Six Months in America (1832)
Godfrey T. Vigne, Esq.

Catawba Grape

Washington, like most of the American cities, can boast of several beautiful rides and walks in its vicinity. Arlington, the seat of George Washington P. Castis, Esq., occupies a most conspicuous and commanding situation, on the south bank of the Potomac. It is visible for many miles, and in the distance has the appearance of a superior English country residence, beyond any place I had seen in the States: but as I came close to it, as usual, I was wofully disappointed. It contains a valuable portrait of Washington, when a Major in the British service, and wearing of course the blue-and-buff uniform.

Not far from the race ground, and about three miles from George Town, is the residence of a gentleman who has paid greater and more indefatigable attention to the culture of the vine than any other person in America. The vine yards around his house produce several different kinds of grapes; from which, considering how few years have elapsed since the attempt was first made, he may be said to have been very successful in producing some very good and palatable wines. Amongst others, the best is dignified by the very aristocratic name of "Tokay." It is made from the "Catawba" grape, which he himself first found in a cottager's garden, not far from a tavern bearing the sign of the Catawba Indians, distant about twenty miles from Washington. From this circumstance he called it the Catawba grape. The Catawba is a river of South Carolina, but no grape of the kind is found near it. The cottagers could give him no satisfactory account of it, and he never could find out whether it was indigenous, or, which is most likely the fact, imported. It is rather a large grape, thick-skinned, but at the same time very transparent, with a fine purple blush, and far more fit for making wine than to form part of a dessert. As yet it appears to thrive better than any kind of grape that has been tried in the United States; so much so, that at Pittsburgh, and Lancaster, and other places where there are vineyards, they have cleared away a large proportion of the European plants, in favour of the Catawba vine. He informed me that he had sent cuttings of it to every State in the Union excepting Florida, Arkansaw, and Kentucky. A long time, however, must elapse before the Americans can compete with the wines of Europe: as yet, comparatively speaking, little can be known there, either with reference to the best fruit, or to the soil and temperature necessary to bring it to perfection. Upwards of seventy kinds of the wild vine are found in the American forests, but not more than half of them bear fruit. At Boston I tasted a grape called the Isabella grape, whose flavour was still harsh, but was a great and decided improvement in every respect, upon the sourness of the fox-grape of the woods, from which, I was informed, it had been originally produced. I am, of course, speaking of the Catawba and other grapes, only in their winemaking capacity; the grapes raised in the United States for the table, are exceedingly good and very plentiful.

The New American Orchardist (1835)


This superior variety was introduced to notice by Major John Adlum, of Georgteown, D. C. and is esteemed by him the very best native grape for making wine, known; and the wine made by him at his vineyard of this grape, is deemed by good judges excellent. The bunches are of very handsome size and form, and shouldered; the berries are of a deep purple next the sun; the skin is thin, juicy, sweet, rich, and vinous, with a very little of the native, or musky taste. This vine is very vigorous and hardy, requiring no protection, and is a great and certain bearer. This and the Isabella are, for the climate of New England, decidedly the very best native grapes hitherto known with us. Mr Adlum has stated that he has no doubt but by his discovering the Catawba grape to be an excellent wine grape, that it will be worth to the United States one hundred millions of dollars before the end of this century. See his Memoir on the Cultivation of the Vine in America.

Sketch of the Evolution of Our Native Fruits (1898)
Liberty Hyde Bailey

Adlum's third claim to our remembrance, and the one of particular importance in the present inquiry, is the introduction of the Catawba grape, which marks the second epoch in American grape-growing. It seems that a Mrs. Scholl, who kept a public house at Clarksburg, Montgomery county, Maryland, had a grape vine of much renown which Adlum pruned in February, 1819, "for the sake of the cuttings." "A German Priest, who saw Mrs. Scholl's Vine in full bearing and when ripe, pronounced them the true Tokay, and said he saw the same kind growing in Tokay, in Hungary." From this circumstance, Adlum called the grape the Tokay, and apparently made no inquiry, at the time, into its origin. The variety must have been somewhat distributed at this time, for Adlum says that it was also grown by J. Johnston, near Frederickton, Maryland. Adlum sent cuttings of this grape to various persons, one of whom, Nicholas Longworth, of Cincinnati, because of this aid, became the third genius of American grape-growing.

In the first edition of his book, Adlum called this grape the Tokay. "Where I got cuttings of this Grape," he writes, "they were of a beautiful lilack colour, and a delicate taste for the table; with me they are much higher coloured than they were at the places I got them from, and have somewhat of a musky taste, tolerable for the table. They are very great bearers, and make an excellent Wine." In the second edition, 1828, he calls it Catawba, and says: "This I look upon as one of the best wine grapes in the United States; and I say the very best. It is a very tolerable table grape. Those that ripen in the sun, are of a deep purple color; where they are partially shaded, they are of a lilac color; and where they ripen wholly in the shade, and are perfectly ripe, they are white, rich, sweet and vinous. When they are colored, they have somewhat of a musky taste, resembling the Frontignac. They are very great and certain bearers—and it will produce a greater variety of good wines than any other known grape—from Tokay and Champaign, down to Sauterne."

The genesis of the Catawba grape has always been a subject of much speculation. The vinous quality of the fruit and the amenability of the foliage to mildew, suggest hybridity with the European vine, although the botanical characters of the variety are clearly those of the wild fox-grape, Vitis Labrusca. The Catawba was found wild in the woods of Buncombe County, in extreme western North Carolina, by one Murray, who emigrated to that country from Pennsylvania about 1801, settling on the Kentucky and Warm Spring trail. The farm and neighborhood was called Murraysville, and it lies ten miles southeast of the present Asheville. The grapes were found upon this farm in 1802, growing wild in great profusion. Another variety was also found, bearing very long, crowded clusters of dark purple grapes, but the fruit was not so good as that of the variety whose history we are tracing. This better variety had open clusters of reddish grapes,—features which the grape-grower will recognize as characteristic of the Catawba. When the forest was removed, the grapes became larger and better. The following year, 1803, there came to Murraysville commissioners to settle the disputed boundaries of North Carolina and Georgia, and these persons tasted of the grapes and pronounced them good. Quakers from Newberry District, South Carolina, passed through the place in 1805 on their way to Ohio, and they took some of these grapes with them, but nothing is known of any offspring of these fruits which may have originated with the emigrants. In 1807, General Davy, United States Senator, a resident of Rocky Mount, on the Catawba River, transplanted some of the vines to his own place; and some time between 1807 and 1816 he took cuttings or vines to Washington and distributed them amongst friends in Maryland as the Catawba Grape. Mrs. Scholl probably obtained her vines of him or of his friends, and from her Adlum secured his cuttings.

As late as 1821, Dr. Solomon Beach, of southern Ohio, found these grapes still growing wild at Murraysville. The country abounded in grapes, but Mrs. Murray pointed out one vine of great excellence, which grew over a small oak tree in sight from the door. This particular vine bore profusely a fruit of "a reddish color, with a purple, dusky appearance; the taste sweet and pleasant, with a peculiar, agreeable flavor." This vine is evidently the one from which the variety was propagated. The region in which this grape was found is on the summit of the Black Ridge, in a thinly timbered region with poor and loose, gravelly soil.

The conditions of the finding of the Catawba seem to leave no doubt, therefore, that the variety is a pure native, uncontaminated by hybridity with European varieties. It is, of course, conceivable that a bird may have dropped a seed which it got in a garden, but the presumption is against it. Dufour was so loth to believe that native grapes could have merit for the cultivator that he was inclined to explain the origin of promising varieties in the wild by supposing that birds had taken the seeds there. "A blackbird or a wood-picker, eating a berry of the Sweetwater, in a garden at New York, or one of the Cape grapes at Spring-mill, may travel," he writes, "hundreds of miles before he sows the seed of it; and we may naturally foresee, that the number of wild grapes having some similarity to the European sorts, must increase gradually." But all the records agree in saying that there were several or even many sorts of wild grapes growing in the vicinity of Murraysville, and a number of them were of good quality. It would be violence to suppose that all of them were accidental hybrids with European types which were unknown to the region; and there is no more reason to suppose that the Catawba, alone, was a hybrid than to suppose that all the rest of them had a similar impure origin. Moreover, we know that the wild Vitis Labrusca is capable of producing very many curious and wide variations in its fruit. We must conclude, therefore, with the great majority of botanists and intelligent grape-growers, that the Catawba grape is a pure native. A reigning wild form of this fox-grape is shown in Fig. 11.

Fig. 11 — Wild fox-grape, Vitis Labrusca (Bailey, 1898)