Thomas Jefferson visited the Italian Piedmont in the spring of 1787.1 The Piedmont, so named since the thirteenth century, is a fertile region in northwestern Italy, at the foot of the Alps. Appropriately, Piemonte in Italian literally means "mountain foot." Although he describes regional agricultural methods, wines, and cheeses, Jefferson does not use the word Piedmont in his detailed observations.
The Piedmont in the United States is the alluvial plateau that extends from Trenton, New Jersey, to Alabama between the easternmost ridges of the Appalachians and the Atlantic coastal plain. The many small rivers that flow through it create a fall line that describes the eastern boundary of the region. "Up-country" and "backcountry" are other names for the area. Beginning about 1700, the Piedmont was settled by small farmers who, according to some historians, were socially and economically democratic, at odds with the Tidewater aristocracy until well into the nineteenth century.
According to the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the first application of the European term to the American landscape was by American geographer Lewis Evans (ca. 1700-1796) in his Geographical Essay #7 in 1755. He described the land "between the South Mountains and the hither Chain of the Endless Mountains" as "the most considerable Quantity of valuable Land that the English are possest of; and runs through New-Jersey, Pennsilvania, Mariland and Virginia. It has yet obtained no general Name, but may properly be called Piemont, from its Situation."2 Jefferson owned Evans's "General Map of the Middle British Colonies in America," which was published in London in connection with the pamphlet of essays.3
According to Gary S. Dunbar, former professor of geography at the University of Virginia, the first Gallicized form of the word Piedmont appears as a Shenandoah Valley estate by that name in 1770. The name was not applied to the area east of the Blue Ridge until the 1830s.4 In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1780-81), Jefferson refers to the region as the "Midlands" or "middle country."
In an 1855 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, the name appears in this reference: "The next breadth of country known in several of the States as the Piedmont district, was more Salubrious in its atmosphere."5
- Kristin Onuf, 10/91
1. See Notes of a Tour into the Southern Parts of France, &c., March 3–June 10, 1787, in PTJ, 11:433-37. Transcription available at Founders Online.