Natural history

The travels of William Alexander Graham: 19th century student of medicine.

In 1816, a young man from Lexington, Virginia named William Alexander Graham set out to begin a literal and figurative journey towards his future in medicine.  Upon reaching adulthood, Graham left Lexington to convey “training and regimental orders” (1) from his uncle Major John Alexander, the brigade inspector of a district composed of multiple counties west of Lexington (1) to a Colonel in Kanawha, one of these counties.  This is Graham’s first recorded trip and he waxes eloquent on many of the unique scenes and sites that he witnesses on his way.  Graham traveled to Abingdon, Virginia the following year because he was offered a job tutoring young students (1).   He traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1818 where he could study medicine under some of the most famous physicians of the day (1).  Graham left a unique and interesting travel log in his journal which gives several important insights into his own life and education but also into the natural features of Rockbridge County and other counties that he passed through and visited in his journeys.

House Mountain

House Mountain *

Six miles west of Lexington, Graham describes House Mountain as “remarkable” and in this description he reveals himself to be very appreciative of the beauty of nature (1).  Graham writes that he is arrested by the sight of House Mountain and stops again to admire a spring that comes out of the side of the mountain.  The spring water is described as “perfectly transparent and in sufficient quantity to turn a grist mill” (1). A grist mill is a mill that turns flower or corn, and would have been powered either by water, livestock or steam in 1816 at the time that this was written (2).  Graham’s friend Henry Ruffner would later write about House Mountain in his book, Judith Bensaadi, and both writers mention the clouds and weather  (3).  Graham writes that it “wears that aspect of two mountains” and Ruffner writes “What is called the House Mountain consists in fact of two oblong, parallel mountains, connected about midway of their height and rising upwards of 1500 feet above the surrounding country.” Whereas Graham writes “[House Mountain] evinces its authority by giving what direction it pleases, to the clouds that muster in dark array behind it, and dispenseth where it listeth the fructifying shower”, Ruffner writes  that “[House Mountain] not in frequently turns the summer showers that usually come with the west wind.  It is not unusual to see a cloud move across the Great Valley in Rockbridge, shedding its contents by the way strike the Blue Ridge, whirl about, and pursue another course until it is exhausted.”

From Lexington to Kanawha

The route that William Alexander Graham traveled from Lexington, Virginia to Kanawha, Virginia.Gaultheria procumbens, called “mountain tea” or “wintergreen”

Gaultheria procumbens, called “mountain tea” or “wintergreen” *

After pausing to admire House Mountain, Graham continues up Carr’s (Kerr’s) creek through “rough and rugged” country towards Warm Springs.  He finds amusement in the beauty of the surrounding nature “I crossed the N. Mountain, amused myself by observing the rocks and trees, the mountain tea; an ever green vine wanders over the ground, it has an agreeable taste and makes a pleasant beverage…[there is] no sound but the hoarse croak of the river on the mountains top” (1).

At the top of this mountain Graham looks around and sees “a world of mountains, the prospect wild and magnificent”.  This causes him to reflect on the “barren rocks and romantick hills” and also on the medicinal properties of the warm, sulfurous water, properties which he believes have been “incontestably proven” (1).

In Greenbrier County, he visits Colonel Beard who feeds him a breakfast of “beef, venison, chicken, bear bacon, hog bacon, wheat-bread egg-bread, fruit, butter, cheese coffee and milk.” (1)  He crossed over highly eroded land with sinkholes and streams that “have run principally under-ground” (1). The land is somewhat fertile and he sees many orchards of sugar maple trees.  Graham finds sugar maples to be interesting because he reports that when you tap the trees they secrete a lot of water which a person can drink to quench his thirst (1).  After passing through Lewisburg the land is “extremely broken” but when he reaches Kanawha he is greeted by a beautiful view (1).

“Passing down a rivulet affording many beautiful cascades, I was saluted by the distant roar of the great falls of the Kanahawa.   The wild irregularity with which the water dashes over a perpendicular rock extending from side to side; contrasted with the calm expanse below, gives a deep and sublime interest to the scene” (1).

Falls of Coal

Graham travels from Kanawha to Charleston and sees smoke from salt furnaces the entire way.  To satisfy his curiosity he crosses the Ohio River where “everything here has an air of neatness and elegance” and eats breakfast at the Falls of Coal.


From Lexington to Abingdon

The route William Alexander Graham took from Lexington, Virginia to Abingdon, Virginia.

Once William Alexander Graham settled on Medicine rather than Law, he apprenticed with a young, local physician named Doctor McCluer (spelled McClewer in the manuscript).  This work was supposed to help him cultivate an interest in medicine, but he describes it as “dull and irksome to him in the highest degree” (1).  Fortunately for Graham he soon received an offer to teach school children in Abingdon so he set off aboard a coach with an Army General named John Smith and Robert Preston, a merchant from Abingdon.  General Smith very persuasively tried to convince Graham to join the Army on the ride even going so far as to tell Graham that being a school teacher was an unsuitable profession for an aspiring young man and that “the renown of a patriot warrior was far above all other fame” (1). Graham was convinced by the General but as a man of honor he regarded his agreement with Abingdon as binding. The weather was extremely cold during this trip, and there was thick mud under the wheels of the coach.  More than once the coach drove through the night in the “bitterest wind” (1).

While Graham resided in Abingdon he explored the surrounding area to assist in his botany studies.

“The day was spent midst trees, shrubs and herbs—No country affording a richer or more variegated flora.  Here every tree and plant, thought to be peculiar to the soil or climate East or West of the Alleghaney, might be found growing on the Alpine Mountains; or blooming in the valleys.  This sentiment was often reiterated by Graham when plucking the Trillium or Sanguinary Canadensis first flowers of Spring; or gathering the fruit of some variety of Magnolia in Autumn.  ‘Oh nature all sufficient, over all, enrich me with a knowledge of thy works’” (1).

From Abingdon to Philadelphia

The route that William Alexander Graham took from Abingdon, Virginia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Graham left Abingdon to go home to his father’s house, Cedar Grove, in Lexington, Virginia.  Graham most likely went by coach to Lexington as he reports that the trip cost him $16.  In Lexington, Graham boarded a boat on the North River (now called the Maury River) and traveled to Lynchburg, Virginia. During this trip Graham was told the tale of the “adventurous waterman” Bogel.  Bogel was sailing with a load of produce when he shattered his boat and drowned.  According to the story he was the first person to ever attempt to navigate the turbulent channel Graham was currently sailing. The crew also points out “Bogel’s Rock” to Graham which was named after the drowned man (1).  Upon reaching Lynchburg, Graham intended to continue even further on the same boat but after the crew became drunk and riotous upon landing and Graham failed to convince them to continue sailing despite staying for several days (1).  Whereas Graham only spent $3.00 on his trip from Lexington to Lynchburg on the boat, he is forced to spend $15 on a coach from Lynchburg to Richmond.  From Richmond, Graham continues on land to Fredericksburg and then to Acquia creek. At Acquia Harbor, Graham boarded a steam boat that carried him up the Potomac to Washington City.  Someone pointed out Washington’s tomb to Graham as they pass Mount Vernon and this caused him to reflect deeply:

“Surrounded by a cluster of stinted oaks, now shedding the sear leaves of Autumn upon his grace [the tomb] produced a mingled emotion of admiration, reverence, and regret. Is it possible this can be the humble mausoleum of the father of his country! How great the contrast between his immortal virtues, his unfading laurels, the green and growing tree of liberty which be planted with his own hands and this silent sequestered unassuming cemetery” (1).

The view of the Chesapeake River from Mount Vernon

After Washington, Graham reached Baltimore.  In Baltimore, Graham boarded his second steam boat which carried him up to Chesapeake Bay to Elkton.  Graham travelled across land to the Delaware River where he boarded his final steam boat.   As he sums it up in a letter a few weeks later, “After a tedious and fatiguing journey from Abingdon,  I at length arrived in Philadelphia.”

By: Daniel Todd

Work’s Cited

1. William Alexander Graham, “A Narrative [1827] of Graham’s Journeys, Medical Training and Career 1816-1819 in Lexington, Va., Abingdon, Va., and Philadelphia,”  Washington and Lee University Library, Special Collections.

2. Bennet, Richard and Elton, John, “History of corn milling; Volume 2 of History of Corn Milling, Simpkin, Marshall and company, 1889.

3. Ruffner, Henry, “Judith Bensaddi: A Tale and Seclusaval: Or The Sequel to the Tale of Judith Bensaddi,” 1984.

* Images:
House Mountain (Little House Mountain in the foreground, Big House Mountain behind it.)  Photo by Tony Van Vugt, Hiking Upward, reproduced with permission
Gaulteria procumbens: Wikipedia
Falls of Coal: Wikipedia
Chesapeake River: Wikipedia

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