Blacksburg, Virginia

The existence of a town of city generally can be attributed to a geographic feature or to some historical event. Blacksburg, Virginia is no exception.

Location just west of the Appalachian Ridge which crosses the Valley of Virginia, Blacksburg sits on a plateau sloping southwest toward the New River. In early Virginia history the area was called "the land of the western waters," because rain falling here drained to the Mississippi River. The town of Blacksburg was founded and still exists because of its location in the path of settlement of western Virginia and beyond, plus the fact that certain influential families in the early settlement chose the area for their homesteads. The educational background of these families caused them to seek education opportunities for their children and community, and one of the educational institutions they established was chosen to become Virginia's land grant college, The Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

1748, James Patton
In 1748 James Patton explored the area with others, to locate and survey lands for the Woods River Grant. The lands were then offered for sale to new settlers.

1748, Ingles and Drapers families
The first settlers who arrived to take up lands under the grant included a widow, Mrs. Eleonor Draper, her daughter Mary and son John, and Thomas Ingles and his sons William, Mathew and John. The Drapers Meadow community stood on the land of the present VPI campus.

1755, Drapers Meadow Massacre
James Patton, with his nephew William Preston, continued to visit Drapers Meadow while pursuing his duties as surveyor in the new Loyal Land Company. He was also the leader of the Augusta County Rangers, formed to protect the settlers from Indian attacks. As competition for western lands between the French and English accelerated, the Indian harassment of settlers increased. Patton and Preston were at Drapers Meadows when Shawnee Indians attacked, killing several persons including Patton and Mrs. Draper, and carrying off Mary Draper Ingles with her two sons and Betty Draper, wives of William Ingles and John Draper. William Preston was on an errand away from the community and escaped harm.

Mrs. Ingles soon escaped and after an arduous trip with another captive returned to her home. Mrs. Draper and Tommy Ingles were eventually ransomed and returned to their families, but all moved to other fortifies settlements. The men, and those from the nearby German communities, kept their lands but moved their families to forts and spent much of their time fighting the Indians.

1777, Montgomery County
The surge of immigrants searching for lands could not be stopped by the Indians or English restrictions. Soon the increased numbers of settlers made it necessary to have a county court house near enough to conduct their business. Augusta County was divided and this area became Fincastle County, which was soon divided again to form Montgomery County.

1773, William Preston and Smithfield
William Preston, after Patton's death, was appointed to county positions formerly held by Patton. In order to be eligible for the position of Sheriff in the new Fincastle, later Montgomery County, he bought lands from the former Draper Meadows settlers and had built a plantation house which he named 'Smithfield.'

The Blacks, Rutledges, Prices, Amises, and other early families
Other families who owned land near Smithfield included the Blacks and the Rutledges. They were educated Scotch-Irish and English people who had first come to communities in the lower valley between the mountains, and then moved on to the new counties. They served in the militias against the Indians and then in the Revolutionary forces against the English. Many of the German settlers of the area were slower to join the Revolutionary forces because of their language differences and traditional attitude of emphasis on family affairs rather than government. These included the Harmons, Prices, Walls and others whose farms lay on the creeks between the Appalachian Ridge and the New River.

1798, Founding of Blacksburg
After the close of the Revolution, attention could again be turned to home and community. In 1798 Blacksburg was founded on a 38 3/4 acre tract donated by William Black. 64 lots were laid out and soon sold. One-story log homes were built. John Preston, son of William, ran a store in town. "Sprout Spring" supplied for the town. A log church was built by the Methodists and used also by the Presbyterians for several years. One lot was sold to the town to be used for a burying ground and school.

1835, Population and Businesses
By 1835 Blacksburg contained 'thirty four dwelling houses, two houses of public worship (one Methodist and one Presbyterian) on common school, one Sabbath School, and temperance society, three tan yards, two saddlers and various other mechanics. Population is one hundred and fifty persons, one of whom is a physician.'

The population of the county at that time was over eight thousand persons, mostly living on farms. Two other towns were larger than Blacksburg; Christiansburg the county seat, nine miles to the south, and New Bern in the western part of the county, on the main road to the west.

1830's, Roads
Roads connecting Blacksburg to other communities were built and kept up by land-owners and supervised by citizens appointed by the county court. To the west, a road passed through the German community of Prices Fork and over the river at Peppers Ferry. Another led to the north through Giles county. Most travelers followed the road south past Smithfield to Christiansburg and from there on the Great Road or Wilderness Road toward Kentucky, using William Inglish's ferry to cross the New River. To the east, the Alleghany Turnpike ran down the mountain to Salem. From there, roads led to the Lynchburg and the James Canal to the east. Another road to the east out of Blacksburg crossed the ridge and ran down the valley of the North Fork of the Roanoke River and the Catawba valley to Amsterdam. Turnpike companies were formed in the 1830's and 1840's to improve the old roads. In the 1850's a railroad crossed the county, the nearest stop to Blacksburg being Christiansburg.

1830's - 1840's, Education
Education was important to the citizens of Blacksburg. The early settlers were educated people who at first taught their own children or hired tutors. Families sometimes joined together to hire teachers. Stories were told of Dangerfield Dobyns, the 'mere shadow in physique' teacher who ruled the pupils with 'masterly hand'. Indentured servants or surveyors-in-training at Smithfield taught the Preston children. A school for advanced scholars was taught at Smithfield and sometimes in town. In 1842 members of the Methodist Church sponsored and built a school building for the Blacksburg Female Academy.

1850's Olin and Preston Institute
The decade of the 1850's brought prosperity and changes to Blacksburg and Montgomery County. The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad was built across the county giving farmers an outlet for their crops, with the nearest stop to Blacksburg being Christiansburg. Tobacco became the country's most profitable crop, with wheat, potatoes and milk products following. The slave population increased 50%. Coal was mined in the Prices Mountain area near Blacksburg. The town's population was over 250. A Lewis Miller print of 1835 showed three churches and 24 houses.

Good times encouraged the founding of another school. The Olin and Preston Institute was formed in 1854 to provided general education for young men and seminary training for the Methodist church. A brick building was built on the hillside overlooking the Main Street business district.

1864, Blacksburg in the Civil War
Little Civil War action took place in the county. Union troops did camp several days in Blacksburg, where Gen. Averill's troops, coming from Wytheville met Gen. Crook's troops, which had defeated Confederate troops at Cloyds Mountain in Pulaski County. They left Blacksburg and moved north through Giles County to West Virginia.

1872, The Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College
After the war, Virginia received federal lands to which each state was entitled, in order to sell and use the income received, to establish the state's land grant college. In spite of the competition from other existing institutions, Blacksburg, with the Preston & Olin Institute was chosen for the location of Virginia's Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1872. Its assets included a building and five acres of land. Citizens on the County contributed $20,000. The college began with one building, 132 students and four faculty members. It had no dormitory or dining rooms, so that the students slept and ate in town. A student's expenses for one year were $200, including a $17.25 uniform. The 250 acre farm of Robert Preston, grandson of William, which adjoined Smithfield and included his home 'Solitude,' was bought for the college farm. College land also included 80 acres from John and Edward Black.

1980, Blacksburg grows with the twentieth century
Blacksburg's history in the twentieth century reflects the history of the state and the nation. The first automobile in town belonged to the druggist on Main Street. Over ninety people had the flu in 1918. Old buildings in town and on the campus were torn down and replaced by new, larger ones. An influx of students appeared after World War II, causing trailer courts to appear for married student housing. In 1970, VPI's name was changed to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to reflect its evolvement into a comprehensive university. Today it is the largest educational institution in the state, and the largest industry in Blacksburg. Other light industries have moved to the area. Shopping centers have appeared on the periphery of the town and residential areas are climbing the surrounding mountain sides and valleys.

Although changes continue to occur, the mountains remain on all sides of town and the streams flow to the western waters. The influence of the Blacks, the Prestons, the Prices and the other settlers are still felt. Descendants of many of the early families live in Blacksburg, and some of the old homes remain. All these are appreciated by the residents of the town, the old timers, the newly-arrived citizens, and the students. These are the factors which give Blacksburg its character.

D. McCombs


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Last updated January 12, 1998