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History of Buchanan County

By H. Claude Pobst

Courthouse at Grundy, VA 

The American Heritage Map of the location of the homes of Indians show no tribe permanently occupying Western Virginia. The Shawnees were in Ohio, the Cherokees in Western North Carolina, and East Tennessee, and the Xuala in South Western Virginia. They were probably run out by the Cherokees about 1525-50.
    I find in Summer's "History of Southwest Virginia" most excellent account and explanation of the Indians of the entire section. It is his belief that the earliest Indians occupying any part of this section were the Xuala. Mr. Summers definitely believed that De Sota visited the upper reaches of the Holston River, perhaps into Washington County, in 1540. A tradition exists among the Cherokees that the Xuala was driven from the section after 1540 by the Cherokees, but no authentic information can be established as to this. In 1671, Gov. Berkeley sent Capt. Henry Batte with a company of Rangers who crossed the Blue Ridge into Floyd County, and in that section they found Indians living who were said to be remnants of that Tribe, but by 1685 they were all gone. The Shawnees were westward, in Ohio, and perhaps never made many inroads into the present Southwest Virginia. We must, therefore, accept the theory that the Cherokees were the only Indians in our section, immediately prior to the coming of the white man.
     But the vast area embracing the Holston, the headwaters of the Kentucky, the Cumberland and the Big Sandy Rivers, seems to have never been permanent abode of any Indians. One reason was the enmity between the Shawnees and the Cherokees, it being bitter enough to deter either Tribe from such a permanent settlement. It was the buffer section separating the two tribes. This condition continued perhaps until rather close to the year 1800, or only about 160 years ago.
    As late as 1768, the last great battle between two Indians tribes was fought in Tazewell County. Early in the summer of that year about 200 Cherokee Indians camped at a lick to spend the summer in hunting. I am firmly convinced that this place was what is now called Four Ways, two miles east of Tazewell. The Martingale Restaurant is located on this land. Since perhaps considerably before 1850 this land has been owned by the Peery family. When I was a boy it was owned by Capt. Edd Perry, a Confederate soldier. He died about 1900 or before that, and about that date his land was partitioned among his heirs. There were five of them, and their father had left them 1050 acres of the finest blue grass land on earth. At the Chicago World Fair in 1892 his sod was awarded the first prize. It was no this farm that "Sweet Alice Ben Bolt" was written. Mr. G. A. Martin, a young lawyer from Norfolk, visited this farm and when I was a very young boy I remember that he married the only daughter of Capt. Edd. He found many, many artifacts left by the Indians, paid boys to hunt them for him, later mounted them in a large glass case, and I bought the entire lot from him during the last years of his life. I have them in my office, and will be glad to show them to anyone interested. There are about 1700 to 1800 of them, mounted according to the Smithsonian method.
    But to continue my story about the last great battle between Indian tribes in this section: Later in the summer of 1768 several hundred Shawnee Indians appeared and their chief sent to the Cherokees a demand that they immediately leave. The answer of the Cherokees was defiant, and both sides began to prepare for battle. The Cherokees retired to the top of Rich Mountain, about six or seven miles distant, near to or perhaps partly on the farm now owned by Judge F. W. Smith, and there during the night threw up a breastwork several hundred yards long and three or four feet high. The battle lasted three days, but in the end the Shawnees retired. 
    No permanent Indians villages seems to have ever been found in this section. I cannot believe that Buchanan County was ever so settled by the Indians, because the mountains were steep, rocky, covered with forest trees, and had no rich and which would grow good grass to feed dear, as the fields of Tazewell, Russell, Washington, Smythe and Wythe counties would. Hence, it was merely a place where roving bands of Indians would come to fish and hunt for short periods of time and as a passway from the grass fields of Kentucky to the grass fields of the Clinch and Holston rivers. No doubt Short's Gap was frequently used as a passway from the Levisa to the Clinch waters, but no Indian stayed in this county very long. There was no reason for so doing.
    Just when the first white man came to what is now Buchanan County is not known. There is no doubt but that white settlers came to the county and settled here many years before they bought any land. The country was rough, steep, wild, no roads, no pasture or grass lands. A man could bring his family, clear some land, build a log hut, and would have to pay nothing for it.
    The land at first belong to the State of Virginia and the only way a person could acquire title to it was to obtain a grant from the Commonwealth. Also, by a person could acquire title to it was to obtain a grant from the Commonwealth. Also, by a statute passed by the legislature, a person settling on land, using and possessing it for five years and paying taxes on it at any time during said five years, would have the title of said land. If he went before the Court and proved those facts, the Court would enter an order so stating, whereupon by statute the Commonwealth's title to said land would be relinquished to him.
    After the Revolutionary War, mostly during the seventeen nineties, the State of Virginia, owning all the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or claiming same by virtue of settlement in the name of the King of England, granted huge tracts of land to those furnishing aid to the colonies during that war. As practically all the lands east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, including perhaps all of he Valley of Virginia, had already been taken up by settlers, these large grants were issued of land lying in the main Allegheny Range of Mountains. The better lands in Tazewell, Russell, Washington, Giles, Smythe, and Wythe Counties had likely been so taken up. But west and northwest of Tazewell and Russell counties in what is now Dickenson, Buchanan and parts of Wise counties, in Virginia (and Mercer, Raleigh, McDowell, Mingo and Logan counties in West Virginia) where the lands were less valuable, there remained hundreds of thousands of acres of land still owned by the state.

     Those of such large grants which covered parts of Buchanan county were:
(1) 59 grants in the name of Richard Smith, issued in 1787, totaling 387, 723 acres, covering the southern half of the county from the mouth of Big Prater Creek up the river, later acquired by the Warders.
The Warders kept the taxes paid on their lands, and about 1860 began to sell these lands to citizens at 10 cents per acre; the price finally got to $1.00 per acre and all were sold.
(2) 200,000 acres to Richard Smith and Henry Banks in 1795, about 156,000 acres of which were located in Buchanan County, covering the town of Grundy, down to the Kentucky line, and up to Big Prater. This was the subject of an immense law suit, beginning in 1914, with about 1450 defendants. It was fought all the way from the U. S. District Court to the U. S. Supreme Court. The citizens won. I have a complete set of the records of this case, covering about 3500 pages, 1342 pages of which consisted of briefs.
Plaintiffs were represented by S. B. Avis, U. S. Congressman from Charleston, West Virginia, and Jeffries & Jeffries of Norfolk, Virginia and defendants by: E. M Fulton, William H. Wertt, G. W. St. Clair, G. C. Burns, George E. Penn, Hager & Stewart, Chase & Daugherty, Chapman, Perry & Buchanan, A. S. Hig, and Greever & Gillespie.
(3) 500,000 acre grant to Robert Morris, issued in 1795, covering perhaps 50,000 of Buchanan County, and extending into Pike County, Boone, Logan, Wyoming and McDowell counties. Morris was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
    The 500,000 acre grant was forfeited by the State of West Virginia for taxes for the years 1883 to 1894. In 1893 one Henry C. King, of New York and California, acquired legal title for said 500,000 acres of land. In October 1897, the Supreme Court of the U. S., speaking by Mr. Justice Harlan (171 U. S. P. 404) upheld the forfeiture of the land to the State of West Virginia, thereby upholding the title of the citizens. That suit dealt only with the part of the coal in West Virginia, but Virginia also had forfeiture laws for non-entry of land for taxes. Finally, in 19 __, in order to avoid expensive litigation, W. L. Dennis bought from King all that part of the 500,000 acres of land lying in Virginia, being 38, 781 acres, for $29,000, as much of it covered land owned by Dennis on the Tug River drainage of Buchanan County. Also Ritter Lumber Company and others obtained such deeds - perhaps $100,000 in all.
    The foregoing were known as blanket grants, because they covered so much territory. Also, in the late eighteen nineties and for ten or fifteen years into the nineteen hundreds, the people of the county were troubled with forged and bogus grants, but they were finally obliterated by Mr. W. L. Dennis, the Clerk of the Court, who refused to admit to record deeds emanating therefrom.
    The oldest small grant issued to anyone who might have settled thereon, so far as I have been able to ascertain, was an 180 acre grant issued to James Catesby Madison and others, devisees of Rev. James Madison. The survey on which the grant was based is dated December 24, 1783, and the grant was issued March 2, 1856. Richard Yates was the father of Almarine and Richard Yates, and he conveyed to Robert Looney, the father of Charlie Looney.
    Another old grant was issued to Frederick Stiltner in 1827, on survey dated in 1821. It was a long narrow grant, beginning below the mouth of Little Prater Creek, and running up the river for a mile or two.
    Around 1850 the Warders began to sell land to citizens, and junior grants lying within the 200,000 acre and the 500,000 acre grants were issued in increasing numbers, as settlers became more numerous.
    My investigations lead me to believe that the first permanent settler of Buchanan was Frederick Stiltner. When I first came to the county to live in January 1919, I talked to Christopher Stiltner who, as I recall, stated he was a grandson of Frederick. Basil Stiltner, long employed in the office of the Commissioner of the Revenue at Grundy, and who is now 74 years of age, states the original Frederick, as a very young man, shipped as a stowaway on a boat bound from Hamburg, Germany, to Norfolk; nearly starved, he had to show himself at last. After landing at Norfolk, he joined the British army as a paid Hessian soldier. He did not like it, deserted and went west to reach the mountains where the British could not find him. He was also no doubt avoiding the American troops. He finally reached Swords Creek in Russell County, and spent a few weeks with a widow and her two children. He left there and crossed Sandy Ridge, down Levisa River to the lower end of the present town of Grundy, and spent the winter in a hollow poplar tree which had blown down. Returning to the widow in the spring he married her and brought her and children back and they built a small log hut near the poplar tree. In 1827, based on a survey dated in 1821, he obtained a grant for 124 acres of land extending along the river from below Little Prater Creek nearly to Vansant.
    I am strongly inclined to believe that there were two Frederick Stiltners, a Senior and a Junior, and that the Senior was the one who came from Germany. Basil may have confused the two. The boy who came over in 1777 was perhaps 17, and so was born about 1760. Christopher was born in 1835, and it was not likely that his father was sired by a Frederick who was then about 75. It is more likely that his father was Frederick, Jr. And further, it is my recollection that Christopher told me it was his grandfather, not his father, who came from Germany. Otherwise, the story told me by Christopher and Basil are the same.
    One of the Fredericks in 1832 conveyed his 124 acre grant to John Yates. Hannibal A. Compton, former Commissioner of the Revenue of the county, says in his history written for the 1958 Centennial, that Robert Looney came first to the county, and then Joseph and John Looney in 1823. In some of the histories it is stated that the Looneys came from Botetourt County, Virginia, but other writers say they came from Tazewell County. I am inclined to believe that they came from Botetourt to that part of Tazewell County which afterwards became Buchanan County.
    Another very early settler was Milton Ward who, with all of his family and some ten to fifteen Negroes, came from Bowen's or Ward's Cover in Tazewell County, and settled at the mouth of Big Young Branch of Dismal. In 1850 he obtained 3 grants, and in 1873 he bought a large tract of land from the Warders, supposed to be about three thousand acres, for which he paid $200.00. A large family of Wards now live in that section of the county. His slaves all remained with his family, and are buried in the family grave yard. The old log house stood until recent years, and the site is now occupied by Tom Ward's widow.
     The Colemans, ancestors of Marjorie Coleman (my law partner at Grundy) were also very early settlers of the county. Miss Coleman's father and mother were both Colemans, distantly related. Incidently, her father's kinfolk were Confederate sympathizers while her mother's were Northern sympathizers. Miss Coleman states that her information is that four brothers settled in Buchanan County who were from eastern Virginia and, while she does not know the date they came, her mother's father, Daniel B. Coleman, was born in Buchanan County about 1830, on the right fork of Paw Paw. It seems reasonable to believe that the family must have come to the county very early, certainly in the first quarter of the 19th century. One of the four brothers, Peter, settled farther up into the county, on Bull or Poplar Creek. Another brother, Richard D. Coleman, settled on Home Creek and was killed by William McClanahan during the Civil War. Richard D. Coleman patented many thousand acres of land in the county, but I am unable to locate any grant earlier than 1835.
    By 1860, two years after the founding of the county, the population was 2800; in 1870, 3700; in 1880, it was 5700; in 1890 it was 5900; in 1900, 9700; in 1910 it was 12,300; in 1920 it was 14,400; in 1930 it was 16,700; in 1940 it was 31,500; in 1960, it was 36,724. The present number of school children is approximately 10,396. There are 6 high schools in the county and school property is valued at over five million.
    In 1962 the total assessed value of all real estate, including public service corporations in the county, is $7,950,000, and of personal property, $7,916,000, making a total valuation of all properties $15,916,000. When the last reassessment of lands was made in 1958, it was endeavored to assess all real estate at ten percent of its value, but total personal and real property is probably assessed at less than one-tenth of their values, so that the present total values of all properties in the county would probably be in the neighborhood of $170,000,000.
     In fixing these values, no account has been taken of the underwater level coal, being the Pocahontas measures. The total area of these measures would be in the neighborhood of 150,000 acres. In some places as many as three mineral seams of coal have been found by diamond drilling. These seams are the famous Pocahontas No. 3, Pocahontas No. 4, and in addition in some places a third seam, its exact classification at this time not being known, and referred to as a bastard seam, but perhaps covering a considerable area. A rough estimation of such underwater level coal in the county, in my opinion, is around one billion tons. Island Creek Company has leased one area of its holdings, totaling about 9300 acres. It has five other such areas, while Pittsburgh Consolidated owns about two such areas, and the Pittston Company and other interests would own about one such area or more. The lease now being developed on the Island Creek holdings will mine about 1,200,000 tons of coal per year. At that rate, if all the underwater level coal were now leased, and the mining in each area would produce about the same amount of coal per year, it would take in the neighborhood of one hundred years to mine it all. And during this hundred years, around ten millions of tons of coal per year would be mined, the selling price of which would likely be around fifty to seventy millions of dollars each year. These figures apply only to the underwater level coal.
    The above water level coal consists of the Cary or Lower Banner, the Clintwood (both nearly exhausted), the Blair, Glamorgan, Hagy, two seams of Raven Red Ash (Jewell Ridge seam is one of them, and around Grundy they are called the Widow Kennedy and the Grundy seams), the Splashdam, Jaw Bone and the Tiller. Many of them are being heavily mined and have been for the past ten to twenty years, and I would say they are about half exhausted. They are much thinner than the Pocahontas measures and of poor quality. At present Jewell Smokeless Coal Corporation is constructing 210 coke ovens, just above the highway bridge across Dismal River eight miles above Grundy. It will ship about a quarter of a million tons of high grade coke, beginning next year. The Aetna Life Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut, thought so much of the venture that it lent to the operating company last spring the total sum of $2,350,000, when the company owned none of the coal, only operated under leases. Its present tipple and processing plant is located almost wholly on leased property.
    In August, 1962, the Buchanan Branch of the Norfolk & Western shipped a whopping record of 20,046 cars of coal. The average daily shipment of coal from the county is about 925 cars at 60 tons to the car. The coal shipped would be around twelve to thirteen million tons per year, at average sale price of about $3.60 per ton, the total value of coal shipped would be about $45,000,000 per year. These are accurate figures of coal shipments obtained a week ago from our Trainmaster, Robert Y. Cook. About 25% of all coal shipped from the entire Norfolk & Western combined system comes from Buchanan County.
     Something like a hundred years ago, or perhaps more, the Virginia and Kentucky Turnpike was constructed from a point west of Tazewell, across Sandy Ridge, into Buchanan County, and on into Kentucky. This route was used by a Union general during the Civil War. With some five thousand troops, he traveled up the Levisa River and into Tazewell, intending to reach and destroy the salt works and shot tower in Wythe and Smythe Counties. The Confederates stopped them before they had done damage, thus avoiding a most disastrous loss. Evidently, but little work was done on this road thereafter.
    On my first trip to Grundy, in 1906. I went on the N & W to Bluefield, Devon, West Virginia, and there spent the night. Next morning we went up Knox Creek to Hurley on the Big Sandy & Cumberland Railroad to Hurley, and thence by mule pack to Lester's Fork, down Elkins Branch to Grundy. The only other access into the county was by horseback from Raven across Sandy Ridge, and down Levisa to Grundy. In about 1908 the B. S. & C. was extended to Matney, nine miles up Slate Creek from Grundy, so thereafter the entire trip from Devon could be made to Grundy by that road. The trip from Tazewell took some 4 to 5 hours to Devon, where one spent the night, and about 5 hours over to Grundy.
    In 1923 or 4, the B. S. & C. was bought by the N & W and thereafter rights of way were slowly bought from Devon to Grundy. In 1931 on July 1, the N &W, ran its first train of standard gauge track into Grundy. It was a great day. In 1935-6, the N & W extended its road from Grundy to the head of Dismal Creek.
    In 1921-2 about of a mile of improved road was built on the south side of Slate Creek, from a point opposite the high school to a point on Slate Creek just below the Mountain Mission School.
    In 1923 construction on the present Route 460 was begun, beginning just below Little Prater Creek. It was completed, that is the grading, about 1930 or 1931. It was not hard surfaced for many years.
    Until about 1908, all supplies and food not raised in the county were hauled by wagon from Raven to Grundy. Time consumed was about three days for the trip over, loading and back. After the B. S. & C. was extended to Slate Creek, the supplies came that way.
    About 1915, a small electric dynamo was erected on the present sight of Jackson Hardware Company, which was operated by steam generated by coal. The lights were turned on about dark and turned off promptly at 10:00 p.m. In case of a party, the fireman would run an extra two hours for $5.00. The lights were inadequate, and no power equipment was run by the electricity so produced. In 1923, an electric power line was run from McDowell County across Buchanan to Dickenson where it supplied mines of the Clinchfield Coal Corporation. It crossed to the north of Grundy, and crossed the Levisa River just above the mouth of Looney's Creek, at the present substation. In 1925, a branch line was run from the substation to the town of Grundy and, since then, we have had adequate electric power and lighting.
    After the railroad was constructed through the county, prosperity came and for the most part increased by leaps and bounds. Today the only basic asset the county has which will produce money is coal. Were it not for the coal being taken and processed in the county, starvation, misery and want would result in a matter of months and the comfortable, well-equipped, and modern homes now lived in and enjoyed by the people of the county would soon become unoccupied and the values thereof would rapidly disappear.
     In my opinion, we are assured of a substantial living from our coal for the next 100 and perhaps to 150 years. After that, what? The only other basic asset which we have ever had was our fine coverage of timber. At the end of 100 to 150 years no merchantable saw timber will be available for manufacturing into lumber, because the people keep the timber cut and removed as fast as it grows into a moderate value. And, after that, what?
    Within the past few months, I have noted the modern tendency of the people, young and old, to move away from their old but comfortable homes on tops of the mountains, the heads of the branches, and from other inaccessible places, down to an easier life where their late mode automobiles can reach the new homes being built by our people on substantial hard-top roads. I have talked with our agricultural and farm agent and with old citizens of the county. Judging from their opinions and my own observations, there is no doubt these inaccessible lands in the last 15 or 20 years have gradually been abandoned to the growth of blackberry briars, underbrush, sassafras, other small and scrubby trees. Twice within the past month or so, I have had occasion to go over 350 acres of land, the closest boundary line of which is exactly one mile from the courthouse at Grundy. It is owned by a citizen of Grundy who told me that he had not been on the land for 17 years. He was born and reared on this land. He has torn down his father's old home place and dive or six tenant houses which were in bad state of repair, to get rid of an undesirable bunch of tenants who paid no rent. In some places the undergrowth is almost impassable. It is fast returning to the state of nature found by the early settlers 75 to 100 years ago.
    What shall be done with these old abandoned farms, do you ask me? Franklin, I do not know. No one can clear the land and by cultivating it make enough living on the crops produced therefrom to sustain him and his family. Seemingly, they can do this in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Japan, but not America. We seem to have no one work hard enough to wrest a living from our steep, rocky and wooded mountains. 

HSSV Sketches No 9, 1975 Page 21 to 28