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Migration Out of Grayson County, Virginia

The First Great Out-Migration 1810-20

Even though the population density of the Upper New River Valley was less than 5 persons per square mile in 1810 and slightly over 5 in 1820, many early denizens of the New River Valley felt crowded and an earnest out-migration began by 1810. The primary destination for these early restless men and women was Kentucky and Tennessee. Oral tradition many times indicates that these people “went west”, which was no doubt often true, but west may have been less than 200 miles away in eastern Kentucky, east Tennessee, or other southwest Virginia counties. The migratory routes were primarily overland and by foot in many cases. There are also numerous examples of water transportation to new homelands. For example, one of the first non-agricultural occupations in nearby Smyth County was building flat boats. It was relatively common for travellers to buy a boat near Marion, put on to the Holston River and travel to the Tennessee River. There are families which originated in the Upper New River Valley at an early date all along the banks of the Tennessee River, throughout the current state of Tennessee and in Western Kentucky.

It is obvious from the head of family data presented in the appendix to this work that whole family groups left the region virtually at the same time, just as groups arrived together. In addition to these family group migrations, there are countless examples of family sub-groups migrating together and of individuals or individual families leaving throughout the history of the Upper New River Valley. While it is impossible to determine the extent of this exodus, the head of family appendix and the foot notes to those entries attempt to document some cases. The period of this first great out migration is roughly for the decade of the War of 1812.

The Second Great Out Migration 1835-50

By 1840 the density of settlement in the Upper New River Valley reached 8.3 per square mile. The lure of newly opened lands appealed to many of the New River Settlers who packed up their worldly goods and migrated to Illinois, Indiana and Missouri. The usual route was through Southwest Virginia to Pound Gap in what was then Russell County. The folks crossed the gap and booked passage on flat boats which floated down the Big Sandy River to the Ohio and then down the Ohio to their destination. Since most of the land along the Ohio was already occupied, the New River travellers moved in land several miles.

The primary group leaving in this second great out-migration was not family groups, although there were some, but instead individual families or sub-family groups. Primary destinations during this second migration were not the fertile valleys in Tennessee and Kentucky. The plains of Green and Lawrence County, Indiana, Jasper County, Illinois and Sullivan County, Missouri were prime migratory destination communities. There was so much immigration of Southerners to these areas, that their loyalty to the Union was questioned when the Civil War broke out. Many Illinoisans, in fact, deserted from the United States Army after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, with the notion that they would fight to preserve the Union, but would not fight for abolition of slavery.

After the Mexican-American War, tales of the richness of Texas and the Southwest filtered back to the Upper New River Valley and beginning in about mid-century Texas became a prime migratory destination. Word of the California gold-rush also reached the Upper New River Valley. A few individuals set off for the glory of the gold-fields of the far west, but there were few if any families who left for California from the Upper New River Valley prior to the Civil War. Others adventuresome individuals left the region for the west, principally Oregon, Washington and Idaho. One of the latter of this group, Charlie Standiford, left an account of his activities which is fascinating reading. The period of his narrative, however, is outside the scope of this work in time as well as place.

The Third Great Out-Migration

After the great conflagration of the South from 1861 – 1865, many residents of the Upper New River Valley decided it would be more profitable to be somewhere else. Shortly after the War ended several families moved into Southern West Virginia, particularly into Wyoming or Raleigh County. Some of those who migrated there were some of the Sizemore, Halsey, Wyatt and Hash families. It is unclear why these families migrated into this barren country, certainly farm land in the Upper New River Valley was more productive than on the Guyandotte, but go they did. This was in the time before coal mining was widely practiced in that region. The Halseys, led by Drury Halsey, were more prosperous than the others. Drury Halsey, a Primitive Baptist Minister and former Confederate Army Chaplain, was chosen to pastor several churches in the area, and eventually became Moderator of the Elkhorn Primitive Baptist Association. Members of the Upper New River Families who migrated into this region tended to be more successful than their neighbors. Perhaps the motivation to improve themselves was stronger than those who had become sedate in the life they had carved for themselves in the uninviting hills of Southern West Virginia.

Other families from Grayson County migrated to Alabama, Arkansas and Texas in the years after the Civil War. For some unknown reason ties with the families who migrated to Southern and Western destinations were not as strong as those who moved to the mid-west or into the Kanawaha Valley.

The greatest migratory destination in the post-war years, however, was Nebraska and Iowa. There were whole communities in those states who originated in the Upper New River Valley. These farming communities are, surprisingly, still relatively intact in the late 20th century.

The Fourth Great Out-Mirgration

In the early 20th century, people from the New River Valley rediscovered Baltimore, Cecil, and Harford counties in Maryland and Chester and Lancaster counties in Pennsylvania. Large numbers of residents of Grayson County continued to move to these areas until the 1950s. Employment opportunities was the principal lure, but once a “hillbilly” outpost was established, family ties lured additional migrants to those locations.