A Brief History of Washington County, Virginia
Washington County came into being when the General Assembly of Virginia passed legislation in December, 1776, which abolished Fincastle County and created three new ones to replace it: Montgomery, Washington and Kentucky. The first meeting of the county court took place in January, 1777. At the time of its founding, the county included all or parts of present-day Russell, Lee, Scott, Tazewell, Smyth, Wise, Buchanan, and Dickenson counties, but it lost the bulk of its territory in 1786 with the formation of Russell County. The county was named in honor of General George Washington, then the commander in chief of American Revolutionary forces. It was the second county in the US to be named for the general, the first being in Maryland.
The county is bordered by Smyth, Russell, Scott and Grayson counties and the independent city of Bristol in Virginia and Sullivan and Johnson counties in Tennessee. Although the southern border was surveyed by Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry in 1749, they stopped at the Big Rock, apparently Backbone Rock. When surveys continued after that, disputes arose over the exact location of the border which resulted in a “Notch” of territory being placed in Tennessee. Not until 1893 did the US Supreme Court resolve the border question.
Washington County lies in the Ridge and Valley area of Appalachia region which begins in Alabama and extends to southwest Pennsylvania. The valleys in the county have excellent farmland while forests cover the higher hills and mountains. Clinch Mountain which separates Washington from Russell County rises to 3-4,000 feet while White Top Mountain on the Grayson County border is over a mile high. The county contains many creeks and three rivers — the North Fork, Middle Fork, and South Fork of the Holston River. The Middle and South Forks join in Washington County and since the completion of the South Holston Dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1950 have been impounded in its reservoir. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the rushing waters provided power for fulling (beating and cleaning of cloth in water), grist, and saw mills which could be found all over the county. Most communities in the county are about 2,000 feet above sea level which resulted in it being known for its healthful climate as opposed to the lowlands in the South where communicable disease raged most summers. In the days before air conditioning, people visited the county during the hottest months such as the Roosevelts of New York and students enrolled in local schools and colleges from distant points. Post cards once proclaimed that Abingdon was the second healthiest town in the country although that would have been hard to prove.
Archaeological excavations have shown that the county was inhabited by Native Americans at a very early period. Some spears have been dated to 10,000 years ago while evidence of humans cooking and eating a mastodon near Plasterco could have been 14,500 years before the present. Evidence of pre-historic Indian villages have been found throughout the county especially along the three branches of the Holston River; however, when settlers began to move in, no natives lived in the area which appears to have been contested by the Shawnee tribe to the north and the Cherokee to the south. Many artifacts have been found, some of which are highly sophisticated.
The Coming of Euro-Americans
The Spanish were apparently the first Europeans to enter the county. Hernando Moyana reported a four day trip from Joara, in Burke County NC, to attack an Indian village at Maniatique which, from all indications, was Saltville. The written evidence is convincing; however, no archaeological proof has yet been found.
Next the royal government of Virginia encouraged settlement in the West in order to create a buffer zone between the more settled regions and the Native Americans. Thus, the colony gave away huge amounts of land, one known as the Patton Grant which included 100,000 acres and the other the Loyal Company Grant, better known as the Walker Grant, which consisted of 800,000 acres. Both included areas in Washington County and some property was measured as early as 1847. Best known of these was the Wolf Hill Tract which was surveyed first in 1750 and is now the town of Abingdon. Despite a wide spread belief, Daniel Boone had nothing to do with the naming of the Wolf Hill Tract. The first report of his being in the area was in 1761.
Some settlers lived on these lands in the 1750s but fled because of the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Only in 1769 did permanent settlement begin. Most of the early settlers lived in America a generation or more before moving down the Valley of Virginia from Pennsylvania. A large percentage of them were of Scotch-Irish and German stock. Others had come from a number of other locations almost all in Protestant northern Europe. They travelled along what was usually called the Great Road or the Philadelphia Road, now Interstate Highway 81.
The American Revolution
During the American Revolution, most people in the area supported the rebellion; however, their main concern was the Overhill Cherokee who lived in East Tennessee. In July, 1776, members of that tribe invaded the white settlements in Tennessee causing hundreds to flee into Washington County and residents to shut themselves up in a number of forts. Black’s Fort in Abingdon, at the time, contained several hundred people and a few were killed when they ventured out. The Virginia forces retaliated in September, 1776, with a devastating attack on the Cherokee towns which eliminated them as a power. Another attack in 1780 destroyed their towns, crops, food, and farms.
Attention then turned to the Tories or Loyalists. In 1779, William Campbell (1745-1781) was sent to Montgomery County to help fight them. The following year, he led troops from Washington County which joined with others from North Carolina to march to Kings Mountain, SC where they defeated the Tory force that had gathered there. The individuals who fought in the battle became known as the Overmountain Men because they travelled over the mountains to get to their destination. This battle has become known as the turning point for the Revolution in the South because the British had one success after another in the Carolinas up to that time. General Campbell also led regular forces from the area to serve under the command of Lafayette while the militia guarded the frontier.
Beginning in 1782, Arthur Campbell (1743-1811), the head of the militia and the presiding officer of the county court began to agitate for a new western state. His state of Frankland (Land of the Free) would have included Southwest Virginia, much of Kentucky, East Tennessee (then Western North Carolina) as well as some adjoining areas. Washington County had more in common with East Tennessee that the far-away Piedmont and Tide Water parts of the Old Dominion which dominated the state. A number of political leaders such as John Sevier of North Carolina initially supported the cause, but Campbell faced great opposition in the county and more at the state level. Led by Gov. Patrick Henry and Gen. William Russell, the General Assembly in 1785 passed legislation that made it treason for anyone to attempt to form a new state within Virginia. At the same time, Russell County was formed from Washington County to honor Russell who was then in the legislature. That ended the statehood movement in Washington County, but Sevier took over the movement, changed the name to Franklin for Benjamin Franklin and created the ill-fated state of Franklin. In 1790, it became the Southwest Territory and in 1796 the state of Tennessee with Sevier as its first governor. Had the movement been successful, Abingdon might have become a state capital.
From earliest times, some residents of the county owned slaves with the result that in 1860 they constituted 15% of the population. Most of them served as field laborers on large farms near Glade Spring, Abingdon, and Bristol with the largest number on a single farm being seventy-two. By law, they could not marry since they were property or be educated although a few managed to learn to read and write. In addition, a small number of free persons of color lived in the county, at least forty-two of whom, mostly from three families, emigrated to Liberia. When federal troops invaded in 1864, some slaves took the opportunity to flee to Tennessee while others moved away after the war which resulted in their population steadily declining until they were 1.5% in 2013. The Hispanic population was 1.3%.
As the Civil War approached, most residents of the county preferred to stay in the union. That mood change when Lincoln called for troops to suppress the rebellion in South Carolina. Many men then rushed to join the Washington Mounted Rifles and the 37th and 48th Virginia Infantry units. Once the draft was instituted, others served in many other units, the main ones being the 50th Infantry Regiment, 63rd Virginia Infantry Regiment, the 21st Virginia Cavalry, and the 22nd Virginia Cavalry. They fought in the worst of the battles in the Army of Tennessee and the Army of Northern Virginia under General “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Many died or were disabled while other deserted.
On the home front, near starvation plagued the families left behind while both belligerents occupied the county at times. In 1863 two federal incursions from Tennessee alarmed the citizens, but the worst event was the invasion by US forces under Gen. George Stoneman in December, 1864, on his way to destroy the Lead Mines near Wytheville, the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, and the Salt Works at Saltville. Much of Abingdon was burned.
After the War
After the Civil War, the people of Washington County had to adjust to defeat, rebuild much of the town of Abingdon, restore their economy, repair their infrastructure, reestablish their government, and adjust to changes imposed by the Military Government. Initially, they resisted all change but over time came to accept the abolition of slavery and the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution. A number of elections resulted in the Conservative Party dominating the Radicals. When debates raged about the repayment of pre-war debts, the Readjusters who wanted to reduce the debt gained many followers. These then developed into the Republican Party which came to be a major force in Washington County and Southwest Virginia while the rest of the state voted for Democrats. For many years the area saw hotly contested elections, so much so that the congressional district became known as the Fighting Ninth. By the beginning of the 21st century, however, conservative Republicans had become the dominate force in political affairs.
Throughout its history, Washington County has had its economy based largely on agriculture. While some early small farms were nearly self-sufficient, they always needed to buy a few items, especially farm implements, rifles, and cooking utensils. The chief products before the Civil War were various grains which were shipped mostly to Philadelphia. Great wagons, such as the Conestoga, returned with goods that could not be purchased locally. Local stores exchanged the farmer’s products for finished goods. Hogs and cattle were also raised, but these had to be driven in herds along the roads until the railroad had been built. Animal skins also provided income for some farmers. Mechanized farming began to appear in the second half of the 19th century. Two dramatic change came about in the 1850s with the arrival of the railroad and the growth of tobacco. After that, tobacco reigned as the chief “money crop;” however, concern about its effect on health resulted in tobacco being discouraged, and in 1998 the US government began to pay farmers not to grow tobacco. It then largely disappeared from the farms. More varied crops and the production of beef became more important.
In addition to farming, the county derived wealth from the operations at Saltville and the cutting down of the forests by the Hassinger Lumber Company in the southeast of the county and the Holston River Lumber Company in the northeast sector.
Although women played important roles in the settlement and development of Washington County, they had few rights until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Common law dictated that adult women held the status of either a feme sole or a feme covert. A feme sole was a single woman, either unmarried or a widow, who had legal rights and could enter into contracts, hold property, sue or be sued, or otherwise act on her own. A feme covert was a married woman who had few legal rights separate from those of her husband. Upon marriage her property became his to use or dispose of as he wished. Not until 1877 did Virginia pass the Married Women’s Property Act which allowed them to own property make legal agreements, engage in lawsuit and devise wills. Virginia was the last state to pass such legislation. Women also could not vote until the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920. Virginia, however, did not approve the amendment until 1952. They were not allowed to sit on juries until 1950.
Washington County’s success is partly due to its location. It was situated on trails first made by buffaloes and then used by Native Americans. One ran north to south and is now US Highway 58 while the other goes from the southwest to the northeast and corresponds to Interstate 81. The cross road was at Abingdon. Thousands of pioneers moved through the area going to more western points in Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky while chained slave coffles (gangs) were driven through on their way to the cotton and sugar fields of the Deep South . Stagecoach routes were established as early as the 1790s while the first railroad, the Virginia & Tennessee began operation in 1856. It connected Bristol with Lynchburg. Over the years, other railroads provided transportation to North Carolina and the Coalfields of Southwest Virginia. Hard surfaced highways developed more slowly which resulted in complaints by stagecoach riders about the rough roads. The Lee Highway (US 11) was not paved until the 20th century.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Washington County became known for its educational institutions. While small private schools and tutors existed quite early, the Abingdon Male Academy began operation in 1802 and provided education for young men for the next hundred years. In addition, the common schools which were partially funded by the state were recognized by Virginia authorities as the best in the state before the Civil War. Furthermore, higher education came to the county when the Methodist opened Emory and Henry College in 1838. Martha Washington College, also founded by the Methodists, began its operation in 1860 and continued throughout the war although myth has it that it served as a military hospital. In 1867, Roman Catholics opened Villa Maria Academy of the Visitation for the education of young ladies which was followed in 1868 by the Presbyterian Stonewall Jackson Female Institution. The county expressed its pride in being a center for education. Unfortunately, at the turn of the 20th century Villa Maria moved to Wytheville and the Abingdon Male Academy closed and Martha Washington College and Stonewall Jackson College ceased operation during the Great Depression. Although Emory and Henry closed during the Civil War when it became a military hospital, it commenced operation again in 1866. It and Virginia Highlands Community College, established in 1967, were the only two institutions of higher learning in the early 21st century.
In the past Washington County contained a number of villages, but most lost their significance as important centers by the middle of the 20th century as automobiles allowed people to travel considerable distances and housing expanded into rural areas which once were difficult to reach.
The town of Goodson, founded in 1856, grew because of the railroads, and was absorbed by Bristol which became an independent city in 1890.
The county now has four incorporated towns: Abingdon, Damascus, Glade Spring, and Saltville.
Abingdon became the county seat of Washington County in 1778. Its name probably came from the town of Abingdon, England although myths claim that it was named for Martha Washington’s ancestral home, but she did not live near Abingdon parish in Virginia and her father seems to have come from London, not Abingdon. Its prosperity has resulted from the fact that it was the economic and political center of the county. The town was the home of three governors, two of whom were born in or near the town while all three died there. They were Wyndham Robertson (1803-1888), David Campbell (1779-1859) and John Buchanan Floyd (1806-1863)
Damascus, along with Konnarock was thinly settled until the development of the lumber industry by the Hassinger Company which exploited the virgin forests of the area between 1906 and 1928 and provided much employment. Once the forests were cut down, the town saw little development until the late 20th century when it became a tourist center because the Appalachian Trail and the Creeper Trail cross at the town. The Appalachian Trail, completed in 1937, is 2,180 miles long and runs through fourteen states from Georgia to Maine. The Creeper Trail, completed in 1984, is 34.3 miles long and extends from Abingdon to White Top Station on the North Carolina border. It follows an old railroad bed that connected Abingdon with West Jefferson, NC.
Glade Spring in the northeast part of the county had excellent farmland with considerable population in the early days. It also enjoyed close proximity to the Salt Works. A branch of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad went from the community to Saltville. Located nearby were the Washington Springs and Seven Spring resorts whose various types of water were believed to have curative powers. Both are long gone.
Saltville lies in both Washington and Smyth counties. Prehistoric animals and Native Americans took advantage of the salt to be found there which has resulted in the place being a rich archaeological site. The first well was dug in 1782 and two families and their allies by marriage, the Prestons and Kings, derived great wealth from the exploitation of the salty water which was boiled to extract the mineral. The town supplied much of the salt needed for the Confederacy which resulted in two battles being fought there in 1864. By that time Palmer, Stuart & Company had formed the Holston Salt and Plaster Company and purchased the Preston Works as well as the surrounding eight thousand acres while numerous heirs owned the King Works. That company continued to control the works until 1893 when Mathieson Alkali Works took over. In 1971, that company closed. In addition to salt, the area produced vast amounts of plaster. Saltville claims to be “the little town that built Abingdon” because the wealthy owners usually lived in or moved to that town.
James W. Hagy PhD, History