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Chapter I

Historical Sketch

Ashe County is located in the extreme northeastern part of North Carolina. It is bounded on the east by Allegheny and Wilkes counties, on the south by Wilkes and Watauga counties, on the west by Tennessee, and on the north by Virginia. The area of the county is 273,230 acres, or 427 square miles.1 The county is situated between the crest of the Blue Ridge on the Southeast and that of the Stone mountain on the west. It is characterized by numerous nigh mountains, with steep slopes and hills, and narrow valleys intervening. The average elevation of to county is between 3,000 and 3,500 feet. The North Fork and South Fork of New River form two drainage basins which are separated by a water-shed extending irregularly through the county, from Bald Mountain to the junction of the forks, which is near the Virginia line. Owing to the elevation of Ashe County, the winters are usually severe. Frequent snowfalls often cover the ground fox several days at a time, and frosts which occur late in the spring and early in the fall often do considerable damage to the crops.

Very little is known concerning the early history of Ashe County-who the settlers were, whence they came, or whether any of their descendants are still living in the county. Hunters, no doubt, had passed through this territory during the first half of the eighteenth century, but the first visitors mentioned by authentic records were Bishop Spangenberg and his party. The following is a record of this visit:

December 3, 1752. From a name on a river in an old Indian field, which is either the heed or branch of New river, which flows through North Carolina to Virginia and into the Mississippi River. Here we have at length arrived after a very toilsome journey over fearful mountains and dangerous cliffs .... Fact of the way we had to crawl on hands and feet; sometimes we had to take the baggage and saddles and the horses and drag them up the mountains ....while they trembled and quivered like leaves.

Arrived at the top at last, we saw hundreds of mountain peaks all around us, presenting s spectacle like ocean waves in a storm ....We scrambled down to a creek so full of rocks that we could not possibly cross it. On both sides wets such precipitous banks that scarcely a man, and certainly no horse could climb them. We scrambled down to the water, dragged ourselves along the mountain and before night came into a large plain.

This caused rejoining for man and beasts. We pitched camp, but scarcely had we finished when each a wind storm burst upon us that we could scarcely protect ourselves against it. I cannot remember that I have ever in winter anywhere encountered so hard or so cold a wind. The ground was soon covered with snow ankle deep and the water froze before ore us aside the fire. Our people became thoroughly disheartened. Our horses would certainly perish and we with them. The next day we had fine sunshine, and then warmer nights, though yet they were horribly cold. Then we went to examine the land, and large part of it is already cleared and there long grass abounds and this is all bottom.

Three creeks flow together here and make a considerable river which flows into the Ohio according to the best knowledge of our hunters. We surveyed. this land and took up 5,400 acres in our lines.

This survey lies about fifteen miles from the Virginia line as we saw the Meadow mountain and judged it to be about twenty miles distant. This mountain lies about five miles from the line between Virginia and Forth Carolina.2

As to the exact location of the camp and the survey to which the Bishop refers, Arthur, in his History of Watauga County, says that the three forks of the New River. near Boone, Grassy Creek, and the Old Fields at the mouth of Gap Creek, each has characteristics similar to those described by Bishop Spangenberg. It is generally conceded however, that the Old Fields at the mouth of Gap Creek, which is ten miles south of Jefferson, is where Spangenburg pitched camp and laid claim to the surrounding country.

Probably the most nearly authentic statements relating to the early conditions in Ashe County are found in the following letter written by T. McGimsey to T. Henderson, Editor of the Star, Raleigh, North Carolina. This letter was written May 3, 1811, in response to an inquiry sent to the various counties of the state in 1810, asking if a detailed account of the conditions in these counties for publication in the Star, and is as follows;

Dear Sir,

With pleasure I received your letter of the 30th March 1810 in which you request me to give an account of the local situation in Ashe County &c. I hope that you will pardon me for not transmitting it sooner.

In the common intercourse or human life nothing is more interesting to mankind thin a familiar acquaintance with each other. If any communication herein contained will in the smallest degree be of service to you or any of my fellow citizens it will more than amply reward my attention.

The tract of country called Ashe County was first settled in the year 1755. Capt. Jno Cox informs me he recollects when there was but two or three Hunters Cabbens from the Lead Mines to the Head of Watauga.

The face of the country is clothed with learge and hefty timber of Black walnut Sugar tree Magnolia poplar Buck eye oak & Hickory and chestnut & spruce pins in some planes clover strawberrys & Blue Grass are natural to grow everywhere Cranberrys also in grass plenty. As that country has always been plenty of game the first settlers who lived hero far the purpose of Hooting were much oppressed by the Indians in particular by the Shawnees & Cherokees until the end of the late war. Since they have no incursion on theca parts, or stlments. The main water courses are the New River on the head of the Great Canoway & its auxilery Branches flowing from the Blue Ridge Stone mt & iron mt. The country abounds with mines and minerals those cheifly worked are Iron to salt petre there are at present five sites of good iron works in the county of Ashe Great store of mine have lately been found there which is thought to contain great counties of silver and lead. The people of Ashe country send to market Cattle Sheep. Butter Cheese tallow beeswax venison hams Deerskins & ginseng to the amt of upwards of thirty thousand dollars yearly.

People in that county improve more is Religion they the study of the arts & sicences but it is hoped more pains will noon be taken to improve youth in the one as weal as in the other

I am Sir
With sentiments of due respect Yours &c

T, McGimsey

N.B. The land is Ashe county sells from five dollars to five cants an acre.3

The statement in the above letter that the Indians had made no intrusion into the settlements since the late war appears to be sustained by the provisions of a treaty of which the following is an account:

In 1777 at Long Island in the Holston, a treaty was concluded. with the Middle and Upper Cherokee by which they ceded all their territory seat of the Blue Ridge, and on the Watauga, Nolichucky, Upper Holston and New Rivers.4

This ceded territory included all of the present territory of Ashe County. The statement as to the first settlement having been made in 1755 appears from a consideration of other events and records credible, Evidently, there were no white settlers in this section at the time of Spangenberg's visit in 1752, for, although he states in a letter written from Edenton; " toward the western mountains there were plenty of people who had come from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania,"5 he gives no record in his detailed diary of having actually met with white settlers beyound the Blue Ridge.

The Northwestern Herald, published at Jefferson, North Carolina,in the issue of October 14,1923 gives the following information collected from various sources relative to the early history of Ashe county:

In the year 1761 Wm. Wallens, Wm. McLean, and David Hilton, citizens of Montgomery County, Virginia, came to what is now the Helton Greek section of Ashe County on a hunting and exploring expedition. They had a camp somewhere on that creek. After spending the winter of that year there they returned home, but a year later they came bank with their families and began a settlement.

Colonel Benjamin Cleveland, who won renown in the battle of King's Mountain, was among the earliest landowners of the county, though he never lived there. Draper gives the following account:

Some thirty-five miles from his home on the Yadkin, and some twenty northwest of Wilkesboro, and in the southeastern part of the present county of Ashe, was a well known locality, mostly on the northern bank of the South Fork of New River, called the "Old Fields",which at some previous period was, probably, the quiet home of a wandering tribe of Cherokees. These "Old Fields" belonged to Colonel Clevelend, and served—in peaceful times—for a grazing region.6

As Draper relates, it was on a visit to Jesse Duncan, his tenant at the "Old Fields", in 1781, that Cleveland was captured by the Tories under the leadership of William Riddle, but was later recaptured by his friends at Riddles Knob-a name given the mountain from this incident.

As to the extraction of these early settlers in Ashe County, the Scotch Irish seem so have dominated. Roosevelt7 refers to the great number of immigrants who were moving into these mountains. He states that they were mostly Presbyterians from Scotland and Ireland. Only rarely did Catholics and Episcopalians settle in the mountain regions. It might be added that so far as the Catholics are concerned the fact still remains true, for, according to the information of the writer, there are no Catholics living in Ashe County to-day. There is probably no region in our entire country that contains less foreign blood-s fact explained by the inaccessibility of those regions and the desire of the foreigner to settle in the towns and cities. Roosevelt refers to the people of this section as being of the purest Anglo-Saxon blood.

As to legal formation, Ashe County was the second to be carved out of the territory best of the Blue Ridge, Buncombe being the first, the sot establishing the county of Ashe is the shortest on record.8 It was passed in 1799, and reads as follows: "All that part of the county of Wilkes lying west of the extreme height of the Appalachian mountains shall be, and the same is hereby erected into a separate and distinct county by the name of Ashe". There was a later act fixing permanently the dividing line between Ashe and Buncombe counties, the same to begin at the, "Yadkin Spring, and thence along the extreme height of the Blue Ridge to the head spring of the flat Top fork of Elk Creek, thence dawn the meanders of the said creek to the Tennessee line."9 Ashe County was named in honor of Samuel Ashe, who was a short time before the erection of this county governor of North Carolina. Samuel Ashe was born in 1725. He was an educated man. and a lawyer by profession. The proceedings of Committee of Safety and the Journals of the Provincial Congress from 1774 to 1776 attest his firmness and patriotism, He was eminently conspicuous in the Council and Cabinent in conducting the affairs of the state. He was ono of the first three Judges of the state, in 1777, and. governor in 1795.

A part of the original area of the county was cut off in 1849 in forming Watauga County, and in 1859 another part was separated and formed into Alleghany County.

The following explains the first provision for the erecting of public buildings in the recently created county:

Be it enacted that Nathan Hortan, John Bowers, and Jefferson Talliafaro be, and they are hereby appointed commissioners for fixing on a proper place .t or near the center of said county , whereon to erect the public buildings for the said county; the duties of which appointment they or a majority of them are requested to execute as soon as possible after the passing of this sat; but until the court house shelf be erected, or some convenient place fiat on by the commissioners aforesaid, the court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, for the said county of Ashe, shall be held in the house of Jacob Huntsinger.

Be it further enacted that George Koons, Nathan Parten, and John Cox be, and they are hereby appointed commissioners for the purpose of erecting the public buildings for. the said county of Ashe, at such places as may be fixt on for that purpose.

Be it further enacted that s tax of one shilling on every poll, and a tax of four pence on every hundred auras of land in said county of Ashe, shall be levied and collected for your one thousand eight hundred by the sheriff or collector or public taxes; and the name, shall be accounted for to the said commissioners heroin laic named, or s majority of them, under the same restrictions and regulations as sheriffs are subject to in the collection of public taxes.10

The place for the erection of the courthouse was selected, and according the moat authentic information was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson, and not, as he might infer alter the commissioner who chanced to have the same name. The brat courthouse was erected of hewn logs, and is supposed to have bean located on what is now known as Main Street. The first fail was also built of lobs, and according to Arthur, was the second fail to be constructed west of the Blue Ridge. We have no records showing the extent to which this jail was used, but other methods of punishment besides confinement in prison were resorted to, as the following indicates:

State vs. Carter Whittington indicted for perjury.

Fined 10 pounds, and the said Carter Whittington to stand in the pillory for one hour, at the expiration of which time both his earn be out off and entirely severed from his head, and chat his ears so out off be nailed to the pillory by the officers and there till the setting of the sun, and that the sheriff of this county carry this judgement immediately into execution, and the said Carter Whittington be confined until the fine and fees are paid.11

The greatest undeveloped natural resource of Ashe County is the immense amount of magnetite iron ore on the waters of the North Fork of New River, and in Grassy Creek, Walnut Hill, Helton, and horse Creek townships, although. much tasting and prospecting has been done during the last thirty-five years to determine the quality and. amount of these ores, only recently have their economic value and importance been realized. The New diver or Ballou lend is an almost continuous solid ore vain for a distance of about twelve miles. Ore from this vein won first prize at the Paris Exposition.

The Ore Knob Copper Mine, which was worked extensively several years ago was reopened about 1915, but was soon closed, probably, because of transportation facilities--the nearest railroad being ten miles distance. While Ashe County possesses these valuable ore deposits, due to the lack of their development. the chief assets of the county are the fertile fields, and ideal climate, the latter of which is recently being capitalized. There are various mineral springs in this county, the most famous of which are the Bromide Arsenic, and Radium Springs. These are nationally known, and with the coming of gaol roads are drawing visitors from all part of the United States.

Until within recent years the Blue Ridge which forma the eastern boundary of the county all along the way from Glendale Springs to Deep Gap, has boon a barrier separating the county from the commonwealth to which it belongs. Most of the trade relations were with Virginia and Tennessee. Thus the cognomen, "Lost Province" applied. to sane by the people east of the Blue Ridge hued some truth to back its application.

A real effort to connect the county with the rest of the state was made aeon after tea advent of the twentieth century, In the memorable political campaign of 1900 when Charles B. Aycock rode a horse drawn vehicle across the Blue Ridge into Ashe, he saw the wonderful scenery, looked. upon the fertile valleys and grass clad hills, became acquainted with the fine citizenship, and pledged that upon his election the county should have a road letting her out to the commonwealth to which she belonged.

In the early years of his administration a bill was passed by the General Assembly to send convicts to help grade a road across the Blue Ridge. Stock was sold to citizens on both aides of the mountain. The Wilkesboro-Jefferson turnpike came into existence, which turned the people out in a fashion, and let a .few from the outside some in. But the flood of 1916 demonstrated more clearly than even the snows and mud of many winters had done that thin turnpike was not an all weather road. After the flood there was no turnpike, and Ashe was lost again.

The first railroad was built into the county in 1914. It came from Virginia, and placed the people more than ever in connection with the states to the north and west. However, during the road building program, began under the administration Governor Morrison, highway #68 was built across the Blue midge into Ashe, and the county was reclaimed. There are now three other state highways traversing the county, and furnishing an outlet into Virginia and Tennessee.

Beginning about 1920 the county undertook a road building program, during which approximately $1,500,000 in bonds were issued. Due to the high prices at which contracts were let for the construction of these roads, and the fact that most of tile county projects were later taken over by the stars as s part of her building program, only small retsina have been realized from the investment of this hugs sum, without any industries, and only 40.61 miles ox railroad valued at $1,012,000, there is little to tax except farms and homes. The tax rate in 1929 is $1.87 for the whole county, with the additional rata of 10 to 30 cents in the special school tax districts. The economy program which characterizes the whole state at this time appears to have unusual emphasis in Ashe County. The schools are suffering as a result of this economy program. Ashe County ranks 98th with the other counties of the state in the school expenditures per inhabitant, and 97th, in school efficiency. The school buildings era usually inadequate and poorly equipped, with little hope of immediate improvement.

Among the religious denominations in Ashe the Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Christians, Dunkards, and Lutherans dominate. Narrow sectarianism often prevail, the broader and more profound principles of religion frequently being subservient to narrow church dogma Many of the communities have too many churches, there should be a closer union of the denominations, less religious strife, and a united support. Under present conditions, the majority of the churches cannot, or at least, do not support their ministers, who having to speed much of their time making a living, have little opportunity left for ministering to the spiritual needs of the people. The solution of this situation appears to be in the organization of community churches which through a unity of effort and support would be able to maintain a better educated and efficient ministry.

A brief survey of the trend of population in Ashe County may be seen from the following:

Trend of Population
Year White Slaves Free
1800 2783 85 55
1810 3694 147 5
1820 4335 250 40
1830 5393 492 102
1840 6991 497 59
1850 8096 595 86
1860 7425 391 142
1870 8991 582
1880 14437
1890 15628
1900 19581
1910 19074
1920 20499 50912

As will be seen from the above the negro population in ache has never been large, and has remained rather uniform since 1830. The rapid increase in the white population from 1870 to 1880 is possibly duo to the fact, at least in part, that Ashe suffered little directly from the Reconstruction period, which made the county attractive for those who had suffered from the greater evils of the Reconstruction. According to Hardison it was during this period that Ashe County began to make considerable progress in agricultural lines. He says:

A few good plows had been introduced as early as 1872, but these ware exceptions. Before this time nearly all of the farm implements used in the county were home made, the iron bring taken from the mines within the county. The cutting and shocking of corn was practiced for the first time in 1882, and it was about the same time that wheat graying over the entire county began. The first grain drill was introduced in 1894. Scarcely any commercial fertilizers were used prior to 1891.13

The chief crops in Ashe are corn, wheat, oats, rye, potatoes, and hay. However, the raising of sheep and beef cattle has been the main dependence of the farmers for a cash income. The 1925 tax books show 20,117 cattle and 14,325 sheep in the county.

It is probable that the production of poultry and eggs is now bringing into the county more money than either sheep or cattle.

Although there era real possibilities in fruit culture, there are at present only few commercial orchards. Dairying on a commercial scale is coming into existence. In 1926 the Kraft Phoenix Cheese Company established a plant at West Jefferson. Trucks for milk delivery are sent daily into the various parts or the county, and as a result the cash income of the farmers is being augmented.

Jefferson, the county sect o: Ashe County, is only s small village, and until recently was decreasing is population. During the Civil tear it was larger than Asheville at that time. In 1890 it had a population 413, in 1900 it had decreased to 230, and in 1910 to 184. The population at present is probably slightly more than 200. Jefferson has one bank, a standard high school, one garage, one filling station, and four general stores.

The largest town in Ashe is West Jefferson, which is located two miles from Jefferson, and clime into existence wits the coming of the railroad in 1914. The population of West Jefferson is slightly less than 1,000. west Jefferson has one bank, one standard high school, two garages, cheese plant, and a few modern stores. Tree town has installed an excellent system of water works, which cost $50,000. At the present a public light plant is in operation in nest Jefferson, and is also extending its lines so as to furnish light and power to the neighboring communities.

The only other towns of any importance is Lansing, located on the railroad twelve miles west of West Jefferson. Lancing with a population of about 800, has a standard high school, and the usual number of stores and accessories that characterize a small mountain town without industries.

In comparison with the other counties of the state, Ashe ranks as follows:14

Ashe County Rankings
Rank Category
7 In farm tenancy, 1925
87 In white public school graduates, 1927
65 In tax rate, 1928
99 In federal income tax, 1926
95 In instructional service cost per pupil, 1927
98 In rural school expenditures, 1927
97 In inhabitants per motor car, 1925
92 In rural school libraries, 1927
16 In cost of operating school buses, per bus, 1927
27 In cost of operating school buses, per pupil, 1927
81 In school attendance, 1927
94 In rural white graded schools, 1927
28 In county and school indebtedness, 1926
97 In college enrollment, 1924
95 In number of inhabitants per motor car, 1927
97 In school efficiency, 1926
3 In meat and milk units per farm, 1925
90 In taxable wealth per inhabitant, 1925
91 In scholarship of rural white teachers
88 In average length of term of rural white schools, 1925
93 In value of white rural school property, 1926
82 In bank resources per inhabitant. 1925
99 In reading eight leading national magazines
7 In white farm ownership. 1920
76 In illiterate native white women twenty-one years old and over, 1920
69 In illiterate native white males twenty-one years old and over, 1920


  1. Hardison and Perkins, Soil Survey of Ashe County.
  2. Diary of Bishop Spangenberg, in the Colonial Records, vol. V
  3. Thomas Henderson Letter Book,1810-1811.
  4. Connor, R. D. W., Colonial Revolutionary Periods, pp. 406-407.
  5. Colonial Records, Volume V, p. 1311.
  6. Draper, L. S., King’s Mountain and its Heroes, p. 437.
  7. Roosevelt, Theodore, The Winning of the West, volume 1, p.137
  8. Public Laws of North Carolina, 1799, p.17.
  9. Arthur, History of Western North Carolina, p.159.
  10. Public laws of North Carolina, 1799, p. 17.
  11. Record of Ashe County Court, March term 1809.
  12. Census Reports of the United States Government.
  13. Hardison and Perkins, Soil purvey of Ashe County.
  14. Files of the Rural Social Sciences Department of the University of North Carolina.