WV History: The Golden Horseshoe Award

Recently, I made mention on an intro to a blog post that I graduated Oak Hill High School (Fayette County WV) without ever taking a proper history class. I took Psychology, Economics, World Cultures and Current Events. They were all in the history column. I hated the subject proper. My Dad drug us to every historical site there was with cannons galore. I did not feel the need to have it given to me in book form as well.

I never realized how people would come out of the woodworks to admonish me and/or to “call me out”. I went as far as pulling out my old high school transcripts because, being old, my memory sometimes fails. This time it did not. I thought about posting my transcripts to SHOW THE WORLD… I digress. My transcripts will not be published and I have given up trying to show “those” people that even without the classes, I became a World Class Citizen. In the interim, my high school guidance counselor decided to not be my friend and to shun me instead … ha.

I thought (and still do) that I was clever for finding a way to circumvent the system and take classes I found a greater interest in. Others did not see it that way. More than once, the covetous GOLDEN HORSESHOE AWARD was lauded as an accomplishment for better students. Meh. I am not a lesser person for not having one. However, although I had heard of the award, I could not tell you what it was for or the history behind it (the one time those history classes could have come in handy – I am 51 years old, it took this long for me to need them….)

In this blog, I will give details from the WV Archives on what the award is about and where you can find the database of those smahty pants who won it. Kudos to those overachievers! Before your undergear gets in a tangle – I AM KIDDING. Actually, it is really cool and I am glad there were students who found passion and joy in studying history.

At the very bottom of this page is a scan from the history archives of the actual 1955 WV Golden Horseshoe Test. I dare you to try it!

According to the West Virginia Dep of Arts, Culture and History


Since 1931, more than 15,000 West Virginia students have received the Golden Horseshoe Award in recognition of their knowledge of West Virginia history. Each year, thousands of eighth graders across the state take the Golden Horseshoe examination, and more than two hundred are inducted into the prestigious Golden Horseshoe Society.

In 1716, Alexander Spotswood, lieutenant governor of Virginia, led an expedition across the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Shenandoah Valley in an effort to promote settlement of western Virginia. Upon returning across the mountains, Spotswood presented a golden horseshoe to each member of the party.

The Golden Horseshoe program began in 1929 when noted historian Phil Conley proposed the creation of West Virginia Clubs, designed to promote appreciation of the Mountain State. State school superintendent William C. Cook believed that students “should learn more about the State, since they are our future citizens and should be fully prepared for citizenship. They should have a knowledge of the past and present status of the State in order to estimate its future possibilities.” Two years later, the first Golden Horseshoe test was given, and resulted in the awarding of pins to 87 students from 46 counties. These scholars were dubbed Knights and Ladies of the Golden Horseshoe. This marked the beginning of the Golden Horseshoe program, the longest running of its kind in the United States.

And, of course, my favorite historian Clarence Shirley Donnelly had an article on the creation of the Golden Horseshoe award. I love his backstories. This is the article, it is transcribed for easier reading below.

Beckley Post-Herald
Beckley, West Virginia
31 Dec 1964, Thu  •  Page 4

Yesterday And Today–


Dr. D. C. (Buck) Ashton, head medicine man in Beckley Hospital, the health emporium, of the late Dr. A. U. Tieche, is a native of Virginia but goes in for West Virginia history on the side.

On most days this former major in the Army Medical Corps is given to reading this column, he confesses. Something he read led him to inquire as to the identity of the first white man to tramp the wilds of present day West Virginia. He was John Lederer, a German by birth.

Lederer was an authorized explorer in the employment of Sir William Berkeley, a colonial governor of Virginia. Lederer, the first white man within the present limits of West Virginia, made several journeys into the westward wilderness. On one of those trips of exploration, Lederer crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry in Jefferson County of our day.

From there, Lederer appears to have journeyed farther to the west into what is now Hampshire County, oldest of our 55 counties. In all probability he visited the valley of the Cheat River.

It was in 1669–almost 300 years ago–that the intrepid adventurer made his exploration of eastern West Virginia territory. He made a map of his journeys in the trackless forest of our Eastern Panhandle. On his maps, Lederer sketched the the Potomac River,showing its division into two branches, the North and South Branches of the Potomac.

IT WAS SOMEWHAT a coincidence that at the same time the German Lederer was tramping our Eastern Panhandle territory, there was a French explorer who was giving the western limits of West Virginia the once-over in the interest of France. That French explorer was Robert Cavelier la Salle, one of the most eminent of French explorers.

In October, 1669 — same year Lederer was exploring for Governor Berkeley — La Salle reached the Allegheny River. Down that river he nosed his canoe to the point of the Alleghany’s confluence with the Monongahela River. The union of these two streams forms the Ohio at what is now Pittsburgh. La Salle and his guides then drifted down the Ohio to the falls of that stream — now Louisville.

IT WAS IN 1663 that the Ohio River was first heard of by white men. A French missionary in Canada by the name of Dollier learned from the Indians of the great inland river. From what the missionary learned of this great water it was about as large as the St. Lawrence River. Word of it reached the ears of the adventurous La Salle who determined to go and find it.

From what the missionary learned of this great water it was about as large as the St Lawrence River. Word of it reached the ears of the adventurous La Salle who determined to go and find it.

La Salle rounded up Indian guides and organized his expedition. They took off from Onondaga, N. Y. The party reached the Allegheny River in October, 1669 a little late in the year for exploration, as winter was then ready to set in. When the explorer and his force got to the falls of the Ohio–Louisville–the Indian guides opined that they had enough. At that point the guides deserted La Salle and the Frenchman had to make his way back to Canada alone.

GETTING CLOSER home, the first white men to investigate the area served by the Post- Herald were Thomas Batts. Robert Fallam, and Thomas Woods.

This trio, together with Jack Neasam, an Indian, departed from the old Indian town on the Appomattox River (Petersburg, Va.) on Sept. 1, 1671.

Fifteen days later these men arrived at Kanawha Falls. A Fayette County historic marker alongside the highway recites that “On New River, Batts and Fallam officially claimed the Mississippi Valley for Great Britain in opposition to the claims of France.”This, those two men did in Fayette County by firing their guns a few times and skinning the bark from a few trees where the combined waters of the New and Gauley rivers plunge over the 14-foot rock cliff to form our Great Kanawha River a short distance below Gauley Bridge.

ONE OF THE MOST noted expeditions of exploration of western Virginia land was that of Gov. Alexander Spotswood. Williamsburg was the colonial capital of Virginia then. On June 20, 1716 — just 147 years to the day before West Virginia became a state — Governor Spotswood and a party of 30 horsemen left Williamsburg going toward this area.

There is no evidence they rode on West Virginia soil but what they did induced others come here. Back at Williamsburg, Spotswood established the Trans-Montane Order, or Knights of the Golden Horseshoe. He gave each of his party a miniature horseshoe, some set with precious stones. All bore the Latin inscription “Sic jurat transcendere monies,” which means “Thus he swears to the mountains.”

All who would agree to comply with the oath were given a horseshoe, as the governor wanted people to emigrate and settle here. Today the Golden Horseshoe is given school children who study West Virginia history and successfully pass a test on the subject.

Even the test paper was golden….

One comment

  1. I don’t think I ever studied harder for anything in my life. I was dubbed a “Lady” in 1962 from Marion County.
    Linda Stewart

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