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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an item in the
Tennessee Historical Magazine

published by the
Tennessee Historical Society

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. V
Why the First Settlers of Tennessee
were from Virginia

The first settlement in Tennessee; that is, the North Holston settlement in the present county of Sullivan, and the South Holston settlement, on the Watauga, in the present county of Washington, were effected between the treaty of Hard Labor in 1768, and the experimental survey of the Virginia-North Carolina line in 1771, while all the territory so settled was still believed to be a part of Virginia. There are geographical reasons sufficient to explain why the founders of these settlements should have come, in the main, from Virginia rather than from North Carolina. In the first place, the Blue Ridge that separates Virginia from Tennessee numbers among its range of towering hills Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains, and was at that time almost impassable.​a Even as experienced and able woodsman as James Robertson, when crossing the range in 1770, was lost in the trackless mountains and wandered, without food, for fourteen days; and finally owed his extrication to his good fortune in meeting up with some hunters, who relieved his distress and enabled him to reach his home in safety. On the other hand, the Appalachian Valley was an easy and natural route from Pennsylvania and Virginia to the Southwest. When the watershed changed from the Alleghany Mountains to the Blue Ridge, it left the valley open, like the mouth of a funnel, to empty the population from the eastern watershed in Virginia to the western watershed in North Carolina; whose north line had not yet been located and was still unknown.

The Appalachian Valley from the Potomac River to the state of Alabama is composed of the Shenandoah Valley, the Valley of Southwest Virginia, and the Valley of East Tennessee. Its general direction is from northeast to southwest. On the northwest it is bounded by the Alleghany-Cumberland Escarpment, and on the southeast by the Blue Ridge Range. When the valleys from Harrisburg to Hagertown had been settled, the restless backwoodsmen of Pennsylvania naturally joined the frontiersmen of tidewater Virginia, and pushed their settlements up the Shenandoah Valley.

King's Proclamation of 1763.

The king's proclamation of 1763 greatly accelerated the flow of immigration up the Shenandoah Valley, and down the Valley of Southwest Virginia into the Valley of East Tennessee. By the treaty of Paris, February 13, 1763, the Mississippi  p230 River was made the boundary between the French and English possessions; everything east of the river, except the town of New Orleans and the island on which it is situated, was ceded to England.​1 But on October 7, of the same year, King George issued his proclamation reserving to the Indians all the lands lying to the westward of the sources of the rivers which fall into the sea from the west and northwest; and forbidding his subjects from making any purchase or settlement on the lands so reserved.2

The reason for this proclamation seems to have been the fear that emigrants to so remote a region would establish manufactures for themselves; and, in the heart of America found a power which distance would emancipate from English control.​3 But, whatever the motive, it restrained western emigration; and those who ignorantly crossed the line, like the settlers on Watauga River, were promptly ordered off by the agents of the Superintendent of Indian Affairs.

In the meanwhile emigrants had already passed the headwaters of the Shenandoah River beyond Staunton; then the headwaters of the James River; and finally, the headwaters of the Staunton River, a branch of the Roanoke that empties its waters into Albemarle Sound, and is the last stream in the valley that flows to the east. They knew the Alleghany Escarpment as the Alleghany Mountains, and everywhere, from Harpers Ferry to the headwaters of Holston, they had found it to be the watershed that divides the eastern from the western waters. So firmly were the Alleghanies impressed upon their minds as the watershed that, as late as 1843, the settlers on New River believed the Alleghany Mountains had crossed the Blue Ridge, because the New River takes its rise in the eastern range.4

The North and South Holston Settlements.

Though the New River rises in the Blue Ridge, cuts through the Alleghanies, and finds its way west to the Mississippi; and though the Holston River, rising near the New, flows southwardly across the Virginia line, traverses the whole length of the Valley of East Tennessee, and ultimately reaches the same great river, the frontiersmen still consideredº the Alleghany Mountains the line of the Indian reservation, and continued to push their settlements down the Valley of Southwest Virginia  p231 and into the Valley of East Tennessee. The treaty of Hard Labor, in 1768, ran the east line of the Indian reservation from Chiswell's Mine on the Kanawha to a point thirty-six miles east of the Great Island of Holston. But settlements having already passed this line, in 1770 the treaty of Lochaber moved it back so as to run from the mouth of the Kanawha to a point six miles east of the Great Island of Holston.

This latter line threw nearly all of the present Tennessee counties of Sullivan and Washington east of the Indian reservation, and greatly stimulated the movement of settlers down the Valley of East Tennessee. The first settlement had been made at King's Meadow (Bristol), on the north side of Holston, which was long thought to be in Virginia, and was represented in the Virginia Assembly. But the treaty of 1770 may be assigned as the beginning of the settlement at Watauga, on the south side of Holston. The Watauga River, being east of the Indian line, many pioneers settled on its waters, thinking they were in Virginia.​5 The southern boundary of that state was purely an imaginary line that had never been run or marked. But an experimental survey from Steep Rock to Beaver Creek in the spring of 1771, made it clear that the Virginia line would not fall south of Holston. The Holston River was then for several years considered the southern boundary of Virginia. In 1772 the Indian line from the Blue Ridge to the Alleghany Mountains was made identical with the line between Virginia and North Carolina. This cut the Watauga settlement off in the Indian reservation, and Alexander Cameron, an agent of the Royal Government, ordered its inhabitants to move back across the Holston. But they found means of propitiating the authorities, and so the settlements on both sides of the Holston were permanently founded by emigrants from Virginia.

A. V. Goodpasture.

The Author's Notes:

1 Laws of U. S., etc., having operation and respect to the public lands. (Wash., 1817), pp27‑8.

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2 Same, pp28‑31.

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3 Bancroft's History of the U. S. (Revised Ed.), Vol. 4, p22.

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4 Featherstonhaugh's Excursion through the Slave States, Vol. I, p133.

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5 Petition of the Inhabitants of Washington District (1775), Ramsey's Annals of Tenn., p134.

Thayer's Note:

a My thanks to alert reader Brett Moffatt for pointing out this bit of loose writing on the part of our author; it would probably have been better to write "the Appalachians", to which Mt. Mitchell is considered to belong. The Blue Ridge is, however, part of the same mountain system and parallel to the Appalachians.

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Page updated: 15 Oct 15