A Special Place for 200 Years
Chapter 1

Why We Are Here

by Will McElfresh


Dumb animals are not really so dumb. Unhindered, they travel the route of least resistance. We see this today in the step-wise trails of cattle from water to pasture to feeding areas, but animals also forge much longer lanes of travel. Elk and buffalo still move from high ground in the fall before snow covers their grazing areas. Across Virginia, animal-congregating sites or frequent animal sightings provided us with the names for many areas, creeks, communities, and towns. From Elkton to Bear Wallow Gap and from Buffalo River to Wolf Hills, we know where they lived and traveled. Those that traveled in large herds and long distances between water holes and pastures and even greater distances with annual or semi-annual migrations left wide trails through valleys, worn passes through the hills, and visible fords at streams. These trails were also the easiest means of travel by native American Indians. Here, they also found ready supplies of meat.

When colonials from Tidewater began settling and claiming the major Indian trail through the Piedmont, a treaty was signed. This 1722 treaty granted Indians safe travel on the Piedmont Trail and recognized the need for their safety on the parallel trail west of "the big hill" or the Blue Ridge. This western valley trail in early colonial times was known as the Great Indian Warpath, the Indian Path, and, occasionally, the "Buffaloe" Path. Later it became known as Borden's Path, The Carolina Trail, and Market Road. The latter name evolved because the trail was the best route for carrying frontier items to Baltimore or Philadelphia area settlements.

All these names appear on early maps and were referenced later in court records and deeds. In the north the trail had no "Blue Ridge" between it and the settlers of Pennsylvania and Delaware. With settlements growing there, new emigrants and the Scots-Irish or German settlers wanting more land moved south on this easy route to available areas in western Maryland and Virginia. These frontier valley settlements were encouraged as buffers between the "more civilized" areas of the Piedmont and the still feared Indians. By 1730 pioneers had crossed the Potomac River and had taken up homesteads as far as present-day Page County on valley land under the jurisdiction of colonial Virginia's Orange County. By 1738 Augusta County and Staunton, its county seat, were formed and included most of the land west of the Blue Ridge. To the east, over the mountains, the "more civilized areas" were still developing and filling in all the way to the Blue Ridge. That population was not ready to move further west.

By 1740 northern settlers following the valley Indian Trail crossed the James River at Pattonsburg opposite today's town of Buchanan and settled the river and creek bottoms in present Botetourt County. One of the more western holdings recorded that year was in Catawba Creek valley on the Indian Path.

The major mountain ridges, streams, and trails flowed in a northeast-southwest direction between the Blue Ridge and greater Allegheny mountain range. These western Virginia mountains were old basement rocks wrinkled up through the much newer limestone and sedimentary layers in the valleys from Alabama through eastern Canada. Geologists see these wrinkles or folds as windows because tilted layers of younger formations surround or parallel the harder, older ridges. Occasionally a ridge or spur would enter the general valley pattern at a right angle between the Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge. These shiftings and wrinklings narrowed the valleys south of the Shenandoah by an estimated thirty-five to forty miles. The combined up-lifting and spur ridges almost closed the valley where the James River rolls between Purgatory Mountain and the Blue Ridge near Buchanan. Further southwest, a spur or ridge completely crossed the general valley pattern in today's Montgomery County. This ridge separates the upper Roanoke River branches from waters flowing to the New River and on to the Ohio River.

South of Pattonsburg, the Indian Trail followed the shortest route to the cross-over between the eastern and western waters. Leaving the James River at 800-feet elevation, it climbed the easy grade over the head of Catawba Creek at 2,000 feet and ascended the North Fork of the Roanoke River towards the eastern continental divide. After the trail became a road, later maps and recorded deeds referred to it as the Cumberland Gap, the Indian Road, or the Catawba Valley Road. At present-day Lusters Gate, the trail's elevation stood at 1,500 feet on the North Fork. From this point it rose about 700 feet over the ridge top and crossed into the meadows or glades about three miles from the Roanoke River and four miles from the New River. The cross-over ridge in those days was called the Allegheny Mountain-today we call the eastern end Christiansburg Mountain. The meadows of park-like stands of trees and grasses, dotted with numerous springs, picked up an early settler's name and became Draper's Meadow, only about a mile from the site of the future town of Blacksburg. To earlier travelers and journal writers, a meadow or glade was a dry upland area-or barren-and not nearly so desirable as stream bottoms. However, in 1740 Peter Sally explored the area and later described it to Colonel John Buchanan as "rich country, fertile land, with lead, salt, and coal to be found, of clover, bluegrass, and luxuriant forests filled with game." Early German settlers depicted the area as "a land of milk and honey."

The Indian trail continued southwest from Draper's Meadow to two river fords for all travelers: animals, Indians, explorers, and settlers. The nearest crossed beyond Prices Fork at a great bend in the river known as the Horseshoe. The crossing was a rock ford, which later lent the name Rockford to a pioneer homestead. The trail's left fork forded three miles up-river near the end of the horseshoe and became Peppers Ferry, where state Route 114 crosses today. Peppers Ferry Road still exists in Wythe, Pulaski, and Montgomery counties.

Which county controlled this area across the James to the New River in the mid-1700s was in question. Even though Augusta County was formed in 1738, the Orange County court instructed Colonel James Patton and others to enlist the "tithables" living along the trail to widen it and improve the section from Pattonsburg near Buchanan to the New River ford in 1745. In 1746 the Augusta County courts also enlisted Patton and others to use the time and energies of land owners along the trail to build a road from Staunton to Adam Harman's place at the rock ford.

Colonel Patton had a great interest in improving the road. As was the practice, the Royal Crown, through the Virginia colony, granted land and patents on a grand scale to what we today call developers. These large tracts of land were to be identified, surveyed, and subdivided. Patton and others with him had been granted 800,000 acres, most of it on western-flowing waters. He had 100,000 acres in present Montgomery and Pulaski counties. His son-in-law, John Buchanan, surveyed these western lands and, based on explorer Sally's description, helped Patton personally to pick 7,500 acres in the Draper's Meadow vicinity. Most of these acres were taken over by his nephew, William Preston, after Colonel Patton's death in a local Indian attack in 1755 during the French and Indian War. Before his death, Patton advertised in the colonies and in Europe the availability of land, and the Southwest Virginia flood of settlers began. For every settler placed on the granted land, the Crown gave the developers more land to survey, subdivide, and sell.

After the French and Indian War, settlers blazed a second road from Fincastle, passing south of Tinkers Mountain-called Wagon Mountain because of its top shaped like a covered wagon-to Salem, then up the Roanoke River valley and overland to Hans Meadow, or Christiansburg. This road became known as the Wilderness Trail, and Blacksburg, established in 1798, lost much of its traffic to Southwest Virginia and beyond. Coal, iron ore, and minerals, however, revived trade with and traffic to Blacksburg in the mid to late 1800s.

The Draper's Meadow community grew around springs on the headwaters of Stroubles Creek. In 1770 the area became a part of Botetourt County and in 1772, Montgomery County. However, it was a much larger Montgomery County than today, including most of Southwest Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia to the Ohio River.

Samuel Black bought 620 acres in the Draper's Meadow area around 1750. His sons, William and John, inherited the land after his 1772 death. Near the close of the eighteenth century, William gave thirty-eight and three-fourths acres on the border of his and his brother's land to establish a village. The area was set at a forty-five degree angle to a north-south line. The northwest side was bounded by a branch of Stroubles (Strouples) Creek near Jackson Street, and the southeast side roughly bordered another branch next to John's property and along the current Draper Road. This angle from true north supposedly allowed streets and buildings in the village, which was christened Blacksburg, to benefit from natural light, which would melt winter snow and dry muddy streets. Town Creek, a third stream, began at the foot of Lee Street and flowed to springs near the north corner of today's Clay Street.

In the immediate area of Blacksburg, the actual road over Allegheny Ridge followed four or five local trails from Lusters Gate into the meadows, depending on the condition of the road and the loads involved. These trails crossed as far west as the ridge behind the present high school on Patrick Henry Drive and as far east as the ridge running through today's The Orchards subdivision to Lee Street. Fincastle Drive off Roanoke Street seemed to be one of the most popular routes into town.


Will McElfresh is a retired assistant Extension forester with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service. In that position, he assisted with county, state and national programming in 4-H, natural resources, outdoor recreation, and landuse planning.

Word From
The Editor
Early
Blacksburg


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