Sunday, December 09, 2012

From Scotland to Ulster to Virginia and New Zealand - 'Setting the record straight on Betsy Bell and Mary Gray'

Article by Charles Culbertson, published in the Staunton News Leader, Staunton, Virginia.
(click here for original)

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked regarding Staunton history concerns the city’s twin peaks of Betsy Bell and Mary Gray, the imposing and once unspoiled landmarks named after two young Scottish lasses. No other aspect of Staunton’s history — with the possible exception of the pronunciation of the word Staunton itself — is so fraught with misinformation and conjecture.

The tale I’ve heard most often is that the mountains are named after two local girls who were captured and killed by Indians. How it got started, no one knows, but this persistent fable has been around at least since the early 1830s when a Northern periodical printed a detailed account of the alleged tragedy. The author claimed to have gotten the story — which is utterly fictitious — from an old man sitting by the road in the shadow of the hills.

The truth behind Betsy (originally Bessie) Bell and Mary Gray can be found in Scotland in 1666, when two young girls seeking to avoid a plague fled to the Highlands. A young man in love with them both visited often, carrying supplies to the bower they had built. Unfortunately, he carried the plague with him and unconsciously gave it to Bessie Bell and Mary Gray.

The lasses sickened, died and were buried near Perth. Their death gave rise to a ballad, which traveled to Ireland with Scotch immigrants. These immigrants named two hills in the county of Tyrone after the girls (MT: I think this is near Newtownstewart); historians generally believe that Scotch-Irish settlers to Staunton saw a resemblance between the Irish mountains and ours, and bestowed the names on our twin peaks, as well.

As an interesting side note, two adjacent volcanic cones in New Zealand were also named Bessie Bell and Mary Gray by European settlers in the 19th century.

The name “Bessie” had changed to “Betsy” by the time of the Civil War, which saw the trees on its crest cut down for a Confederate observation post. Staunton historian Joseph Waddell once noted that Stauntonians could see smoke from the battle of Piedmont from this viewpoint.

In 1866, one anonymous letter writer to the Staunton Spectator in 1866 lamented the passing of the name “Bessie.”

“I prefer the original Scotch spelling and pronunciation of the former name,” he wrote. “‘Betsy’ as we call it now, is harsh and crabbed, but ‘Bessie’ is soft as is Apollo’s lute.”

The letter writer, who signed himself as “Oldest Inhabitant,” went on to praise the beauty of the mountains, noting that “surely no Staunton boy coming home from his wanderings ever fails to look out for the old familiar hills, and to hail them at first sight with feels akin to rapture.”

In the 20th century the mountains were owned by Staunton resident Charles Catlett, a noted local geologist, chemist and civic booster. He donated the acreage to the city in 1941 with the understanding that each spring the mayor and members of city council travel to the top of Betsy Bell and that the city maintain the crest of the mountain as a perpetual memorial to “the memory of its citizens who have given their lives in protecting the nation.”

Catlett also required that the city cut the shape of a cross out of the woods near the crest.

Both requirements are honored to this day.


• Nelson McCausland's blog has this interesting posting about the story including the words of the ballad.

Here is a recent story about efforts to restore the burial site.