THE NEW RIVER VALLEY (N.C.) IN SETTLEMENT DAYS
Special Assistant to the Chancellor
Appalachian State University
Boone, North Carolina
The Broyhill Center for Continuing Education here on the campus of Appalachian State University is situated on a headwaters tributary of the South Fork of the New River, which flows from a spring on the grounds of the Green Park Hotel in Blowing Rock and only a stone's throw from the Continental Divide. We are in Watauga County, the birthplace of rivers. No river flows through Watauga County, but four flow out of it.
The old Buffalo Trail, tramped out over the centuries by the migration to the Piedmont of thousands of buffalo, entered North Carolina near Trade, Tennessee, and crossed the valley of the South Fork of the New River a few miles east of Boone. This trail, still discernible in undisturbed woodlands, was followed by Indians for many generations before the white man arrived. Prior to settlement of the region beginning in the 1780's, hunters, herdsmen, and explorers followed the Buffalo Trail from the Yadkin River Valley through Deep Gap and into the mountains and beyond. The Daniel Boone Trail follows roughly the Buffalo Trail. Early land grants tended to cluster along this trail, and surveys were made to either side of it. Most of the settlers there came up from the Yadkin Valley and beyond, among them many of German origin. Among families living along the trail prior to 1800 were Blackburns, Bryans, Greenes, Jacksons, Lookabills, Millers, Norrises, Proffitts, Ragans, Tugmans, and Woodrings. Some of the progenitors of these families were among the charter members of the Three Forks Baptist Church, organized in 1790 and located on the South Fork of New River about three miles east of Boone.
One of the first explorers in the Upper New River Valley was Bishop Spangenburg, who, along with a band of Moravians, came searching in the fall of 1752 for 100,000 acres on which to settle. While camping in early December near the present town of Blowing Rock they almost froze. Moving down the South Fork and past the site of Boone into what is now Ashe County, they found the mountains too rugged and the weather too severe to suit them and finally settled in and around old Salem, now Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
By 1760 Benjamin Howard, who lived in the Yadkin Valley, had begun herding cattle during the summer months in the region in and around what is now Boone. He built a crude cabin on what is today the campus of Appalachian State University. The spot, now covered by Rivers Street, was marked in 1912 by an 18-foot-high stone-and-concrete monument, a replica of which stands at the foot of the hill below Justice Hall and a hundred yards or so east of the site of the original marker.
It was the Howard cabin that Daniel Boone used while on hunting trips to the region and while exploring in Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. At the time, Boone, whose family had settled in the Yadkin Valley in 1751, was living in what was to become Wilkes County.
There is little evidence extant of permanent settlements in the Upper New River Valley prior to the 1770's, although Andrew Baker might have been living there as early as 1763. David Helton, William Walling, and William McLean came down from Virginia on a hunting expedition to the North Fork of the New River in what is now Ashe County in 1770. A year later they returned and built cabins on Helton Creek, a few miles northeast of here, but at that time they could not legally claim land there. However, Enoch Osborne had moved up from Rowan County, N.C., to the Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, over the line from Ashe County by 1765. One of Enoch's sons, Soloman, was killed by Indians while on a hunting trip into what is now Watauga County in 1772. Captain Enoch Osborne kept the fort at the Mouth of Wilson during the War.
By 1778 a few families were living in the region. Benjamin Howard, a Tory, returned to what is now Boone, and hid out for a time in a shallow cliff on the knob that bears his name. He took the oath of allegiance in 1778 but afterwards returned to the Yadkin Valley to live. In 1778 Martin Gambill brought his young wife and some slaves to the Bend of the New River in Ashe County where he established a home. Prior to 1778 it had not been possible to obtain a North Carolina title to lands west of the Blue Ridge.
Many hunters had built shelters in the region. Some of the hunters had no doubt made land surveys which they entered later. Some of the "shelters" referred to in entries for land by 1780 were those of progenitors of such well known families as Baker, Collins, Fee, Gambill, Howell, Mahon, Robinson, and Sizemore. Families actually living on land prior to 1780 at the time entries for grants were made included Baker, Johnston, Yates, Pennington, Howell, Ellison, King, Little.
Many of the pioneers in the North Fork were members of Captain Enoch Osborne's militia during the Revolution, and some of them were with the Overmountain Men at the Battle of King's Mountain, but only one episode connected with the American Revolution occurred in the Upper New River Valley. Captain William Riddle, a Tory, and some of his men captured Colonel Ben Cleveland, who had come up to inspect his land at Old Fields, and were holding him as a prisoner in the Wolf Den on Riddle's Knob a few miles northeast of Boone. This occurred in April, 1781. Robert Cleveland, having been told about the capture of his brother, gathered 20 or 30 patriots, stole through the wilderness at night, surprised Captain Riddle at sunrise, and rescued Colonel Cleveland. Later, Colonel Cleveland captured Riddle and some of his men and hanged them on the Tory Oak at Wilkesboro.
By 1790 as many as 200 land grants had been issued, but there were probably not more than 80 households in the Upper New River Valley at that time. During the following decade many North Fork families migrated to the Powell Valley in Lee County, Virginia, among them Boggses, Creeches, Flanerys, Huffs, Osbornes, Penningtons, Sheppards, Stidhams, Sturgills, and Wellses. A generation later these families "swarmed" again, this time into eastern Kentucky. I grew up at Blaine in Lawrence County, Kentucky, but among my ancestors were Boggses and Wellses who were living on the North Fork in 1790. Their neighbors at Blaine included Creeches, Gambills, Holbrooks, Lyons, Millers, Osborns, Penningtons, Sparkses, Stidhams, Sturgills, and Weavers. The Upper New River Valley, like the Yadkin Valley, was a nursery basket for the Westward Movement.
Early settlers in the region established schools and churches. General Lenoir is credited with having founded a Baptist church in Ashe County in the early 1770's. There were Methodists in the county by 1783, before Bishop Asbury visited the region, beginning in 1789. The Three Forks Baptist Church near Boone, of which Daniel Boone's brother was a sometime member, was founded in 1790. By 1840 there was a Lutheran congregation near the Buffalo Trail in Watauga County.
Martin Gambill built a log school on his farm at Chestnut Hill about 1790 for his children and those of his neighbors. In the summer of 1784 there were four schools in what is now Ashe County. By 1790 there were ten. Schools in those days were kept only during the warm summer months.
Soil in the valley is fertile. The rugged terrain and the remoteness of the region, identified later as the "Lost Provinces," made it difficult to transport bulky produce to markets off the mountains. Roads were impassible. By the 1930's only two paved roads traversed the region. People lived simply but comfortably as subsistence farmers, supplementing their income by growing a few cattle to sell to drovers, hunting, and gathering herbs, chestnuts, and bark which they transported by wagon to markets in Piedmont towns.
Until the coming of sawmills near the end of the 19th century, homes in the Valley continued to be constructed of logs, the oblong cabin with a chimney on the outside of one end of it the basic architectural unit. The quality of life did not change much during that century. Dr. Elisha Mitchell, who made a geological survey of Ashe County in 1828, described the region as an ocean of mountains. Most of the homes in the North Fork were log huts. Fields were fertile. Herds of cattle, some driven over from Washington County, Virginia, grazed in hillside pastures. Roads followed streams. Mitchell reported that he forded the stream 32 times while riding his horse a distance of 10 miles north of Helton. While in the neighborhood he attended a Methodist meeting, where he heard "a reasonable amount of female screaming and vociferation." He visited Captain Ballou's forge, and inspected Perkins' ore bank. He heard an account of an old man in the area who "determined the locality of ores by the mineral rod."
The 1818 census reported a population of 3,694 people in Ashe County, which then included Watauga, much of Avery, and Alleghany. By 1830 there were 492 slaves in the county and by 1860 only 533.
The Civil War brought divisions among the people and left poverty that retarded economic development. Many families had left the region by the 1880's, migrating this time to the West and the Far West.
In 1884 Charles Dudley Warner, best remembered as the co-author, along with Mark Twain, of the Guilded Age (1873), the title of which gave the name to the decade of the 1870's, traveled through the Upper New River Valley of Ashe County and Watauga County, North Carolina. His account of his journey was included in On Horseback, A Tour in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, which appeared first in the Atlantic Monthly and then in book form in 1889.
After spending a night in a home near Trade, Tennessee, Warner and his party rode into Ashe County. Interested in the dialect of the natives of the region, he was disappointed when he found no local peculiarity of speech except for an occasional use of "hit" for "it." On the North Carolina-Tennessee line the travelers visited a tavern and distillery, where they were amused by a pretty, talkative young woman who explained that she was staying there for a while in order to avoid being called as a witness in the trial of one of her admirers who had killed another. She punctuated her account by spitting tobacco juice into a fireplace "with accuracy of aim and with a nonchalance that was not assumed." At Worth's in Ashe County they found a well-to-do mountain farmer whose two daughters had been to finishing school, wore stylish clothes, and could play the two pianos that were in the house.
For dinner they stopped at Tatem's on the New River. Tatem had very little corn for the horses. His home, consisting of two log cabins backed up to a huge chimney and a lean-to behind, was crude. The rough dinner was seasoned with too much grease to suit the taste of the travelers, but it was rendered even more distasteful by the presence of a bed in the dining room and a tubercular daughter with a "graveyard cough." In Mr. Tatem's "parlour," which had two beds in it, the hearth was decorated with two gleaming white gravestones. Mr. Tatem was not illiterate. He subscribed to the Blue Ridge Baptist, but told his guests he was planning to discontinue his subscription. His guests thought he overcharged for their dinners.
The people of Watauga County the travelers found fond of lawsuits. On court days they assembled in large numbers in the shabby little village of Boone, which boasted that its elevation made it the highest county seat east of the Mississippi River. The tavern in Boone was rickety and poorly kept. A profusion of flies swarmed everywhere, but an ingenious foot-operated fly shoo hung over the table in the dining room and creaked miserably as meals were being served. No alcoholic drinks were available in Watauga County. As they rode away from the tavern the next morning, the travelers noticed that the porch "resembled a carpenter's shop; it was literally covered with the whittlings of the row of natives who had spent the evening there in the sedative occupation of whittling."
As is evident in Warner's report, stereotypes of Appalachians were being created. But the region was coming out of its poverty. By the end of the century, though life in the region was much as it had been from the beginning, new homes, large country houses with many chimneys, wide porches, and gingerbread decorations, were being built, many of them around the original log cabins of the pioneers. Mostly, the same families lived in the region, many of them on the same tracts of land for which the progenitors had received grants before 1800. The "Lost Provinces" were preparing to join North Carolina, but they did not succeed in doing so completely until after World War II.
Last Updated: 08-Jul-2009