Skip to content

Notes of a Tour from Virginia to Tennessee in the Months of July and August 1838

Southern Literary Messenger

By Rev. H. Ruffner, D.D., President of Washington College.

April, 1839

Chapter IV

From West Tennessee, by the eastern route to Virginia.

From Sparta [Tennessee] I crossed the Cumberland mountains by the main road frem Nashville to Knoxville. These mountains part from the more eastern ridges of the Alleghanies, between Virginia and Kentucky, where they divide the waters of the Tennessee from those of the Kentucky and Cumberland rivers. They run by a straight course through the state of Tennessee, on the southern border of which they are broken by a chasm, affording the great Tennessee just room to press its contracted waters through, with a swift but unbroken current. The mountains extend into Alabama, till they gradually sink into the lowlands near the gulf.

The Alleghany mountains generally, are cut into sharp ridges and spurs, with narrow vales between them, or else broad vallies of limestone separating the chief parallel ridges. The Cumberland mountain, is of a different character: it is a single ridge with two broad plateaus or tables of land on the western side. In the preceding chapter, I described the Barrens of Tennessee, as a broad level space of sandy country, about four hundred feet above the rich limestone district of Middle Tennessee. This is the first plateau of the Cumberlands. You no sooner reach this upper level from below, than you see what is called the mountain, rise before you in a long straight line, broken at intervals by ravines which discharge the mountain streams. This line of mountain is in fact the great bank of the second plateau, elevated about one thousand feet above the former. In ascending to its top from Sparta, I observed that the horizontal limestone lay six hundred feet or thereabouts in depth above the lower plateau; then eighty or one hundred feet of sandstone-then as much limestone again; but finally all was sandstone to the top. This being attained, the road passes over a plain as broad as the Barrens below,-that is, about fifteen or twenty miles. The surface is cut at intervals by ravines, but no sharp ridges occur. The road crosses the plateau diagonally, and the whole distance across, from Sparta to the eastern base, is about forty miles. The soil on the top is very poor, too poor to nourish stout forests, such as clothe the mountains of Virginia. Yet some families endeavor to extract a living from these dry sands. Chalybeate springs and a pure atmosphere, attract some visitors from the lower country in the hot season. I found a house, at the distance of nine miles from Sparta, that was filled with boarders, who drank the water of a fine chalybeate, spouting from the rocks in a ravine shaded with evergreens. It is only in a few ravines that I saw the Rhododendron, the Kalmia, the Hemlock, (Pinus Canadensis,) and other evergreens, so common in our mountains.

After travelling a few miles further over this plateau, I began to see the eastern ridge of the mountain stretch along the horizon. It rises about five hundred feet above the plateau, running in a single straight line parallel with the western bank of the plateau, and broken at intervals of some miles with gaps. The road leads to one of these gaps, and passes through with scarcely an ascent, at a large farm called the Crab-Orchard. The soil improves in the neighborhood of the ridge; the sandstone ceases, and limestone appears again, seeming to constitute the body of the ridge. But this is not the recent shell-limestone of West Tennessee; it is the old blue limestone, in shapeless masses, so common in the valley of Virginia; and it shows that here, as well as elsewhere, the mountains are older than the plains.

Immediately on passing through the gap, the road begins to descend into the great valley of East Tennessee. The descent is much less than the total ascent on the opposite side, because this great valley is a much higher country than the low lands of the west.

To my sorrow I missed the sight of a remarkable curiosity, in descending the mountain; because I did not hear of its existence, until I had left it far behind. Near Nance’s tavern, on the mountain side, a brook falls in a single cascade, to the depth of at least three hundred feet, into a narrow gloomy ravine. The bot tom is said to be a wild romantic place, overshadowed with precipices and trees, where the visitor’s sense of loneliness is increased to awe, and almost to terror, by the perpetual dash of the torrent, that seems to fall from the skies into this dusky glen. The scene in spires that sort of horror, which freezes the veins in reading stories of robbers, caves and deeds of blood, in solitary places. Such a deed was actually committed here, two or three years ago. A traveler known to have on his person a large sum of money, stopped at the tavern, and out of curiosity, clambered down the rocks by himself, into this wild chasm. Not returning to the house, he was sought for, and his body found with the marks of murder on it, but no money. He lies buried, where he so mysteriously lost his life; and now the visitor, who descends to see this romantic water-fall, must stand by the grave of the unfortunate stranger, who “sleeps alone.”

From the mountain to Knoxville, the road passes through a country of little interest to a traveler. There are vales of limestone land, more or less fertile, and watered by springs: the hills are dry and gravelly, and covered with oaks, sometimes goodly timber; but too often, especially about the Clinch river, miserable scrubs of the black jack pattern. The Clinch is a pleasant sort of river, one hundred yards wide, with some fertile low grounds. At Kingston, I looked for a fine water scene, at the junction of the Clinch with the great Tennessee; but I was disappointed: the junction, more than a mile below the village, is hidden from view by the dry gravelly hills of black jacks-the very image of tame poverty.

Through the one street of the village, the road strikes off into the dry gravelly hills of black jacks, avoiding both rivers, and threading the intermediate country. The season was hot and dry; I was weary of the sandy plateaus of the mountain, and fatigued with travelling from Nashville on horseback; I longed for interesting scenery; I looked from the tops of the dry hills for a sight of the great Tennessee-but I saw nought except other dry gravelly hills of black jacks; from other hill tops, I looked again-and I saw-ditto, ditto. I was in a state of mind to be easily disgusted; and disgusted I was. Disgust leaves as durable impressions as plea sure. I have, and through all my days I shall retain, in my imagination, vividly pictured, the perfect image of dry gravelly hills covered with black jacks.

Farther up the country towards Knoxville, the hills were less tame and barren, the lands between them more spacious and fertile. A few miles below Knoxville, I was at length gratified with a sight of the Holstein, [Holston River] the chief branch of the Tennessee, but much smaller than the main river below the Clinch. The Holstein has a clear lively current, winding among hills, and bluffs, and low grounds.

On approaching Knoxville, I was struck with the conspicuous appearance of the college, seated on the flattened summit of a round hill below the town. The chief edifice, resembles a church. This occupies the centre of the area; around three sides of which are ranges of low dormitories. The institution is attended by eighty or ninety students. Classical studies are said to be pursued here with more success than the sciences.

I was disappointed in my expectations of Knoxville-I mean its external appearance. I had expected to find in the chief town of East Tennessee, something more than three hundred houses scattered over the hilly ground about two neighboring creeks. Near the upper and larger of these creeks, there is a street which for a hundred yards is almost compactly built. Unfortunately for this, the most populous quarter of the town, the creek is a mill-stream; dams have collected a large mass of stagnant water, and consequently the neighborhood is annually infested with fevers. The yearly visitation had already begun, when I arrived there about the 3d of August. From recent notices in the papers, the sickness appears to have been unusually severe, owing probably to the extraordinary drought. I found in this instance a confirmation of the remark formerly made, that opposite sides of stagnant waters are not equally affected by the pestilential vapors. The eastern, which is the leeward side of this creek, is more sickly than the western; because the western winds prevail, and blow the miasma, towards the east.

My stay in Knoxville was too short to furnish me with notes on the character and manners of the inhabitants. Information leads me to believe that they are moral, sociable and hospitable, with all the essentials of true politeness, but with less refinement of mind and manners, than may be found in some older towns.

My venerable friend, Judge White, of the United States Senate, advised me to pursue a route to Abingdon in Virginia, less direct, but more pleasant, than the one usually travelled, through the Sequatchy valley. A stranger, he observed, would find more interesting objects on the southern route by Dandridge, Greenville and Jonesborough; and would moreover find the less frequented way, more shaded from the scorching rays of the sun, in such hot dry weather as then prevailed. Disagreeable intelligence from home induced me, desirous as I was to take the most pleasant route, nevertheless to pursue the most direct: so I went to Rogersville by way of Rutledge, in the long narrow vale of Sequatchy. The road enters this vale a few miles above Knoxville, and pursues the middle of it in a straight course for the space of some forty miles. The vale is about two miles, often less, in width. The Chesnut ridge separates it from the valley of the Clinch on the north-western side, and a range of hills less bold and regular from the valley of the Holstein on the opposite side. It maintains strictly the character of an Appalachian valley, in its direction, its almost uniform width, its limestone soil, and its being crossed by streams of water, which here cut the south-eastern hills and flow into the Holstein. It is nearly all under cultivation; the road lies between an almost uninterrupted succession of fields, with scarcely a tree to shelter the traveler from the fierce blaze of the sun, in dog-days. For a while the pleasant features of the scene, and the repose which seemed to reign among the inhabitants of this secluded valley, amused me; but the tedious uniformity of the whole, united with the fatigue of travelling, and the ceaseless glow of the sunshine, made it so wearisome at last, that I almost wished for a mile or two of the dry gravelly hills covered with black jacks. On the second day of my journeying through this quiet length of valley, I saw before me an evident sign of change, in the loftier swell and closer approximation of the mountains ahead; the valley seemed to divide-a narrow portion of it ran up between the high mountains, another turned to the right: this latter was my route, and conducted me again to the valley of the Holstein. The scenery was now both various and pleasant. The road wound up again among the hills, and led me, by ups and downs, and turns of all sorts, among fields, rocks and hills, to Rogersville, two miles from the river.

Near the village I observed among the gray. limestones, some rocks of extraordinary color. On breaking off some fragments, I found them to be a calcareous breccia composed of small crystalline fragments, brown and white. On alighting at the village tavern, I observed that the windows were full of polished specimens of this breccia, exceedingly various and beautiful. Some were white, a little discolored with brownish grains; some black, but dusted with grains of lighter hue; most of them, however, were variously made up of brown and white pieces, round or angular, of different sizes and shades of color; often brilliant, and often displaying an intermixture of shells, and other animal remains, with the native stone. Some of them resembled, a good deal, the variegated marble of which the pillars in the capitol at Washington are made. Inexhaustible quarries of this marble might be opened about Rogersville. Some of it may find a market, by water carriage, down the Tennessee; but it is too remote from the seats of luxury, to be much used for ages to come, beautiful though it be. As yet but one stonecutter finds employment by it; he makes tombstones, and some articles of furniture.

Rogersville is a small village of sixty or seventy dwellings. Its marbles are its only distinction from ordinary villages. From this to Kingsport at the confluence of the north and south branches of the Holstein, the country presents nothing remarkable, except that the mountains in view assumed a bolder and more picturesque appearance. The road traverses an arable country of good limestone land, but hilly, as such lands commonly are. Kingsport is but a poor village; the scenery about it is, however, the finest on the whole of this route through East Tennessee. The ridge that separates the vallies of the Clinch and the Holstein has been in view all the way from Kingston; but it has now risen to grandeur, and puts on quite a dominating aspect. Between the branches of the Holstein another ridge presents itself, and would seem, after running down from Virginia, to terminate here; but on turning your face southward, you observe a high ridge, arising from the rivers at their point of junction, and stretching away quite loftily towards the southwest; showing itself on examination, to be only the last mentioned ridge, continued, after a breach had been made for the south Holstein. From Ross’s bridge over the north branch, a very sweet scene presents itself. You see the rivers meet a few hundred yards below, their banks shaded with fine trees; and an island just below the junction,. with its thicket of willows and other trees, half hides and half displays the united waters, as they steal away under the shady foliage of the banks. This pretty scene was to me the more refreshing, because I saw it on a calm summer evening, after riding wearily under the beams of a scorching sun.

Near the bridge is the residence of its wealthy proprietor, the Reverend Frederick A. Ross, whom I name here as worthy of commendation for two enterprises, which, if imitated by the East Tennesseans, will greatly improve the condition of their remote valley. He has erected on the North Holstein a cotton mill with one thousand spindles. What is probably of more importance, he has planted thirty acres of the Chinese mulberry, to which the soil and climate of East Tennessee are well adapted; and so flourishing are the young trees, that by next year they will feed worms enough to make at least a thousand pounds of silk.

Being now on the borders of Virginia, which I entered by way of Blountville, I will stop to make some observations on the country of East Tennessee.

On my return from the west, I would fain have passed through Cherokee on the southern border of East Tennessee, and the borders of the adjacent states. This last remnant of the once great territory of the Cherokees, embraces the south-western extreme of the Appalachian mountains. All reports agree in representing it as a beautiful country of hills and vallies; the hills sometimes gravelly and rather poor, but clothed with vegetation: the vallies rich and watered by perennial springs. The climate is the most temperate in the United States, and the whole region highly salubrious. Here the peach, the melon, and the grape, acquire their most delicious flavor: maize, yams and all the products of mild climates flourish abundantly. The mulberry could not find a more congenial soil and climate. The high hills and mountains will produce the grains and fruits of the north; the low warm vallies will mature some of the most valuable products of a tropical climate.

No wonder that the Cherokee loved his father-land, when it was so lovely in itself, and was moreover the seat of his tribe and the dwelling place of his fathers, from times beyond the reach of tradition. All that can attach mankind to the earth, attached him to the woody hills, the rich vales and the clear fountains of this beautiful region. No wonder that this, the most civilized of the Indian tribes, clung with fond affection to the delightful home which God had given to them: but the white man coveted, and would have it, because he could take it by force. A fraudulent treaty had been made, and was now, at the time of my journey in the process of execution by military coercion. The Georgians had already cast lots for their portion of the spoil, and threatened bloodshed if it were not immediately surrendered. Troops of soldiers were hunting the Indians, and driving them like cattle to the encampment. Like cattle the Indians submitted, and were peacefully gathered, preparatory to their removal. I was deterred by the confused state of the country, from taking this southern route on my way home.

The valley of East Tennessee, comprehending the space between the Cumberland mountain and the great Unaka or Iron Mountain on the south-east, is from forty to sixty miles wide, and two hundred long. It terminates in the hills of Cherokee, on the southern border between Tennessee and Georgia. It is but a continuation of the great valley of Virginia, spreading to a greater breadth by reason of the many waters which converge and form the Tennessee; thus joining in one, several vallies before separated by continuous mountains. The country is hilly, the atmosphere pure and healthful. There is much good soil, but not much of first rate fertility.

The people are generally moral, sober, and plain in their manners; education is more attended to than in most parts of the south. Several institutions besides the one at Knoxville, have the name of colleges: they are rather academies, where many youth of the country obtain some knowledge of the classics and of several branches of science. The comparative poverty of the inhabitants is apparent to a traveller. Few handsome houses or other indications of wealth and luxury, present themselves. Though nature bestows the gifts of the earth with sufficient liberality, the productions of art are difficult to obtain, owing to the remoteness of this valley from all the great marts of trade. The navigation of the Tennessee and its upper branches is long and difficult; the roads toward the Atlantic are long and rough. Live stock is therefore the principal export. With this single resource, and a heavy freightage on imports, the farmer may acquire the necessaries and some of the comforts which are obtained by exchange; but the elegancies and luxuries are generally beyond his reach. Cotton mills, by aiding domestic industry; and the culture of silk, by furnishing a valuable staple of easy carriage; would improve the circumstances of the people. A rail road to Charleston, and another to the James river canal, with an improved navigation of the rivers, would complete the means, by which East Tennessee might ere long become as prosperous and delightful a valley, as any of the thousand vallies of the Appalachian mountains. At present this is not the country for any one who aims at the rapid accumulation of wealth. The inhabitants seem to be aware of this. Hence there is little of the activity and bustle, the eager enterprise and noisy driving of business, visible in many parts of the United States. Considering the density of the population, it is the most quiet country that I ever saw. This indicates both poverty and contentment. If the people are not rich, still they are evidently not miserable.

A farmer who lives in rural plenty below Knoxville, related to a party of us who lodged at his house, an anecdote that may illustrate the philosophic contentment, which many in this country feel in their quiet abodes. A man who lived in a secluded nook in the mountains, came to his house; and when he saw the farner’s large stock of cattle, and other constituents of rural wealth, he turned to the proprietor and said: but I should remark that the mountaineer habitually uttered his words with a loud droning accent, making pauses to gather breath, and closing every sentence with a long drawn-hah! by way of emphasis. ‘Turning to the farmer who was a magistrate, he drew forth this speech. “Why-squire-what in the world do you want with all these cows-hah? And such a parcel of horses-hah? And I see you have two wagons-hah! you can’t use so many things-hah! And there you have a barn yard-full of stacks-hah! Too much trouble-squire-hah! Why I haven’t a quarter as many things as you have-and I have too much–hah! I have three cows-and two horses-and a wagon-hah! I mean to sell one horse-and the wagon–hah! I can make enough to eat and wear, without them –hah! All that’s over what one needs-is useless trouble – –hah! That’s my notion-hah! A’n’t I right squire –hah?” This speech of the droning mountaineer, expresses the philosophy of many in this quiet country-and in other countries too.

I entered Virginia on the evening of a sultry day. I was fatigued with my long travel on the open roads of Tennessee-exhausted with a perpetual sweat of three hot weeks-sore with the effort to keep an umbrella over my head. I had seen clouds pour out showers at a distance, but not one had shed refreshment on my debilitated frame. This afternoon a heavy shower; had fallen before me, and what was extraordinary the road entered a forest; in the evening a delightful coolness was diffused through the atmosphere. As I entered the forest at dusk, that musical tribe of insects, the catydids, began to chirp merrily on the trees. The woods grew darker; the air freshened to a delightful temperature; the notes of my shrill musicians grew shriller and multiplied, till every tree and bush and leaf, seemed to quiver with the sound. Thus was I ushered into the limits of my native state by dark woods, that rang with the sharp strains of a million of joyful katydids.

The next morning on paying my bill, 1 had palpable evidence that I had crossed the line. Tennessee shinplasters were rejected; Tennessee bank notes were gently declined-‘but a Virginia bank note, brought me silver dollars in change! During a ride of four hundred and fifty miles from Nashville, I had seen nothing in circulation but Tennessee bank notes, (mixed occasionally with an Alabama note,) down to the denomination of six and a quarter cents; and shin-plasters of all sorts and of all sizes, from a dollar downwards, and manufactured by all sorts of persons, from the wealthy merchant, to the market butcher and the petty shopkeeper. This latter generation sprang into being immediately on the stoppage of specie payments by the banks.

As I proceeded through the well-peopled county of Washington, I recognized, more and more, the distinctive features of the great valley of Virginia; low hills and vales of limestone land, well watered and moderately fertile, with lines of high mountains on either side, and about twenty-five miles asunder. About the heads of the Holstein, the valley becomes more broken into hills and ravines. The poor village of Mount Airy is loftily situated, where the waters of the Holstein and the New River divide. The scenery about here is fine. All this country is very high, with the climate of the lowlands in Pennsylvania.

From Mount Airy, the country descends a little, and the valley about Evansham, in Wythe county, again assumes more the common appearance of the great limestone valley. About New River, the limestone is covered or intermingled with quartz or flint rocks and pebbles, of all hues, from white to black, but the black flint rock especially prevails in ascending from New River to Christiansburg in Montgomery county. Here the soil is less fertile, than it is where the limestone is the sole rock. The high country of Montgomery on the New River, has less of the characteristics of the great valley, than any other part between the Susquehanna and the Tennessee. The features of the country are modified by the change of the great dividing ridge of the eastern and western waters. The line of the Alleghany, ceases here to east off the waters on both sides, and the line of the Blue Ridge, assumes the swell and magnitude of the great divider of the waters. The New River flows northwardly over the great table land, formed where the mountains meet, and where the Alleghany yields the ascendancy to its eastern rival.

At Rogersville I saw specimens of granite and other primitive rocks, brought from an exceedingly high mountain in the Iron or Unaka range, that parts from the Blue Ridge near the head of New River, and divides North Carolina from Tennessee. This eminence is called the Roane mountain, and rises a little south of the Virginia line, at the head of Roane’s creek, a branch of the Holstein. A gentleman who had repeatedly ascended it, told me, that in the upper regions of the mountain, the pine, the hemlock and other resinous trees alone flourish; but even they gradually dwindle as the traveller ascends, and finally cease, leaving the flat top bare of all vegetation but grass and strawberries, which ripen here in August. He once went up near the end of April, and found that the vernal sun had not yet thawed the earth more than two inches below the surface. The top is composed of primitive rocks. Pure felspar, is found on this mountain.

There are two points in the great Appalachian mountain, which deserve notice, not only for their superior elevation, but for their effect on the geographical features of the country. Each of them is a central point, from which riversflaw out in all directions. One of these is in Virginia, about the Haystack knob, where the counties of Pocahontas, Randolph and Pendleton meet. A spectator on the top of this knob might see, as he turned his face about, the head springs of the southern branches of the Potomac, the northern branches of the James river, and then of the Greenbrier, the Elk and the Monongahela.

The other point is the great Grandfather mountain, in North Carolina, from which the New River, the South Holstein, the Notachucky, a branch of the Holstein, Yadkin and the Catawba, issue and flow off to their several destinations.

These are doubtless the two highest regions in all our mountains. The vallies, and high table lands about them, produce fine grass, and will some day nourish a pastoral people, who will make their now lonely rocks, echo with the voice of mirth and the notes of the shepherd’s pipe.

The head waters of the Roanoke, have cut deep vallies in the border of the high table land of Montgomery. Into one of these vallies, the road descends, and pursues it to the open country about Salem, where the great valley reassumes its usual features. But on proceeding north- eastward, the traveller, sees a mountain rise before him in a direction athwart the valley, which it contracts to the breadth of three or four miles. Passing this, he finds the country open again, to the width of some twelve or fifteen miles. The narrow place just passed, is found to divide the waters of the Roanoke and the James river. Crossing the latter at Buchanan, a place be of commercial importance, the road ascends and passes near the Natural Bridge, to Lexington, where I arrived on the 18th of August.

I will close these hasty notes, with an allusion to the Natural Bridge in Scott county, Virginia. A gentleman of Tennessee, who had been there, described it to me as a tunnel, rather than a bridge. A creek flows three or four hundred feet under an arch of limestone, less elevated than our Natural Bridge; the tunnel makes two angles between its extremities, so that both openings can never be seen at once by a spectator under the arch. It is a great curiosity, but differs materially from its namesake in Rockbridge, which for a union of beauty and grandeur, is still, and probably will ever be, in its kind incomparable