A Special Place for 200 Years
Chapter 2

Early Blacksburg, 1740s-1840s

by Peter Wallenstein


Blacksburg, Virginia, celebrates its bicentennial in 1998 because the Virginia General Assembly passed an act establishing the town on January 13, 1798. By the 1790s, people with names like Preston, Price, Luster, McCoy, Blankenship, Harmon, and Ingles had settled the vicinity-some of them for as long as half a century. For many years after 1798, most people in Montgomery County continued to live on scattered farms, often near waterways, not in the towns. In the bicentennial year, the Town of Blacksburg is far larger in area and in population than it was in the beginning.

Symbol and Place

Blacksburg can stand as a symbol as well as a place. Early settlers had reason to view it as a very Garden of Eden. True, the fruit did not just fall from the trees without human effort, and winters usually brought at least one week of bitter cold. But farm families found the growing season generous, as was the land along the creeks. Water was good and plentiful, as was the wood supply. Bears and deer ambled onto farms, providing hides for humans to wear and meat for them to eat. The land seemed uninhabited, plentiful, beckoning for people to come, and they came.

Blacksburg stands as a symbol of Pangaea, eons ago, when Europe, Africa, and the Americas all nestled together for a time before they drifted apart again. When they first came together, Africa shoved a shoulder into the Chesapeake, and the resulting crunch pushed up a range of mountains we call the Appalachians. The continents drifted apart, but the mountains remained, a monument to the encounter. Over the many thousands of years between then and now, the mountains grew old and, like people often do, grew gentler, bowed, their rough edges smoothed, until settlers in the 1740s found rolling hills as well as some that seemed less tamed. And so there emerged Toms Creek, Stroubles Creek, and other waterways, each meandering among hills large and small to the New River-and Brush Mountain, Price Mountain, and Paris Mountain, which surround Blacksburg.

Christopher Columbus led expeditions that took him from Spain to the Caribbean in the 1490s, three hundred years before the founding of Blacksburg, and initiated a process by which, through human effort, Pangaea came together again. The continents remained apart, but their peoples merged. People from Africa and Europe migrated in huge numbers across the Atlantic Ocean to what for them, though hardly for the Native Americans they found living there, was a New World. Mixed in various proportions, the three great groups forged new communities. Blacksburg would be inhabited largely by people whose origins lay in Europe, but the other two groups would also call the region home and shape developments there.

Exploration West to the New River

During the 1600s, some white men from eastern Virginia took what they called the "Trader's Path" into the western country, where they trapped and traded. They crossed the Blue Ridge not far from present-day Floyd and made their way into the New River Valley. Not primarily interested in exploring or map making, let alone establishing permanent farms and communities, they depended on friendly relations with Indians and profitable relations with fur-bearing animals.

Deliberate exploration parties pushed west across the Blue Ridge as early as the 1670s, long before the settlement of what is now Montgomery County. Abraham Wood sent out a party of exploration, probably along the Trader's Path, in 1671 from what is now Petersburg. The party included his brother, Thomas Wood; Thomas Batts, Robert Fallam; and an Indian guide, Perecute. The men made their way up the Roanoke River to present-day Salem, across the Allegheny Ridge, along Stroubles Creek, and down a river-they called it Wood's River, though it later acquired the name New River-into present-day western Giles County. Since the New River joins the Ohio River, the 1671 expedition to the New River provided one basis for England's claims to the Ohio Valley.

Closer to Blacksburg, the Wood expedition's explorations led eventually to the organization of the Wood's River Land Company, which surveyed land in the Blacksburg area and established a settlement called Draper's Meadow in the late 1740s.

At the time of the Draper's Meadow settlement, the area seemed empty. An archaeological dig in 1966 near Blacksburg revealed evidence of a palisaded Indian village from roughly the time the English landed at Roanoke Island or at Jamestown. The village's residents seem to have left the area before the Wood expedition's arrival-the explorers mentioned no Indian activity, and, more to the point, the site revealed no European trade goods. Indians surely traveled throughout the New River Valley, and they hunted in the area, but they seem not to have had villages near Blacksburg when white newcomers began to call the area home and to establish their own settlements.

Jamestown of the West

People from England and other places in Europe settled along the Chesapeake and such rivers as the one they called the James. Across the seventeenth century, they filled in much of the Tidewater region and began to push into the Piedmont. By the 1740s, they had settled much of the Piedmont, too, and people like Thomas Jefferson were born there who would call it home throughout their lives. By the time he drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the children of Africa were as numerous as the children of Europe in much of eastern Virginia. Few yet of either race lived west of the Blue Ridge or near the New River.

If the 1600s belonged to eastern Virginia, western Virginia claimed a share of the 1700s. Most settlers came neither directly across the ocean nor across the Blue Ridge; the Wood expedition's trek along the Trader's Path did not provide the model for most migration into the New River Valley. Rather, settlers headed south by southwest out of Pennsylvania, through Maryland, and into Virginia's Shenandoah Valley along the route that is today Interstate-81. Like Daniel Boone, some made their way to Kentucky. Others did not stop until they reached East Tennessee, where an old man named Scott McCollum declared in the 1920s that he lived in the house where he was born and his father before him, a house that his Scottish grandfather had built in 1792.

Most men and most families did not go that far until after the American Revolution, if ever. The area around what became Winchester beckoned first, and later Staunton. As the land in the northern Shenandoah filled up and more families pushed south from Pennsylvania seeking land of their own, they had to go farther. The area that is today Montgomery County had to wait as the process unfolded, but unfold it gradually did. By the 1750s, scattered settlements could be found across the area.

Landless and wealthy alike participated in the colonization of western Virginia. Most of the people who entered the region had first gone to Pennsylvania as servants, intent on coming to America but unable to pay their own way. The larger numbers embarked from Northern Ireland or somewhere in Germany, smaller numbers from England, Scotland, and elsewhere, and made their way to William Penn's colony. They worked off their time, gained their freedom, and went in search of the land that had drawn them to the New World in the first place.

The Patton-Preston Connection

Two names central to the early history of the Blacksburg area are Patton and Preston. The Patton-Preston connection began in Ireland when Elizabeth Patton married John Preston sometime in the 1720s. Their first four children-Letitia, Margaret, William, and Ann-were born in Ireland, but their last two, Mary and James, were born in Augusta County, Virginia, in 1740 and 1742 at the new family place a few miles south of present-day Staunton.

The family's move to Virginia derived from their connection to Elizabeth's brother, James Patton. Patton arranged with some of the leading men in Virginia to help develop a portion of the colony that lay west of the Blue Ridge. John Preston agreed to assist his brother-in-law, and thus he and his family accompanied Patton and his family on the ship Walpole, which arrived in Virginia in 1738. All of them moved to the frontier in the Shenandoah Valley and took up land there. John Preston established a farm and joined the Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church.

James Patton acted the military leader as well as the land speculator, and he financed migration, sold the contracts of servants, and carved the land into farms. He signed the Treaty of Lancaster in 1745, which called for Indians to relinquish their claims to land in the area but also called for colonists to extend the Great Road southwest from the Staunton area as far as the New River.

Patton represented the Wood's River Land Company in the mid-1740s when he took possession of a large piece of land, the Patton Tract, in what later became Montgomery County. The Patton Tract, or Draper's Meadow, lay a few miles east of the New River, between Toms Creek and Price Mountain and between present-day Blacksburg and Prices Fork. Other families originally from Ireland settled there. Patton sold some land to George Draper, who helped build the road to the New River, and by 1748 the Thomas Ingles family settled there as well.

After John Preston died in the 1740s, his son William spent a great deal of time in the company of his uncle. He accompanied Patton as his private secretary on a trip in 1752 near present-day Pittsburgh to make a treaty with Indians in that area. That same year, young Preston became deputy surveyor of Augusta County; in 1755, a justice of the Augusta County Court and captain of a company of rangers; and in 1761, a trustee of the new town of Staunton.

In 1763 William Preston became colonel of militia and a burgess from Augusta County. After he acquired the beginnings of a plantation, "Greenfield," in present-day Botetourt County, he entered the same offices for that county. Continuing to move south and west, in 1773 he bought several hundred acres of land at Draper's Meadow-land originally owned by John Draper and his brother-in-law, William Ingles-where he established "Smithfield" plantation and moved his family.

War and Peace

The first European wedding took place in the New River Valley in 1750, when the son of Thomas Ingles married the daughter of George Draper, thus uniting the families of two men who had left Ireland and made their way to Draper's Meadow by way of Pennsylvania. Newlyweds Mary Draper and William Ingles resided for a time in the general area where Smithfield Plantation, Foxridge Apartments, and the Virginia Tech Duck Pond sit today. The young couple-we could call them William and Mary of Draper's Meadow-had two young sons, Thomas and George, when the French and Indian War broke out, part of a huge contest between the superpowers of the time, the French and English empires. In the meantime, Mary's brother, John Draper, married Betty Robinson in 1754, and they had a baby.

Significant fighting in the war occurred in the western fringes of Pennsylvania and Virginia, beyond the settled areas mostly, in the Ohio Valley. On July 9, 1755, French soldiers and their Indian allies defeated British General Edward Braddock with his British and colonial troops on their way toward Fort Duquesne in western Pennsylvania. War was on, and the English had proved vulnerable. Word reached London, and England declared war on France in 1756. Even before the formal declaration, in fact on July 30, 1755, just three weeks after Braddock's defeat and death, the war came to the people of Draper's Meadow.

The war reached into the fringe settlements. War parties had two objectives. Not only might attacks deter the settlements that intruded into Indian territory, they might also supply captives who could replace lost members of an Indian village community.

A war party of Shawnee Indians attacked the Draper's Meadow settlement. The dead included James Patton, who had stopped to visit on his way west; George Draper's widow, Eleanor; and her grandson, the Draper baby. Captured were Mary Ingles, her two young sons, and her sister-in-law, Betty Draper. Survivors included John Draper and William Ingles, who were out some distance away, working in the fields. The four captives were all absorbed for a time into Indian life. One of the more famous events in the history of Blacksburg and Montgomery County is the attack at Draper's Meadow, together with the saga of Mary Draper Ingles's courageous and successful effort to escape the Shawnees, who had taken her to the Ohio Valley, and return home. George Ingles died in captivity, but his brother, Thomas Ingles, and aunt, Betty Draper, were eventually ransomed.

Life in the Garden of Eden had its rewards, but those rewards long remained in jeopardy. Terrors could come, often without warning, as rival groups-whether European and Indian, or French and English-contested each other's claims on the land. Then came the American Revolution, more warfare in the West, the War of 1812, and war in Mexico. An enormous war erupted in the 1860s, more than a century after the Draper's Meadow incident. And people from Blacksburg would go off to war in the twentieth century, too, in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.

Patterns of Life

From time to time, outside events crashed in upon New River Valley residents; yet people focused most of their thoughts and their energies on making their lives, raising their families, building their communities.

In the early years, people had, of course, no central heating and no electric lights; no town water, sewage, or trash collection services; no telephone or television; and no indoor plumbing with hot and cold running water; no Kenmore dishwasher, GE clothes washer, Jenn-Air cooktop, or Kitchen Aid refrigerator. They had no chainsaws or lawnmowers, no automobiles or paved roads, and no Social Security or unemployment insurance. They had no Wal-Mart, no Kroger, and no Montgomery Regional Hospital. Not only was there no Blacksburg Electronic Village, people had to physically convey a message to the recipient in much the way they transported a bushel of corn or a collection of hides.

As far as Blacksburg's early residents were from the world of 1998, they found themselves far, too, from the world of their ancestors or even, for many, their births. Diet offers one measure of how far from their ancestral homes the early settlers found themselves. At first they had few cattle or hogs to provide beef or bacon. Depending instead on venison and bear meat, they ate more like Indians than like Europeans. Their major crop was corn-Indian corn.

Later they would merge the two diets, American and European, and what they ate would more resemble what their counterparts in eastern Virginia ate. Easterners combined European ham with Indian corn. Westerners grew wheat as well as corn, their cattle multiplied in numbers, and milk and beef became important parts of the local diet, even as venison remained one. Settlers on both sides of the Blue Ridge thus created a hybrid menu and a hybrid civilization, one neither wholly European nor wholly Native American but clearly both.

Settlers would go still farther in their shift back toward the ways their grandfathers and grandmothers had known. Their gristmills, like the one William Ingles built on Cedar Run in 1750, facilitated processing the grains they grew into the food they ate. Again, however, it was a hybrid civilization, for the preferred grain they processed was Indian corn.

Proxy for the Frontier

One measure of Blacksburg's situation on the outpost of colonial settlement is the date of Montgomery County's establishment in 1776. Virginia simultaneously grew and shrank between the settling of Jamestown in 1607 and the establishment of Blacksburg in 1798. It grew in terms of colonized areas, as settlement pushed up the eastern rivers, and it grew, too, as settlement pushed up the Shenandoah Valley and continued on until it reached the Blacksburg area and beyond.

At the same time that Virginia grew in colonized area, it shrank in terms of formal boundaries. At the time of Jamestown's settlement, "Virginia" lay along the Atlantic Ocean between New France to the north and Spanish Florida to the south, and it stretched west to the Pacific Ocean. The end of the French and Indian War in 1763 left Spain in control of the western half of the Mississippi Valley. Later, Virginia relinquished the Northwest Territory as well as Kentucky. By the 1790s Virginia's borders encompassed only today's Virginia plus West Virginia, and Ohio and Kentucky both lay outside its territory.

The New River Valley lay for a time in Augusta County, which was organized in 1738 and encompassed virtually all of Virginia west-even very far west-of the Blue Ridge. After the French and Indian War, Augusta County reached only to the Mississippi River. Then Botetourt County was sliced off from Augusta County in 1770, and Fincastle from Botetourt in 1772. The region continued to undergo parceling as settlement developed and people wanted to have a county courthouse somewhere within reach. In 1776, the year of Virginia's first state constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia legislature divided Fincastle County into three. Fincastle County disappeared. The new counties were Kentucky, comprising today's state of Kentucky; Washington, the first jurisdiction in the United States named for George Washington; and Montgomery, which reached from the Blue Ridge to the Ohio River.

This process can be seen in the legislative districts for which Blacksburg voters elected senators and delegates after independence in 1776. Montgomery County, which eventually shrank to its present size, continued from then to now to send one or two delegates to Richmond. William Christian, elected to the 1776 senate, represented Botetourt and Fincastle counties. William Fleming, elected to the next few sessions, represented the same area, which now consisted of the counties of Botetourt, Montgomery, Washington, and Kentucky.

Kentucky became a separate state with its own legislature in 1792, but not before the senator from Montgomery County-William Christian again-also represented the new counties of Greenbrier, which was carved out of Montgomery County in 1778, and Jefferson, Fayette, and Lincoln counties, which were created when Kentucky County was divided into three in 1780. The Blacksburg area of this vast, though shrinking, senatorial district would often be represented by a local man-John Preston, for example, in the 1790s, succeeded by his brother, James Patton Preston.

Destination and Stopover

Present-day Montgomery County proved to be the destination of a number of would-be settlers between the 1740s and the 1790s. It also provided a stopover for people on their way still farther west. The Great Road passed directly through the area. Later extended as the Wilderness Road, it supplied a route for many thousands of travelers on their way to Tennessee and Kentucky, like Scott McCollum's grandfather, Tom. Especially was that true in the years after the American Revolution, again like Tom McCollum.

The main trunk passed near present-day Christiansburg, and a branch passed by the site that became Blacksburg. The Christiansburg trunk headed toward the Ingles Ferry area of present-day Radford. A little farther north and west, the Blacksburg branch-which more closely followed James Patton's original Indian Road (generally along today's Harding Avenue and Price's Fork Road)-headed toward the Peppers Ferry crossing, the two major places for getting to the other side of the New River.

Given Christiansburg's more central location, it long had the advantage in attracting population growth and economic development. The emergence of a state institution of higher education later gave Blacksburg the advantage, but for many years, Christiansburg attracted more visitors as well as more settlers.

Among those visitors were Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Boone passed through the Christiansburg area in the 1770s before the town was established, and he helped blaze the Wilderness Trail south of the New River. Crockett made several trips through the area, some of them driving cattle between the Shenandoah and Tennessee. As a young man, he stopped off for a time in the 1790s in Christiansburg, where he helped John Snider make hats.

Montgomery, Christiansburg, and Blacksburg

Where did the names for Montgomery County, Christiansburg, and Blacksburg come from? Who did the early residents mean to commemorate? Enter three men from the second half of the eighteenth century: Richard Montgomery, William Christian, and William Black.

Governor Patrick Henry appointed John Montgomery one of the first justices of Montgomery County when it was formed in 1776, but the county name comes from another man, someone who never stepped into the New River Valley. General Richard Montgomery died at Quebec, north of New England and New York, on the last day of 1775 in one of the earliest encounters of the American Revolution. An Englishman, Richard Montgomery had fought in the colonies in the French and Indian War. In the early 1770s he left the British army, immigrated to New York, bought a farm, and married into a leading family. He sided with the colonies against the Empire, and his death came at precisely the time that a new county in southwestern Virginia was being organized. The selection of his name demonstrates how people in Virginia viewed the continental nature of the epic struggle with Great Britain, even before the Declaration of Independence.

William Christian was born in 1742 near Staunton to a couple who had immigrated from Northern Ireland in 1740. He studied law with Patrick Henry and married Patrick Henry's sister, Ann. The couple took up residence in present-day Roanoke, and Governor Dunmore appointed Christian one of the first justices of Fincastle County. He chaired the committee that drew up the Fincastle Resolutions in 1775. The committee also included William Preston and William Ingles, and the resolutions avowed the signers' determination "never to surrender" their liberties "to any power upon earth" even if the defense of those rights cost them their lives. William Christian showed the resolutions to Patrick Henry months before Henry cried out, "Give me liberty or give me death." Before, during, and after the American Revolution, William Christian fought against Indians to secure the frontier settlements. In 1785 he moved to Kentucky, where he died in a skirmish with Indians in April 1786.

A few years later, when the courthouse town of Montgomery County was laid out in 1790 and chartered in 1792, residents named it Christiansburg after him. Nearly 150 years later, when the New River was dammed and Claytor Lake established, a lone stone chimney jutted above the water's surface to commemorate William Christian's life and the house he had lived in.

Soon after Christiansburg, another town was organized about a dozen miles to the west. Blacksburg had its beginnings in 1797, when William Black laid out a small grid of streets and lots-five streets by five, or four blocks by four-and petitioned the legislature to establish a town, which it did in 1798. Black supplied the town thirty-eight and three-fourths acres and a name. Like William Christian, William Black was a local man, though less notable than Christian. William Black, together with his brother, John Black, inherited a portion of the original Patton Tract from their father, Samuel Black, who had migrated as a child with his parents from Northern Ireland to Virginia. Unlike Richard Montgomery or William Christian, William Black did not have to die to have a place named after him. Other members of the Black family-including John Black's grandson, Harvey Black-would play important roles in Blacksburg's future years.

William Black was born in Augusta County in 1766. He married Jane McBeath in 1793 and then moved to Draper's Meadow. William Black remained in the Blacksburg area until 1814, when he and his wife and five children moved to Clark County in west central Ohio. There, he lived out his days and is buried. His migration from Virginia to Ohio was very common among Virginians in the early nineteenth century-as typical a path as his grandparents' move from Northern Ireland to western Virginia had been in the eighteenth century, or his own when he moved southwest from Augusta County to Montgomery County.

The original Blacksburg's southwestern border lay at today's Draper Road, the line that separated William Black's land from his brother John's. Parallel to that road-previously called Roap Street or Water Street-was Toms Creek Road, today's Main Street. On the northeastern side of Main were Church, Penn, and Wharton streets. The main cross street was Roanoke Street, flanked by Jackson to the northwest and Lee, Washington, and Clay streets to the southeast.

The new town's original trustees were William Black and John Black, John Preston and James Patton Preston, Edward Rutledge and George Rutledge, and John Henderson. By 1798 John Preston established a store at the corner of present-day Main and Jackson streets. Today's downtown Blacksburg remains pretty much where it was laid out two hundred years ago.

Schools and Churches

The Blacksburg area's largest number of settlers derived from Northern Ireland, and they favored the Presbyterian brand of Protestant Christianity. Germans tended to be Lutherans. Before the 1780s, Virginia had a state-supported church, the Church of England, which became the Episcopalian Church after the Revolution. Two new denominations, the Baptists and the Methodists, emerged in the late 1700s and early 1800s. At Blacksburg's bicentennial, each of those faiths, and others as well, is represented in town. In the early 1800s, the small town supported fewer churches with less variety.

Blacksburg's first church building, like Christiansburg's, was Methodist. William Black was a Methodist, and sometime around 1798 a log meeting house went up for Methodists at the corner of Church and Lee streets. Multiple faiths often shared a building in those days, and Presbyterians worshipped in the Methodist meeting house for a number of years. Not far from tiny Blacksburg in the early years was St. Michael's Lutheran Church, located in the late-eighteenth century on Toms Creek and later on Stroubles Creek.

During Blacksburg's early years, schooling was scant. There was no county board of education, no state legislative appropriation, no mandatory attendance policy. Education-in the sense of the transmission of culture from one generation to the next-typically took place in the homes and churches, not in schools. There children learned the values of their community, and there, too, they learned many of the skills they would need to be productive and contributing members of that community. Even reading, writing, and arithmetic were often taught in people's homes, whether by a resident tutor or a traveling teacher who boarded wherever he or she taught.

Yet formal institutions for very young scholars developed too. Dangerfield Dobyns taught school in the Blacksburg area for more than forty years, beginning before the town was established. When his school was located on the Roanoke Road, his students knew it as "Locksley Hall." Other schools during the early nineteenth century were the Barger School and the Sibold School. In 1811 the legislature established the Literary Fund to supply limited state money for schools, but it soon also established the University of Virginia and redirected much of the Literary Fund to that school.

By the 1850s Blacksburg and Christiansburg each had two academies, or private schools: one where young men could go for more advanced schooling and one where young women could. In Blacksburg, John Black contributed land for a female academy by 1842. In 1851 Methodists established the Olin and Preston Institute, a school for the young ladies' brothers. It carried the names of a Methodist minister, Stephen Olin, and of William Ballard Preston, who by then had served as a member of both houses of the state legislature, member of Congress, and secretary of the navy. Dr. Harvey Black served on its board of trustees-first when it was the Olin and Preston Institute, later when the names were switched, and then for a time, beginning in 1872, when the Preston and Olin Institute was reorganized and became a public land-grant school, Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College.

Blacksburg and Western Virginia

Blacksburg, like many other communities of western Virginia-much of what had been Augusta County and then the original Montgomery County-continued to differ in many ways from the communities east of the Blue Ridge. Commercial agriculture was far less developed, and most settlers were white and free. Residents looked to the state government to foster schools and roads, but delegates and senators from the east had little interest in promoting costly improvements in the west. Thus, westerners had reason to feel their interests were not well represented in Richmond.

Westerners grew restive as their region grew rapidly in population, but representation in the state legislature remained unchanged under the constitution of 1776. Finally, in 1829-30, a convention was held in Richmond to produce a new constitution, but it changed things very little. Voting rights, always confined to a minority of white men who owned substantial farms, were extended a bit, but half of all white men in Virginia, and a larger fraction in the west, still had no political rights. Worse, and more to the point, was the system of legislative apportionment.

In those days, the legislature chose the governor. Voters had a direct say in the election of members of the legislature, but all other offices in state government were appointive. Westerners believed that the west had too few votes in the legislature. The new constitution of 1830 addressed the deficiency a bit, but it left power in the hands of voters from the eastern half of Virginia. Easterners were determined to see that their slaves would count in such a way as to inflate slaveholders' political power.

In what must surely have appeared fraudulent to westerners, the new constitution provided for reapportionment every ten years, but it specified that any shifting of seats could take place only within a region. No seat could be transferred from east of the Blue Ridge to west of it. No matter how much the western population might grow, it could never hope to choose a majority of delegates or senators under the 1830 constitution. Nor could the western region be sure of securing much more state assistance for schools or roads.

A later constitution, which went into effect in 1851, changed many things-it did away with the property requirement for voting, made the governorship a four-year office filled by the voters, and recognized the western region's population growth by giving it a majority in the House of Delegates. That, however, was in 1851, not in 1830.

Race and Slavery

Roads and schools were part of a complicated set of social, economic, and political relationships that hinged on race and slavery. Roughly half of all eastern residents were African-American, nine out of ten of whom were slaves. In the western counties, the ratio was far different. As late as the 1830s, nowhere west of the Blue Ridge did any county have a population as much as 20 percent black. Slaves lived and worked in every western county, too, even in considerable numbers-2,026 in Montgomery County by 1830-but a large majority of all residents-83 percent that year in Montgomery-were white and free.

The differences between eastern Virginia and the western region culminated in a startling debate in the House of Delegates in 1832. Nat Turner had led a black uprising in Southampton County, near the southeastern corner of Virginia, the previous August. He was captured, tried, convicted, and executed for his activities only days before the 1831-32 session of the legislature convened. In early 1832 most western delegates promoted a program designed eventually to eliminate slavery in Virginia, while most eastern delegates bitterly opposed the innovation.

A young delegate from Montgomery County, William Ballard Preston of Smithfield Plantation-the son of a former governor, James Patton Preston-played a central role in the western insurgency. Displeased both by eastern political power and by the dangers that slavery might expand much more than it already had into western Virginia, he spoke for the western region when he insisted: "We will be heard." He went on to explain at length how, in his view, the state government had the power to override property rights and legislate against slavery, and he argued that the legislature ought to act.

The legislature did not act, then or later, and slavery continued to expand slowly into western Virginia, including the Blacksburg area. Members of the Preston family continued to make their own private peace with the institution. Regardless, the eastern and western portions of Virginia continued for many years to differ, sometimes heatedly, over matters of power and policy. West Virginia separated from Virginia after Virginia seceded from the United States in 1861. When that happened, however, Montgomery County-separated only by Giles County from West Virginia-was among the western counties that remained with Virginia.

Black Residents of the Blacksburg Area

Of the roughly 2,000 African-American residents of Montgomery County in the 1820s and 1830s, some lived in and near Blacksburg, and while most were slaves, a very few were not. Only 56 out of the county's 2,085 black residents in 1830 were free. Free black residents had to register as free people, and their names were more likely to show up in the census that the federal government conducted every ten years. Thus they left more records than did most slaves, and we can more readily know something of their lives.

Residents with African ancestry could obtain their freedom in either of two ways. They could be freed, and some Montgomery County residents became free despite having started their lives as slaves. Robert Shanklin freed his slave, Sarry, and her child, Rodey, in 1806. Philip Kinser freed King James in 1848. Mary Wade freed James Neice in 1846, Spencer Bright in 1855, and a number of other people in 1859, though the last group did not obtain official permission to stay in Virginia.

Two men made it clear that they wanted their slaves freed after their widows died. Charles Taylor was one. In 1837 he recorded legal documents leaving his slaves to his wife, Polly Taylor, with the proviso that "I have no wish or desire that they should be continued in slavery or be compelled to serve any other person." After he died, Polly Taylor did not wait for her own death. Declaring that she had "no wish to retain" her slaves any "longer in servitude," she granted any number of them their freedom in the 1840s. James Bratton was another emancipationist, and Daniel, Howell, and Erasmus Melville were among the men whom Dorothy Bratton granted freedom in 1847.

The other way that black Virginians could obtain their freedom was to be born to free mothers, whether white or black. Black freedom never equaled white freedom-no free black child could attend a Montgomery County school in the 1830s or 1840s, and permission to remain in the county was by no means a sure thing-but it was not black slavery. Jenny Hunt, a free black woman, gave birth to Matilda Hunt in 1800. George Briggs was born in 1802, the son of Betsey Spradlin, a free white woman. He married a free black woman named Lucy by 1840, and they raised their six children in Montgomery County. Margaret Brown-born free in 1825 and the daughter of a free white woman-married a free black man named Dorman Brown.

Other free black families also lived in Montgomery County, at least for a while. Hannah Campbell raised her children, among them Elmira and Caroline, in the county. Born free, her daughters passed their freedom along to their own children. Hercules Marrs, a laborer, and his wife, Lydia, raised their children in the county. A free black mattress maker named Madison Jones lived in Blacksburg with his wife, Martha, in 1860. A laborer named Madison Beverly and his wife, Elizabeth, both born free in other counties, moved to Montgomery County in the 1850s, where they raised their children in the last years before slavery ended for all black residents.

Blacksburg at the Age of Fifty

In 1850 census-taker John Gardner, Jr., made his rounds in Montgomery County. He enumerated families that had lived in the area for many years, and he found a few newcomers, too. Just outside Blacksburg, he found most households headed by either a "farmer"-among them David and Adam Shufflebarger and Robert Lee-or a "laborer." He also found Moses Einstein, a German-born peddler; George Kabrich, a young teacher, and his wife and daughter; Solomon Schaeffer, a Lutheran preacher, together with his wife, Elizabeth, and their five children; and a family of basket makers.

Gardner also recorded a cluster of wealthy and prominent residents near Blacksburg. James Patton Preston had died a few years earlier and left all his land and his slaves to his children. In the Draper's Meadow area, James Francis Preston reported owning nineteen slaves in 1850; Robert Taylor Preston, twenty-four; and William Ballard Preston, forty-nine. Not far away, Jacob Kent reported owning seventy-six, and James R. Kent, 113.

Gardner spent October 3 in Blacksburg, where he found a different pattern of occupations among white residents. He tallied 333 people, 270 whites and 63 slaves.

One Blacksburg household was headed by John A. Stanger, a Kentucky-born thirty-year-old constable, who lived with his wife, Mary, and their two children. Another household was that of Alexander Black, the nephew of Blacksburg's founder, William Black. A fifty-year-old farmer, he lived with his wife, Elizabeth; several of their children-among them Harvey Black, a twenty-three-year-old physician-and a slave, a fourteen-year-old girl. Yet another household was that of Joshua M. Grandin, a Methodist preacher; his wife, Ann-both of them born in Maryland-and their slave, a thirty-five-year-old woman the same age as Pastor Grandin. A large but simple household was Charles A. Smith's. A tailor, Smith lived with his wife, Nancy, and their eight children.

These are examples of the less complicated households in Blacksburg, and they suggest the range of occupations of the people living in town. Among the larger and more complex households, one place was listed as a hotel, where thirty people lived. John Peterman, a wealthy merchant, resided there with his wife; at least five of their children; various unattached free people, among them three cabinetmakers, one of them a native of Mississippi; and twelve slaves.

Eighteen people lived at George Keister's place, which must have looked and smelled like a factory. Thirty-four years old, he was a tanner who lived with his wife, Livonia, and their three young children as well as a young slave woman and her child. Among the other people on the place were seven shoemakers, who evidently worked with the leather Keister tanned to produce a great many shoes for the people of Montgomery County.

Centennial Blacksburg

Enormous events and changes overtook the town of Blacksburg during the next fifty years. Greatest among them was the Civil War, which led to the deaths of many Montgomery County residents and the emancipation of even more. Among the returning veterans of the Confederate military was Blacksburg founder William Black's great nephew, Dr. Harvey Black, who left his wife, Mary, and young children-Kent, Elizabeth, Alexander, and Charles-for a time so he could doctor the soldiers in gray.

In 1898 Blacksburg turned one hundred years old. Coal, a minor industry during the times of William Preston and William Ballard Preston, employed many Montgomery County residents, and coal trains rumbled through the county on their way from West Virginia to the port city of Norfolk. Blacksburg, like the rest of Virginia, had recovered from much of the Civil War's devastation, although the enduring consequences included the town's much greater proximity to a state line to the west, now only one county away. Slaveholding and slavery, so central a part of the scene at the time of Blacksburg's fiftieth birthday, in 1900 were things of the increasingly distant past for the town's 768 residents, 569 of them white and 199 black, though many people of both races could still clearly remember those days. Blacksburg's total population had pushed ahead of Christiansburg's, which was 659 that year.

President John McLaren McBryde's VPI, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1897, the year before the Blacksburg centennial, enrolled more students than the town had residents fifty years before and nearly as many as the growing town had in 1900. During the 1890s, Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College took on a new name-Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (it became known popularly as Virginia Tech or VPI)-and launched a small sports program and a small graduate program.

The county had had train service at Christiansburg since the 1850s, and by the early 1900s, the Huckleberry spur could pick up and drop off railway passengers at Blacksburg. Electricity became available to the town and the VPI campus. Roads had not improved much, but they soon would-the old system of men paying two days' "labor tax" to maintain the roads had recently ended-and Blacksburg's first automobiles lay only a short distance in the future. The census listed a number of black women each as "wash woman." One man still called himself a "wagon driver."

Since the 1870s, Virginia had offered limited but growing state aid-far more than the old Literary Fund-to public elementary schools throughout Virginia. Blacksburg's children, black as well as white, attended school, though they did not attend the same schools in the age of segregation. Governor Claude Swanson, a former Tech student, took office in 1906 and successfully pushed for legislation to promote high schools across Virginia. Blacksburg's first high school was located downtown on one of the town's original streets, Draper Road. It was reserved for white youngsters, whose black neighbors made their way to the Christiansburg Institute.

Blacksburg at 150

When Blacksburg reached the age of 150, the United States had just emerged from the Great Depression and World War II. Many men, and some women, from the Blacksburg community had recently returned from the war. Too many had not lived to make their way back, and starting only two years later, in 1950, others would leave for a war in Korea. Radford Arsenal had been a major employer during World War II, and it would soon play an important role in the Cold War, but for a time in the late 1940s, it served primarily as a housing facility for overflow students from Virginia Tech. The Virginia legislature approved a shorter formal name for the school, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, in 1944.

In 1948 hundreds of veterans were attending Tech on the GI Bill, and the school suddenly had more civilian students than cadets. Tech's student and faculty populations were undergoing other changes as well. Small numbers of students attended from Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean. In 1948 President Walter S. Newman hired a new physics professor, Dr. Hung-yu Loh, whose credentials included a bachelor's degree from a university in his native China and a master's from Virginia Tech.

The interstate highway system still lay in the future, but U. S. 460 connected Blacksburg with points east and west, and U. S. 11 made its way north and south from Christiansburg along the route that the Great Road and Wilderness Trail had covered at the time of Blacksburg's founding in 1798. Electricity had made its way to most farms in the Blacksburg area. Many residents had had telephones and radios since the 1920s, and now a few had black-and-white televisions, too. Some of the more elderly residents had begun drawing Social Security checks.

Bicentennial Blacksburg

At Blacksburg's bicentennial, it is a far larger town than at any of its previous half-century birthdays. The expanded town limits now include the Virginia Tech campus; pull in Smithfield Plantation and the Draper's Meadow area off Prices Fork Road; reach beyond Mount Tabor Road to include the Woodbine subdivision, still a recent development; climb the mountain up Harding Avenue to pull in the Windsor Hills Apartments; and stretch outward along South Main Street to pull in the modern-day golf course and airport, though not the long-ago palisaded Indian village. All of the 460 bypass lies inside the town limits.

Much else has changed. More students now sit in a Tech classroom like McBryde Auditorium than there were residents of Blacksburg in 1848. Smithfield Plantation still welcomes visitors, but the Prestons no longer live there, and thE Foxridge Apartments complex has more buildings than Blacksburg had residents in 1798. The Blacksburg Electronic Village is an extraordinary marker of how much has happened in communications since the time of young William and Mary of Draper's Meadow in the 1750s.

The mountains around Blacksburg remain, but now they twinkle in the night with houses built on hillsides. Cattle, sheep, and horses-the descendants of four-legged immigrants from the Old World-still dot some Blacksburg pastures, but new construction takes more and more of the land that once grew crops or supported woods or meadows. The old Sunday closing laws vanished in the 1980s, and many stores now serve their customers seven days a week. Roads carry the names of people who, generations ago now, lived their lives in Blacksburg or began other communities in the county. The present carries much of the past, but much has been gained and much lost.

Virginia Tech's evolution continues to affect Blacksburg's. The school's 125th anniversary, celebrated during the 1997-98 academic year, coincided with the planning of and overlapped some of the town's bicentennial celebration. T. Marshall Hahn's presidency led Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1964 to abandon all requirements that male students participate in the corps of cadets and in 1970 to take on a new name: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Virginia Tech has enrolled female students and an occasional international student since the 1920s, African-American students since the 1950s, and growing numbers of international students with its rise as a research university over the past fifty years.

Some Blacksburg families have lived in the area since before there was a Blacksburg. Mixed with them are permanent residents as well as temporary students from across the country and around the world. Children of all these groups and every race attend Blacksburg High School, the fourth edition, on Patrick Henry Drive.

Pangaea has returned, pulling in people from Asia as well as Europe, Africa, and the Americas. On one Saturday each spring, the International Street Fair comes to College Avenue and Draper Road. When it does, it offers vivid evidence of how much has changed in Blacksburg since William Black laid out the downtown streets two hundred years ago.


Peter Wallenstein has taught in the history department at Virginia Tech since 1983. His publications include Virginia Tech, Land-Grant University, 1872-1997: History of a School, a State, a Nation (1997).

Why Are
We Here?
Civil War
Blacksburg


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