The Wilderness Road Controversy

by Fess Green
Author of Wilderness Road Odyssey

Speculation about the location of the original Wilderness Road continues. Mary Kegley argues that this historic trail did not pass through Montgomery, Pulaski, and Wythe Counties. Her article in the 2004 Journal of the New River Valley Historical Society (Vol. 17, No. 1) states on page 1 that “it began in far southwest Virginia at the Block House which was located in present Scott County.” From that point it passed westward across the Cumberland Gap and through eastern Kentucky.

If she is correct in this assertion, then how did the Wilderness Road become associated with Christiansburg, Radford, Newbern, Fort Chiswell, Wytheville, and even Roanoke and Salem? Some sources agree and place the start of the Wilderness Road in Virginia at or near Weber City close to the Tennessee border. But curiously, some say the start was in Bristol; others say Fort Chiswell; and still others claim Roanoke or Buchanan. William O. Steele’s book, The Old Wilderness Road: An American Journey (1968), places the start at the Blockhouse near Weber City where Daniel Boone set out with his group of axmen to cut and blaze the trail in 1775. Yet neither of the authors cited in the journal article, Robert Kincaid and Thomas Speed, limited their descriptions of the Wilderness Road solely to the section blazed by Boone and company. In fact, there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Kincaid, for instance, made specific reference to the Wilderness Road in the Roanoke Valley on page 144 of his book, The Wilderness Road (1955).

There are numerous references to the Wilderness Road in various parts of Virginia that go back decades, even centuries. They are not, as suggested, mere ploys for marketing purposes. In pioneer times, these trails or paths had no road signs. There were no route markers like we see on today’s interstate highways. Sometimes, the name given to a road depended on the direction in which one was headed. Travelers going northeast to major cities would refer to the path as the Philadelphia Road or the Baltimore Road. When heading southwest, they would say that they were on the road to the wilderness or the road to Kentuck. In time, it was easier simply to refer to the entire stretch as the Wilderness Road.

Park Rouse Jr. in his book, The Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia to the South (1992), has the Wilderness Road breaking off from the great Philadelphia Wagon Road at present-day Roanoke, with the wagon road going south into the Carolinas and the Wilderness Road continuing west.
Gene Crotty’s book, The Visits of Lewis and Clark to Fincastle Virginia (2003), refer to the post expedition journey of these famous explorers in the fall of 1806 as traveling the “Wilderness Trail from the Cumberland Gap through Southwest Virginia. The route led to Amsterdam [near present-day Buchanan] before joining the Great Valley Road to Philadelphia.”

Nearly fifty years ago, Charles Crush writing the history of Montgomery County referred to the historic path through Christiansburg when he described the paving or McAdamizing of the “old Wilderness Road” in 1850. Daniel Howe wrote the history of Lovely Mount Tavern, formerly located in present-day Radford, and described the well-traveled turnpike nearby as the only means of travel from the Valley of Virginia and the north through southwest Virginia. He goes on to say that “oxcarts and covered wagons developed it further and it became the Wilderness Road.”

In my book, Wilderness Road Odyssey (2003), I begin the first chapter by acknowledging some of the various names that have been applied to portions of this historic route: “the Great Road, the Philadelphia Wagon Road, the Valley Pike, the Long Grey Road, and the Wilderness Trail. My  total interest at the time was to follow as closely as possible the original route described by John Filson in his book, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of  Kentucke (1784). This manuscript is now long out of print, but Thomas Speed describes the Filson route on pages 16 and 17 of his book, The Wilderness Road (1971), as going “from Philadelphia through the valley of Virginia and Cumberland Gap, and… the interior parts of Kentucky to the Falls of the Ohio.” a total distance of 826 miles. Filson’s itinerary specifically mentions identifiable places in Virginia including Winchester, Woodstock, Staunton, Roanoke, New River, Fort Chissel [Chiswell], and other points west including the Blockhouse and Cumberland Mountain.

More important than the name of this traveled way is the fact that it became, in the latter half of the 1700’s, the primary migration route westward for tens of thousands of settlers seeking that faire land of Kentucke. It preceded the trade routes and migration paths well known in the west, namely the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail, and the Mormon Trail. It’s important to preserve that history and give it an identity exemplified by the Wilderness Road Regional Museum in Newbern, the Wilderness Road State Park near Ewing, and several restored forts and traces in Kentucky.

In Virginia, there is currently an effort underway to gain state recognition of the Wilderness Road migration route and have it become a designated historic trail on state maps and tourist brochures. Some may see this as exploitation and a means of attracting visitors for economic gain. That’s exactly what it is and it makes perfect sense. When travelers come into the region, as many no doubt will during Virginia’s Jamestown Quadra-centennial, communities along this historic path will have an opportunity to interpret, educate, and entertain in a most positive way.

The Wilderness Trail

On September 9, 2000 Gov. Don Sundquist, state of Tennessee, Congressman Rick Boucher – Virginia, Congressman Bill Jenkins -Tennessee, and Delegate Terry Kilgore – Virginia signed the following proclamation during a ceremony at Netherland Inn in Kingsport;

“Whereas, on March 10, 1775, Daniel Boone led his band of trailblazers from Long Island of the Holston near this spot through 200 miles of wilderness to the Cumberland Gap of Virginia; And Whereas, the trail he established allowed hundreds of thousands of pioneers to settle the American frontier and help build this great nation; And Whereas, the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Association, Inc. has undertaken to identify, preserve and promote the Wilderness Trail from it’s origin in Kingsport, TN to the Cumberland Gap of Virginia; Now, Therefore,We, the undersigned, on this 9th day of September, in the year of our Lord, 2000, do hereby rededicate the Wilderness Trail as a catalyst for growth and development in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee.”

Long before the first white man came to the Holston, Watauga, Clinch, Powell and Cumberland valleys a network of trails had been developed by the eastern Indians of the North American continent. The Indians called the trail system Athawominee. Settlers translated that term as The Great Warrior’s Path and later applied the term Wilderness Trail. Two of the most important of the trails in the system were the Path from the upper Ohio Valley through Kentucky and the Cumberland Gap into Georgia and the Path from the Northeast Six Nation Confederacy through Virginia and the Holston valley into Tennessee. These two great trails came together at Chota, the major Cherokee town, on the Little Tennessee River. The Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia presented a major barrier to movement from the Ohio Valley in the west to the Hudson Valley in the East. However, in the south, the Indians, following the buffalo, had discovered three great gaps in the Appalachians and the trail that joined them. The Cumberland Gap lay on the western leg of The Great Warrior’s Path and Moccasin Gap, the only water level gap, lay near to The Great Warrior’s Path in the East. In between was Kane Gap in Powell Mountain. These three gaps in the Appalachian Mountains defined the most direct route from the Ohio Valley to the Holston and Watauga Valleys. Thus the trail from Cumberland Gap across Southwest Virginia through Kane Gap and Moccasin Gap became a primary route of The Great Warrior’s Path leading to the Holston and Watauga valleys.

Gabriel Arthur, young indentured servant, was the first white man of record to travel through Cumberland Gap. Arthur was sent along the trail in 1674 by the Shawnee Indians to secure a trade agreement with settlers.

In the early 1750’s Dr. Thomas Walker led a scouting expedition into the area and although he eventually passed through Cumberland Gap (he gave the gap the name Cumberland in honor of the Duke of Cumberland) he failed to recognize the trail connecting the Cumberland Gap and the Holston Valley. Further exploration of the area was sharply curtailed because the wars with the Indians and the French kept the frontier closed. Relative peace came in 1761 with pacification of the Cherokee following the bloody uprising during which Fort Loudoun was taken and it’s occupants massacred. That same year long hunter Elisha Wallen led a group of hunters into Southwest Virginia and they roamed the area for eighteen months. Wallen’s group crisscrossed the Indian trail in Southwest Virginia several times and named various streams and ridges for members of the party – Wallen’s Ridge, Wallen’s Creek, Newman’s Ridge. They also probably changed “Beargrass River” to “Powell River”, the former name given by the Dr. Thomas Walker expedition in 1751.

News of Wallen’s adventure spread and other wandering long hunters followed. In 1767 Daniel Boone came from the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina and got as far as the Big Sandy River before turning back. In 1769 John Finley, with whom Boone had served in Braddock’s army during the French & Indian War, visited Boone’s home and told Boone of “a big gap in the mountains that the Indians use”. Boone was familiar with the trail in Southwest Virginia and thus knew the route to take to get through Moccasin Gap, Kane Gap and on to “the Big Gap”. In March of that year Boone, Finley and four others made their way along the Wilderness Trail to Kentucky. Just before reaching Cumberland Gap, much to their surprise, Boone’s party came upon a group of 20 men busily building a settlement, in what is now western Lee County, Virginia, under the direction of Joseph Martin. Moving on, Boone spent two years hunting and trapping in eastern Kentucky. When he returned home in March 1771 Boone probably knew more about eastern Kentucky than any other white man and he knew the most direct route to get there from the Holston Valley.

In February 1775 Col. Richard Henderson of North Carolina arrived at Sycamore Shoals, the ancient treaty grounds of the Cherokee. On behalf of the Transylvania Company, a group of land speculators, he purchased 20,000,000 acres from the Cherokee tribes for a price of 10,000 pounds worth of trade goods. (The purchase was later nullified by Virginia’s Governor.) The purchase included most of Eastern Kentucky and a portion of Middle Tennessee. In order to settle the land and sell land parcels there needed to be a clearly marked trail so travelers would not get hopelessly lost in the wilderness. For this task Henderson hired Daniel Boone. Boone was to select the most direct route from existing trails and “blaze” that trail from the Holston Valley to the Kentucky River. Boone chose to follow The Great Warrior’s Path from the Holston Valley through Southwest Virginia to Cumberland Gap.

Boone assembled 30 axemen at the John Anderson Blockhouse which was located on The Great Warrior’s Path about 4 miles north of Fort Patrick Henry. On March 19, 1775 Boone led his party toward Moccasin Gap to follow The Great Warrior’s Path to the Cumberland Gap and Kentucky. Crossing the north fork of the Holston River near the Anderson Blockhouse he followed Little Moccasin Creek through Moccasin Gap. Boone’s party crossed a low divide to Troublesome creek and followed it due west. Just before reaching the Clinch the trail turned south and away from the narrow valley of Troublesome Creek. Crossing the Clinch River at a point where Speer’s Ferry was later established Boone followed the Clinch to a ford on Stock Creek. The group followed Stock Creek past Natural Tunnel, across Horton’s Summit and into the Little Flat Lick valley (Duffield). From here the Boone party crossed over Powell Mountain through Kane Gap and down to Wallen’s creek. They followed Wallen’s Creek valley past present Stickleyville and moved on toward Powell River. After crossing Powell River the group passed through Glade Spring, present Jonesville, and on deeper into Powell Valley. About 20 miles before reaching the Cumberland Gap Boone once again encountered Capt. Joseph Martin who was rebuilding the settlement, near present Rose Hill, he had been forced to abandon in 1769. From this point on to Boone’s selected settlement site on the Kentucky River the going would be easier for they were now on a more frequently used portion of the Warrior’s Path.

The Boone party did not record the exact location of the trail as they blazed it. We are forced to rely on later documentation to define the location of the route. The route outlined above is the oldest version of the trail that can be documented after Boone blazed it.

In 1784 John Filson’s The Discovery and Present State of Kentucke was published. Part IV of the book’s appendix listed the stages and distances on the ROAD from Philadelpia to the Falls of the Ohio by land. Distances along the Wilderness Trail portion of the ROAD in Southwest Virginia are given as follows: Blockhouse to Powell Mountain – 33; to Wallen’s Ridge – 3; to Valley Station – 4; to Martin’s cabins – 25; to Cumberland Mountain – 20.

British attempts to use the Shawnee as allies during the Revolutionary War did little to deter the flow of pioneers moving along Boone’s Wilderness Trail to Kentucky and by the end of the war over 10,000 had passed through. Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792 and by then more than 100,000 persons had used the Wilderness Trail to gain access to the Bluegrass. Traffic steadily increased and by 1810 as many as 300,000 hardy pioneers had passed through Moccasin, Kane and Cumberland Gaps. As the population in Kentucky grew so did the eastern movement of farm production along the Trail headed from Kentucky homesteads back to seaboard markets. By 1840 the use of the Trail had fallen into decline. Engineering technology had brought forth improvements in waterway travel such as the Erie Canal and the great riverboats that made the Ohio Valley more accessible, but the Trail had opened the West.

Today the network of trails used by early eastern Indians is a major eastern transportation network. Interstate 81 follows the eastern leg of The Great Warrior’s Path. Interstate 75 and US 25E follow the western leg of The Great Warrior’s Path. US 58, laid down on top of the Wilderness Trail portion of The Great Warrior’s Path from Moccasin Gap across Powell Mountain near Kane Gap to Cumberland Gap, is a major thoroughfare between the I-81 corridor and the I-75 corridor. In 1995 a twin bore tunnel was completed under the Cumberland Gap to handle the flow of traffic. A major highway interchange is planned for Moccasin Gap to handle the high traffic volume there. The Great Warrior’s Path – Wilderness Trail continues to play a vital role in the ongoing saga of the Appalachian Mountains and Southwest Virginia.

The Cumberland Gap

Amended from an article
Dr. Barry Vann

Nestled in the shadows of the Cumberland Mountain, Lincoln Memorial University shares a unique location with a world famous natural feature that serves as a boundary for Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia.  The Cumberland Gap, made famous by its historic role in providing a western passage for early European pioneers, is actually a low place in the Cumberland Mountain, which forms the north wall of the Powell Valley.   The mountain pass was formed by geological processes over eons of time.   Deer, bear, and other animals were forced south by advancing sheets of ice during the last ice age (10,000 to 40,000 years ago).  They wore a trail through the pass as they searched for hunting and foraging lands.  For similar reasons, Cherokee and Shawnee hunters and warriors later followed the well-worn path through the mountain.  As western European societies emerged from the medieval times, population pressures coupled with political and religious conflicts and economic inequalities forced millions of their seed to seek a new and better life in America.  The Cumberland Gap, as a migratory path, and Lincoln Memorial University, as an illuminating institution of higher learning, continue to assist Americans of all ethnicities to open doors of opportunities and go across a multitude of barriers in their pursuit of a better life.
A towering outcrop called the Pinnacle has historically provided armies, bandits and hunters with an excellent vantage point to watch the intermittent flow of animals and people passing through the Cumberland Gap.  At 2440 feet above sea level, the rocky overlook is 800 feet above the Gap.   Cumberland Mountain is exceedingly steep, and because of many decades of heavy timber harvesting in the area, the soil became shallower as its denuded slope gave up its precious soil to the forces of gravity and running water.  Because early pioneers moving through the Gap were easy prey for bandits and vengeful natives, they were keen to clear the mountain of its refuge-providing, woody cover.  Today, however, the mountain is protected by the United States National Park Service.  Through changes in local land-use patterns and sound conservation measures used by the Park Service, the slopes are once again sheltered by a lush covering of oaks, hickories, and maples.

Cumberland Mountain is the southern-most of two parallel ridges that form the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Kentucky and Tennessee.  Pine Mountain forms the northern ridge.  The upland area was formed some 245 millions years ago as the North American plate collided with the African plate, causing a folding and faulting of the earth’s crust in eastern North America.   From the Pinnacle, it is easy to see the result of this collision.  The view to the south and east reveals a landscape that resembles a crumpled carpet or the rippling waves that spread forth from the place where a pebble fell into a tranquil pond.   There are ridges and valleys running in a northeast-southwest direction across the great valley of East Tennessee.

Before that collision, some 320 million years ago, there was another collision.  That time it was between the North American and European plates.  This impact forced the North American plate downward below sea level.  Much of the area known as southern Appalachia was under a shallow ocean.  Animals with calcium-rich shells died and fell to floor of the sea and over time, their crusty remains formed limestone rock.  Other sediments fell to the floor and hardened into shale and sandstone layers.  When the most recent plate collision occurred, those pliable rock layers were folded, and in some places cracked, creating the beautiful landscape we see today.  The pressure and heat resulting from the impact transformed the core of the mountains into dense, sturdy metamorphic rock.

e scholars have argued that the Cumberland Gap was formed by water flowing over the area during the era of plate collisions.  As the North American plate buckled under the immense pressure generated by tectonic forces, the Appalachian Mountains rose slowly.  It is argued that as the uplift occurred an existing river cut the gap into its present shape.  There is new theory that offers an explanation for the formation of the Cumberland Gap.  Barry Vann, who is a historical geographer at Lincoln Memorial University, agrees that running water played a role in shaping the gap, but he thinks a violent impact removed the bulk of the soil and rocky material that once filled the void in Cumberland Mountain.  There is little debate among scholars that the bowl-shaped depressed area located to the northwest of the gap was created by a meteorite impact.   The city of Middlesboro, Kentucky, sits in the crater today.  Vann argues that the expulsion of debris during the meteorite impact blew out part of the Cumberland Mountain leaving the gap in its wake.    Research, however, needs to be conducted to test Vann’s theory.

In addition to its interesting geological history, the Cumberland Gap area is a visually striking place.  It is also one of the most significant places in American migration history.  Early pioneers could have crossed Cumberland Mountain at Pennington Gap in Virginia, but because Pine Mountain did not offer a low place to traverse it near that location, settlers were forced to travel 40 miles on to the Cumberland Gap where an old, well-worn path stretched northward through a pass in Pine Mountain some fourteen miles away.  To accommodate migrating families in search of western lands, Daniel Boone and 38 Woodsmen employed by Richard Henderson’s Transylvania Company blazed the Wilderness Road along the route in 1775.   The next section tells us how and why the old path was formed.

Before hunters and gatherers from Asia came into North America during the Pleistocene some 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, wooly mammoths and other animals that would become extinct lived in the region and traveled to and fro through the Gap, leaving a well-marked trail.  Bison, black bears, beavers, deer and elk made good use of the regional flora and were plentiful when the Cherokee, Shawnee, and Europeans first came to the area.

The Cherokee came to southern Appalachia (western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia) from the northeast where other tribes spoke similar Iroquoian languages.   They came to the region in the middle of the fifteenth century and established a capitol at Chota in Monroe County, Tennessee.

The Shawnee, whose name means “southern people of the Algonquin”, were pushed out of their villages in New York and Pennsylvania by rival Iroquois in the late seventeenth century.  Like the Cherokee, the Shawnee built small towns on river banks and were good at farming low-lying, fertile fields.  The Cherokee and Shawnee were conflicting rivals, and, as such, the country north of the Cumberland Gap was described as a “dark and bloody ground”.   The Great Warriors’ path, which ran from the Cherokee capitol at Chota (located in Monroe County, Tennessee), extended north through the Cumberland Gap following meandering hollows filled with canes and thorns.   The path also crossed rapidly flowing creeks and rivers until reaching the rolling “blue grass” area north of the Kentucky River.  This region, like its subsequent state name, was Kentucky.  Over time, the two nations came to use Kentucky primarily as a hunting ground.  Most of the Shawnee who had an interest in Kentucky lived in towns located near the Ohio River in the north.  Shawnee settlements such as Mekoche, Piqua, Chillicothe, Kispoko and Hathawekela were independent, patrilineal villages.

The Cherokee and migrating herds of buffalo used the relatively low-lying Powell Valley as a route to the Gap and into Kentucky.  The trail that they wore into the landscape extended eastward through the Powell Valley of Virginia to Moccasin Gap, near modern-day Johnson City, Tennessee.  There a trail split off to the north through the Shenandoah Valley.  That trail was called the “Great Indian Warpath”.   To the south of Moccasin Gap, a trail cut through East Tennessee to Chota and other paths provided routes across the mountains of western North Carolina all the way to the piedmont, the lands of the Catawba nation.  The Powell Valley in Tennessee was also marked by foot paths worn down by natives and wild game alike.

As will be seen in the next section, those ancient paths were widened into roads by Europeans as they pushed both the Native people and the frontier westward.   Although the Cherokee had sold Kentucky to the Transylvania Company in 1775, some among them, Dragging Canoe in particular, resisted giving up their hunting grounds to the settlers.  Adding fuel to the looming conflicts, French emissaries made an alliance with the Shawnee, who of course, disputed the Cherokee claim of ownership of their long-contested hunting grounds in Kentucky.  Those disputes and the fighting that resulted from them added greatly to Dragging Canoe’s declaration to Daniel Boone on the day of the sale that the whites would find Kentucky to be found to a “dark and bloody ground”.   During those turbulent years, the descendants of colonial settlers in the Cumberland Gap area began seeing themselves not as British subjects but as part of a new nation of Americans, although much their belief system and ways of life had changed little since their grandparents boarded overcrowded ships in European harbors

The Wilderness Road Blockhouse

The original Blockhouse, built by John Anderson near the North Fork of the Holston River in what is now Virginia’s East Carter’s valley, was where the Wilderness Trail began. It was the last safe haven for those migrating toward Kentucky, except for a chain of forts, most of which were evacuated during the height of the Indian Wars. The Blockhouse was specifically designed to be easily defended and virtually impenetrable by Indians. There are no known images or detailed surviving descriptions of the Anderson Blockhouse. However, such information does exist for blockhouse structures of the 1775 era and there is no evidence to suggest that John Anderson did not follow the established blockhouse construction practice. John Anderson built the Blockhouse about 1775 and lived at the site until his death in 1817.

Following the death of Chief Bob Benge in 1794 the Indian threat in Scott County disappeared and Anderson constructed a new two-story house. The Blockhouse was converted to a loom house and was used for that and related purposes until 1876. In that year the main house was destroyed by fire and the fire spread to the Blockhouse and it was destroyed also.

The Blockhouse was an important landmark for frontier travelers and served as the gathering place for hundreds of pioneers traveling the Wilderness Road to Kentucky between 1775 and 1800. It sat near the intersection of the pioneer roads coming down the valley of Virginia, trails up from the Carolinas and the Great Warriors Path connecting the Holston and Watauga Valley with the Ohio Valley. Various pioneer journals, the earliest being Brown’s (1782) and Filson’s (1784), identify the Blockhouse as the starting point for the Wilderness Road and provide distances from the Blockhouse to each of the stations between the Blockhouse and Philadelphia to the east and to Crab Orchard Kentucky in the west, where the Road ended. A monument was erected adjacent to the original Blockhouse site in 1921.

In 1998 the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Association received, with Congressman Rick Boucher’s assistance, a special Congressional appropriation from TEA-21 funding of $285,000 for construction of a replica of the Anderson Blockhouse.

The DBWTA was not able to negotiate a fair market price for the original Blockhouse site in East Carter’s Valley and other suitable property in that area was not available so it was necessary to look elsewhere for a site on which to construct the Blockhouse replica. As project planning progressed security, long term site care and sustainability of the developed site were addressed. With these issues in mind and the need for a suitable construction site Craig Seaver, Manager of Natural Tunnel State Park, was approached about the possibility of placing the Blockhouse at an appropriate site within the park. Craig was supportative and a presentation was made to the Director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. The Director approved the proposal and a unique, one-of-a-kind partnership was created with the Commonwealth of Virginia – a private non-profit organization using Federal funds to construct a privately owned permanent structure on State Park property. This partnership proved to be highly successful and will be used as a model for similar projects in the future. The grant received required a 20% local match, cash or in-kind. DCR provided A&E services pro bono to the project and that along with the surveying services provided pro bono by Saxon & Associates, legal services provided pro bono by Lisa Ann McConnell and architectural services provided pro bono by Kingsport engineering firm Spoden & Wilson covered the entire required 20% match. In addition, supporting monetary contributions were received from EASTMAN Chemical Company, Kingsport Times-News, Cox Ford Tractor and the Scott County Chamber of Commerce as well as private individuals.

Area historian, Dr. Lawrence Fleenor, and members of the DBWTA did historical research to determine the most probable historically correct design for the Blockhouse.  The final architectural design was produced by Hal Spoden who has extensive experience in the design of historic structures. Construction began in early 2003 and the Blockhouse was dedicated on October 27, 2003.

The Blockhouse site is accessible daily for public visitation. Outdoor interpretative panels enhance the visitor experience. During the spring, summer and fall the DBWTA presents living history events throughout the season, host visitors on Saturday and Sunday and conducts educational programs for area schools at the Blockhouse. In 2005 the Overmountain Men Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, with generous contributions from the Scott County Tourism Committee, the Scott County Chamber of Commerce the Manville Ruritan Club and the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Association placed a Revolutionary War Patriots memorial at the Blockhouse site.
The Wilderness Road Blockhouse received the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association regional Merit Award-Historic Preservation Division for 2004.

The Economic Engines That Fueled The Far Southwest Virginia Frontier

By: Lawrence J. Fleenor, Jr. & Edgar A. Howard

copyright- all rights reserved
Big Stone Gap, Va.
Dec. 1999

No society exists independent of its economic structure, and the economy of the frontier of far Southwest Virginia and adjacent parts of Kentucky and Tennessee has not been extensively studied. The frontier period was surprisingly short. A trickle of settlers began to take up land patents in Washington County and Scott County, Virginia in the mid 1760’s, and the settlement of the larger region of far Southwest Virginia was in full swing by a decade later. Land purchases by outsiders immigrating from the East had almost stopped by 1800, as by then the frontier had moved on to the West. Most of the land exchanges in these counties began to be between the original settlers and their children and their neighbor’s children. The last Indian raid into Virginia was the April 1794 Livingston raid by Chief Benge of the Chickamauga Cherokee. That year Col. James King started his iron works at the mouth of Steele Creek in Bristol. He shipped iron products “throughout the South” by boat from Kingsport, and paid his teamsters in cash. In 1803 James King, brother of William, started the Saltworks in Saltville. It was an industrial operation, with exports throughout the South, and with its commerce being conducted across a toll road running between Abingdon and Saltville, with tolls payable in cash only.

So the frontier period of this region ran roughly from 1765 to 1794, or 1800 at the latest. What was the economic structure that supported this frontier society, and how did it evolve so rapidly into a cash based farming and industrial one?

Even though original land patents and grants averaged around 150 acres, a number of the settlers were able to amass considerable estates consisting of thousands of acres of land, and of slaves. Neither were cheap. Land sold for an average of $3.00 – $5.00 an acre. Estates of 2,000 – 3,000 acres were not rare. Slaves cost $300 – $500 each, and even though most settlers did not own any, the large estates might average about a half dozen or so. Therefore, some settlers were able to amass estates worth about $14,000 in land and in slaves alone. (3,000 acres of land X $4.00 = $12,000 plus 6 slaves @ $400 = $2,400.)

In order to give some means of reference to understand the magnitude of this wealth in terms of that era, consider the value of the following items, taken from estate appraisals of that time and place:

wagon $65.00
woman saddle and gear 7.00
cow 7.00
horse 50.00
rifle gun 5.00
maple sugar per pound .10
hog 1.00
sheep 1.00

The life story of the typical settler was that he had arrived in North America either near penniless or in significant debt. After working out their indebtedness, they frequently hired on as farm hands in the East, where half a generation might pass before they had acquired enough cash to buy a land warrant from the government, to buy a little farming gear, and to support themselves and their family until they could make a home on their new land on the frontier. Once this was done, few had any extra cash left over.

The commonly held view of the frontier is that it was a cashless society, economically disconnected from the East, functioning on a barter economy based on an industry of hunting and gathering, and of marginal agriculture. If this were true, where did the cash come from to pay for the rapid build up of those wealthy estates, events that occurred with startlingly little passage of time?

Another question to be answered is why was it so common for some settlers to choose forested hilly or mountainous land for themselves, rather than the already cleared Indian fields in the river bottoms? Some of the first settlers did so, even when rich bottom land lay close at hand. Examples are the drainages of Cove Creek and of Smith Creek in Washington and Scott Counties, which were acquired early on by both settlers and by local land speculators. And then there is the widely held tradition that the settlers came looking for good land to grow tobacco. What evidence is there that tobacco was a significant factor in the local pioneer economy?

The local economy generated no cash within itself. All cash had to come from the East. The original settlers arrived with little disposable cash left over after they had established their homes on the frontier. So, by what means did they bring in all that cash from the East? Certainly, in the beginning, additional settlers from the East brought in cash with them, which they exchanged with the earlier settlers for land. But, as we have seen, this process had ended by approximately the year 1800, as settlement moved on to the West as the frontier rolled on. Where did the prospering large estate builders and the children of the original settlers get the cash to buy their land after the infusion of money brought in by the late arrivals dried up? It could have only come from the production and export and sale to the East of some transportable commodity which was in demand in the East, and which could be transported the four hundred miles or so to the cities and ports there. Could the forested hilly, mountainous, land so often sought by the original settlers have been part of the answer?

The hills of Far Southwest Virginia contained no valuable minerals, except for coal, which was not yet in commercial demand, and was too bulky to transport in the pioneer period. The hill crests were covered with a chestnut dominant hard wood forest. The lumber was too bulky to transport, and too common in the east to have been valuable. Whisky and tobacco are sometimes mentioned as export commodities by those few people who believe that the frontier had any economy other than one of local barter. But even whisky was bulky and wooden barrels difficult to transport on a trip that took a season to complete. Tobacco was even more bulky, and required weather proof transport in giant wooden hogsheads over impassable muddy roads. Tobacco’s value was waning by this time, and even the giant plantations of the Tidewater estuaries, such as Mount Vernon, were abandoning it in favor of bulk grains. What evidence is there of significant whisky or of tobacco exporting?

Perhaps the ethnic history of the settlers might contain some clue. Most of the English stayed east of the Blue Ridge. The settlers of Far Southwest Virginia were mostly from either Scotland, Ireland, or Germany.

The Scots-Irish are known for their habit of making whisky. But they had also been sheep herders in the old country. Long distance cattle and sheep drives had been a cultural hallmark for them, as well. Could the production and export of either live sheep, or of mutton, or of wool have been the answer to the economic riddle? The Virginia and Kentucky frontier is the wettest region of the contiguous United States, except for the coast of Washington and Oregon States. Sheep get a disease called ‘foot rot’ when they are raised in wet regions, and they also tolerate the summer’s heat in this region poorly. Sheep also need lots of grassy pasture to live on, and in the early years there was not much of that around. Tax records and estate appraisals of that era show that, while many settlers had some sheep, most did not keep more than they needed themselves for wool. In fact, the rapidity with which the Scots-Irish dropped their traditional sheep herding ways once they arrived in this country is startling.

The Germans, on the other hand, had lived in Europe on an economy based on raising hogs by letting them run loose in the woods, where they ate the wild nuts – primarily acorns. German cuisine was pork based. Is there any evidence that the commodity that generated the cash that supported the frontier economy was pork?

A History of Kentucky by Thomas D. Clark provides the first key. He states “By 1812 Kentuckians were driving 800,000 hogs a year eastward along the trails across the mountains.” The economy of Eastern Kentucky was similar to that of neighboring Southwest Virginia twenty years earlier.

The key to this economy was the American Chestnut. In the fall the forest floor was covered with these highly nutritious nuts. The settlers let their hogs, which were similar to today’s razor backs, run free in the forests, where they fattened on chestnuts. After having been branded by a system of notches and slashes carved into their ears (for example “a notch on top of the left ear, a slash on its bottom; two slashes on the top of the right ear, and a slash on its bottom”) which identified their owners, they were turned loose and reverted to the wild. Later they were hunted with dogs like wild animals, before being driven on foot to the markets on the East Coast. The drovers passed through Southwest Virginia, and would have picked up additional swine as they went. The hogs not only transported themselves to market, but ate off of the land while on the way. In the East they were shipped to the Caribbean, or to New England, or were converted to salt pork for the shipping chandler’s trade. Thus the Old World life style of the Scots-Irish continued on the frontier, but they abandoned the large scale sheep raising and driving in favor of their German neighbor’s hog.

This practice, without the hog drives to the East, continued till living memory, when the chestnut blight of the late 1920’s destroyed the American Chestnut and the economies and food chains based on it.

What evidences do we have that the counties of Far Southwestern Virginia that were near to Kentucky also practiced hog exporting? In The Civil War in Buchanan and Wise Counties; Bushwhacker’s Paradise, the author tabulates the stock owned in these counties. The county furtherest removed by the droving routes to the eastern markets, Buchanan, had 3,882 hogs, or 13.7 per farm. Wise County, located closer to, but not on, the droving routes, had 10,847 hogs, or 20.8 per farm. (These numbers are for the year 1860). As a comparison the comparable populations of sheep were 6.2 & 8.2 per farm; and the same figures for cows were 8.7 & 7.9 respectively.

These numbers represent well over one hog per person (including children) per year, an obvious excess. This excess had no local market, as everyone had their own hogs reproducing and fattening for free in the woods. The only possible destination for this documented excess was the Eastern Market.

The comparable figures for Scott and Washington Counties have not been tabulated, but we do know that among the most prominent land acquirers, and those who had bought much of the non tillable hilly land (think chestnuts), large scale hog ownership was extraordinarily common.

Consider the case of settler M. F., who started off owning nothing, but died having owned much of the Valley of the North Fork of the Holston from Pine Grove to Mongle Springs, a distance of about fifteen miles. Records have been found showing that at least 3,849 acres passed through his hands, and that he retained ownership of 1,807 acres at the time of his death. Further analysis shows that he acquired this estate at a net cash cost of about one fourth the going rate, the other three fourths of the cost having been his profit in his land speculation. He had to come up with the one dollar per acre that he did not make in land speculation from somewhere else. The answer to this question is in the analysis of his taxable assets. One year’s records show that he owned 180 hogs, while his household did not exceed about a dozen people. He owned no tobacco or evidence of distilling.

Settler H. R., of Washington County, lived a little after the pioneer period, but his estate in 1860 showed that he owned 2440 acres, and 100 beef cattle, 60 sheep, 68 swine, and 70 lb. of maple sugar, but no tobacco.

The back counties of Buchanan and Dickenson showed little difference in economic activity. To be sure, the farms were not of the large estate size sometimes seen in Washington and Scott Counties, but the ratio of stock owned was about the same. Settler J. M. owned 46 hogs and 31 cattle. Farmer A. V. owned 6 cows, but had 65 sheep and 50 swine and no tobacco nor evidence of distilling. Other farmers in these counties showed similar patterns. None owned over 50 pounds of tobacco, with those few who did own any usually having about 20 pounds.

The 70 pounds of maple sugar owned by H. R. is of obvious significance. That much maple sugar was a great deal more than he and his family needed for a condiment for their own table, or for the curing of hams for their own use, and would suggest a commercial venture. Table sugar, as we know it today, would not become readily available for another half a century. Making maple sugar required a tremendous effort. A gallon of sap will make only about a tablespoon or two of sugar, and the labor to saw and split the firewood necessary to convert the sap to sugar was awesome. Maple sugar is not to be found in the estate records of most of the pioneers, but a large minority made significant quantities. By in large, these maple sugar producers owned slaves. So, here we have evidence of commodity specialization on an industrial scale. Doubtlessly, some was sold or bartered locally, but was maple sugar the export commodity that we are looking for?

A review of the estate appraisal of N. F., M. F’s brother, and who settled in Washington County in 1773, gives further insight into these issues. He, also, had immigrated in near poverty, but had amassed around 900 acres by the time of his death. He did not engage in land speculation. Where did he get the money to buy this land? He owned no tobacco, only 14 cattle, 26 sheep, and 39 hogs. He had a household of about 15 people. What he did own was 93 pounds of maple sugar!

We also find a wealthy neighbor of his, C. C., who owned about 2,000 acres of very good land, being in the large scale production of maple sugar at “Sugar Hollow” in lower Rich Valley.

The key to the maple sugar issue is a review of the other items in N. F.’s estate. He owned twenty three still tubs, 26 crocks with strainers, an apple press, and a still (the researchers have found only two stills documented among the estates of his neighbors). Not listed were his orchards of peaches and of apples, and he also had 54.5 bushels of rye. This is the only rye the researchers have found documented.

N. F. was a commercial distiller of apple and of peach brandy; and of rye whisky. The maple sugar was used in this process. The ardent spirits were put into large hogsheads, and were sledded to Lynchburg, where they were loaded on board a boat for export. Brandy making was a German cultural trait, while rye whisky is the hallmark of the Scots-Irish.

So, here, we have evidences of the Frontier economy. As far away as Eastern Kentucky, and certainly including Far Southwest Virginia, the economies from almost the beginning were not isolated, and were tied in with the East. The counties of Washington and of Scott had some large estates, while the back counties had only small farms. Doubtlessly much local bartering went on, but there was a large cash commerce with the East, and there is evidence of differences of emphasis within the region, and of specialization of production bordering on the industrial level in Washington County.

Most of the farmers through out the area were engaged in significant hog production for export. Others, primarily in Russell and Dickenson Counties, did raise some excess sheep, even though there hogs were the main commodity produced. There was little tobacco raised, and none in quantities sufficient for export. Distilling was not wide spread, and no evidence of corn whisky production on a commercial scale is found. Two large commercial enterprises of brandy manufacture with a little rye whisky also, are documented, and a major part of that industry was the related production of maple sugar on a comparatively large scale. Traditionally these large distilling enterprises were licensed with the Federal Government, but in some instances they also hid a larger local illegal moonshining operation.

In summary, the frontier economy of Far Southwest Virginia and adjacent areas of Tennessee and of Kentucky was not in complete isolation from the East. While land speculation was a significant endeavor for a few, commodity export to the East for cash, mostly of hogs, was nearly ubiquitous, and had existed almost from the beginning. Specialization of production of commodities developed early on, and led seamlessly into industrial production, beginning even as Indians were still raiding the region. Large estates and small fortunes rapidly developed from the beginning. There was cultural borrowing from among neighbors of different ethnic origins. This view of the local frontier economy is much different from the conventional ideas so firmly believed. The frontier was not cashless, tobacco and bourbon whisky were not significant items of export, and large scale specialized commercial manufacture of maple sugar involving the use of slaves was common. One even sees evidence that there was more cash on the frontier than there was in the same region in the period of devastation following the Civil War more than half a century later.


Armentrout, Janet – communication to the authors

Clark, Brad – conversation with one of the authors

Clark, Thomas D. – A History of Kentucky

Fischer, David H. – Albion’s Seed

Hearl, G. Lee – communication to one of the authors

“National Geographic” – vol. 196, no. 6 pg. 126

O’Donnell, Mabel – Singing Wheels

Robertson, Rhonda – The Washington County Surveyor’s Record 1781-1792 –
tract analysis extracted by the authors

Rolston, Fielding – communication with one of the authors

“Smithsonian” – January 2000 issue’s article on George Washington

Summers, Lewis Preston – History of Southwest Virginia and of Washington

Washington Co. Historical Society’s on line records of wills, estate
appraisals etc.

Weaver, Jeffrey – The Civil War in Buchanan and Wise Counties –
Bushwhacker’s Paradise

Fort Blackmore

Written by Sally Kelly

The site of Fort Blackmore can be reached from Gate City, Virginia. At the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail sign in front of the Scott County Courthouse, proceed East (right) on Jackson Street/Rt. 71. After approximately two miles, turn left onto Rt. 72, following signs for the present day community of Fort Blackmore. After about ten miles, you will cross over the Clinch River on a large bridge. Historical Fort Blackmore was on the north bank (far bank), to the left of the bridge. The site is on private property. At the north end of the bridge, on your left, is a monument erected by the DAR which tells about Daniel Boone and his connection with Fort Blackmore. To return to the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail, turn around and retrace the route.

John Blackmore settled on land at the mouth of Stoney Creek on the Clinch River in 1773. He purchased 518 acres from the Loyal Land Company, and his acreage was surveyed on March 25, 1774 by Captain Daniel Smith, deputy surveyor for Fincastle County. At about the same time, surveys were entered for Isaac Crisman, John Thomas, Dale Carter, and John Blackmore, Jr.

At this time, Daniel Boone and his family had been living on land owned by David Gass, near Castle’s Woods, some dozen or more miles east; ever since Boone’s son James was killed by Indians as a party of settlers made its attempt to go to Kentucky in October, 1773. Young Boone, on that occasion, was traveling separate from the main party, in company with Henry Russell and others. Russell, son of Captain William Russell, “a Gentleman of Some distinction.” according to Royal Governor Lord Dunmore, was the organizer of that attempt, and Boone was the logician. After the murder, the immigration effort was aborted and some of the settlers returned to the Yadkin, and a few stayed on in the Clinch and Holston settlements.

In the aftermath of the murder of the boys, one of the survivors, one Isaac Crabtree killed an innocent Cherokee at a horse race near what is now Jonesborough, Tennessee. This event, and another brutal slaying by white frontiersmen of the nine members of the Mingo tribe on the Ohio in April of 1774 had stirred the tribes along the frontier into a war-like mood. Those few men taking up land on the Clinch were brave souls for many “families on the river had moved back to safety” according to surveyor Smith.

Much of the detail that is known of Fort Blackmore comes from the correspondence of officers of the militia during the following months, in what became known as “Lord Dunmore’s War.” The commanding officer of the Fincastle County Militia was Colonel William Preston, who resided near what is now Blacksburg, Virginia, on the New River. Officers reporting to him included Captain Russell on the Clinch; Major Arthur Campbell, Fort Shelby – at what is now Bristol; and Captain Daniel Smith, mentioned above. In a letter dated May 24, 1774, Colonel Andrew Lewis, of Augusta County, advised Preston that “Hostilities are actually commenced on the Ohio below Pittsburg.” In a War Council in June at the Lead Mines, near Fort Chiswell on the New River, it was decided to send militia under Colonel William Christian, Augusta County, to aid William Russell; and “at Preston’s instigation, William Russell sent Daniel Boone and Michael Stoner to tell John Floyd and other surveyors to come in from Kentucky. These two left for Kentucky on June 27, 1774.” This mission would first bring the previously obscure Boone’s name to widespread public attention.

It was a tense time among the scattered settlers along the Clinch River. On July 12, Colonel Christian wrote Preston that “four forts [are] erecting in Capt. Russell’s Company; one at Moore’s, four miles below this, another at Blackmore’s 16 Miles above this Place [Castle’s Wood] I am about to station 10 Men at Blackmore’s.” On the 13th, Captain Russell notified Preston “there are four families at John Blackmore’s near the mouth of Stoney Creek, that will never be able to stand it, without a Commd. Of Men, therefore request you, if you think it can be done, to Order them a supply sufficient to enable them to continue the small fortification they have erected.” Thus the fort took the name of the man on whose land it was built. Captain James Thompson was the first officer put in command of the little fort.

Men in the community were quite eager to join Lord Dunmore’s expedition to stop the Indians on the Ohio before they could come into the frontier settlements. Col. Preston had stated, “the plunder of the Country will be valluable. . . . it is said the Shawnese have a great Stock of Horses.” Those in command along the Clinch and Holston had difficulty manning the local forts with many eligible men wishing to go. On August 27, Daniel Boone returned from his mission to Kentucky; and almost immediately begged of Major Campbell to be sent on to Point Pleasant on the Ohio. Lord Dunmore had agreed to meet the forces from back country counties there with men he brought along from Tidewater. Boone set out, but was called back by Captain Russell to help defend the little Clinch River community as officer in command at Moore’s Fort. On September 21, Captain Thompson went out with those Ohio-bound forces, and Captain David Looney was put in command at Blackmore’s Fort.

On September 23 or 24, it was reported that “2 negroes [were] taken prisoner at Blackmore’s Fort, on waters of Clinch River, and a great many horses and cattle were shot down.” Captain Looney was absent, visiting his family on the Holston. Major Campbell wrote Col. Preston on the 29th that “Mr Boon is very diligent at Castle Woods and keeps up good Order. I have reason to believe they have lately been remiss at Blackmores, and the Spys there did not do their duty.” Two days later he wrote “Mr. Boone also informs me that the Indians has been frequently about Blackmores, since the Negroes was taken; And Capt. Looney has so few Men that he cannot venture to go in pursuit of them, having only eleven men.”

On the sixth of October Campbell wrote to say that Indians had attacked at Shelby’s Fort without success; and the day after that, he said, was the attack at Fort Blackmore. An alarm of their presence was given by Dale Carter, crying “Murder, Murder!” Ensign John Anderson and John Carter ran out of the fort to help, but Dale Carter was killed and scalped; and the slaves were taken. After this, the people of the area were feeling that they needed a commander who lived on the Clinch. October 13, Captain Smith wrote Col. Preston that he had been shown a paper signed by inhabitants requesting the appointment of Daniel Boone to be Captain and take charge of the Clinch forts. Smith endorsed this request and stated “I do not know of any Objection that could be made to his character which would make you think him an improper person for that office.” Preston immediately promoted him. Boone treasured his commission and carried it with him always until he was promoted again during the Revolution.

Meanwhile, information was beginning to be received in these frontier parts that a battle had been fought at Point Pleasant on the Ohio between the forces of Colonel Andrews and the Indian tribes on October 10. Those forces met up with the Indians before they could join up with Lord Dunmore’s men, and fought a very successful engagement. Shortly thereafter, Dunmore negotiated a peace agreement ending the hostilities at Camp Charlotte. Some portion of the Shawnee nation agreed to give up it hunting rights in Kentucky if settlers would remain below the Ohio River. Local militias were disbanded, and November 21, Daniel Boone was dismissed from his duties.

The Cherokee now were the only force with which to be reckoned for the settlement of Kentucky. Again, Daniel Boone would support a prominent man in a Kentucky settlement venture. Judge Richard Henderson of North Carolina, in late 1774, negotiated with Cherokee chiefs to purchase a large plot on land in Kentucky, irregardless that he could not do so legally; and that the Cherokee had no real claim to the land they sold to him either. He engaged Boone to go among the Cherokee during late 1774 to encourage them to meet at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga in March, 1775, for the formal agreement and transfer of the goods that would pay for the purchase. Boone returned to the Clinch in early February and gathered some twenty men there to help him blaze the path through Cumberland Gap to the land Henderson wanted. Not all are known, they included Michael Stoner, David Gass, William Bush, and William Hays. It is not unlikely that this group included some of the men from the Fort Blackmore area. Squire Boone brought others from North Carolina and the combined band of trail blazers set out from John Anderson’s Blockhouse, on the North Fork of Holston, on March 10.

Boone left the new Kentucky settlement, named Boonesborough in his honor, on June 13, 1775, enroute once more for the Clinch. “Boone set off for his family.” Henderson wrote in his journal. When Daniel arrived there, he found Rebecca about to give birth. In late July, she gave birth to a son, William, who did not survive. In mid August, Boone and family, and a party of some 50 immigrants set off for Kentucky. Probably some of them were men from the Fort Blackmore area; and the party would certainly have passed the fort, perhaps stopping overnight, in their westward journey. This ends Boone’s association with Fort Blackmore. But the fort continued as a place of refuge for many more years.

1775 was a relatively peaceful year east of Cumberland Gap, but hostilities with the Cherokee came again in 1776. Warriors who did not agree with the chiefs who treated with Richard Henderson, led by one Dragging Canoe, began attacks along the frontier. And there were many Indian attacks in Kentucky that caused large numbers of immigrants to flee back over the Cumberlands to the Clinch, Holston, and Watauga settlements. One such Kentuckian, William Hickman, arrived at Fort Blackmore on the Clinch, where he found other refugees “sporting, dancing, and drinking whiskey in an attempt to forget their fears.” “Things could get pretty rancid.” he said, “after a long period of confinement in a row or two of smoky cabins, among dirty women and men with greased hunting shirts.” In June, two men were killed at the fort. And in September one Jennings and his slave met death at the hands of Indians. Other forts had been erected along the Powell River, west towards Cumberland Gap, during 1775, including Priests, Mumps, and Martin’s. Col. Joseph Martin’s station was erected in January of that year, and he noted in his journal the stopover of the Henderson party of Kentucky settlers about the first of April. Col. Martin left in May to visit at his home in Virginia. Soon the people from Mump’s and Priest’s were driven out. When there were no more than ten left alive at Martin’s, those men fled to Fort Blackmore, where they found most of the people from the Mump’s and Priest’s forts.

In July, 1776, Cherokees in force attacked at the fort at Sycamore Shoals on the Watuaga, and battled local militia at the Battle of Long Island Flats, near present Kingsport, Tennessee. About the same time, one Ambrose Fletcher, living near Fort Blackmore, had his wife and children killed and scalped. Colonel William Christian was again called upon by Col. Preston, this time to put down the Cherokee uprising. Jonathan Jennings of Fort Blackmore, and father of the Jennings who was killed, mentioned above, accompanied that expedition to the Cherokee towns on the Middle Tennessee River.

After that, mention of Fort Blackmore in the known historical record becomes scanty. There is one famous story, dating from 1777, that may or may not be true. Men in the fort heard a turkey gobbling. They wanted to go out hunting, but were prevented by a knowledgeable backwoodsman, one Matthew Gray. He convinced them that they were hearing Indians. He directed the men to create a distraction on the bank of the river, while he snuck across the Clinch. He was able to get where he could see the Indian warrior perched in a tree, making the turkey noises. Mr. Gray dispatched the “turkey” and fled back into the fort with the others.

In 1779, John Blackmore and his family left the area to travel with the Donelson party, traveling by flatboat, to settle in middle Tennessee. Donelson mentions meeting up with the Blackmore group at the mouth of Clinch where it joins the Holston, so John Blackmore’s band must have gone down the Clinch by flatboat. Perhaps not all Blackmores left the Clinch – or possibly some came back – for they are mentioned again in April, 1790 in the journal of Methodist Bishop John Asbury. “We rode down to Blackmore’s Station, here the people have been forted on the north side of Clinch. Poor Blackmore had had a son and daughter killed by the Indians. The are of the opinion here that the Chrokees were the authors of this mischief.” Asbury goes on to say he had heard of two families being killed and of one woman being taken prisoner, but retaken by neighbors A few days later, the Bishop traveled on, noting that he “Crossed the Clinch about two miles below the fort. In passing along I saw the precipice from which Blackmore’s unhappy son leaped into the river after receiving the stroke of the tomahawk in his head . . . this happened on the 6th of April 1789.”

Indian attacks on settlers along the Clinch, Holston, and Watuaga Rivers did not cease until after 1794, when a half breed, Benge, who had led many of the forays, was killed near what is now Big Stone Gap. Benge committed his last crimes near what is now Mendota, Virginia, on the North Fork of the Holston. He fled, with two captive women, over the Clinch Mountain, Copper Ridge, and, finally, High Knob Mountain before being caught up with. This route probably took him very near Fort Blackmore. And so, it was right in the middle of Indian unrest from its beginning to its end. Just exactly when it was abandoned as a fort is not known. The land owner believes he is able to point out where the fort stood; but, for the most part, it has disappeared from sight. Its little cemetery is still findable, below the current highway bridge over the river, and to its right, near the bank of the river. Scott Countians who care for old cemeteries keep it cleaned and accessible. Many of it graves are unmarked.

The History of Yellow Creek

Copyright:  Lawrence J. Fleenor, Jr.
All rights reserved
Big Stone Gap, Va.
Feb. 2004

Yellow Creek runs throughout American History, and its implications for Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee are tremendous.  The course that the stream cuts through our past is intriguing and far reaching.

The Indian Confederacy that lived in the Hudson and Mohawk River Valleys is referred to in the English tradition as the “Iroquois”, but the first European settlers of that region were the Dutch, and they referred to these Indians as the “Mingo”  (a competing scholarly tradition holds that the Mingo are the remnants of the Erie, who were mostly wiped out by the Iroquois).  This Confederacy consisted initially of five separate tribes, the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca, and later were joined by their cousins from North Carolina, the Tuscaroras.  They held suzerainty over other great tribes, such as the Delaware and the Shawnee.

For reasons that are lost to history, in the 1750’s fragments of several of the separate tribes of the Iroquois and of the tribes dominated by them came to live together as a “tribe” or as a confederacy in the Ohio Valley.  The earliest references to them call them “the Ohio Seneca”.  George Washington’s 1753-54 map of the Ohio country shows “Mingo Town” as being on the Ohio River about 20 miles below Pittsburgh.  Later they lived among the Shawnee on the Scioto River in Ohio, and later still in modern Mingo and Logan Counties, West Virginia, in the area of Williamson.

John James Logan is the best known leader of the Mingoes.  Born in 1725 and named Tah-Gah-Jute, his mother was a Cayuga and his father, Shikellamy, was a French Canadian who had been captured as a child by the Oneida and had been raised as one of them, and later became a chief of that tribe.  The Iroquois sent Shikellamy to their subservient tribe, the Delaware, as their representative.  In that capacity he made the friendship of the Secretary of the Colony of Pennsylvania, James Logan, and named his son after him.

After the tribal displacements of the French and Indian War John Logan moved to Ohio and married a Shawnee, and the early 1770’s found them living in Western Pennsylvania just to the east of Wheeling.

Hermann Groethausen was born in Germany, and immigrated to Pennsylvania.  His son was Harman Greathouse, settled in Holiday’s Cove in current West Virginia.  One night his cabin was attacked by a party of Indians, who tried to pry open the door while Herman was shooting at them out the cabin’s portholes.  Mrs. Greathouse and a Mrs. Muncy made a great commotion inside the cabin, and called out imaginary men’s names, urging them to arm themselves with powder and ball.  Then the intrepid Mrs. Greathouse fired a rifle from the upstairs window, and the Indians, convinced that the house was filled with armed men, left.

Herman had a son named Daniel, and who lived on his 400 acres in 1771 at Mingo Bottom in Ohio County, Virginia (now West Virginia).  Yellow Creek flows into the Ohio some forty miles above Wheeling.  A Mr. Baker operated a tavern at the mouth of Yellow Creek, and sold alcohol to both Whites and to Indians.  Tensions were already heightened due to several murders back and forth among the settlers and the Indians.  Who had drawn first blood is long forgotten.  Word was sent out from Fort Pitt for the settlers to congregate at the fort, as war seemed likely.  Baker was preparing to evacuate when a squaw came across the river and told him that the Indians were preparing to murder him and his family.  Baker called for help, and Daniel Greathouse and 21 other men responded, and on April 30, 1774 they concealed themselves in Baker’s back room.  Soon nine (some records say seven) Indians, including almost all of Logan’s kin, crossed the river and came into Baker’s Tavern.  Among them were Logan’s brother, and two women and a child.  The Indians drank heavily, and Logan’s brother put on a coat and hat belonging to one of the white men, and was promptly shot.  The concealed Greathouse party then rushed out of the back room, and killed all the Indians except for the child.  They then rushed out of the house and saw two canoes filled with armed war painted Indians crossing the River toward the tavern.  The whites fired on the Indians, killing most of the occupants of one of the canoes, and driving the second back across the river.  Greathouse scalped the Indians, and tied the trophies to his belt.

Weeks before the Yellow Creek massacre, some Cherokee had stolen a settler’s horses, and had killed two of the whites.  On April 16th the Cherokee killed some employees of the trader Butler.  Emotions on the frontier became superheated.  A Captain of Rangers, Michael Cresap, was near Wheeling at the time, and recruited some backwoodsmen and declared war on all Indians.  They planted a war post, and did a war dance around it.  On the 27th, Cresap, and his militia company murdered some peaceful Indians that likely included friends and relatives of Logan.  The next day Cresap and his men attacked a party of Shawnee who had come to trade at Fort Pitt, and killed one of them and wounded two others.  At the time, Cresap publicly boasted of the murders.  What really were three separate massacres became quickly fused in people’s minds as a single event.

This “Yellow Creek Massacre” was the immediate cause of Lord Dunmore’s War of later in 1774.  Tensions were already high because the Iroquois had negotiated the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, in which they ceded their lands in the Ohio Valley south of the river to the British.  While the Iroquois themselves did not live there, their subservient tribes, the Shawnee and the Mingoes, did.  After Yellow Creek, the Shawnee and the Mingoes went on the war path, and Logan went berserk.  Lord Dunmore was the Royal Governor of Virginia, and led a two pronged attack against the Shawnee.  One column Dunmore, himself, led down the Ohio River from Fort Pitt, while another consisting of frontiersmen from Southwest Virginia, collided on October 10th with the Indians at Point Pleasant, where the Great Kanawha River meets the Ohio.  A terrible day long pitched battle occurred, and at the end the Shawnee withdrew from the field and returned to Ohio.  It had been a near thing.  This “Battle of Point Pleasant” is often referred to as the only conflict of the war.  This was not so.  The entire frontier from Pennsylvania to Tennessee had been involved in raids and killings.

The Indian strategy had been for the Shawnee under Chief Cornstalk to march up the Kanawha / New River into Virginia, and to drive the settlers out.  Being a much smaller tribe, the Mingo had been assigned the task of harassing the settlements in Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee in order to draw off militiamen from their campaign to attack the Shawnee.  Logan, admittedly lusting for blood after the Yellow Creek Massacre, led his warriors into the Valleys of the Clinch and Holston.

On September 8th Logan and his Mingo attacked the North Fork of the Holston and assaulted Samuel Lammey, John and Archibald Buchanan, and John Henry.  The settlements on the Main Fork of the Holston evacuated to Royal Oak at Marion.  On September the 13th Mingoes attacked a militiaman near Maiden Spring Fort in Tazewell County.  On the 23rd Logan and his warriors attacked Fort Blackmore in Scott County.  They then went on the 24th to King’s Mill (Kingsport) and killed the John Roberts family, except for a boy whom they took captive.  Then on the 29th Logan went to Moore’s Fort in Castlewood where Daniel Boone was in command, where John Duncan was killed.  On October 9th they simultaneously again attacked Fort Blackmore and the Fort at Sapling Grove (Bristol Tennessee).  Logan was pursued back into West Virginia by way of the Breaks of the Big Sandy by a party of militiamen led by a man named McClure, all to no avail.  Logan personally took thirty scalps during the war.

After Logan’s raid, Arthur Campbell, the commander of the Militia, sent in a report to his superiors, which included the story of the eight year old son of John Roberts, who had been tomahawked and scalped and who was later found by his uncle.  Campbell said, “…and he (the boy) returned sensible answers, shewed his murdered patents and sisters, his brother is not found, and I suppose captured.”  The boy had received “but one blow with a Tomhake on the back of his Head, which cut thro his scull, but it is generally believed his Brains is safe, as he continues to talk sensibly.”  The boy lived two weeks.  Campbell further reported that “the boy who was scalped is dead.  He was an extraordinary example of patience and resolution in his last, frequently lamenting he ‘was not able to fight enough to same his mammy’.”

To drop back in time a little bit, in July Logan had captured as settler named William Robinson on the Monongahela River.  Robinson was tied to the stake by Logan’s braves, with intent to torture and then to burn him alive.  Logan cut Robinson loose from the stake, and three days later Logan came to Robinson with paper and gunpowder ink and asked him to write down the following message:

“Captain Cresap – What did you kill my people on Yellow Creek for?  The white     people killed my kin at Conestoga a great while ago, and I thought nothing of     that.  But you killed my kin again on Yellow Creek, and took my cousin prisoner.      Then I thought I must kill, too, and I have been three times to war since; but the     Indians are not angry, only myself.  July 21, 1774 – Captain John Logan”

This message was carried by the war party on their foray into the Holston Valley, and was left by the bodies of the Roberts family at King’s Mill.  Logan seemed to not know of the role that Greathouse had played in the massacres, and he came to blame Cresap alone for them.

This sentiment came to light again in a statement dictated by Logan at the peace negotiations that ended Lord Dunmore’s War.  Logan would not appear at the peace conference, his attitude being characterized by the other Indians as “being like a mad dog, with his bristles up.”  Lord Dunmore sent an aide named John Gibson to plead with him.  Logan instead dictated the following message:

“I appeal to any white man to say if ever he entered Logan’s cabin hungry, and he     gave him not meat; if ever he came cold and naked, and he clothed him not.      During the course of the last long and bloody war Logan remained idle in his     cabin, an advocate for peace.  Such was my love for the whites that my     countrymen pointed as they passed and said, ‘Logan is the friend of the white     men.’  I had even thought to have lived with you but for the injuries of one man.      Colonel Cresap, the last spring, in cold blood and unprovoked, murdered all the     relations of Logan, not even sparing my women and children.  There runs not a     drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This called on me for     revenge.  I have sought it; I have killed many; I have fully glutted my vengeance.      For my country I rejoice at the beams of peace.  But do not harbor a thought that     mine is the joy of fear; Logan never felt fear.  He will not turn on his heel to save     his life.  Who is there to mourn for Logan?  Not one.”

Even though the settlers had won Lord Dunmore’s War, it remained a bitter experience for many.  Due to Logan’s pronouncements, which were widely printed in newspapers up and down the colonies, Cresap was the recipient of much hatred by the whites.  George Rogers Clark, who was soon to become famous as the conqueror of the Old Northwest Territory, was a member of the Cresap company, and knew the truth about the recent massacres and of Cresap’s role in them. As the militiamen were discussing Logan’s speech around the campfire, Clark turned to Cresap and jeered and rallied against him.  Cresap was much angered, and swore that he had a good mind to tomahawk Greathouse.  Cresap hated Greathouse as long as he lived, and history has largely exculpated him of his role in the massacres.

After the peace conference had ended, Patrick Porter, a militiaman from present Dungannon, Scott County, Virginia, was preparing to return home when Logan approached him.  Logan asked Porter to take a Mingo orphan boy, whose parents had been killed by whites, home with him.  Porter at first refused, fearful that the Mingoes would follow and kill him.  But Logan said that he would tell the Indians that the boy had drowned.  Logan said further, “I want you to take Dale, the lonely Mingo boy, because he wants to go with you, Patrick.  It is strange.  It is strange indeed that he wants to go with you.  But he says he wants to learn to read and write.  He says you can teach him. He wants to become a missionary among the whites.  Porter replied again, “I am afraid your tribesmen will come to the Clinch and kill my family.”  “Mr. Porter”, Chief Logan said, many a time I was on the Clinch River.  Many a time I could have killed you.  But I did not.  I did not because I heard you were a good man.  You are good to your children, I’ve heard. That makes me love you.  I know you will be good to Dale.  I was near your fort on the Clinch once and I was about to steal your horse.  It was just after night fall. I put a small shock of fodder over me and I moved toward your fort.  Then I heard a child scream and I thought I was detected.  I threw down the fodder and ran.  Mr. Porter, did you see that fodder shock?”  ‘Yes,” said Mr. Porter, “I saw it.  I was on guard at the fort gate that night.  I saw the fodder moving and I knew an Indian was in it.  I pointed my gun and cocked the hammer.  Then a child fell out of bed.  When it screamed the fodder dropped.  I saw a man run.  I went into the house.  The child had broken its arm.  And that saved you, Logan.  I had as good a bead on you with as good a gun that was ever fired.”  Logan grunted and said, “the Great Spirit will not let one friend kill another.”  Patrick Porter took the Mingo boy, Dale, home with him to the Clinch.  He gave him the first name “Arter”.  Arter Dale learned to read and to write, using the Bible as his text.  He married a white woman and moved to the Hurricane section of Wise County, where he is buried, and where many of his descendents live today.

Lord Dunmore’s War proved to be only the opening phase of the Revolutionary War.  The British continued to follow a policy of limiting western expansion of the colonies, while guaranteeing the Indians peace in their homes.  Lord Dunmore’s War, like the earlier French and Indian War, only strengthened the British in their resolve to keep the peace at the price of stifling the western expansion by the colonial settlers.

At the very time that the War was being fought, affairs in Boston were reaching an obvious point of political explosion.  The militia on its return from the Battle of Point Pleasant was acutely aware of these events.  When the militia reached the mouth of the River Hockhocking, the officers held a meeting.  They wrote a statement for publication stating that while they had followed the English Earl into battle, they were in fact in sympathy with the Continental Congress, then in session at Philadelphia.  They expressed devotion to the King, but only as a free people, and remarked that they could fight as well as any army in the world.

Lord Dunmore returned to Virginia to public acclaim, but within months of his return he was forced to flee to England in the opening strife of the Revolution.

The beating that the Shawnee received at Point Pleasant kept them peaceful during the first two years of the Revolution.  It was during this hiatus that settlements in Kentucky gained a foothold, one which proved strong enough that when the Shawnee did regain their courage their attacks on the settlements in the Blue Grass proved to be ineffective.

George Rogers Clark left Cresap’s command and moved to Kentucky, where he captured the Old Northwest Territory, or the lands between the Mississippi River and the Ohio River.

None of this would have been possible if the Indians had not lost the Battle of Point Pleasant, and that battle was the result of the massacre at Yellow Creek.  It is quite likely that without Lord Dunmore’s War the United States of America would have found its western boundary to have been located along the Alleghany Mountains, with Kentucky and the Old Northwest Territory having remained British Indian Territory.

Thomas Jefferson published Logan’s speech in his “Notes on Virginia”, and was very critical of Cresap.  Twenty three years after these events had occurred, the Yellow Creek massacre and Jefferson’s criticism of Cresap found themselves to be at the center of American national politics.  Jefferson, the founder of the Democratic Party, found himself locked in an acrimonious conflict with the Federalists.  One Luther Martin, a Federalist, and who just happened to have been Cresap’s son-in-law, bitterly attacked Jefferson in public print for ‘wrongly’ defaming the reputation of Cresap. This theme was picked up by a Mr. Jacobs, who wrote a biography of Cresap and did his best to denigrate Jefferson.  The process would not die, and Neville B. Craig published an article in the  historical magazine, “The Olden Times”, rehashing the issues.  And, even later, Brantz Mayer published a book Logan and Cresap.  By this time the nation was heading towards Civil War.

Logan became a sullen alcoholic, and in 1780 he knocked his wife unconscious.  Thinking that he had killed her, he fled, and was pursued by a party of Indians.  He was cornered and killed by his nephew.

Michael Cresap returned to Maryland, and even though ill, he raised a company of militiamen who rushed to the defense of Boston, where Cresap died in 1775.

That year also claimed the life of Daniel Greathouse, who died of measles at the age of 19.


Encyclopaedia Britannica – 1965 edition – vol. 14 pg 205
Eckert, Allan W. – A)  The Wilderness War, pg. 273 and others
B)  Wilderness Empire
Appletons Encyclopedia 2001 Virtualogy
“West Virginia” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2001
Roosevelt, Theodore – The Winning of the West
A)  Part I – The Spread of the English Speaking Peoples
B)  Part II – In the Current of the Revolution
History of the Panhandle, West Virginia
Addington, Robert M. – The History of Scott County, Va.
Summers, Lewis Preston – The History of Southwest Virginia and Washington County
Fleenor, Lawrence J. – The Bear Grass, a History
Neal, J. Allen – Bicentennial History of Washington County, Virginia
Addington, Luther F. – The History of Wise County

Virginia Indian Tribes


When Jamestown was founded, the Chickahominy Tribe lived in established villages along the Chickahominy River, from the mouth of the river near Jamestown to the middle of the current county of New Kent. Because of their proximity to Jamestown, the Chickahominy people had early contact with the English settlers, helping the settlers survive during their first few winters.


The Mattaponi Indian Reservation which stretches along he borders of the Mattaponi River in King William County, dates back to 1658.  As one of the oldest reservations in the country, the Tribe traces its history to the paramount chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas, who ruled most of Tidewater Virginia when Europeans arrived in 1607.


The Monacan Indian Nation culture dates back more than 10, 000 years and the original territory of the Tribe comprised roughly half of the state of Virginia, including most of the Piedmont region.  The Monacan Nation is one of the oldest groups of indigenous people still existing in their ancestral homeland, and the only group of Eastern Siouans in Virginia.


At the time of their earliest English contact in Virginia, the Nansemond tribe lived in several villages along the Nansemond River centered near Chuckatuck, in the current city of Suffolk.  The arriving English raided the Nansemond villages in 1608, burning their houses and destroying their conoes to force them to give up their corn, thus beginning the open hostilities between the two communities.  As increasing numbers of Europeans poured into the Nansemond River area, tribal members had to relocate their tribal lands and reservation on several different occasions, losing their last known reservation land in 1792.


The Pamunkey Tribe dates back ten to twelve thousand years.  Two major treaties with the King of England (in 1646 and 1677) established the Articles of Peace and a land base for the Tribe, later referred to as a reservation.  Listed as one of the six or more districts inherited by Chief Powhatan, evidence indicates that the Pamunkey district itself was the center among those core districts.  In 1607, Powhatan moved east to Werowocomoco in an effort to aid in the consolidation of his rapidly expanding chiefdom.


The Rappahannocks’ first documented encounter with the English occurred in 1608 when Samuel Mace sailed into the Rappahannock River, killing the Chief and taking men back to England. In the summer of 1608 John Smith mapped fourteen Rappahannock villages on the north side of the river. English settlement in the Rappahannock River valley began in the 1640’s. After Bacon’s rebellion, the Rappahannock consolidated at one village and in November 1682, the Virginia Council laid out 3,474 acres in Indian Neck, where their descendents remain today.


For centuries, the ancestors of the Upper Mattaponi People have lived in villages along waterways of Virginia, the land known as Tsenacomocco. Like neighboring tribes, they spoke the Angonquian language and when the British came in 1607 they were prosperous people under Chief Powhatan. John Smith’s map of 1612 indicates the present location of the Upper Mattaponi corresponds correctly with a village marked on his map as Passaunkack.

Powhatan and Pocahontas

Powhatan was the paramount chief of the Tidewater region when the English arrived at Jamestown in 1607 thus, he was never referred to as chief Powhatan but rather as Powhatan. His tributaries (tribes that paid tribute to him) did not constitute a “confederacy” or “nation” but were a paramount chiefdom. These tribes were not sub-tribes but individual nations.

Virginia Algonquian cultures were matrilineal. The status of the mother, not the father, determined the child’s status. The English knew Powhatan’s high status wives by name, but the mother of Pocahontas was never identified. Thus Pocahontas, Powhatan’s daughter, should not be referred to as a “princess”. Also, her age is uncertain as well as many events of her life. Opinions vary widely on the alleged “rescue” incident at Werowocomoco in 1607. Some accept the event as Smith described it in his 1624 writings even though it was not mentioned in his earlier accounts. Others believe the incident occurred but that it was an “adoption” ritual that Smith misunderstood. Still others believe it never happened.

Condensed from information provided by the Virginia Council on Indians

Daniel Boone and the Blockhouse’s Beginnings

Daniel Boone and the Blockhouse’s Beginnings

Contributed by William L. Anderson

January 2007 How did the Wilderness Blockhouse end up playing such a vital role in the Wilderness Trail to Kentucky? The answer lies in the location chosen by its builder, John Anderson, and when he built it – right at the critical point when Kentucky opened up for settlement. And Daniel Boone probably played a part as well.

In 1775 the land that would become the state of Kentucky belonged to the Cherokee and Shawnee as a sort of demilitarized hunting ground between the two tribes. Kentucky was off limits to whites due to a royal proclamation of the British government. The proclamation, however, did not stop Richard Henderson, an aggressive land speculator, from negotiating with the Cherokee to purchase a large portion of Kentucky for his own private resale and settlement.

The legality of Henderson’s purchase was questionable, and ultimately he lost his right to most of the land. He is nevertheless credited with opening the door of Kentucky, for better or worse, to white settlement.

After his purchase, Henderson immediately hired Daniel Boone to blaze a “waggon road” from Long Island, near today’s Kingsport, Tennessee, all the way to the proposed settlement area in Kentucky. In March 1775 Boone put a party of about 30 men together, and they marched north from Long Island. Boone’s team “blazed” their way over an already existing trail through two key gaps in the mountains – Big Mocassin Gap near present Gate City, Virginia, and Cumberland Gap on the Kentucky-Virginia border – and from there to the new settlement of Boonesborough. In reality, Boone’s party covered ground so fast they probably did little more than mark the trail. Nevertheless, this trail quickly became famous as “Boone’s Trace” or what we know today as the Kentucky Wilderness Trail. Henderson and a larger party of settlers followed right behind Boone to organize the Kentucky adventure and solidify Henderson’s control over it.

At the very point Boone organized his trail blazing party, John Anderson, a young newcomer to the Holston region, was looking to start a home with his new wife, Rebecca, whom he had married in January of that year. For reasons unknown to us, Anderson decided to put down roots at the end of Carter’s Valley, in what was then the remote edges of the new Holston settlement. This area was nearly a complete wilderness only a few years before, and it was still very isolated and exposed to attack
The land Anderson selected was a mile or so north of the current Virginia/North Carolina border and only five miles from Big Moccasin Gap. The Blockhouse he built at this site was the last habitation before the gap, essentially marking the end of white civilization and beginning of the treacherous wilderness.
The primary reason the Blockhouse became so critical to the Wilderness Road was its location at the start of what would be the only realistic overland route to Kentucky and the west for the next twenty years or more. Travelers headed to Kentucky (or later to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, or Missouri) would have to travel to the Long Island area by one of two roads, one of them the Great Wagon Road that carried travelers south from Pennslyvania to Long Island, and the second the road coming up through North Carolina that also converged on Long Island. Boone’s new Kentucky trail to Big Moccasin Gap traveled north from this Long Island intersection and passed right by the Blockhouse location. Thus, for a quarter of a century, almost every overland traveler to Kentucky went right by the front door of the Blockhouse. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people made this journey, including 80,000 in 1784 alone – a rate of over eighty people a day. Because of its location, the Blockhouse also came to play a serendipitous role as the gathering point for parties going over the Wilderness Trail. The trail crossed some very dangerous territory, particularly the sixty miles between the two gaps. Apart from the bears, wolves, wild creeks, and impassable mountains, bands of Cherokee, Shawnee, and other tribes routinely attacked and killed travelers on this stretch in a futile attempt to save their hunting grounds. As early as 1782, journals from this period record how travelers camped near the Blockhouse until enough armed men showed up to lead a party safely over the trail. The site was so well known that these journals refer to it simply as “the Blockhouse” or “the Blockhouse on the Holston.” Apart from its location, the other reason the Blockhouse became so critical to the Wilderness Trail was the timing of its construction. The Blockhouse likely already existed, or at least was under construction, by the time Boone’s and Henderson’s parties passed by in March 1775 to open the Kentucky settlements. This evidence comes from the journal of a man named James Nourse, who returned from Kentucky shortly after Boone and Henderson arrived there. During his overland return by way of the new Boone path, Nourse tried to stop at “the block-house” (he missed it by one valley). Nourse could only have known the Blockhouse existed, and how to find it, if one of the earlier parties going to Kentucky knew about it and told Nourse where to look for it The very earliest travelers following Boone’s trail were thus aware of the Blockhouse and spread word of it as the best stopping point either before entering the wilderness, or as the welcoming landmark of safety and civilization for those returning from Kentucky. Every traveler after that knew to look for the Blockhouse, and many of them wrote about it in their journals. One enduring and unanswerable question is whether the Blockhouse, and especially its location and role as a point of protection for Wilderness Road travelers, was the result of chance or design. Perhaps Anderson simply wanted a quiet home for his family and settled at the next available piece of unclaimed land in Carter’s Valley. If so, he may have come to regret his choice of location when he had to cope with hordes of unwanted strangers on his doorstep for the next twenty-five years. On the other hand, Anderson may have actually cooperated with Boone’s plans in building the Blockhouse where he did. Even before Henderson’s purchase, Boone had already tried several times to take settlers to Kentucky, the last time (in 1773 when he lost his oldest son James to a Shawnee ambush. Boone and Anderson also knew each other from serving together in the Virgnia militia during the fall of 1774 in the recent Dunmore’s War. Boone likely spoke of his Kentucky plans around Anderson, since Boone was obsessed with opening the land and constantly promoted it. It is certainly a possibility that they discussed the need for a fort or blockhouse near the start of the trail Boone planned to mark. Such a plan might explain why Anderson chose the much more difficult blockhouse design, rather than a simple one-story log cabin like almost every other settler. It may also explain in part why Anderson put the Blockhouse up around March 1775, at the very point Boone blazed his trail and settlers began pouring across the new trail. Regardless of Anderson’s intent, the Wilderness Blockhouse could well have been just one more home in the wilderness but for the convergence of the Blockhouse’s location and timing of its construction. Those factors instead transformed it into a major landmark in the late 1770s, a role we are rediscovering today through the efforts of the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Society.

General Joseph Martin

By:  Lawrence J. Fleenor, Jr.
copyright January 2001
All rights reserved
Big Stone Gap, Va.

Largely forgotten today, Joseph Martin played a role in the late
Eighteenth Century events of Southwest Virginia and in East Tennessee
unequaled by any other person.  He was an explorer, trader, land
speculator, soldier, politician,  Indian agent, national scape goat, and
the first settler of Lee County, Virginia.

He was the second of three men of that name, his father having settled
in present Albemarle County in 1729 as a neighbor of Dr. Thomas Walker,
Ambrose Powell, Peter Jefferson, James Madison, and the Lewis and Clark
clans.  He had come from Bristol, England a few years earlier, aboard
the ship ‘Brice’, and had married Susanna Childs.  The couple’s first
child was Joseph Junior, born in 1742.

The boy did not take to schooling very well, and his father apprenticed
him out to a carpenter.  He was too wild for this, and at age sixteen he
ran away and joined the British Army during the French and Indian War.

After the war, he returned home and married Sarah Lucas (Lewcas) in
1762.  Martin worked as a fur trader, as a farmer, and as a land
overseer for his wealthier neighbors, and became more closely connected
to Dr. Thomas Walker.

At this stage in his life he was later described by his son, William,
as having been “large of stature, six feet high, weighed 200 and one of
the finest figures of a man you ever saw, with prepossessing, commanding
appearance, courteous, intelligent, knew no fear …”

Walker was chief land agent for the Loyal Company which owned 800,000
acres of undeveloped frontier land in western Virginia.  Despite future
Lee County’s location in Indian land protected from white settlement by
the Royal Proclamation, Walker and his co-investor in the Loyal Company,
the Royal Governor of Virginia, were encouraging settlement of their
land, not withstanding that the Governor was responsible for the
enforcement of the Royal Proclamation.  Walker offered Martin 21,000
acres if he would become the first settler on Company land in present
Lee County.  Martin jumped at the chance.  Walker had actually made the
same offer to another group lead by the Kirtley brothers and by a
Captain Rucker, with the first to arrive taking all.  Martin’s group,
which included his brother Brice, left on mach 1, 1769 and was the
second to get away.  Martin pushed relentlessly, and after getting lost
“in the cane break and laurel” between the Valleys of the Holston and
the Powell (named after Ambrose Powell), and describing himself as being
“completely exhausted, weak from hunger, and very discouraged’ he found
the Hunter’s Trace on their arrival in present Lee County March 26th.
The competing group did not arrive until April 15th.

Martin’s party quickly cleared land and built cabins on their claim,
which was at present Rose Hill.  Martin wrote a letter describing the
area.  “The place we are now settled in is waters of Beargrass, called
by the hunters Powell’s River about a mile from the foot of a large
ledge of mountains called Cumberland much resembling our Blue Ridge only
considerably larger, much steeper and running the same course.”

One evening, a party of Indians came in to Martin’s camp.  One brave
grabbed Martin’s long rifle and a scuffle developed and Martin wound up
with the rifle.  The Indians left in a surly mood, and Martin’s party
fearing a vengeful retaliation, packed up and returned to Eastern
Virginia.  Martin had satisfied the stipulations for acquiring the land,
and retained ownership through several treaty and legal problems.

With his earnings from this adventure Martin bought a large tract of
land in Henry County and built an estate there on the banks of the Smith
River.  He called the home “Scuffle Hill” in recollection of how he had
earned the money to pay for it in that scrape with the Indian at far
away Rose Hill.

In 1775 Martin was made agent for the Transylvania Company and was
given specific authority to control the settlement of Powell Valley.
Actually, the Loyal Company and the Transylvania Company had legally
competing claims to the ownership of the land in Lee County, an issue
not settled in the courts until the next century.  Martin and another
group of settlers returned to his “Station” at Rose Hill.  Between
January and June they built a fort which was described by John Redd, a
member of the party:  “Martin’s Fort was on Martin’s Creek.  The fort
was located on the north side of the creek.  There was some 5 or 6
cabins; these built some 20 feet apart with strong stockades between.
In these stockades there were port holes.  The station contained about
half an acre of ground. Their shape was a parallelogram.  There were two
fine springs near the station on its north side.  The station was not
reoccupied after 1776, or during the Revolutionary War.”  In fact, the
indians ran the party out of Powell Valley a second time soon after they
had finished building their settlement.

Soon thereafter, Martin joined the Holston Militia as a captain.
Virginia’s governor, Patrick Henry, appointed him as Virginia’s agent to
the Cherokee, and during the winter of 1776-77 he was stationed at Fort
Patrick Henry near Long Island in both capacities.  He built a stone
house to store the goods sent by the government for distribution to the
Indians.  The Cherokee customarily expected any outsider doing
significant buisness with them to marry one of the tribe.  This
funcitoned as an insurer of good behavior on the parties concerned.  The
British Indian agents had usually complied.  Martin married Betsy Ward,
who was the daughter of the most prominent woman of the Cherokee Nation,
Nancy Ward.  Nancy was called “The Wild Rose of the Cherokee” and had
the authority of a Chief in council.  She was the daughter of Chief
Oconostota, who was the brother of Emperor Attakullakulla, or Little
Carpenter.  Attakullakulla was the father of the famous defiant chief of
the Chickamauga Cherokee, Dragging Canoe.  By an earlier marriage to
Chief Five Killer, Nancy had had a son named Little Fellow.  These
family connections were important in the unfolding relationship between
Martin and the Indians.  Martin’s wife, Sarah Lucas, knew of and
sanctioned this polygamous relationship.

Despite these tangled responsibilities and relationships, Martin was
ordered to take eighty men from that garrison to the Rye Cove Fort
following the murder by Indians of Isaac Crisman and his family.
Apparantly the Cherokee had the direct route from Fort Partick Henry to
Rye Cove closed at Moccasin Gap, as Martin took the indirect route via
Black’s Fort at Abingdon.  While the company was crossing Clinch
Mountain by Little Moccasin Gap strung out in single file, they were
fired on by Indians, who fled after the single volley which wounded one
militiaman with five musket balls.

Martin proceeded to Rye Cove, where he remained until the first of
May.  His stay at Rye Cove was eventful due to an attack lead by Little
Fellow.  Martin and Little Fellow fought each other in hand to hand
combat, though neither was harmed.  Their being brothers-in-law probably
explains this exceptional outcome.  It was also during this tour of duty
that messengers from the Kentucky militia were dispatched to Rye Cove to
seek aid in the relief from the attacks on the Kentucky settlements.
The Indians surrounding the fort killed one of the messengers, but one
of the Indians was wounded and crawled off into a came.  Martin himself
went in after him and killed him.  When he and his garrison were ordered
back to Long Island.  He stayed at Fort Patrick Henry until the peace
treaty was signed with the Cherokee July 1st.

Throughout 1778 he engaged in counterespionage against the British
Indian Agent.  Martin wrote John Stuart, the British Superintendent for
Indian Affairs, Southern Department, and feigned turning traitor.  The
British were not fooled, and Stuart commissioned a white man named Gray
and a party of Chickamaugans to assassinate Martin.  They found him in
the home of his Grandfather-in-law, Chief Oconostata, who refused to
give him up.  The hit team skulked around for a while, but upon
reflection they returned home.

The Chickamauga Cherokee did not sign the treaty of peace when the
other Cherokee had done so, and they continued to make war on the
Holston, Clinch, and Powell Valleys.  In April 1779 Col. Evan Shelby
lead an amphibious expedition against the Chickamauga towns, an event
that caught Indian Agent Martin in these villages. Shelby had sent
warning to Martin but the messenger drowned in route.  It is not
recorded how Martin got out of that scrape.

In 1780 the Revolutionary War was coming to a climax.  The British were
rampaging at will throughout the South, and they had the Mingo, Shawnee,
and Cherokee ravaging the frontier.  The British threatened to cross the
mountains and to hang the leaders of the settlers. The militia’s
customary military strategy was to carry the war to the enemy, so they
resolved to cross the mountains themselves and to attack the British.
However, the fear that the Indians would attack the settlements in the
militia’s absence resulted in a complex rear guard aciton.  The militia
of the Clinch Valley forts would remain in place to defend against the
Shawnee and Mingo.  There was no milita to spare to defend the Holston
and French Broad settlements, so Martin was given the task to neutralize
the Cherokee diplomatically during the militia’s absence.  This,
perhaps, was his finest hour, because he did succeed in this effort, and
by so doing he made the vistory at the Battle of King’s Mountain

The Cherokee began to attack the settlements again and in January 1781
when the militia had returned from King’s Mountain Martin was part of
the expedition against the Overhill Cherokee in the area of Tellico and
Hiwassee.  He met with outstanding success, and was able to dictate
peace terms requiring the chiefs to meet with him as Indian Agent at
Long Island on the Holston.  Despite this newest peace treaty with the
Cherokee, British Indian Agents succeeded in provoking more raids into
Powell Valley and against Fort Blackmore.  Martin, now a Colonel, was
dispatched with a company of militiamen into Powell’s Valley where they
chased the Indians all the way into Tennessee, to the junction of the
Powell with the Clinch.

Sarah Lucas Martin died in 1782, and two years later Martin married
Susannah Graves, who also accepted his relationship with Betsy Ward.
Indeed, Martin took his Indian son back to Eastern Virginia to get an
education., and Susannah graciously received Betsy when she visited
Scuffle Hill.

After the end of the Revolution pressures for settlement of the
Cherokee land greatly increased, and Martin gradually saw his role as
one of finding a formula to protect the Cherokee.  Oconastota actually
charged him with the task of finding an equitiable settlement for the
Cherokee.  Martin had some temporary seccesses and negotiated boundary
lines and payment in trade goods for the Cherokee.  Hatred of Martin by
the settlers began to become an open sore.

About 1783 Martin became a North Carolina State Senator representing
Sullivan County (now Tennessee).  Somehow he kept his commission in the
Virginia Militia, and even was promoted to general.  He conducted
campaigns against warring Indians who did not quit fighting when the
British did at the signing of the treaty ending the Revolutionary War.
He also served on road commissions in Virginia during this period.

In 1783 the Governor of Virginia directed that a fort be built at
Cumberland Gap and that fall Martin returned to Powell Valley and built
his “New” or “Lower” Station on Station Creek (the westernmost of the
two Sttion Creeks in Lee County) two miles from Cumberland Gap.  It was
constructed as a blockhouse, rather than as a palisaded fort like the
“Old” or “Upper” Station at Rose Hill.

In 1784 Georgia appointed him commissioner to deal with settling the
status of the Cherokee lands around Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Irreconcilable conflict arose when North Carolina opened its land
office and began to distribute land in the French Broad Valley to
Revolutionary War veterans.  Martin was still that State’s Indian agent,
and was not informed of the change in policy.   He was also still
Virginia’s Indian agent to the Cherokee, and that State continued to
pursue the policy of keeping settlers out of Indian treaty lands,
specifically the French Broad.  At this point, the Congress of the
Confederation took Indian affairs out of the hands of the States, and
appointed a commission that included Martin to deal with the Cherokee.
The Treaty of Hopewell was the result, and was the first treaty between
the United States of America and the Cherokee.

The practical effect of the treaty was to infuriate the settlers, who
felt that they had been sold out by the national government.  In 1784,
East Tennessee seceded from North Carolina and formed the State of
Franklin, with the old Indian hater John Sevier as governor.  Far
Southwest Virginia was invited to join.  Martin clearly saw that the
intent of the new State was to take by force all the Cherokee lands, and
that the only way he could prevent this from happening was to ally
himself with the national authority and with North Carolina, which
opposed the secession.  The governor of North Carolina ordered the
arrest of John Sevier, and the Franklinites surrendered in 1788.  This
would seem to have been a great victory for Martin, but it was the
beginning of the end of his role on the frontier.  Even though he
received more promotions for his successes, he was so alienated from the
settlers that he became unable to function.

His son William was killed on his way to Georgia by a Creek Indian in
1786.  As late as 1787 the Cherokee were still raiding Powell Valley and
in the fall of that year Virginia removed him as Indian Agent, possibly
because he had been unsuccessful in stopping the Indian raids.

In 1788 Martin sold his Lee County holdings, and in 1789 he returned to
his Scuffle Hill family, never to return to far Southwest Virginia and
Northeast Tennessee.  His commission as United States Indian Agent was
allowed to expire.  What happened to Betsy Ward is not recorded.  His
Old and New Stations were still garrisoned by militia as late as 1792
when Powell Valley was threatened by an invasion of 1000 Cherokee

In 1793 Martin was elected to the Virginia General Assembly, a post he
kept for twelve years.  In 1795 he helped negotiate boundary disputes
between Virginia and the States of Tennessee and of Kentucky.

In 1808 the British were again inciting the Cherokee to warfare, and
the aged Martin was commissioned one last time to make peace. He
returned from the trip to Tennessee worn out, and died of a stroke on
December 18, 1808.

His white children included Brice, John, Joseph, Lafayette, and
William.  His children by Betsy Ward are not documented, but the William
that was killed by a Creek Indian likely was one of them, as the white
William was a well known attorney in Henry County, and lived to write a
biography of his father.  Who the William Martin that owned land on
Indian Creek and who died in Lee County in 1821 was is not known.
Neither is it known if the Brice Martin that owned land among Joseph’s
holdings between Rose Hill and Ewing was his brother or his son.

Today, the irreconcilable Indian fighters like John Sevier, William
Blount, and the Shelby brothers are well remembered.  Towns, schools,
and other things of importance are named to commemorate them.  Joseph
Martin, the peace maker, is best remembered by the creek which starts at
the spring that supplied his Upper Station and which bears his name.
Perhaps it is fitting, as it is a favorite of trout fishermen, who
pursue their peaceful passtime in its cool waters.


The constellation of Martin’s properties centered around his Lower or New Station near Shawnee, Tennessee, and his Upper or Old Station properties around Rose Hill and Ewing.  There was a total of 1,349 acres running from US 58 in Virginia to Harrogate, Tennessee that was the Lower Station tract.  The state line between Tennessee and Virginia at that time ran south of Harrogate, and all these properties were entirely in Virginia.

The Upper Station properties owned by Joseph Martin total 2,775 acres,
including 365 acres that Joseph sold his right to James Campbell before
he registered them with the State Land Office.  In addition there are
two tracts in the middle of this string of tracts that belonged to Brice
Martin which totalled 1,220 acres.  It is not known if this Brice Martin
was the son or the brother of Joseph.

In addition Joseph Martin owned four tracts of land down Martin’s Creek
near its mouth and in the watershed of Four Mile Creek, which totaled
1,126 acres.  He also owned 291 acres at Dot next to the Rocky Staton
tract of Isaac Chrisman, Jr.  This brings the total land holdings of
Joseph Martin within the historic bounds of Lee County, Virginia to
5,541 acres.


1)  Addington, Robert M. – HIstory of Scott County, Virginia

2)  Summers, Lewis P. –  History of Southwest Virginia and Washington

3)  Hamilton, Emory –  “Historical Sketches of Southwest Virginia”
publication #4

4)  Bristol Herald Courior”  June 1, 1980

5)  Morrison, Denise Pratt –  Joseph Martin and the Southern Frontier

6)  Laningham, Anne W. –  Early Settlers of Lee County, Virginia and
Adjacent Counties

7)  land grant research by  the author and by Dale Carter

8)  Virginia State Library