on the Catawba River. Major Harris and the Indians were so weary, they decided to abandon Lederer.
Now alone, Lederer headed southwest, trying to avoid the mountains. He eventually turned back east, fearing the Spaniards might capture him. He arrived at Appomattox two months after he began. When Major Harris returned to Jamestown, he gave his disapproval to the enterprise. He tried to praise his own worthiness and discredit Lederer, assuming Lederer would not return alive.
The Third Attempt
Lederer was not one to give up, so he set out on a third attempt to cross the Appalachians and find the Far East. By now, it was August 1670. His companions included a Colonel Catlet, nine English horses and five Indians. This time, the party followed the Falmouth River to its source in the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, the river died out. The explorers trudged on, crossing the Shenandoah Valley. Due to the steep mountains on the other side of the valley, Lederer and a few Indians climbed by foot. His other companions gave up and left Lederer alone with one Indian.
Lederer and his Indian did reach the top, but they again encountered the severe cold. They also felt extremely tired. They agreed to abandon the effort and return someday in the future. Thus, Lederer reached the top of the Appalachians, but he failed to find an easy passage down the other side.
Fortunately, Lederer kept a diary of his explorations including some drawings of maps. He also left information about the location, customs, and beliefs of the Indians he encountered. Lederer had a mind for business. He traded with the Indians to supply Jamestown with furs, plants, and other necessary objects.
Lederer wrote an account of his explorations at the invitation of Sir William Talbot, Governor of the Maryland colony. He wrote in Latin since he was not skilled in English. Talbot translated this report, including a map, and took it to London, and had it printed. The title was The Discoveries of John Lederer In three several Marches from Virginia, To the West of Carolina (London, 1672).
Lederer Pushes On
“A map of the whole territory traversed by John Lederer in his three marches.” Image courtesy of the Research Laboratories of Archaeology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
After a short stay in Maryland, Lederer moved to Connecticut. There he finally practiced medicine. Not content there, he boarded a ship to Barbados and returned to Germany. No knowledge about him from exists from this point on. Still, Lederer earned praise as the first white man to climb the Appalachian Mountains.
Fact: The Appalachian Mountain range is the oldest in America
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