Also known as "Oh Shenandoah" or "Across The Wide Missouri," the origin of this traditional American folk song remains a mystery, though it gained popularity as a sea shanty in the mid-1800s. In an 1876 edition of The New Dominion Monthly, Captain Robert Chamblet Adams noted he first heard the tune, then known as "Shanadore," around 1850 as a capstan shanty to set the pace while the sailors hauled in the anchor. The lyrics first appeared in print in William L. Alden's article "Sailor Songs" for the July 1882 edition of Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
Through its various versions, it was also popular with flatboatmen who carried goods and passengers along the Missouri River, loggers, and soldiers fighting on both sides of the Civil War.
Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax explained the song most likely originated with American and French-Canadian fur traders that canoed down the Missouri River and its tributaries while singing songs to quell their loneliness. Early iterations tell the story of a trader who falls in love with the daughter of Shenandoah, a Native American chief who refuses to consent to their marriage and sends the heartbroken boater on his way. A version printed in 1910 in Ships, Sea Songs And Shanties, Collected by W. B. Whall, Master Mariner introduced a "Yankee skipper" who gets the chief drunk so he can steal his daughter. But ultimately, according to Lomax, the singer's true longing is for his homeland. He and his father, John A. Lomax, wrote in their 1947 book, Best Loved American Folk Songs:
"The melody has the roll and surge and freedom of a tall ship sweeping along before a trade wind. The sonorous succession of long vowels and soft and liquid consonants blend perfectly with the romantic air. The lines are a call from the homeland to the sailor wandering far out across the seas, a call not from a sweetheart, a house, or even a town, but from the land itself, its rivers and its familiar and loved hills."
John Skenandoa, aka Shenandoah, was a well-known Oneida Iroquois chief living in Oneida Castle, a village in central New York state. He supported the English against the French in the Seven Years' War, which might explain his aversion to letting his daughter run off with a Frenchman. Shenandoah was also an ally during the Revolutionary War, leading 250 Oneida and Tuscarora warriors in support of American rebels and providing food for General George Washington in his troops during their six-month encampment at Valley Forge. Washington allegedly named the Shenandoah River, which runs through Virginia and West Virginia, in honor of the chief, with several other US locations following suit, including towns in Virginia, Louisiana, Texas, New York, and Iowa.
Doug George-Kanentiio, a Mohawk scholar who married Joanne Shenandoah, a descendant of the Native American chief, says the song is not only about the longing for something that's lost, but also reflects the white man's willful ignorance of Native culture. If the singer really wanted to marry the chief's daughter, he should have known to ask her mother's permission, not her father's, which is customary in Iroquois tribes. "Asking the chief showed he knew nothing about us," he told an Eastern Woodland Fusions
blogger. "Whoever wrote the song had the chance to be part of the Skenando family... to blend two cultures. He missed that opportunity and realizes it won't come again. That explains the power of the song because we all instinctively feel that loss. It's not about what we have done; it's about what we could have done. 'Shenandoah' addresses that in a way no other American song has."
A version called "The Wild Mizzourye," sung by the US Cavalry, omitted the Native American influence and instead told the story of a soldier whose girl ran off to Kansas City and had another man's baby. But no matter, as he's "bound away for the wild Mizzourye!"
Yet another version was used as the theme song to the 1965 Civil War film Shenandoah, starring James Stewart as a Virginia rancher on a desperate search for his son, who is mistakenly being held as a prisoner of war. This song expresses admiration for Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and laments the war that has invaded its peace.
A version by The Ken Darby Singers was used as part of a medley in the 1962 Western How The West Was Won.
This was first released by John Goss And The Cathedral Male Voice Quartet in 1928. Paul Robeson issued the first of his many covers of the song in 1936, but it really hit its stride in the ensuing decades. The 1950s saw recordings by Harry Belafonte, Paul Clayton, Bing Crosby, The Norman Luboff Choir, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Pete Seeger, Jimmie Rodgers, and The Kingston Trio, and The Weavers.
The 1960s brought covers from Leon Bibb, Jo Stafford, Michael Landon, Odetta, Duane Eddy, Jimmy Dean, and The Statler Brothers. The 1970s featured takes from Glen Campbell, Jerry Reed, Tennessee Ernie Ford (again), Mickey Newbury, and Stuart Gillespie.
Bob Dylan recorded it for his 1988 album, Down In The Groove, while Arlo Guthrie picked it up in 1994 on Son Of The Wind.
David Allan Coe, Bruce Springsteen, and Roger McGuinn released versions in the 2000s, and Tom Waits and Keith Richards collaborated on a rendition for Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys in 2013. In 2021, Paula Cole also covered it for her album American Quilt.
When Virginia was considering candidates for a new state song in 2006, "Shenandoah" was suggested but ultimately rejected over its ties to the Missouri River and the fact that the title referred to the Native American chief and not the Virginia valley and its river. A compromise was reached in 2015 by pairing the melody from "Shenandoah" with "Our Great Virginia."
A version by Norwegian soprano Sissel was used on the TV series The Newsroom in the 2014 episode "Oh Shenandoah."
In the first season of House Of Cards ("Chapter 8"), Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, sings this with his friends.