Thousands of people pass the place every week, yet far too few know of its international significance. Some remarkable moments in American history happened at the Germanna historic site, on State Route 3 in Orange County.
Some of those stories are told, briefly, by exhibits in the Germanna Foundation’s Brawdus Martin Visitor Center where the Germanna Highway crosses the Rapidan River. More mysterious ones are still embedded in the ground preserved by the foundation at this horseshoe bend in the river, yet to be revealed by artifacts and archaeological analysis of them.
Thank Dr. Michael Frost for that.
The Kansas City, Mo., businessman is giving seed money to the foundation for an archaeological laboratory to be built near the visitor center, which adjoins Germanna Community College’s original Locust Grove campus.
The nonprofit foundation, created in 1956 to preserve the heritage of Colonial Virginia’s earliest German settlements, later gave land for the college. Clearly, our region has much for which to thank the foundation. Its 179 acres include some of the early western frontier land settled by German families between 1714 and 1717 at the behest of Virginia’s royal governor, Alexander Spotswood—a charismatic, striving character on a par with the Alexander Hamilton of current Broadway fame.
With public relations flair, Spotswood named the town created here Germanna for the German settlers and his patron, Queen Anne of England. He named the river the Rapid Anne, also to honor the British monarch. The town became the seat of Spotsylvania County, named after the colony’s leader.
Spotswood also built a magnificent residence of his own design. The brick, stone and timber structure was so handsome and lavishly furnished that one visitor, wealthy James River planter William Byrd II, waggishly called it the “Enchanted Castle.”
But first, the Germans had to carve a military outpost from what they saw as wilderness, building a five-sided fort around a central blockhouse. Inside the fort were nine log cabins for seven German families and six bachelors, along with two cannon.
This colony of 42 Germans—and a second group of 82 immigrants who arrived at Fort Germanna in 1717—built the first roads from the Rappahannock River into the Piedmont, opening up the region to settlement. They dug ore and ran an iron furnace, enabling Spotswood to export iron wares to England.
Now, the foundation’s latest effort will investigate Fort Germanna’s site. This summer, it will host a Virginia Commonwealth University field school to search for the fort’s traces. Foundation archaeologist Eric Larsen, whose post has been underwritten by Frost since 2014, will lead the project. He is building on the work of Professor Douglas Sanford of the University of Mary Washington, whose team excavated the Enchanted Castle site.
The new research will surely give Germanna descendants, who will hold their annual reunion here in July, even more to talk about. The immigrants’ heirs include some distinguished folks. Five Germanna descendants became governors. Others founded major American companies including Chrysler, John Deere, Kemper and Gerber. One, Buzz Aldrin, was the second man to walk on the moon.
Dr. Frost is a descendant of Spotswood, the wily fellow who arranged for two shiploads of Germans to cross the Atlantic and settle in America.
With respect to all of them, we extend our best wishes for the archaeological investigation of this important site.