A Special Place for 200 Years
Chapter 8

The Transformation of a Frontier Political Culture:
Blacksburg's Early Experience, 1745-1870

by B. Scott Crawford

B. Scott Crawford


The tourist to Virginia today oftentimes goes to Williamsburg to visit colonial America. But Williamsburg did not, contrary to popular belief, epitomize colonial Virginia government. While the governor's mansion and the General Assembly did play an important role in Virginia's movement towards revolution and the conflict between these two branches of government propelled Virginia towards republican ideals, Williamsburg would not have been what it was had it not been for the county courthouse.

Spread all over Virginia-from the Tidewater, through the Piedmont, and into the mountains-county courthouses connected Williamsburg with the average Virginian. Many times in less developed counties, the courthouse was nothing more than a small shack, made of wood, with no more furniture inside than a couple of tables and several chairs. Surrounding the structure were several support buildings, which usually included at least one ordinary (tavern), a primitive "jail," and maybe even a small store. The frontier courthouse was not a grand Georgian structure, such as the Governor's Mansion, but was, at times, nothing more than an unlit bonfire!

Yet looks can be deceiving, for the appearance of the courthouse in no way reflected its important role in Virginia's political history through 1870. It was the courthouse that provided a degree of order, law, and stability in an otherwise potentially chaotic environment. This was especially true as Europeans began moving west into the periphery of English settled lands. As settlers moved into this region, they looked to the courthouse as a place to provide a connection to "civilization" and the more "refined" areas of eastern Virginia. It was to the courthouse that those first settlers at Draper's Meadow looked not only for protection, justice, and economic development, but also for a chance for the east to hear their voices. Through the courthouse, settlers along the frontier-along with those who lived in Draper's Meadow-that met certain criteria could find a way to make themselves heard at the state and later national levels of politics as freeholders met at the courthouse and cast their votes for representatives. In this way the county courthouse can allow every county to claim a part of Virginia's political heritage, for it was the courthouse that shaped the political culture of both the county and state and later reflected the sectionalism that had emerged in Virginia by 1870.

The sectional divisions that became ever more evident during the ante-bellum period were not immediately recognizable in Draper's Meadow's early years since eastern political culture followed early immigrants over the mountains and down the valleys of western Virginia. As Europeans began to migrate into and settle the region that today contains Blacksburg, they sought to create a society within the confines of certain government institutions that had proven successful in eastern Virginia.

The county system of government followed these first white settlers as they either crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains or entered the region via the Shenandoah Valley as immigrants from Europe who arrived in Philadelphia and traveled along the backcountry in search of an area to settle. With the colonial government, and later state government, in the east partitioning already existing counties as the population grew in the west, the east effectively provided the frontier with a degree of representation, albeit not equal representation, and reinforced the creation of a social structure in the west that mirrored that of the east. However, these first attempts by the settlers of the New River Valley and Draper's Meadow (today's Blacksburg) to emulate eastern society did not last. Geographical and ideological barriers-i.e., the Blue Ridge Mountains and slavery-along with economic diversity created political divisions between the east and the west that by 1870 had been firmly ingrained in the political psyche of the state. The years between 1745, the time of Draper's Meadow's founding, and 1870, when a new state constitution replaced the county court with a board of supervisors, thus changing the face of local politics, show a distinct evolution as the western region assumed its own political identity. During these same years, a small village began to grow and experience this political evolution, not as a passive observer but as a major player. For Blacksburg took part in choosing representatives that helped mold the political divisions that still exist today, all the while evolving within the county system of government that the east had established. This process began almost as soon as the first explorers entered the region to pave the way for later settlers.

The Beginnings of Local Government

White settlement of the Virginia frontier had its roots in the mid-seventeenth century when the Virginia royal government encouraged and sponsored a series of expeditions that crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 1654 Colonel Abraham Wood led an expedition across the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. The government of Virginia gave Colonel Wood permission to try to establish trade with the Indians living west of the Alleghenies. Wood and his party moved westward from Fort Henry, located at the falls of the Appomattox at the current site of Petersburg. Following the "Trader's Path," Wood's party made its way towards the Alleghenies. Several theories hold that Wood's expedition crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains at the present-day location of Wood's Gap in Floyd County. From here, Wood moved down the Little River until it connected with a different body of water, which Wood named Wood's River. By 1750 Wood's River was known as the New River.

After the Wood's expedition in 1654, several more expeditions came from eastern Virginia to explore the west in search of the Indian Ocean, which until 1744 was still thought to be just on the other side of the Alleghenies. These expeditions included Captain Henry Batte's in 1666, Thomas Batts' in 1671, and Governor Spotswood and the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe in 1716. In 1730 Cherokee Indians captured John Salling and took him across the New River, making him the first white man known to cross the river. With settlement beginning to take place in the New River Valley in the early 1740s, surveyors began moving into the area. In 1749 Dr. Thomas Walker, Christopher Gist, and Colonel James Patton crossed the New River and surveyed land for various companies that were intent on selling western land for profit.

Native Americans had occupied the New River Valley prior to European settlement but had abandoned it by the time Europeans began moving into the region. Some Indians, the Canawhas, lived in present-day Floyd and Carroll counties, the Cherokees lived further south, and the Shawnees further north. Mainly, however, Indians came to the region from the south and to hunt or fight with neighboring tribes. While surveying the border between Virginia and North Carolina in the late 1720s, William Byrd wrote that his group was "now near the Route the Northern Savages take when they go out to War against the Cataubas and other Southern Nations." As settlers moved into the region, they had skirmishes with the Indians. The first recorded incident of fighting between the settlers and the Indians occurred in 1742, costing the Indians seventeen men and the settlers eight. For the most part, however, the area remained relatively peaceful, and good relations existed between settlers and Indians until the outbreak of the French and Indian War.

In 1744, with the Treaty of Lancaster, the Six Nations of Iroquois, who used the western lands of Virginia as a route to invade other Indian nations, renounced any claim they had to land in Virginia, thus opening the valleys of Virginia for settlement. In the spring of 1745, the Wood's River Company took advantage of this peace to obtain a grant of 100,000 acres. The Wood's River Company consisted of twenty men who sold the land to potential buyers. James Patton, John Buchanan, and George Robinson, all members of the company, signed the terms of the Wood's River Grant. Under the grant, anyone who purchased land before May 1748 could buy it for four pounds and five shillings per hundred acres. The company named Buchanan the surveyor and gave Peter Rentfroe the job of showing potential buyers the land. Land sales began in 1746, and by 1753 most of the good land had already been purchased. The outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754 ended land sales, and the Proclamation of 1763 completely prohibited westward settlement. The various land companies, for the most part, adhered to the law; however, settlers tended to ignore the proclamation and continued moving west.

In addition to the Wood's River Company, other companies carved out the land west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Alleghenies and sold it to settlers: the Loyal Land Company, Greenbrier Company, and the Ohio Company. No one knows for sure when the first settlers actually entered the New River Valley, but evidence suggests they were in the Valley prior to the Wood's River Grant. The earliest hard evidence that settlements were established before 1745 was found in 1780 as settlers were moving into present-day Giles County. Here they found the remains of a cabin and headstone that read, "Mary Porter was killed by the Indians November 28, 1742." The Porters may have been the first group to move into the area; no one knows for sure. Because of this evidence, one can reasonably assume that white settlers lived in the New River Valley at least as early as 1742 and possibly as early as the late 1730s.

After the Wood's River Grant, Buchanan traveled through the valley and met with settlers already living in the area. Buchanan found the Ephrata Brethren living in Dunker's Bottom (present-day Claytor Lake), found Jacob and Adam Harmon living on the New River, and appraised the estate of William Mack of Mack's or Max Meadows, thus establishing a residence near present-day Fort Chiswell. All of these people had moved into the area sometime before 1745. Also around 1745, before the Wood's River Company was fully organized, Patton set up the Draper's Meadow settlement when he convinced George Draper to move there with his family. Shortly thereafter, Thomas Ingles, Henry Leonard, and James Burk joined the Drapers.

The first families to settle Draper's Meadow in 1745 represented only a small part of a larger westward migration. Between 1730 and 1760, the number of Germans, Scots, and Irish increased along the Virginia frontier. By 1749 the New River Valley and the surrounding regions contained 1,423 adult white males, and by 1755 this number had grown to 2,273 adult white males. Many were motivated by the possibility of securing land or possibly wanted to take advantage of the abundance of game found to the west. A few families, such as the Prestons, Lewises, and Breckenridges, acquired vast tracts of land that became the basis for their large fortunes. As the population grew in Virginia's western valleys, the government in eastern Virginia created new county governments. Within these new governments, members of the larger land-holding families filled the new political positions, creating not only a political regime that mirrored the east, but one that allowed a similar social hierarchy to emerge. In Draper's Meadow, for example, George Draper became constable of the New River Valley at Augusta County's founding.

Rise of County Government

Even though the settlers embraced a new environment, these first pioneers attempted to mirror both the political institutions and societal structures that had defined eastern Virginia throughout most of the colonial period. Operating within a time-proven system of government, the western pioneers sought to gain access to the same political offices that existed in the east. Central to the political system at the local level was the county. As the government in the east established new counties-Draper's Meadow (Blacksburg) was part of three before the creation of Montgomery County in 1776-the related political offices associated with county politics were born alongside each new western county. Within the county, local freeholders acquired these political offices, which in time gave these political minded individuals the experience needed to gain higher offices on the political ladder. Consequently, a variety of offices opened to an emerging frontier gentry that subsequently allowed this class to gain a great deal of power within the region. Draper's Meadow, then Blacksburg, fit within this county form of government, and any study of the political history of this region must, in turn, focus on this unit of government.

Before the state constitution of 1870, the county was the dominant form of and central to local government. The "county" first appeared in 1634 when the Virginia Assembly created eight such political entities that covered the inhabited parts of eastern Virginia. Early in its history, the county began to emerge as the locus of power at the local level through the county court. This court, which was central to the county system of government, assumed not only a judicial role, but an executive and legislative role as well. Two possible reasons for the emergence of the county, as opposed to that of a town or city, as the dominant political unit at the local level revolve around geography and economics. With eastern rivers going inland, pointing west, settlers generally spread out along the rivers, which allowed the rivers to reinforce a dispersed pattern of settlement. The plantation economy that mirrored such a demographic makeup also strengthened the county's emergence as the center of local government since trade centers were slow in forming. The plantation, positioned directly on a river, for many years was the point where merchants shipped and received goods. Tobacco also influenced the dispersion of the population since planters needed large tracts of land to grow their crops. Such settlement patterns influenced Virginia society because individuals at times became isolated on their plantations since distance inhibited social contact. Many times, schooling only took place on a plantation because the plantation owner had the resources to hire a live-in tutor. This isolation facilitated the need for and development of a basic political unit that covered a wide area and emerged to become the focus of local politics.

Even more telling about the dispersed nature of Virginia's population and the affect that displacement had on the local political environment is the rate at which towns and cities became incorporated. Before 1800 only seven towns had been incorporated, and by 1851 Virginia could only boast of eleven. A period of growth then led to the incorporation of twenty-one additional towns, including Blacksburg, by 1875. The largest period of incorporation then followed, with 107 other towns becoming incorporated between 1875 and 1925. This slow rate of incorporation between the colonial period and 1851 suggests that settlement patterns remained dispersed throughout all of Virginia and had not become a demographic characteristic monopolized by the east.

While tobacco and rivers did not play the same role in the western economy, a similar settlement pattern occurred in the region as pioneers spread out over a fairly large area. Western pioneers generally settled along one of four rivers: the New, Holston (including the North, Middle, and South branch), Clinch, and Powell. But the river would not play the same role in western economy as it did in the east. The Holston branches, Clinch, and Powell all failed to connect the region with any outside markets. The New, on the other hand, was simply too hazardous for settlers to use it for transportation purposes. While these rivers did not provide the same economic function as rivers in the east, they still facilitated a similar settlement pattern as frontier families searched for a water source that allowed for survival. Although Draper's Meadow formed along a tributary of the New River and actually contained several families, thus producing a "settlement," the majority of frontier settlers established their homes in relative isolation. Draper's Meadow consisted of only a few dwellings and contained only a handful of families. This in no way constituted a settlement that could gain control of and shift the focus of local politics. Thus, the county retained control of local politics in the west as it had in the east. County Justices

At the heart of county government was the county court and the justices of the peace who sat on that body. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Virginia counties usually had ten to fifteen active justices at any one time. By the late 1780s, the average number of justices per county had risen to twenty-two, with a range of eleven to thirty-six justices. The number of justices peaked during the nineteenth century, when these numbers were, at times, even higher; however, no more than four justices were usually present on any one court day throughout Virginia's history before 1870. The various counties with which Draper's Meadow and Blacksburg were associated seemed to follow this same pattern, with only four justices generally present at any one court session. Between the years 1773 and 1788, out of 158 recorded court sessions in Fincastle and then Montgomery counties, four justices were present at 34 percent of the court sessions. Running a close second, five justices were present at 32 percent of the court sessions. Anywhere from six to twelve justices ran the remaining 34 percent of the court sessions, with six justices running 15 percent of the sessions; seven justices running 11 percent; eight, eleven, and twelve justices running 1 percent of the sessions; and nine justices running 5 percent of the sessions.

The governor of the colony-and after 1776, the state-appointed individuals to the office of justice of the peace. Once appointed, justices could conceivably hold the office for life, as long as they kept conflict with the governor to a minimum. As an appointed rather than an elected official, the justice possessed a large degree of power that was effectively unchecked. In addition to acting as legislature, judge, and executer of law, the county justice also either directly or indirectly influenced who filled all of the other county offices.

The county also contained several political offices essential to the success of local politics. The county clerk, who was directly elected by the justices, kept various records for the county and helped record votes on election day. Central to the election process, excluding the candidates, was the sheriff, who was appointed by the governor on the recommendation of the justices. The sheriff maintained order in the county, announced when an election would occur, and opened and closed the polls. In addition to the sheriff, the governor appointed such county officials as coroner, constable, and militia officers below the rank of brigadier; however, the governor did listen to recommendations of the justices on who would be best suited for each office. Through this process, the county justices exhibited considerable power at the local level since they directly elected county clerks and advised the governor about his appointments for the remaining county offices.

Once county offices were filled, the justices held a court session once a month that lasted from one to three days. During these sessions, justices settled suits for small debts, issued peace bonds, ordered indictments, named overseers to begin the construction of roads, and handed out licenses for ordinaries. On every third month the court met as a Court of Quarterly Sessions and dealt with criminal cases. In general, the justices were responsible for keeping a degree of order within their respective jurisdictions. When farm animals roamed freely over the land, which was the practice during the early years of the Draper's Meadow settlement since only cultivated areas were fenced in, it was the justice's responsibility to register any marks a farmer put on an animal to indicate ownership. Such was the case on March 2, 1774, when Joseph Ramsey went before the Fincastle County justices and registered his mark for cattle and hogs as a crop on the left ear. That same day William Ingles registered his mark as a crop and a slit in each ear, while William Christian announced that his livestock would have both ears cropped and slit twice. With such information becoming a matter of public knowledge, justices could more easily resolve any altercations revolving around ownership of livestock.

To provide stability to the western region, justices moved quickly to acquire strong economic ties with the east as they established ordinaries in the region and named overseers of roads and ferries. Between 1774-when Fincastle County broke away from Botetourt County-and 1790, county justices granted twenty-five ordinary licenses in Fincastle and Montgomery counties, areas that encompassed the New River Valley and Draper's Meadow. On the first two days of the first court session alone, Fincastle County justices granted five ordinary licenses. William Ingles was the first to acquire such a license, while Charles Diverex, Joseph Drake, Samuel Simpson, and James Hollos all received licenses over the next two days. Moving just as quickly, the justices established a road and ferry system in the region to enhance both regional and extra-regional trade. On the first day of the first court session in Fincastle County, the justices named five overseers of roads. Between 1774 and 1790, Draper's Meadow's justices named a total of 234 overseers. Two roads in particular provided frontier settlers access to eastern markets. The Great Wagon Road ran along the Virginia frontier to Philadelphia while the Three Notch'd Road headed east to Richmond. To cross various rivers in the region, justices gave licenses to individuals to operate ferries. By June 1779 Montgomery County's justices had granted licenses to William Inglish (Ingles), Samuel Pepper, John Craig, and David Herbert to establish at least four ferries in the region. These men were allowed to ferry people and wagons across the New River for four shillings per man and horse. The rapid pace at which ordinaries, roads, and ferries were established in the region indicates that frontier settlers had a strong urge to forge economic ties with the east. The ordinary provided peddlers from the north and east access to lodging and frontier families access to goods and buyers located outside of the region. Roads and ferries allowed settlers to solidify local trade networks while at the same time allowing frontier families to find a direct access to eastern markets. Through such institutions and networks, the west retained a connection with the east as the regions became economically tied. However, political structures and economic ties were not the only means through which frontier families attempted to emulate and remain connected to eastern society. A similar social framework emerged along the frontier as a definite social hierarchy evolved alongside and within the framework of the county offices.

As immigrants moved into the region surrounding Draper's Meadow, the wealthiest families retained control of the various political offices at both the county and state level, as in the east. For example, the three men who signed the Wood's River Grant-James Patton, John Buchanan, and George Robinson-were named as justices of the newly formed Augusta County. All three men had also settled in the county as early as 1738. In 1745 James Patton owned at least 474 acres of land in Augusta County, and by 1753 he had acquired 1,990 more acres in the region. Between the years of 1746 and 1754, Patton sold 31,291 acres of land in 115 separate deeds. These purchases totaled a little over 2,050 pounds, Virginia currency. Much of this land had come from the 100,000 acres acquired in the Wood's River Grant. John Buchanan had 634 acres in the county, while George Robinson possessed 892 acres. John Lewis, another justice in Augusta County, owned 2,071 acres in Augusta County and was among the first settlers in the area. Of eight justices who left records, all had a substantial amount of land in Augusta County; thus it is possible that these individuals owned more property in the eastern counties of Virginia.

A similar trend occurred among the other offices of the county. In addition to being a justice, James Patton was named as both sheriff and county lieutenant. John Buchanan held the position of deputy sheriff and justice. Henry Downs, who had received a grant of 50,000 acres of land, was also a deputy sheriff. Constables for the New River Valley included George Draper, Peter Rentfroe, James Calhoun, William Leapard, and Adam Harman. George Draper had set up the Draper's Meadow settlement, James Calhoun acquired at least 610 acres of land by 1749, and Adam Harman had considerable land holdings along the New River. Andrew Lewis, a captain in the Augusta militia, was the surveyor for the Greenbrier Company, which had been granted 100,000 acres of land. As in the east, it appears that a definite connection existed between land and political power.

By controlling both county politics and land, the gentry class along the frontier maintained a social hierarchy that mirrored that of eastern Virginia. By owning land and renting large parts of their property, large landowners could decide who could and could not buy land, which limited opportunity and reinforced a social hierarchy. Throughout the first twenty-five years of Augusta County's existence, two-thirds of all adult males who could be taxed owned no land at all. Only sixteen of 216 indentured servants who served their time before 1770 went on to become freeholders in Augusta County. Yet, while evidence suggests the frontier was not a region in which one could find economic prosperity unless one had already established some strong connections with influential freeholders either back east or along the frontier, the justices do appear to have looked out for the best interests of their counties. By focusing on the development of ordinaries, roads, and ferries, the justices seem to have been keenly interested in ensuring that, at the very least, the region was economically stabile. While justices were not elected officials and therefore not directly accountable to the citizens for their actions, they did have at least one motive to carry out the will of local freeholders: political advancement.

Politically minded individuals typically used the office of justice of the peace to gain experience in politics before moving to a higher office. In Virginia such politicians as Washington, Madison, Monroe, Wythe, and Mason began their political careers as justices. The same was true west of the Blue Ridge as men such as James Patton, William Preston, Israel Christian, and Stephen Trigg all used the office as a stepping stone to the House of Burgesses. With Virginia politicians seeing their appointment as justices as a possible vehicle to move higher in politics, mindful justices always had to remember the needs of future constituents. For the next rung on the political ladder-in fact, during the colonial period the only rung on the political ladder-required the acceptance of a politician by the freeholders of the county as burgess and, later, delegate.

Between 1745 and 1776 the only elected political office in Virginia was that of burgess. After the colonies declared themselves independent in 1776 and then with the ratification of the federal Constitution, several more offices in Virginia, including delegates, state senators, and United States representatives, became open to the election process. Whichever level politically motivated individuals were attempting to acquire, candidates realized early on that knowing their constituents and appearing honorable and truly genteel could only help their climb as they attempted to advance up the political ladder. Usually, though, an individual attempting to advance in Virginia politics sought a seat in the House of Burgesses-later, the House of Delegates-after proving himself as a justice and before attempting to gain a higher office.

The Election Process

The first step in the election of a burgess was the governor's announcement for an election. During the colonial period, two burgesses were chosen from each county, while Jamestown, Williamsburg, Norfolk, and the College of William and Mary had one burgess each. After the sheriff received a writ that an election was needed, he determined where and when the election would occur in the county. The sheriff then relayed relevant information to the local parish minister and readers of the county's chapels and churches who announced the details of the election to the various congregations. Next the sheriff ran the poll on the given date, tabulated the results, and transmitted them to the General Assembly. Once the legislature received the results, the Committee of Privileges and Elections reviewed the papers and, if everything was in order, reported their findings to the House. The House amended the report, if necessary, and then approved the election.

The actual election was a festive event, full of excitement and jubilation. Usually it was held at the courthouse, as dictated by law, on the appointed day. In its early years, Augusta county's courthouse had two ordinaries located beside it, suggesting that court days and elections could draw large crowds. Depending on the weather, the election process occurred either on the courthouse lawn or inside the courthouse. At center stage was a large table where the sheriff positioned himself, ready to ask each freeholder where he stood in the election. At opposite ends of the table sat the candidates, anxiously awaiting each voter to approach the table and announce his allegiance. Also at the table sat several clerks, quills in hand, who recorded the votes. During the colonial period and into the nineteenth century, an eligible voter had to meet certain requirements. Not only did the voter have to be a white male, but he also had to own a minimum of one hundred acres-later reduced to fifty acres-or twenty-five acres with one house or other improvements. The prospective voter also had to be at least twenty-one years of age and, through 1785, an Anglican as well. Based on these restrictions, historians have estimated that between one-third and one-half of the white male population was still eligible to vote and that even though required to do so by law, only about one-half of the eligible voters actually took part in the election process.

As the election began, usually around mid-morning, the sheriff read the writ orally and announced that the polls were open. Then the eligible voters stepped forward one by one, heard the sheriff call their name, and announced the candidate receiving their vote. That candidate then stood and publicly thanked the voter. Since no registration process existed, it was possible for an ineligible white male to cast a vote if no one recognized him. However, each candidate had the right to challenge any voter, resulting in the prospective voter having to take an oath that he indeed met the legal qualifications. With each voter casting his vote vive voce, a degree of excitement must have unfolded as the audience kept track of each candidate's position in the race. This degree of excitement, along with the sheriff's right to close the polls at any time, created a tense environment that occasionally resulted in heated arguments and even small riots.

Such a situation developed in the 1755 election for burgess in Augusta County, of which Draper's Meadow was a part at the time. In the 1756 session of the General Assembly, the Committee of Privileges and Elections reported to the House that an unruly mob had prohibited the sheriff of Augusta County, James Lockhart, from submitting the results of a December election. According to the sheriff, Richard Woods, David Cloyd, and Joseph Lapsley had instigated a small riot that disrupted the polls and prohibited him from properly conducting the election.

The House subsequently called the three alleged instigators forward to testify about the occurrence, and they related a different story, blaming the sheriff for the disruption. According to the three men, the election had continued into the evening, and as people began to crowd into and around the courthouse, the sheriff "struck several of the freeholders with his staff on the shins . . . and threatened to push it down their throats if they did not keep back." Reportedly the sheriff then prohibited several freeholders from placing their votes when he learned for whom they planned to vote. Events took a turn for the worse when the sheriff allegedly pushed Lapsley onto a bench, setting the stage for the riot. The sheriff did not agree with all of these points, testifying that what had led to an unruly setting was the loud announcement by Lapsley and Woods that they bet their candidates, "Mr. [William] Preston and Mr. Alexander," would "carry the day." The sheriff stated that the freeholders then proceeded to crowd into the courthouse, where he "endeavored to keep them back in a civil manner by putting his stick across their breasts ." An individual then ran from the courthouse and told Cloyd, "The election is going against us," and Cloyd responded, "It should not. If we cannot carry it one way we will have it another. I will put a stop to the election." It was at this time that the sheriff restrained Lapsley, but it was the sheriff, not Lapsley, who was pushed into the surrounding furniture. A short time thereafter the riot broke out, and the sheriff was forced to close the polls as Lapsley yelled out, "Lads stand by me, I'll pay the fine, cost what it will: You know I am able." After hearing both testimonies, the House ruled that Woods, Cloyd, and Lapsley would pay the sheriff's expenses for appearing in court.

This event reflects several key elements regarding colonial, and even early national period, elections. In addition to reflecting the competitive nature of the Virginia gentry and the gentry's willingness to spend large sums of money publicly, the election riot indicates that the courthouse could become a fairly exciting place as a close election unfolded. Individuals announcing aloud for whom they were voting left little room for any uncertainties as to which candidate could very well "carry the day." If an election was taking a turn for the worse, in the eyes of any one faction, then violence was indeed possible, especially if the sheriff used his powers in any way that appeared to be unfair. The sheriff could stop potential voters from participating in the election if he suspected they did not meet the qualifications. The sheriff also could close the polls at any time, as long as he called out three times, "Gentlemen freeholders, come into court and give your votes, or the poll will be closed," and there was no response. The fear of this power on the part of the freeholders becomes quite clear as the three alleged instigators charged the sheriff with denying certain planters the ability to vote. Possibly the most illustrative feature about this incident is the role friendship and kinship ties played in the election process.

Throughout the colonial period and into the early to mid eighteenth century, friendship and kinship ties were, at times, essential to a politician finding success in the realm of politics. For example, in the 1755 Augusta County election, Lapsley and Cloyd were related through marriage and backed a candidate with whom they most likely were associated. Cloyd, Lapsley, and Woods were all men of substantial means, either had or would acquire various political offices, and most likely traveled in the same social circles as Preston. While in this instance such ties produced a fairly violent situation, many more times these ties assured an individual a base of support as they sought political office. By calling on relatives and friends for aid, a candidate found a ready source to draft, publish, and then circulate campaign literature, contact various neighborhoods to enlist support, and sponsor debates. In elections dealing with a larger constituency-therefore making it impossible to appear at the polls on election day-a candidate could rely on his relatives and friends to represent him at distant polls. Such was the case in 1798 when John Preston sought the aid of his brother as he made a run for the state senate. John wrote his brother that he would be in Botetourt on the day of the election and asked his brother to "exert" his "influence" at an unnamed poll. At this time Botetourt, Greenbrier, Kanawha, Montgomery, Russell, Washington, Lee, Grayson, and Wythe counties all elected one state senator to represent them. Since Preston was running for an office covering such a wide area, there was no way he could present himself at every poll. Preston apparently decided to stay in Botetourt either for convenience or because he thought this was where he stood the best chance of losing. In any event he needed support as he turned to his brother and asked him to attend a poll and influence the outcome. Whether or not his brother's influence worked we will never know; however, Preston did carry the election and reach the state senate.

While Preston's appeal to his brother to represent him at a particular poll was a valid and honorable request, there was a darker side to the role relatives and friends could play in the election process. There were times when a candidate's friends and family actually resorted to more underhanded means to achieve success in a particular election. Such tactics included spreading rumors about and attacking the character of the opponent. It was not unusual for such campaigns to include disseminating information that a particular candidate had dropped out of the election or had joined forces with a politician who was unfavorable in the region where the election was occurring. In order for the offending candidate to ensure a better chance of success and maintain a safe distance from any dishonorable actions, he turned to friends and family to carry out such tactics. In this manner he could weaken an opponent and still appear honorable should the public learn that any of the rumors were false. This use of friends and family helped solidify the existence of a political culture along the frontier similar to that in the east.


Although Draper's Meadow, and then Blacksburg, tended to mirror the political culture of the east, the region did begin to embrace a unique sectional identity early on. Contributing to this sectionalism, both symbolically and pragmatically, were the Blue Ridge Mountains. Such a geographical expanse provided a natural border between two very different economic regions. The mountains not only inhibited, not prohibited, commercial traffic, but they also created an environment ripe for a non-slave-based society and economy to develop since frontier families turned to crops other than tobacco for subsistence and export.

Families farming around Draper's Meadow found that the soil in the New River Valley was not sufficient for growing tobacco. The soil's condition forced frontier settlers to turn to other crops, which included corn, wheat, flax, hemp, and rye. Settlers used corn for bread but preferred wheat as their main ingredient for making this product. Rye was used for bread, too, but it was also used to produce whiskey. While these crops provided the frontier family with sustenance-and, in the case of whiskey, entertainment-by the Revolution hemp and flax were the biggest cash crops grown in the valley. Beginning in 1770, the average hemp producer grew 100,000 pounds of hemp a year.

Although the region did discover a cash crop in hemp and flax, these crops did not facilitate the development of a labor structure similar to the one that existed in the east. There, as planters acquired vast tracks of land in order to grow tobacco, they soon realized the need for a large labor force and increasingly turned from white indentured servants to black African slaves. While slavery also evolved throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, by the eighteenth century, slave labor had a strong hold on the region and had replaced, to a large degree, immigrant white labor. By 1782 as many as 78 percent of the households in Charles City, James City, and Warwick counties, all in eastern Virginia, owned slaves. While this was the upper end of the spectrum, at least nine counties in the Tidewater region reported at least 50 percent of the households owning slaves, with the average household owning three slaves. In the Piedmont region by the 1780s, more than two-fifths of the slaves in eight counties lived on plantations with twenty or more slaves. By the 1780s large planters owned, at times, more than 100 slaves and had slave quarters on their plantations containing thirty to fifty slaves.

Such labor demographics did not emerge in the Draper's Meadow region or evolve after the creation of Blacksburg. While labor intensive, the cash crops-hemp and flax-frontier farmers turned to did not facilitate the creation of a slave-based labor system. This is not to say that farmers in the region did not use slave labor, but rather they did not rely on slaves to the degree that eastern Virginians did. Because of this situation, unique sectional differences emerged that ended up defining the state's political culture as a whole.

Within the production and distribution of hemp and flax, the settler relied on a variety of forms of labor. Central to the labor model along the frontier was the family. In the Shenandoah Valley, the majority of labor came from the individual family unit. Every family member had to participate in the production of agricultural goods and in clearing the land. Since so few slaves were found along the frontier and since women played an extensive role in the production of hemp and flax in rural Pennsylvania, one can safely assume that a similar work dynamic existed in western Virginia. Family members helped in crop production, clearing the land, and tending to daily household needs.

In addition to family support, some settlers did turn to and embrace slave labor in order to meet their labor needs. Although there were relatively few slaves in the New River Valley, large landowners generally owned the bulk of them. The 1782 Montgomery County tax list enumerates 1,339 tax-paying free males over twenty-one years old and 565 slaves. The average number of slaves owned by a slave holder on this list was 3.62, and the slave-holding group made up 11.65 percent of the taxable population. The tax lists of Montgomery County representing the years 1788 and 1790 show similar, yet smaller, percentages of slaves and slave owners. During these years, slave owners made up 8.45 and 9.4 percent of the tithables, with the average slave holder owning 2.45 slaves and 2.7 slaves, respectively. By 1790 the largest slave holders were William Preston, who had twenty-two slaves listed on the tax tables, and Andrew Boyd, with ten slaves listed. William Preston was considered the wealthiest man in the county, and after his death he left behind quite a rich estate, which included 7,022 acres of land. Andrew Boyd had acquired at least 2,740 acres of land by 1790. James McGavock, who listed six slaves on the tax table, had acquired around 3,800 acres of land. Thus the larger landowners owned the most slaves.

While it is possible that these slaves were used to help out in the fields with the production of hemp and flax, some evidence suggests that other roles were found for them. In the early 1760s, the importation of slaves peaked, yet hemp production did not fully take off until 1767; thus, slave importation began before the production of hemp. In 1767, when hemp production peaked, 250 individuals were certified for hemp production. Of the 250, approximately thirty owned slaves, implying that slaves were not heavily involved in hemp production. It would seem that slaves along the frontier were used in capacities other than field hands. In whatever way slaves were used, the fact remained that the rich landowner was the one who controlled the land, the majority of slaves, and the political power, all reinforcing the establishment of the general societal and political culture of the east.

Yet by the early nineteenth century, sectionalism was definitely setting in as east and west diverged politically, economically, and socially. Of course the climax and most dramatic evidence of this was West Virginia's decision to break away from Virginia after the commonwealth's decision to secede from the Union. While Blacksburg remained loyal to Virginia during the American Civil War, it did not mean the region fully embraced such a stance, particularly over the issue of slavery. The west simply did not create a slave-based labor system to the same degree as the east. This left the west extremely divided during the Civil War as various neighborhoods were either pro-Union or pro-Confederate. Generally the region between Peppers Ferry and Blacksburg contained Union sympathizers that actually aided the Union army as it moved through the region in May 1864. Blacksburg proper, however, tended to contain Confederate sympathizers as it was positioned on a plateau and therefore situated in a geographical position more conducive to slavery. As an example, the Preston family of Smithfield, located next to Blacksburg, was one of the largest slaveholding families in the area.

While western Virginia remained a patchwork of Union and Confederate sympathizers, it was but a small reflection of the heterogeneous nature of the region that helped create sectional divisions within the state. The roots of sectional strife between east and west existed as early as the Revolutionary period. While Draper's Meadow and the rest of Fincastle County supported the ideals expressed by the First Continental Congress and supported the colonial movement towards revolution, the American Revolution proved divisive as issues of defense created a wedge between east and west. In the Fincastle Resolutions, signed at the county courthouse in Fort Chiswell, county freeholders asserted their support for the colonies' defense of certain rights. The freeholders also emphasized the importance of protecting their religious freedom and how that freedom was even more important than other rights shared by Englishmen. Yet, while western freeholders initially registered their allegiance with the east-and for that matter other colonies-it was not long into the Revolution before sectional differences arose. Central to these differences was the state's ability to provide the frontier, a region more vulnerable to Indian attack, with adequate defenses. In a sense, the frontier was left to fend for itself, especially after 1777 when eastern Virginia began to fear British invasion. The frontier not only resented such an attitude on the part of the east, but also began to become more self-reliant as local militias had to come forth to defend Virginia's frontier. After Virginia backcountry militia took part in the British defeat at Kings Mountain in October 1780, backcountry leaders began to see the region as unique and better equipped for the harsh conditions associated with war. Thus out of the Revolution emerged a backcountry slightly embittered towards its eastern compatriots and at the same time more self-assured as the region realized it was unique.

The Dynasty Era

While slavery and the Revolution contributed to the sectional differences that existed between the east and west by 1870, the period between 1801 and 1825, the "Dynasty Era," also exacerbated sectionalism as Virginia's political climate evolved towards a two-party system. During the Dynasty Era, the county courthouse became an even more important political force as it witnessed a rise in the number of democratically elected positions in government, including both state and federal offices. With Virginia's state constitution of 1776, in addition to electing delegates, freeholders began to elect state senators. After 1789, with the new federal Constitution established, freeholders now had a voice in federal policy as they elected representatives to Congress. The Dynasty Era witnessed a transformation in the political culture of Virginia as east and west reacted differently to this boost in democracy and in turn solidified already emerging differences.

As more political positions became open to direct election, the way in which candidates campaigned began to change. As politicians moved on to run for higher offices, their constituencies not only increased but also covered a larger area. The personal flavor that had been so evident during the county elections for the House of Burgesses began to wane as candidates could no longer make a personal appearance at every poll and therefore had to rely on friends or families to go in their stead. With the candidates campaigning over a larger area, personality began to take on a less significant role. While each candidate still had to be a freeholder, a resident of the area he was trying to represent, and literate, the close ties that once bound candidate and voter evaporated as the candidate's stand on issues assumed a new importance. The Dynasty Era candidate had to carry an election by making his points clearly and intelligently since a good chance existed that many voters simply did not know anything else about him. The Second Great Awakening also influenced oratory's new role in the election process as voters became familiar with the use of speech to convey a message. In this sense religion helped facilitate the evolution of the election process since it reinforced the importance of oratory.

Within this new political climate, east and west drastically diverged in the types of representatives each region elected, which in turn reflected the different societies that existed within the two regions. In general, the election process reveals a heterogeneous, transient, western region and a homogenous, stable, eastern region. During the Dynasty Era, sixty-five out of sixty-seven eastern congressmen were native Virginians, while only 33 percent of western congressmen were native to the state during that same period. Easterners tended to be overwhelmingly of English decent, while only five of thirty-one westerners were of that ethnicity. In regard to religion, easterners were more likely to associate themselves with the Episcopalian Church. Of fifty-three state senators who claimed either to be associated or to be strongly associated with the Episcopalian Church, forty-six lived east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A similar division, although by no means as dramatic, existed among the state senators who identified themselves as Presbyterians, with eleven out of nineteen Presbyterians living west of the Blue Ridge. Differences in occupation of Congressmen are also apparent as easterners tended to be either involved in law or agriculture, while western representatives listed a wide variety of jobs and were associated with smaller farms. Sixty percent of eastern representatives had received a formal education at the college level; yet only twenty-six percent of the western representatives had received such an education. Possibly most illuminating about sectional differences was that the heterogeneous society in the west, reflected by such a diverse group of representatives, tended to have more contested elections than the homogenous east. During the Dynasty Era the western region of the state saw 75 percent of the elections contested, while 60 percent of the Piedmont's elections went uncontested, and a majority of the elections farther east followed the same pattern. While both regions still found political leadership in the more prestigious families and family ties still played a key role in the election process, the type of candidate each region sent to represent its interests differed in several key ways. Such differences only contributed to sectional differences as various political crises arose, in particular the issue of slavery.

The debate Virginia entered into over the slave question during the 1830s clearly illustrates the degree to which sectional division had penetrated the state. Intense discussion over slavery most dramatically entered the public forum in 1831, when William B. Preston, the delegate from Montgomery County, introduced legislation that was to eventually abolish slavery and, on a more conservative and less enlightened note, send all blacks residing in Virginia to Africa. This move on Preston's part launched the state into a debate over slavery that lasted until the Civil War. As the debate took shape, lines were clearly drawn as those west of the Blue Ridge almost unanimously favored Preston's legislation, while those east of the Blue Ridge, with a more vested interest in the institution, vehemently opposed any steps towards emancipation. Even more illuminating as to the degree of sectional division over the issue was that this entire debate began to unfold following the proposed legislation of a western delegate and also during the governorship of Preston's uncle, John Floyd. Floyd was the first governor under the new 1830 state constitution and was himself a westerner, having resided in Botetourt County. While Floyd had become a strong supporter of John C. Calhoun and embraced a healthy states' rights philosophy, he did admit in his diary that he would "not rest until slavery is abolished in Virginia." Floyd called Preston and his other pro-emancipation nephew, James McDowell, "talented young men." Yet publicly, Floyd never spoke of emancipation in any form, and many saw him as a westerner who exhibited "an unusual sympathy for the Tidewater interests."

As the debate over slavery unfolded in the Old Dominion, the west and east drew sectional lines early on. Nat Turner's failed insurrection took the debate over slavery to a higher level as a new sense of urgency took hold of politicians, who realized the legislature had to do something to avoid future insurrections. Preston entered the debate full force and introduced legislation that reflected this new sense of urgency as he proposed an amendment to a committee report that "it is expedient to adopt some legislative enactment for the abolition of slavery." While this amendment met defeat, such a stand by the west-and Preston was not alone in this crusade-reflected the degree to which two different political cultures and societies had emerged in the Old Dominion.

When any legislation pertaining to slavery came up for debate or a vote, the division between east and west became abundantly clear. Representatives aligned themselves with one of five voting blocks, ranging from those favoring emancipation to those who were "radical pro-slavery." Overwhelmingly, those favoring emancipation or simply against the institution came from the western periphery of the state. Legislators representing Montgomery County fell within this group. Those who were more conservative and took a less radical approach came from the Piedmont, while those who wholeheartedly supported the institution came from the Tidewater region and the Southside.

Even though the slavery debate of the 1830s best illustrates the sectional divisions that had emerged, and remained, in the state, by 1870 a political transformation had occurred that changed the face of the political culture over the whole state. The antebellum period and Reconstruction era allowed Virginia to mature into a modern democracy as certain traditional elements that existed in the political arena during the Colonial and Federalist periods dissipated. By 1870 kinship ties had become less important to elections as family prestige mattered less and the issues of the day took precedence. Instead of one elected office, as was the case during the Colonial Period, Virginia had by 1870 several positions that were filled by the candidates' appeal to voters. During the 1830s the rise of a two-party system changed the face of politics as platforms defined the political issues and dictated a candidates' stand on certain issues. However, possibly what most affected the political culture and moved it into modernity was the evolution from local, informal elections to elections that were regionally and even nationally based.

The Virginia constitution of 1870 effectively propelled Virginia political culture into a modern setting as the role of the county court changed forever. No longer did local justices sit on an all powerful body that kept the focus of the political scene at the local level. By replacing the county court with a county board of supervisors, the state political center of gravity shifted from the county level to the state. No longer did the courthouse represent the political locus of power at the local level, but it took on a more judicial role. Richmond became the unit that began to mold the political culture as individuals looked more to the state, and eventually the national, level of government for support and order.


Blacksburg's existence over the past 200 years was influenced and shaped by the evolution of local government around her. While the first settlers at Draper's Meadow attempted to create a society and political culture similar to the one in eastern Virginia, sectional differences arose at least by the American Revolution. Yet while sectionalism took root, the west retained a similar political environment as the county courthouse became a place of action in the political arena. Being on the frontier, voters had no elaborate structure to approach as business of a political nature was at hand, but that did not matter. The courthouse was a force that could rise above any weakness its appearance might have implied. Within its walls local justices shaped the development of the region over which it had jurisdiction. It was a place where settlers in a hostile environment could reach out in times of need and find a bond with institutions so stable in the east. Yet Blacksburg moved with the state as a different political culture emerged. Blacksburg became a part of sectional strife, a condition some say still exists today as state expenditures focus on other regions of the state. By 1870 the courthouse changed, too, as what had been so strong in the local political world was something new and weaker. The center of power began to shift as state and national politics took on a more significant meaning. Thus Blacksburg moved with the rest of the state towards a modern, two-party, regional political environment. This evolution, in turn, produced the political climate with which we are all so familiar today.

Blacksburg native B. Scott Crawford teaches at Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke, Virginia. He holds a master's degree from Old Dominion University, where he concentrated on colonial American history and spent time researching the economic history of the New River Valley.

Blacksburg Politics
and Government

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