Western Virginia is a region of intersecting valleys (New River Valley, Roanoke Valley, and Shenandoah Valley) and three major river systems: the New, the Roanoke, and the James, which descend from the Eastern Continental Divide as it runs along the Appalachian Mountains. A major gap in the mountains lies near Roanoke, Virginia, making it the center of regional crossroads. For 15,000 years, Native American tribes of Tutelo, Monacan, Iroquois, Cherokee, and Shawnee lived and traded in the area, drawn to the abundant game that gathered at several large salt licks.
The first well-documented European exploration of the area was an expedition in 1671, led by Thomas Batte and Robert Hallam. (The names of the two explorers have for centuries been misspelled as Batts and Fallam.) They crossed into both the Roanoke and New River valleys in an effort to find routes to the Pacific Ocean.
In the mid-18th century, the Virginia General Assembly realized it could generate significant income and circumvent Native Americans living in the Blue Ridge Mountains by opening the entire Valley of Virginia to settlement. Thousands of Scots-Irish and German settlers responded. From Pennsylvania, Maryland, and parts of Virginia, they streamed down the Great Road, over Native American war and trading trails known as the Warriors' Path. As the road was widened from a footpath to accommodate the settlers' wagons, it came to be called the Great Wagon Road. In Virginia, it is about the same route as Lee Highway (U.S. Route 11 and 211). The Great Road developed as a system of roads, its central spine leading to present day Tennessee, with sections to West Virginia (Fincastle Road), North Carolina (Carolina Road), and Kentucky (Wilderness Road). The road followed the Great Valley, a gigantic central trough in the Appalachian Mountains comprising a system of valleys running from Quebec to Alabama. The southern portion of the Great Valley is the Valley of Virginia.
The first decade was relatively peaceful, but the stream of settlers turned into a torrent, and native populations went on the offensive. The first attacks began west of New River Valley in 1755 with the Draper's Meadow Massacre. The story of one captive's plight and escape, that of Mary Draper Ingles, has been the subject of the novel Follow the River, and the outdoor drama "The Long Way Home". During the time, Col. George Washington journeyed along the Great Road to review defenses, visiting Fort Vause (Shawsville) and Crystal Spring.
Settlement accelerated following the French and Indian War (1756-1763). Roanoke Valley's first town, Fincastle, was established as the seat for the new county of Botetourt, which, at the time, stretched west to include lands from what is now Kentucky to Wisconsin. In 1774, Virginia militia defeated a confederation of Native American nations at the Battle of Point Pleasant, in the Ohio country. The battle spurred the issuance of the Fincastle Resolutions by area populations, some 18 months prior to the Declaration of Independence.
The years following the American Revolution were prosperous. Remnants of the region's first industry, iron furnaces, can be seen today. The culture of Frontiersmen gave way in part to a plantation system of agriculture dependent on enslaved African labor. Fine homes began to replace fortified cabins, and taverns appeared. One of the earliest such homes still standing is "Smithfield" (1774) in Blacksburg, historic home of Col. William Preston.
New communities like Big Lick (1796) and Salem (1802) first appeared as stagecoach stops and postal stations. Farmers in the region generally grew tobacco, corn, or wheat. With populations (both free and enslaved) increasing, a highly settled portion of Botetourt County petitioned and, in 1838, formed the new county of Roanoke, named after the river that flows through its center. Schools that grew to become Roanoke College (which was transported to Salem from Staunton in 1847 by a single wagon) and Hollins University were founded in 1842, an indication of prosperity.
One of the most colorful chapters in the region's history is that of its mineral spring resorts. The springs were recognized as centers for treatment of various ailments, but evolved into elegant retreats from sultry lowland summers, and became an essential part of the social culture of the antebellum South. Three springs-Yellow Sulphur Springs, Daggers Springs, and Botetourt Springs, were operating by 1820. By 1860, there were eight springs resorts in the counties of Botetourt, Giles, Montgomery, Pulaski, and Roanoke, many of which were painted by itinerant German artist, Edward Beyer, for his Album of Virginia, and other works.
Increasing wealth, a second tobacco boom, and a cotton boom farther south, combined with the arrival of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad (1851-1855), and improvement of the Great Road by the construction of rock roadbeds, spurred growth. Canals and turnpikes had been built earlier, to open western Virginia to settlement and trade. With improved access, the natural resources (lead, gypsum, iron, and salt) and the extensive raising of livestock and other agricultural products in the region led to it becoming a supply center for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Originally sited with the plan of shipping supplies east, the railroad and Great Road assumed a crucial role during the war when they became essential supply lines to Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson's forces in Shenandoah Valley, and Gen. Robert E. Lee's troops in eastern Virginia.
In 1864, Union soldiers, led by Gen. David Hunter, swept through the area, severing telegraph and railroad lines. They burned depots, stations, mills, factories, and warehouses. Hunter's men had marched to Lexington, burned Virginia Military Institute, and headed to Lynchburg. There they were defeated by Gen. Jubal A. Early, and then retreated westward to Roanoke Valley, where the Battle of Hanging Rock occurred.
The long malaise of war and Reconstruction was ended in the early 1880s by the rise of the coal industry. John Peter Salley is credited with discovering coal in the area now comprising West Virginia, when he explored along Coal River in 1742. However, it was not until the coming of the first north/south railroad, the Shenandoah Valley (later the Norfolk and Western), that coal could be moved practically to market, and the boom began. Big Lick was the leading boomtown. It became the town of Roanoke in 1882 and a city in 1884. Roanoke was home to N & W's headquarters, shops, foundry, roundhouse, and grand hotel-Hotel Roanoke. In 1907, the Woman's Civic Betterment Club, hired noted urban designer John Nolen to produce a comprehensive city plan for Roanoke, one of the nation's first.
For fifty years, the community was one of the most rapidly growing in the eastern United States. Much of the built culture and institutions throughout Roanoke Valley today date from this era. New towns sprang up along the new routes, such as Pulaski, but none fared quite so well as Big Lick/Roanoke, located at the intersection of the rail routes. Its population climbed from 1,000 to 5,000 in two years, and soared to 40,000 in twenty years.
Much excitement also greeted the opening of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (1872), located on the very same Draper's Meadow lands made infamous over a century earlier, and adjacent to Col. William Preston's "Smithfield". Now known as Virginia Tech, it is the Commonwealth's largest university and the largest employer within the region.
During the first half of the 20th century, the region benefited and achieved a stable economy from a variety of industries, especially textile mills and railroads. The Virginian Railway, an engineering marvel built to bring coal from the Pocahontas coalfields, had track following Roanoke River through Roanoke. The Virginian merged with Norfolk & Western in 1959. N & W combined with the Southern Railway in 1982 to form Norfolk Southern Corporation. Other major industries are healthcare, led by Carilion, the largest employer in Roanoke Valley, and technology, led by Virginia Tech.
As market center for Virginia west of the Blue Ridge, Roanoke has a long history of providing outlets for education, arts, and culture of the entire region. It is a venue for expression of local traditions, and for disseminating them more broadly. The vibrant music, decorative arts, skills, and lifestyles of historic times continue today, engaging new ideas in the process.