A Brief History of Washington County, Virginia

Washington County was named for General George Washington before he was elected President. A history of Washington County, Virginia might include all the territory originally encompassed in Augusta County, formed by the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1738; Botetourt County in 1770; Fincastle County in 1772; and Washington County established on December 7, 1776. Each of the subsequent counties split from the Washington County of 1776: Russell County in 1786, Lee County in 1793, Tazewell County in 1800, Scott County in 1814, Smyth County in 1832, Wise County in 1836, Buchanan County in 1858, Dickenson County in 1880. Each has a history of its own. With a few exceptions, this article will be concerned with the current boundaries of Washington County, Virginia.


The Great Valley of Virginia was a ‘superhighway’ for various tribes of original inhabitants of what is now known as the United States of America. Relics, such as arrowheads and tomahawk stones that attest to the presence of American Indians and continue to be found in local plowed fields. Scotch-Irish and German Settlers who traveled from Pennsylvania down what was called the Great Indian Trail encounter those people and the buffalo, which grazed along the way.

The American Revolution

In the fall of 1780, four hundred men from Washington County were mustered to travel under the command of Colonel William Campbell to overcome the British troops under the command of Patrick Ferguson. North Carolina and Tennessee militia from various counties joined with the Virginians to pursue the British and engage them at King’s Mountain, South Carolina. The “Overmountain Men” were ordered to yell like Indians during this attack. The confusion that resulted from the yelling and exceptional marksmanship as well as other tactics helped cause the death of Ferguson and the defeat of his troops October 7, 1780.


Starting in the mid-1800’s railroads carried passengers and materials through and from Washington County. Communities along the main route from Washington Springs to Goodson (now Bristol) included Glade Spring, Emory, Meadowview, Wolf Hills (now Abingdon), Fractionsville, Wyndale and Wallace. One line went from Glade Spring to Saltville by way of Litz, Keywood and Clinchburg; another line extended from Bristol to Mendota; another headed southeast from Abingdon to West Jefferson, North Carolina by way of Watauga, Barron (now Alvarado), Delmar, Drowning Ford Station, Hellena, Damascus, Laureldale, Taylors Valley, Creek Junction, Cant Work and Green Cove. For a period of time passengers arriving on a Virginia line at Bristol, Virginia had to disembark and walk a short distance to climb aboard a Tennessee train on a Tennessee line if they wanted to continue south. Roads suitable for automobiles have replaced the lines from Damascus to Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee and from Damascus to Shady Valley, Tennessee. The Virginia Creeper Trail is a linear park that has replaced the Norfolk & Western rails and crosses from Abingdon to the North Carolina line.


A major part of Washington County is in the Great Valley region of Virginia, where Abingdon, the County Seat, was established. To the north are the North Fork of the Holston River and the Clinch mountain range; to the south and east are River Knobs, the junction of the Middle Fork and the South Fork of the Holston River, and the mountain ranges known as the Holston and the Virginia Iron. The combination of springs and elevation provided waterpower, harnessed behind small dams for milling grains and for sawing lumber from the abundant stands of trees. Water powered electrification with direct current brought light and heat to some homes early in the 20th Century. Grayson, Smyth, and Washington Counties join at the top of the second highest mountain (5,520 feet) in Virginia formerly known as “Meadow”, because of its prominent bald field. Winter snows in that open field have caused the change of its name to White Top Mountain.

The Notch

The southern boundary line of Virginia was assigned to parallel 3630′. In 1749 when Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas Jefferson, surveyed from about where Patrick County is today, he kept moving farther north away from the assigned parallel till he discontinued his survey east of Damascus. In 1800, the northeast tip of the new state of Tennessee joined Virginia and North Carolina on Pond Mountain. Tennessee continues on that northern parallel in Washington County, until it jogs south but not to 36o30′. Three stories are told about the Notch: (1) the surveyor was inebriated (2) iron deposits in the Iron Mountains interfered with readings of the compass and (3) the strong will of Tennesseans prevailed.


In the County Seat, history can be found within the record books of the Washington County Courthouse, in the cemeteries dating before the Revolution, in the homes throughout the historic district, and dedicated markers. One historic house constructed in 1832 was the home of Brigadier General Francis Preston. After General Preston’s death the Holston Conference of the Methodist Church acquired the property. On March 15, 1860 classes began in Martha Washington College for women, the first such recognition of Martha Custis, the wife of George Washington. The “War Between the States” interrupted classes while a hospital temporarily occupied the College. After that war classes resumed and continued until 1931. The enlarged campus of four buildings was purchased to change function once more to become Martha Washington Inn.

Bristol, Virginia

Even though the General Assembly granted a charter and named the city Bristol on February 12, 1890, the area has a history dating back to 1749, when it was called Sapling Grove. At an elevation of 1672 feet, the northern half of State Street lies in Virginia; the southern half lies in Bristol, Tennessee.


Recipients of Revolutionary Land Grants were some of the earliest settlers in the southeastern part of Washington County. Even though Daniel Boone was born in Pennsylvania and moved with his father’s family to the Yadkin River in North Carolina, he played an important part in future migrations by other Mocksville, North Carolina residents, who followed the Daniel Boone Trail to Kentucky and beyond. Some were so pleased by the conditions in the valley carved out by the Beaver Dam Creek and the Laurel Creek that they stayed in what would later be named Damascus.


The village of Emory developed around the perimeter of Emory & Henry College for men, founded in 1836. Named for Bishop John Emory of the Methodist Church and Patrick Henry, the famed Virginia patriot and political leader, the college was planned by the Rev. Mr. Creed Fulton and Tobias Smyth, whose log cabin was moved from its original location to the campus, where it can be seen today. In 1861, all the students withdrew to join the army; and the main building became a hospital. In 1922, women were admitted to the college, which continues to be co-educational.


In the far southeast corner of Washington County lies part of the community known as Konnarock. Logging of the virgin timber in the valley and up the sides of White Top Mountain by the Hassinger Lumber Company from 1906 to Christmas Eve, 1928 provided a boom economy in the form of new homes, company buildings and sawmills, and a railroad spur to an existing line. After all the large timber was gone, the town reverted to being a remote village of people who love to live at the north base of White Top Mountain.


The community in the northwest corner of Washington County took the name given the area by native people, because the name means “bend in the river.” For the five eastern tribes who fished the river and hunted the woods, Mendota was an excellent place to meet. High on the cliffs, there are overlooks for viewing the river in both directions. When settlers moved in they found that the soil in this valley was rich for farming.


Part of a sea was captured in the valley near the northeast corner where Washington County borders Smyth County. This salty lake attracted birds and animals, then hunters of various tribes, then a surveyor Charles Campbell who was granted 330 acres including the remaining lake and swamp by King George II in 1748. Settlers and soldiers traveled to “The Lick” to purchase salt, the product of crystallization during boiling of the salty water. When spring rains and melting snows raised the level of the North Fork of the Holston River, flat bottom boats were used to carry salt to Chattanooga and beyond. From 1893 chemical factories provided jobs, while sadly polluting the rivers. Discovery of Wooly Mammoth remains has led to further paleontological digs and the Museum of the Middle Appalachians.