Tuesday, June 25, 2019

52 Ancestors - LEGEND: We Owned Natural Bridge

As a child I heard several times the most amazing story that always filled me with pride. Now I can’t remember exactly how it went, but at the core of the legend was that our family once owned THE Natural Bridge located in Rockbridge County, Virginia, not far from Lexington, home of Stonewall Jackson and Cyrus McCormick (of cotton gin fame).
Natural Bridge
courtesy old perfesser
Creative Commons Wikimedia 

Supposedly Thomas Jefferson gave the property to the Marquis de Lafayette in gratitude for his service during the Revolutionary War. Lafayette gave the land to someone in our family who then gave it back to Jefferson. Something like that, anyway.

I believed that story for a long time. Then one day the whole thing sounded preposterous and I decided to quit believing. However, a marriage bond registered in Rockbridge County prompted me to take another look at that old family story. On August 24, 1846, Mitchell Davis and Daniel Hileman signed a bond guaranteeing a marriage would be solemnized between Mitchell and Martha Ann Willson, daughter of Samuel Willson. Mitchell and Martha are my great-great grandparents.  

Marriage bond Mitchell Davis and Martha Ann Willson 1846 https://jollettetc.blogspot.com

Is it possible that Martha’s father Samuel owned land where the now-famous Natural Bridge is located?

On a research trip to Rockbridge, I snagged copies of the most promising deeds that mention Samuel Willson hoping such an unusual feature would be noted within the metes and bounds. No such luck. Maybe I did not get the right deeds. After all, Samuel had a father and probably some uncles who were landowners. Plus there were wives whose family might have owned Natural Bridge. What were their names? With so many Samuels dating back to the late 1700s and early 1800s, I have yet to determine MY Samuel’s lineage.

Perhaps UNfortunately but certainly NOT surprisingly, I can safely say the family legend is hogwash. The natural land formation now known as Natural Bridge was first recorded in 1742 by John Howard who had been commissioned to explore southwest Virginia to the Mississippi River. Then supposedly George Washington came in 1750 as a young surveyor. Tour guides like to point out the initials “G. W.” which are carved on the wall of the bridge.
The famous "G. W." initials
from Flickr
George Washington? Maybe. Or maybe some pimple-faced teenage boy named Greg Watson or Gabe Williams. The “George Washington” theory has been given some weight since the discovery of a large stone also engraved with “G. W.” along with a surveyor’s cross. That was certainly enough to convince historians that indeed Washington did survey the bridge.

And while we’re on the subject of “legends,” there is another legend that George Washington once threw a stone from the bottom of Cedar Creek OVER the bridge. Didn’t he also throw a coin across the Potomac?

Even if my ancestors were squatting near the Natural Bridge, they certainly did not OWN the land. Thomas Jefferson purchased 157 acres of land including the Natural Bridge from King George III for 20 shillings in 1774. As President, Jefferson surveyed the area himself. He even built a 2-room log cabin as a retreat for guests, some of whom were quite famous: John Marshall, James Monroe, Henry Clay, and Sam Houston, just to name a few. Therefore, it is not likely he gave the land to Lafayette.

During one of my family’s annual Civil War battlefield vacations, we stopped by Natural Bridge. My moody teenager self was not impressed. But apparently it was a big tourist draw in the 18th and 19th centuries. 
Wendy, Momma, Mary Jollette 1965
Cedar Creek runs under the bridge
Natural Bridge behind us
It has been featured in art and in literature, most notably Herman Melville’s comparison of Moby Dick rising out of the water in an arch to Virginia’s Natural Bridge. William Cullen Bryant said the Niagara Falls and Natural Bridge were the two most remarkable features of North America. I guess he hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon.

In 2013, Natural Bridge and surrounding land were slated to be sold at auction. I guess our family could have tried to buy it and thus bring a bit of truth to the family legend. However, a partnership between the state and conservation groups led to the creation of Natural Bridge State Park. Still, I wonder who concocted this story and why.
Oil painting of Natural Bridge
by Jacob C. Ward 1835
You can get a copy on Amazon.

Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

© 2019, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. Even if your family didn't once own Natural Bridge, it's a great story!

  2. It is a neat story though and one that apparently with pride was passed down from generation to generation. Beautiful area there. Maybe in their heart they felt they owned it :)


  3. A wonderful story, well told and well researched. My husband's McClure ancestors went to Rockbridge County in the mid-1700s. The family multiplied and prospered, some going to Ohio and others spreading into the south. Your post makes me want to see the Natural Bridge in person!

  4. It's a beautiful bridge with a story to match. Isn't it crazy the way things are passed down from generation to generation without anyone asking any questions or verifying it?