Unfolding the Map
You may think we are cuckoo, but we are only passing through Cuckoo, Virginia. As unlikely as the name might make it seem, Cuckoo was the start of an unheralded but important ride that may have saved Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the new American democracy during the Revolutionary War. Read on to find out about it, and the importance of what I call "journeys of warning." At right is an illustration of the flower of the flowering dogwood, Virginia's state tree. It is by N.L. Britton and A. Brown, and is hosted at Wikimedia Commons.
"Captain Jack Jouett probably didn't have a chance against the fame of Paul Revere, yet Jouett's deed was comparable: on June 4, 1781, Captain Jack rode his bay mare, Sallie, forty miles from Cuckoo Tavern to Charlottesville to warn Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and that nest of sedition, the Virginia General Assembly, that Bloody Tarleton's Green Dragons were coming. Jouett rode without stopping, while the British raiders stopped three times - once to burn a wagontrain - and thereby lost both the rebels' capture and a chance at dramatic incident. A good thing for American history. And for Henry Wadsworth Longellow. Jouett is a devilish name to rhyme.
"When I saw Cuckoo, Virginia, it was a historical marker and a few houses at an intersection."
Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 2
LHM's account of Jack Jouett's ride, as well as others I've read, leads me to think about what I'm going to call "journeys of warning." Usually, one can find a lot of material on the internet, but so far, I've been unlucky in my search to see if anyone has compiled a list of these types of journeys of warning.
There's a fascinating story about Jouett and what he did to save the Virginia Assembly, including Thomas Jefferson. You may think that a forty-mile ride on a steed is no big deal, but if you do, like I did, then you are forgetting the time. There were roads, but they were far cries from our modern superhighways. They were often dirt or grass pathways, worn with the ruts of wagons and difficult to traverse in the best of seasons. When the British came past Cuckoo Tavern on what has been described as their version of an eighteenth century blitzkrieg to surprise and take a number of notable rebel politicians, they were using the main highway. So Jouett was forced to take back routes that were even more dangerous. He was doing it on a full moon evening, but there is no way of knowing what the weather was like. Chances are that regardless, he wouldn't have been able to see well and he risked serious injury or death to himself and his horse. The success of his ride also depended on a bit of luck. If the British hadn't have stopped to rest for three hours, then to burn a wagon train of supplies, and finally to commandeer some breakfast, they might have achieved their objectives. Even then, when Jouett rode up to Monticello to warn Thomas Jefferson, at that time Governor of Virginia, Jefferson waited until the last possible moment despite several hours of warning to have breakfast and settle up some affairs. He only fled when he saw that the British were about to swarm over his property. As history and Longfellow record, Paul Revere's warning ride was very important, but Jouett may have saved the American independence effort a mortal blow which would have been dealt had the British captured the founding father who wrote the Declaration of Independence.
I've tried to think of other similar treks of warning, but my history is not that good. I can think of the Grecian runner, Pheidippides, who ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to announce the victory over the Persian army, then collapsed and died. Certainly running twenty-six miles is a worthy achievement - I failed in my one attempt - but not unheard of. What's not known about this story, and there are doubts about its veracity, is that Pheidippides was considered Athens greatest long-distance runner and had been called upon to run about 150 miles round trip over two days to ask for help from Sparta to repel the Persians and to bring back their answer (evidently "sorry, we'd love to help, but we need to wait for the full moon according to our law") to the Athenians. He fought the battle at Marathon, and then ran his famous run to Athens to announce the victory. No wonder he collapsed and died! However, we only have the account by the author Lucian to tell us this story. Herodotus, a possibly more trustworthy historian in some ways, only tells of Pheidippides run to Sparta and back. as Herodotus relates, on the way back from Sparta Pheidippides meets the god Pan (possibly because he was delirious from the running?) who promises his help to the Athenians.
I've heard some modern amazing stories of journeys to warn and bring help. A woman that I used to work with related the story of her birth. She was born in a snowstorm in rural New Mexico, in the cabin that her mother lived in. Her mother had been affected mentally by a childhood bout with a type of fever, perhaps scarlet fever, and at the time she was only assisted by her sister at the birth. After the baby was born, the sister mounted upon a bicycle and rode through the snowstorm to the nearest town, a distance of over twenty miles, I think, to get a doctor to come check on the mother and baby.
What fascinates me about such journeys is that they were taken in pursuit of a single goal, whether that goal be warning or bringing help, or both. The people undertaking the journey not only had a single goal in mind, but were firmly bound by a cause or, at least in my last case, family ties and love that gave the journey a meaning beyond the simple act of getting from point A to point B. In the minds of those undertaking such journeys, whole endeavors such as the America Revolution may have depended on their journeys and upon themselves. They believed that lives were at stake. Those making the journey didn't know if they would be celebrated in history or be a simple footnote. At the time they performed their heroism, it seemed as if the world depended on whether they succeeded.
We can contrast such journeys with those of the type that are chronicled in Blue Highways. Journeys of discovery, reflection and healing are those that begin without a goal, or at least a single goal, in mind. They aren't focused on anything specific. In the end, however, they achieve similarities: a message to self or others, an achievement, often after a path of difficulty that tries endurance and capabilities. Sometimes, the acts of heroism are in service to self, the changes wrought are in one's own life and the lives saved might even be one's own.
I'm sure that there are many acts of heroic journeys done daily, throughout history, that have been lost in time. However, we celebrate these journeys and those that are lost to us when we celebrate them in literature, song and art. For that reason, I'm glad I learned about Jack Jouett's ride through the Virginia night from Cuckoo Tavern to Charlottesville over treacherous paths to warn Jefferson and others. As we prepare to close another year, let's celebrate all journeys, great and small, that we all take daily.
I was noodling around and actually found a song celebrating Jack Jouett's ride. Jack Jouett's Ride was written by Tim Sparling and Allen Werneken, but I'm not sure who performs the version here.
Here is Jack Jouett's Ride.
If you want to know more about Cuckoo
Next up: Stanardsville, Virginia